Monday, March 21, 2011

Story Farm: Katherine Dunn's Apifera

Can the suddenly and drastically cheaper cost of disseminating information, yoked to creativity, plow up even one of our most ancient equations?

Over the past few years I have been watching the local food movement gather momentum and, at the same time, I've also been fascinated to see how so many writers, as well as artists and small businesses, have been making splendidly creative use of the Internet to market their products (and while the poet in me rather curls my toes at the term "product," the economist in me nods, ho hum).

One artist who combines art and marketing both charmingly and effectively is Katherine Dunn whose blog, Apifera Farm, showcases not only her artwork, her beautiful book on creative illustration, and offers her handmade "raggedy" pillows, sachets, aprons, lavender and more, but also tells the stories of her animals: sheep, chickens with fluffy "underpants," a couple of very athletic chocolate labs, an elderly and prone-to farting one-eyed pug, a multitude of barn cats, and a growing herd of elderly goats and rescued donkeys, including the famous Pino of the pie fests, whom she supports by inviting donations via PayPal, selling her art, and putting on said pie fests.

I don't know Katherine Dunn personally, but after following her blog for a couple of years, I feel as if I do. Judging from the crowd of comments that trail each one of her blog posts--- whether frolicky or sweet or tragic or sassy--- I am not alone. I've bought her book, an apron, a portrait of said pug (back when he had both eyes), and a lavender-filled pillow as a get well gift for my aunt. Translation: I've become a loyal customer. And, as an artist myself (if a literary one), I admire her spunk and dedication, all in the midst of running a farm, to making and marketing her own art.

(Digression: I've been writing and teaching creative writing for many years now and I've seen it over and again: the wannabes, some shiningly talented, who "don't have time" to write. Well, mangos. Some of the most amazing novels have been written on commuter trains or while caring for small children, or in a life of grinding poverty. There is always an excuse not to make art and so, how very apt is the title of Pressfield's book on breaking the block: The War of Art. A second lethal trap for artists is shyness about "self promotion." Yes, there are more than a few narcisstistic nutters in the literary and art worlds, but as I like to say, it's not self-promotion; it's book promotion. Or art promotion. If you owned a donut shop, would you make a batch of donuts and hide them in the alleyway with no sign? If you opened a donut shop and took out an ad to let the neighborhood know, would that be "self-promotion"? Huh?)

But here's what strikes me as an entirely new paradigm, emerging from Katherine Dunn's blog, or platform, if you want to call it that: a newly important variable in valuing animals.

Don't get me wrong: I have no doubt that animals have souls. I consider my own pug a member of the family. If I lived anywhere nearby, I would go to Apifera's annual pie fest and buy an apron to help the rescued donkeys! But I want to talk for a moment as an economist, at the nitty gritty level of dollars and cents.

We think of the value of a farm animal as a function of what it can provide: milk, meat, hides, eggs, feathers. Plug in the cost of feeding, caring for and transporting it, and there you have it: a number. And given that number, it either makes economic sense to raise a chicken or not, to keep another goat or not. Send it to slaughter this month or next month. In sum, to most working farmers throughout time and history, a person who rescues elderly livestock might have a few loose marbles.

I recently had a chat with a Mexican filmmaker who has made what is sure to be a spectacular documentary about goats in Mexico (which includes the Matanza, with all it's fabulously horrifying ritual, as documented some years ago by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide). I said to him, if I had farm animals, they would all die of old age; I couldn't bear to kill them. Not that I'm vegetarian--- I am happy to get my hamburger and chicken by the pound from the supermarket. A squirmy puzzle of a contradiction, but there you have it. He answered: without death, there is no farm.

What he said was profoundly true and yet--- it occurs to me now--- what if its own story can become one of the variables in calculating an animal's economic value?

I realize this sounds strange, but Katherine Dunn's Apifera Farm demonstrates precisely this. On her blog, Apifera, she tells an animal's story (for example, Giacomo's); this attracts readers (such as myself), and converts some into customers-- perhaps for an apron, a lavender sachet, or a painting. (Again, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying she has a calculating nature, only that there is, plainly, and wonderfully, an economic result from the stories about her animals on her blog. To get a sense of her blog, perhaps the most representative post is this beautiful one.)

In the 21st century, with information so spectaculary cheap to transmit, now that we can read about and see pictures and videos and communicate with and order products from a farm on the other side of the continent at the same lickety-split typing as we might with our own next door neighbor, is it so economically daft to keep a farm, I mean a working, economically viable farm, with animals whose main job is to simply be? To be a chicken fluffing its feathers; a cat meeting new goats; a rescued donkey receiving a hug; to be curious, friendly, jealous, sad, joyous at the new weeds poking up from the gravel. In pictures and words--- in narrative--- an artist sees and then shows us what she sees. And so, by the artist's magic, we see, too. And we begin to care about the individual animals, for their stories, like all stories, always, can give our lives texture, richness, and meaning.

What if, without death, or at least, without unnatural death, the farm lives?

Because what is a farm? What is, for that matter, an art gallery? Can we explode, conflate, mash, weave, interpercolate the concepts?