Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Changes upon the land

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy. – Anatole France

Down the road, in the clearing where only alfalfa, brome or wheat has grown in the past century, a building rises. Men scramble over the beams with hammers and saws while women cluster along the fence to talk and children run wild through the tall grass. Roughhewn timbers set the four corners, joined by crosspieces forming a lattice. As dusk falls the people depart, leaving in their wake a vast silence in which only the distant chimes of the church echo. Against the dark wall of trees the raw wood looks like a pale specter emerging from the shadows, and the towering elevator beyond, glowing in the dying light, floats like a gigantic tombstone noting the end of things.

I’m hesitant to admit to an extreme dislike for change, but there you have it: the ungarnished truth. Were it not for Lori’s courage I might still be living in a tiny duplex on the west side of Denver with an irritable Russian landlord who favored warm Budweiser for breakfast and who was certain we were throwing drunken parties when, in fact, our very few visitors were there for Bible study. In spite of my fondness for beer, Victor’s ghastly repast was something I did my best to avoid until one morning I was cornered and ordered to partake with him while the sun lifted above the houses across the street and shone full in our faces. For Victor this was the American Dream made manifest. For me it was something far, far less.

I’m not alone in this distrust for the new. Rural residents are deeply set in their ways and regard any change with suspicion. In part this is due to their isolation from population centers, where the pace of life increases exponentially with each waning and waxing moon. Here change comes at a much slower tempo, incrementally, piecemeal, so that while changes occur their impact is lessened. And yet change comes, and more darkens the horizon, and I see it, and fear.

Today’s news is all about immigration and the influx of Hispanics. I was shocked recently when an astute and knowledgeable friend confided that he wished the government would cast up a Berlin wall on our southern border to keep the unwashed hordes from infiltrating our American way of life. Already southern Kansas is inundated and the flood of brown-skinned foreigners laps at our blessed shores—such was his message. This entrenched mentality seemed far from a realistic point of view, and at first I credited it simply to a na├»ve form of xenophobia. And now I’m not so sure.

Personally, I think the danger comes from wealthy white people seeking what most of us want: a tiny slice of urbanized country. The fragmentation of the northern Flint Hills is only now beginning but can already be seen to the north and west of Manhattan as well as south of Marysville. We’re poised on the brink of a modern-day Oklahoma land rush as pristine tallgrass prairie is subdivided into five to ten acre plots, and the explosive growth of Fort Riley will only exacerbate the problem.

I was roundly accused of class prejudice when I mentioned this. My friend reduced my anxiety (versus his) to mere jealousy. I am jealous—I admit it. If I had the money I’d buy myself a small fiefdom and hide from the world, insofar as one is able to in these changing times.

Robert D. Kaplan’s book, “An Empire of Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future,” aptly provides examples of what happened to the Oklahoma Panhandle and parts of southwestern Kansas, notably Dodge City and Garden City, when packing plants imported thousands of foreign nationals, both Asian and Mexican. Kaplan’s sobering analysis is mirrored in Stephen Bloom’s “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in the Heartland,” though his portrayal of conflict lies between white farmers and Hasidic Jews. Since there’s a dearth of packing plants in these parts, such invasions are a long shot, regardless of my friend’s worries. But the future will be very different, that’s for sure.

I certainly have no answers, nor can I offer assurances to my friend. Or to myself. I can only relate that the scenes we saw while vacationing in southern New Mexico and Texas—INS roadblocks, National Guard convoys, dirigibles hanging in the sky like bloated vultures, and an overriding sense of fear and loathing—have no place in the United States as envisioned by the founders.

While my friend girds to keep Kansas white, I have my own changes to occupy me. Last week a friend asked if he could plant alfalfa in our little acre field. Since this was what we had long sought, the request should have been welcome. Though I told him yes, when I went home I found myself walking across the grassy patch between our home and the trees bordering the road. I thought of it being plowed under, and found myself sinking into a dark place.

Behind me stood a small copse of trees, some knee-high, some taller than myself. It marks the boundaries of where our garden once was, forty feet by eighty, now left to the wild. The first year’s succession from weeds to trees was rapid, and now we have what amounts to a forest between our property and that of our neighbor. A wall.

I wanted to ask him to plow all the way to the road, to extend that wall against the encroachment of future development. And I didn’t. It sounded silly and somehow xenophobic and I didn’t think he’d understand.

My wife, and my experience, has taught me adaptation. But sometimes I feel unprepared and afraid, and wish like a child that things could stay the same. Standing in my field near the grave of our rabbit, I closed my eyes and said, Please, no.

If the future heard, it made no reply.


