The beauty of birds isn’t flight. It’s how they let
their young cram pointy beaks down their throats.
– Kathryn Smith
The midwife placed her slick body on my chest and my post-screaming laughter quietened. The creature I’d harboured for months, a coiled, aquatic bud, now unfurled. She rolled her wet velvet skull against my breastbone, hunting for my nipple. I did not help; she clearly needed no direction from me. Eyes pinched closed, she sniffed out my breast, and with the exacting urgency of her tiny mouth, commanded the milk to flow.
In the West, the cultural and social taboo against breastfeeding in public, where anyone might catch a glimpse of a breast or nipple, has imbued it with the same repugnant, shameful mystery as most biological functions associated with ‘female’ physiology. Cycles of blood, of ovarian or uterine pain, of breast tenderness, of emotional and spiritual sensitivity and porousness – all aspects of a body capable of bearing and sustaining life – are banished to the hinterlands of social connectivity and knowledge. The taboo against breastfeeding renders it and its attendant wisdoms illegible, deems it uncouth, indecent; breastfeeding is best done in private, alone, shrouded in pastel-coloured flannel. Breastfeeding is bovine, and embarrassing. But what exactly is this strange, animal meal? As with many taboos, what moves beneath the stigma is power.
Before the baby, I couldn’t cook an egg. An ex-lover lamented that I would burn water if left unsupervised. I wasn’t interested in food beyond searching it out on the cusp of low blood sugar, or being fed by someone who loved me. I subsisted on cigarettes and liquor and gas-station corn dogs. I thought I could live on the electric fruit of ideas, on the red meat of good poems.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know where food came from; as a child raised on rural homesteads I’d planted seeds, foraged berries, named the calves killed for dinner. It was that, like most sources of pleasure and power, the connection between myself and nourishment had been mediated since birth by the Catholic Church. By the time of my own child’s advent, I had long since left the Church. But the Church had not left me.
My Catholic education obsessively circled the abyssal maw of Hell, a place of eternal torment in which, should my inherent bent toward evil win out over my puny attempts to transcend my sinful nature, I would be torn limb from limb, skinned into a conscious, quivering pile of jelly, and tossed to demons to be feasted upon for all of eternity. In a fervent effort to stave off this inevitability, my family and I engaged in hours upon hours of rituals.
Many of these involved fasting, abstaining from certain foods during certain seasons and on certain days, giving up sugar and meat, and every Sunday eschewing breakfast to kneel with empty bellies for hours in a cold church while Latin poured over our bent heads. This was what I knew of hunger: the Dark was ravenous for me. It was looming, sentient and cunning, and sooner rather than later it was going to nab me by the nape of my scrawny neck and rattle me in its jaws until every secret desire I’d ever had spilled out like entrails, raw and exposed, before the vengeful gaze of Our Lord and Saviour. The emptier I was at such a time, the better.
It followed, then, that as a teenager, as a young adult, and as a parent at 21, I had a sharply honed instinct for escape, and none whatsoever for feeding myself. If my baby and my breasts had not formed an intimate and language less conspiracy amongst themselves, I would have also been helpless to feed her. As it was, I made so much milk in those first few weeks we slept in a swamp of soaked flannel. There was more milk than three babies could handle, much less one, but that did not stop her from trying. She suckled ravenously between shrieks of rage as the milk’s volume and velocity overwhelmed her. It overwhelmed us both; we were perpetually caught in its downpour. I went around with socks stuffed in my bra, trying to soak up the excess.
This was a country where olives, lemons and avocados fell from the trees into my lap, passion fruit tumbled from the vine, artichokes raised their pangolin-like heads
Three months after she was born, we left the land of my childhood and moved to the wine-growing region of Aotearoa, New Zealand. This was acountry where olives, lemons and avocados fell from the trees into my lap, passion fruit tumbled from the vine, artichokes raised their pangolin-like heads, and bottles and bottles of wine poured pleasure and largesse into my experience of sustenance. I was 7,000 miles from home, godless, friendless, without family, and I was poor. But the baby obeyed her body and grew, and so grew her needs, branching out from the singular attachment to my breasts. At every moment, as she moulted, waxed sumptuously fat and grew fangs, she was on the lookout for something interesting to put in her mouth. She wanted to eat what I ate, and I wanted to eat what was good for her. In attempting to honour the authority of her hunger, corn dogs and corn flakes were not going to cut it.
My attention to food grew obsessive. I taught myself the principles of traditional nutritional wisdom, soaking grains and legumes, fermenting vegetables and baking sourdough bread, sprouting seeds and drying fruit, but my food preparation was haunted by the visceral understanding that I was food.
