Fat of the Bone
Lessons from the forest, in winter
The forest in winter is exquisite; it’s an overexposed world of trees. Without the modesty of leaves, you can see their knobby knees, the pocks left on their surface by invaders, dry fungal shelves, and the complicated history of vines that tried to find their path toward the sky. The forest in winter is a study in living intimacies. And yet, these intimacies feel barely alive. The trees look like skeletons.
There have been some warmer days, this winter, when I let myself wander in the forest. But there are days when I can’t manage it. I grew up in a cold place (Michigan) and lived for two years in one of the coldest places in the country (North Dakota). But I am nevertheless extremely cold-intolerant. I force myself to get fresh air, in the winter. But I also feel like the winter wind is essentially tearing my flesh away from my bones. Being outside in the winter cold feels painful and raw, like I’m becoming a walking skeleton.
There’s a sense which I’m envious of the trees. I envy the sorts of skeletons they are. I envy their bony fingers that reach up into the cold sky without drawing back. I envy their rugged skin that can be coated with ice and never burn. It’s an incredibly anthropomorphic thing to say, I realize. But I envy the living endurance in their barest structure, their ability to be nothing but a skeleton all winter.
I’m also wary of this part of me that envies a tree. I’ve always chafed at the ancient (but enduring) religious and philosophical language that has associated women, the bodies of women, and feminine bodies with the flesh as opposed to the spirit. I have an inherent problem with—a deep-seated objection to—this sort of language, and the reductive binary form of thinking that it demands. And yet, isn’t this precisely what I am romanticizing when I envy a tree? A bare life? What endures when flesh is stripped away?
The historian Ann Hollander, who wrote about the history of costuming and fashion, described an aesthetic she called “the look of sickness” that emerged in late 19th and early 20th century art. It’s a look that still regulates images of female bodies in public spaces. Social and economic changes in the lives of women brought about new forms of employment and recreation. Clothing changed to mimic men’s clothing: to offer women more freedom of movement. And yet, in the midst of this, the emerging ideal for women’s bodies was increasingly constrained and stripped down. The flesh of life and health was imaginatively reduced and removed, to minimize freedom of movement. As Hollander writes, in her book Seeing Through Clothes, the idealized bodies of women that emerged in art and advertising were “clearly supported by bones”: pelvic ridges, jutting shoulder blades, clavicles, jawbones. Is this look of sickness what makes me envy a tree?
Or is it that the endurance of a tree in winter helps me to recall the forces of life that gel and seethe inside of our bones?
Despite the fact that they’re icons of the macabre, I think of skeletons as a thing of beauty. A skeleton, as far as I’m concerned, is something to celebrate. It’s our structure, our frame, the elemental phenomenon that supports the rest of our body. It’s our inner shell. It holds us together. Our skeletons provide a shelter and comfortable home for what would otherwise be the mess of our organs. They work in concert with forces of gravity. And yet we hardly think of our bones, unless they begin to ache or break or bother us.
The term skeleton comes from the ancient Greek skeletos, which apparently meant “dried up.” The bones of the skeleton seem to point to loss and exhaustion. While this might be true of the bones of the dead, our own skeletons are far from dry. Apparently the fat content in our bone is one of the largest fat deposits in our bodies. The life in our bones is metabolically active. It’s creative; it generates the complex work of hematopoiesis (isn’t that an excellent word?)
Perhaps what I get from the trees, in winter, is actually a reminder that skeletons aren’t simply a symbolic marker for death (although they are certainly that as well). Perhaps we could say that our skeletons are frames that illuminate the sisterhood of life and death. A tree in winter may look skeletal, but it’s engaged in the complex work of survival. Bones are part of our living matter and are also constantly engaged in the poiesis of survival. Our bones themselves are fleshy, in that they are full of fat. It may be the case that (except for the periodic x-ray) we barely glimpse bones until after death. We might see bones as a mark of death. But they are living channels for powerful forces; channels that endure among the living to tell our stories, even when we ourselves are long gone.
One more thing! I’m contemplating the possibility of reading some of my essays (particularly the longer ones) aloud, for readers to listen to. I would still post the readable format, of course. This would just be an option for those who would rather listen. I’m curious to know if you would use this! Would you take a second to complete this poll?