The Great White Way car run begins

Unmoored in time and space

The original Kansas White Way is pushing up daisies a quarter-mile distant. That’s a metaphorical description because the flowers are actually purple phlox and a single yellow iris, with some prairie grass added to the green carpet spreading across the old stone arch bridge. What’s left of the road is a hundred-yard stretch of dust and mud ending in plowed fields at either end, which is as accurate a description of what Kansas roads were like in the early 1900s as you’re likely to find. Dust and mud. And now, like the town of Rice, population a handful and one very large Great Dane, fading into invisibility.

As the early morning sun lifts above the woods bordering the Republican River, shadows slowly creep back in defeat. Traffic is nonexistent, leaving me the freedom to stand in the center of Highway 9 and frame a shot in preparation for what I know is coming. Across the road, just past the rusty railroad tracks, stands an ancient elevator with sheet metal peeling off like layers of an onion. Like the old highway, the town or the tracks, one shade less and it’d be a ghost.

History is what happens when we aren’t looking. The present, a mere nanosecond in length, laps against the future like waves on a shore, brushing ever so lightly against its surface, rubbing off grains until they are carried off to sink into the dark deeps of the sea. But at what moment does the past become history? In a week, a year, a decade, a century? Here in Cloud County it’s measured in the trains slowing to a crawl at the gates of Camp Concordia, or in the magnificent operas performed at the opulent Brown Grand Theater, or in a half-mad wanderer, bitter, disillusioned, taking a shovel and sinking it into a barren field to dig a burrow where he could hide from his enemies, both real and imagined.

When you’re standing in the middle of a road waiting for something to happen, the mind’s roving backwards and forwards is as natural as breathing. But the immersion in the chronicles of the area has left me uncomfortably adrift, as if history was no more than a thin membrane separating this world from an alternate one, and I had somehow broke through and found myself caught midway between the past and the present.

The sensation began with a limestone guard tower set beside a dusty dirt road. It looked ridiculously out of place, its empty windows staring soullessly out over short-cropped fields. In the distance stood a concrete tower, and between the two, slightly to the east, was a long wooden building. From its open doors we could see the nose of a 1937 Ford convertible sticking out. When we pulled into the drive, a small man with a big grin stepped out and greeted us.

Don Kerr was to be our guide to Concordia. He showed us his garage, formerly part of the POW camp where 40,000 German prisoners of war were housed. In the back of the building light filtered through tiny windows high up near the ceiling, and it fell like a patina of dust on the old cars and trucks half-seen in the duskiness. A display near the front showed photographs of how the camp looked in its heyday, and I was surprised to see smiles on the faces of the prisoners. Even as I shocked to see a picture with rows of headstones. When asked, Kerr said the graves had been relocated to Fort Riley.

The picture disturbed me somehow. Being brought to a foreign land, an enemy land, only to die and never return home, seemed a lonely fate. Juxtaposed with this was the realization that the soldiers were treated so well, up to the inclusion of beer with their meals. Some even elected to remain and settle after armistice. In those images I saw an America that has been lost, replaced by an administration that argues the legality of torture.

The feeling deepened when we visited the museum. While the others went ahead, I stayed behind to look at drawings prisoners had made. Some were portraits but most were townscapes with church steeples and stone bridges and cobbled streets, images of homes they might never see again.

It was while walking in a funk that I found myself beside a glass case, where a rusty .36 caliber cap-and-ball pistol caught my attention. The display said the firearm might once have belonged to Boston Corbett, who for a while lived south of Concordia in a handmade dugout. He had come to Kansas seeking refuge from the media and hostile threats, and his time here was marked with increasing acts of eccentricity. Locally he was known as a quick-trigger religious fanatic, a bitter ex-soldier and a hermit, and nationally he was known as the man who killed John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

I was whisked away before I could learn much more, but something about the story captivated me. Late in the afternoon I tried finding time to visit his dugout, but couldn’t. In the evening we drove to the Clyde Hotel, where we sat on the second floor verandah and relaxed as dusk settled in. I watched chimney swifts arc overhead and listened to the calls of Eurasian collared-doves, which, like some of the German prisoners, had found home in this strange land.

Maybe once something happens it leaves a residue that never disappears, like a fingerprint, or an echo or restless spirit. And maybe time is an artifice, a sleight of hand to fool us into believing that life moves on a linear trajectory. The forties are across the river. The 1800s are to the west. Boston Corbett fingers his revolver and stares like a mole out at the blue sky. Behind me a stone bridge rings with the sound of horses and Model Ts. Down the road a glint of sunlight reflects off the windshield of a 1930 Model A Ford. I crouch and frame the dilapidated elevator in the viewfinder. The ooohgah of a horn mingles with the three-note call of a collared dove. Time is a figment. We’re all strangers here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Into the green world

“A green thought in a green shade.” Andrew Marvell

Color begins with the retina. As light passes through the cornea it is focused by the pupil and flashed like a projector onto the retina, where photoreceptive cone cells sort the input and convey the information to the brain. What we perceive as color is nothing more than an analysis of wavelengths reflected from an object and its surrounding area. The retina sorts the data; the brain makes sense of it.

