What's All This Then?
What's All This Then?
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WBEZ's Alison Cuddy recently met up with Jim at the library
to talk about Field-Tested Books
Field-Tested by Eric Spitznagel
in Northern Michigan
Like many writers and college students pursuing a useless degree in literature, I was once enamored by Henry David Thoreau. When I first read Walden Pond, I was convinced that he had discovered some universal truth about creativity and the secrets to a happy existence. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote. “To front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what they had to teach.”
So in the winter of 1995, I did just that. My parents own a small cottage located on an isolated peninsula in northern Michigan, smack dab in the middle of a forest thats about as far away from civilization as you can get. It seemed like the perfect place to get away from the modern world and become one of those loner authors who cut themselves off from society and write the Great American Novel.
For at least the first few months, I was staggeringly productive. But the isolation was difficult. The nearest town was 30 miles away, and because of the oppressive snowfall, impossible to reach without a sherpa. I spent most days yearning for any social interaction whatsoever. When I wasnt writing, I tried to read, if only because it made me feel less lonely. Unfortunately, our familys library would embarrass even a college dropout. It contained a few paperback mysteries, a picture-book about gnomes, and George Orwells Animal Farm.
I devoured the Orwell classic in a day. And then I read it again. And again. And again and again. It became more than just a literary diversion. It was a friend. It was my only connection with the outside world. When I needed a conversation with another human being, Animal Farm was there for me. Some have called it a brilliant satire of Soviet totalitarianism. To me, it was a dependable companion on cold winter nights.
Its a funny thing about isolation; it breeds paranoia. And no other author nurtured paranoia quite so brilliantly as Orwell. Sure, his tale of farm animals rising up against their oppressors was meant as an allegory for Bolshevik revolutionaries. But when youre living in the Michigan wilderness, the sole homo sapien surrounded by a thriving population of animal life, its easy to confuse the figurative with the literal.
By mid-February, I had given up writing entirely. My days were now devoted to marking my territory. Because of all the snow, I was acutely aware that animals I suspected those conniving raccoons were urinating on my front lawn. I was convinced that my land ownership was being challenged, not unlike Mr. Jones Manor Farm, so I decided to take a stand against the revolution. I began peeing outdoors, covering the intruders urine and showing them that I couldnt be so easily pushed around. I even went so far as to reestablish the familys property lines, peeing at strategic locations around the perimeter of the cottage, within 12 yards in every direction.
When spring arrived, and the snow melted, I didnt lose my Orwellian delusions. Without the white canvas of snow to indicate trespassing forest creatures, I just started peeing everywhere. It wasnt until my family finally intervened, disturbed that I was destroying their property values by creating a man-made urine-river, that I abandoned the battle and retreated to the city.
I havent read Animal Farm since, and with good reason. I dont care if Orwell intended it as satire. For me, it was gruesome reality. Ive seen the yellow eyes of an animal when it thinks its going to bum-rush my property and take a leak on everything I hold precious. Ive never lived in the Soviet Union, but I sympathize with the horrors that Orwell wrote about in Animal Farm in ways that I never understood before pretending to be Thoreau. Thats weird, I know. Its meta-meta-meta-something. But in some ways, I think its just the melting pot of literature.
“All animals are equal,” Orwell once wrote, “but some animals are more equal than others.” I cant say I know what that means, but I assume it has something to do with certain four-legged creatures being uppity bitches. Now if youll excuse me, theres a bush on my front lawn that needs to be marked with my scent before some pushy squirrel gets any bright ideas.
Eric Spitznagel has written for magazines like Playboy, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Maxim, and Salon, among many others. Hes a contributing editor for the Believer, the editor for Monkeybicycle, and the author of six books, including one that was translated into German and features a cat on the cover for no apparent reason. He has a site called Vonneguts Asshole, which is kinda ironic, as he rarely writes about either Kurt Vonnegut or assholes. Hes more afraid of you than you are of him.
Read the next Field Test by Greg Storey