Thursday, January 1, 2009

Felicitous Words for a Happy New Year

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but we farmers tend to be a list-making bunch. When I visited Crabapple Farm for example, they showed me a farm to-do list so impressively exhaustive that it warranted photographic documentation. What my own lists may lack in length, they more than make up for in number; I am always scribbling lists on the backs of receipts or in the corners of envelopes. I love to scratch tasks off with inky finality: pear trees--planted, sweet potatoes--weeded. That lists can be straitjackets I well know, wedding me to a certain preordained trajectory and blinding me to potentially fruitful digressions or tangents. Nevertheless, list-making is a part of my nature which farming has fostered, if not required. Without my lists, I have an unfortunate tendency toward mental entropy and unintended baked goods. I know with a nagging certitude that there are always things to do and books to read, but, lacking the gentle pressure of a written list, I eventually find myself measuring out chocolate chips and baking powder. Idle hands make the devil's brownies, or something like that.

I've heard two arguments regarding lists: the first arguing that the act of writing a goal somehow intangibly helps you achieve it (or at least recognize once you have); the other warning that lists will consume you and keep you up all night. I've certainly experienced the second, as well as the junkie's fevered rush once I pare my list down enough to go to bed. But I'm also a believer in the actualizing power of the spoken (or written) word. I first came across this idea developed in the essay "Performative Utterances," by the philosopher J.L. Austin. Austin noted that, while statements ("the carrot is orange") could be classified as true or false, words forming what he called "performative utterances" are themselves effecting a change in the world. Take the naming of something, or the exchanging of vows, for example. These words change the state of the world, rather than simply describing it. Performative utterances are not true or false, but rather felicitious and infelicitious, depending on how well their speakers achieve the state of which the utterance creates an expectation. This recognition of creative power inherent in language, the idea that saying makes it so, rendered Austin's essay instantly appealing to me.

I think, in part, that performative utterances explain why I'm so attached to my lists. My lists are to me a mixture of promise and imperative, the critical first step toward completion of a task. They have force as well as meaning, for they direct me toward my future as they create a space in which that future may dwell.

And so, as it is a New Year and therefore a time particularly well-suited to list making, I offer to you this yeoman farmgirl's 2009 New Years Resolution List.
  • Bake Spontaneously Leavened Sourdough Bread and blog the process. I've been wanting to bake real bread--the kind that requires you to plan your schedule for several days around risings and kneadings--for years now, and since my schedule is particularly flexible at present, this seems like the ideal time. The recipe I'm following outlines a 5 day process, which I intend to document here day-by-day, like some love-crazed new mother showing off pictures of her newborn. Only, my baby will be a bubbling bowl of fermenting flour.
  • Learn to converse in Spanish. In fourteen days I travel to Colombia, where I will attend a Spanish language school, visit farms (the ones that grow veggies, not illegal drugs), and hopefully eat lots of bananas. My aim is to return with at least a the rudiments of conversational Spanish and no amusing anecdotes about that time I was kidnapped by the FARC.
  • Hunt and kill a deer. I already tried to do this once, with my uncle's careful instruction and supervision, but the deer were disappointingly unforthcoming. As my uncle noted, the only thing we killed was time.
  • And perhaps most importantly: farm with a joyful heart, efficient hands, and an ever inquisitive mind.

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