Natural History of My Hunger
By Tess Taylor
It took me several years after I was fifteen to discover that my body was real, and that my body was hungry. I was surprised to learn that my hunger, in my body, was real. I don’t remember exactly how I began to discover this, just as I don’t exactly remember how I stopped believing that my hunger was real in the first place. Somehow I had started to believe that my relationship to food and to my body both were acts of mind.
However it happened, I did arrive at my teenage years believing this. Because I wanted to be thin, my act of mind was actually a terrible act of ambition: I believed I could be like women I saw reflected around me, I believed that I should be like them; I thought that not to want to be like them would represent a kind of failure. I was already blond, I was white: I was close. I could be very thin and I should want to be. I did want to be.
When I stopped believing in hunger, I began to believe in willpower. There was a time when I had become so hungry so much of the time that I had proved myself right and didn’t feel hungry: the hunger I had felt for a long time began to seem imaginary. My body reflected the painstaking force of my will. I had to work to discover that my ambition was imaginary and that the women I saw on television or in magazines were images. But hunger was real, just the way food is real. My hunger has a physical life that had nothing to do with my mind.
I have not really stopped being obsessed with food, but my obsession and my ambitions have changed. I know, obviously, that my body responds to what I do to it, that it is as kind to me as I am to it. We share a symbiosis, body and I. I am going to live in it as long as I am going to live. Bodies work better when they are not hungry. My hunger is part of my body which supports my mind: My body serves my mind as well as my mind serves it back.
When I began to get better, I became a vegetarian and then somebody who cared about organic foods, about ending factory farming, about growing things. I wanted to cook more, to tend. I wanted to make, and not passively to absorb: Later as I was finally able to really let go and eat, I became a gardener. This refocused my attention. What had been an anorexia became a passion for knowing where my food came from, for knowing how I fed myself. This was healthier, I reasoned.
It was also a different story. I suppose I could have become one of those people who ate lots of tofu or wheatgrass. But I was also learning to be mindful: I did find how too much sugar or caffeine sent my system rolling, how my hunger could set me back hours or even days, how my moods were dependent on a steady intake of good foods. I began to see how in our country those foods that kept me steady were expensive, hard to get, how I had to plan my life around being near them. But what was most helpful to me was to garden. It was a chance to feel that at base the food that made me feel real was connected to a planet that was real, a system that was real, a world that has limits that are not determined by acts of mind but by physical constraints that need respecting. I began to forget those women I had wanted to be. I began to see that the earth, like my body, responded to my care.
Sometimes in academia we talk about situations that are “constructed,” but more and more I think we need to talk about what we ourselves wish to construct, to see ourselves in a constructive relationship with our bodies, with our society, with the planet. Gardening taught me that plants have a life of their own like bodies do; that like bodies, they respond to care. Their life is not an imaginary life but a real one, older and more complicated than any act of will. They are subject to our care and also not in our control. I work on a farm now, one day a week. Last year there was too much rain and there were no tomatoes. That was real; and if there is too much rain this year there will be no tomatoes again.
As I clear the field I think it is not a story of clearing the field that makes it grow bare. It is my work to clear the field that clears the field. Clearing the field in the cold spring rain makes me hungry. My mind that registers my hunger is in my body, which is clearing the field of last year’s tomatoes that died in a blight. I believe in stories, but I believe also in my body and the farm and my hunger. The plants showed me that my hunger was real. I was tending my plants, using them to grow food, but the story I tell is this: They were using me back. They kept teaching me how much they’d respond—how they’d grow both with and without me.
“A Natural History of My Hunger” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review, the Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, The Times Literary Supplement, Memorious, and The New Yorker.
You can find Taylor’s essay Spring Awakening, the first in her occasional column, Stanza, on poets and poetry, at barnesandnoblereview.com. You can also find her poem “World’s End: North of San Francisco” at guernicamag.com.