There was one Catholic ritual – the central ritual, the fulcrum upon which the Church’s mythology balanced – in which we, the sinful masses, did the consuming. Jesus said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ There was also His blood, which we drank. We were not supposed to use our teeth when consuming the host, because it would be disrespectful to bite God. We received it onto our tongues and let it melt while we closed our eyes and gave thanks. This could take some time, as the body of Christ was quite dry. It was cannibalism, but consensual; He offered us His body, over and over.
Over and over we knelt and took His body into our own, hoping to inoculate ourselves against our perfidious core. This consumption was a chiaroscuro of holiness and horror that breastfeeding revealed to me, night after night. There is no more raw and unforgiving communion than the one made between breast and baby at two a.m., when you lurch from sleep for the 50th time to feed your own body to a howling emptiness only you can satiate. Here is intensity without reprieve, here the living body is a meal, a tithe, the most tender flesh offered up. An endless ritual carried out in the darkest, most piercing hours of the night.
This consumption was a chiaroscuro of holiness and horror that breastfeeding revealed to me, night after night. There is no more raw and unforgiving communion than the one made between breast and baby at two a.m.
When the baby was walking and talking, almost three, we left Aotearoa and returned home to Washington State, a wet, dark, coastal land that I could not escape, because I carried it inside of me. I began what Mary Oliver called ‘the good, human work’ of taking apart ‘the deep stitches/of nightmares.’ For so long, I’d pretended I had no appetite. Now I felt I’d drown in the rising tide of my deferred hunger. I understood that I was to sacrifice myself to the baby in order for her to live, but perhaps I had misunderstood the meaning and function of sacrifice.
Over time, my apprenticeship to the baby led me to believe that when Jesus said, ‘This is my body, broken for you’, he was saying, ‘I am your mother. Devour me and live.’ He was born in a manger, his advent was presided over by cows. The fundamental conditions of his existence were defined by the provision of nourishment to the most humble of beasts. But perhaps this offering, this placement of his body before the mouths of cows, was not a talisman to protect us from being eaten by the Dark; perhaps it was meant to show us how to be eaten.
Perhaps, beyond the banal and ubiquitous terrors of misogyny, the taboo against breastfeeding is one against acknowledging this locus of Christ-like alchemy. No wonder churches provide strategically obscured ‘cry rooms’, where babies go to be fed so as not to distract the congregation with this competing ritual and its primal authority. Not an authority of dominion, but an authority of provision. The authority of nourishment, abundance, satiation. Perhaps we don’t want to see bodies become food, because we don’t want to be at one another’s mercy. We don’t want to be at the mercy of bodies outside of our own, at the mercy of the absolute body of the Earth, from which every particle of our food is gathered, into which every particle of our flesh will descend. We want to pretend that eating has no price, that abundance has no locus and no end.
We hide breastfeeding so as to perpetuate a deadly amnesia in which our body did not emerge from the meat and minerals and sweat and screaming of another body, and our body will not become the rot that other bodies sink their roots and claws into. We want to eat, but not be eaten.
The darkness wielded over my body by the Church was not a fertile darkness; it was a calculated bid to crush the birthright of my hunger, in all its fury and intelligence. In learning to feed the baby, I discovered that my own nourishment was of equal and vital importance. If I only submitted to and understood the giving, then how could I assume responsibility for the quality and nature of my taking?
When I was seven years old and undergoing my pre-communion purification rituals, one of the texts I was required to read was a step-by-step instruction manual for how we were to behave during our First Communion ceremony (the moment when we were fed the body of Christ for the first time). The only dictate I recall was one which described the exact manner in which we were to accept the host into our mouths. The priests had us practise this manoeuvre, lining us all up and inspecting in turn our tongue-extension techniques.
Twenty-five years later, on a walk through the native woods of a place my body and spirit call home, the baby – now a nine-year-old child – reaches unexpectedly out to me, offering the split and shining half of a salmonberry on her palm.
‘Make an altar of your tongue,’ they taught me. And I do.
IMAGE: Nick Jordan
Yellow stainer fungi spore print on found image: A Cornfield, Peter de Wint, ca. 1815
The spore print was made by placing a yellow stainer mushroom onto an image of a seminal landscape painting. The work forms part of a series of fungi-related works, which include a curated group exhibition Fungal Behaviour (Talleyrand, Manchester, 2022), and solo show Natural Interaction (HOME, Manchester, 2023) with the short documentary The Entangled Forest, featuring ecologist Suzanne Simard and her ground-breaking research into tree-fungi communities and their co-dependence. It juxtaposes an idealised or romanticised depiction of a pastoral scene with a direct intervention from nature. At the root of my work is an exploration of the relationship between the human and non-human, and the influences we exert on the wild – how we shape and define it, (and clearly exploit and diminish it).
Nick Jordan is a multidisciplinary artist whose work explores the interconnections between cultural, social and natural ecologies. His work has been exhibited widely at international museums, galleries and film festivals. Solo exhibitions include ‘Natural Interaction’, HOME,Manchester, UK (until 4th June 2023). nickjordan.info