From where I’m standing my retina, my brain, says green.

Perhaps, if we step back in time a few hundred years, this makes perfect sense on a subliminal level, for the Oxford English Dictionary includes an archaic listing for the word dating from the early 1500s to the late 1800s. Before passing from our vocabulary, the word was used as a verb, and meant “to desire earnestly, to yearn, to long after or for.”

Which is appropriate, for my emotions at this point are decidedly not passive. Since my encounter with the hawk I have been captivated by the idea of disappearing into the green world.

Sometimes, usually in the spring but occasionally in mid to late summer, and only when faced by a seemingly limitless expanse of deciduous forest that appears to be as tight-knit as a beaver dam but is, in fact, as porous as a politician’s morals, I am drawn as if summoned to the deepest, most shadowed fastness of woods, only to stand there peering into their haunts with what can only be described as a yearning to enter. Sometimes I do, but more often I find ready excuses for not following that siren song. Too many bugs, the timing is wrong, my dress is inadequate—on and on the pathetic litany rumbles. I am left on the outside, waiting.

That I am called at all is the curious thing, considering I come from a desert place. I suspect that my psyche recognizes some aspect that it feels is lacking, like a vitamin or nutrient. Green, color therapists tell us, is a calming hue, with properties that include healing and rejuvenation.

Naturally such theories are explosive to others in the mind field, but I detect a kernel of truth in it. (In refutation to this, studies have shown that people from temperate climes do not respond in kind to the color green. The dictum holds true mainly for those who experience both winter’s bleakness and spring’s resurgence of growth. My wife and I were temporarily converted to this outlook during a week-long camping trip to South Carolina, where the dark woods were first a novelty and then a nightmare unrelieved except for a few grassy clearings where we pitched our tent, swampy marshes whose muddy banks held traces of the passage of large carnivorous reptiles, and the occasional view of the Atlantic Ocean. Green equaled claustrophobia.)

If nothing else, I have my own psychological state to offer up as proof, for when I stand on the threshold of the forest it’s as if the engine that runs me sputters, slows and grinds to a halt, leaving me poised to step through a curtain, as it were, and vanish from the race of men.

Several days ago I walked across the street from our home and peered into the dappled shadows of the small grove of trees draped between the road and Juganine Creek. It’s a wild place carpeted with flowers, fallen trees and farm equipment slowly breaking down to their base elements, preserved by a fortunate accident of topography. Situated on a steep slope, the forest covers an acre or so and is composed of a half-dozen or so species of trees. The cinnamon flash of a fleeting bird had lured me, and as looked for it a sharp-shinned hawk whipped past, almost removing my hat in the process, and without rustling the tiniest twig melted into the gloom. Almost—almost—I plunged after it, but my time belonged elsewhere, and frustrated I broke off and returned to my chores. But the vision of that hallowed emerald chamber remained.

Until this moment, when my wife and I pause outside what at first glance appears to be a solid barrier of vegetation. She’s holding a small GPS unit whose arrow points directly north. To get to the geocache we must pass beneath that lush canopy into a no mans land, something she’s loathe to do. Fortunately for me, this was her idea.

I’ve been greening for this, and after finding an almost imperceptible trace of a path in the deep grass, I plunge into the trees. The first rows of smaller specimens quickly give way to taller, and more widely dispersed, trees, under whose shadows the air is heavy and musty of damp earth and untamed growth. Footing is tricky, with downed timber hidden beneath knee-high plants and vines that claw at our ankles, the soil spongy from recent rains. In a heartbeat the low gray skies are supplanted by an ethereal green light. The green world.

Birdsongs echo and reverberate. I distinguish them aloud as we pick our way, but in the preternatural hush of the understory our voices seem somehow irreverent, and soon we fall into an easy silence. I try to steer away from stands of poison ivy but it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. The unit says we are four hundred feet from our destination.

When I turn to Lori I see a pale form bounding toward us. It’s a large Husky, and as it stops to study us with those colorless eyes, I break off a stout branch for a cudgel. The dog slips away in pursuit of some unseen thing.

Its presence leaves me unsettled. And for the remainder of our time under the trees I am wary and tense, and relax only when we finally break out into the open and see the levee curling back toward town. Lori is relieved to escape, but the land seems too orderly, too neat, for me. The real world is untidy, untamed, untrammeled. The real world is green.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Scenes from the future past

Early morning, the sun not up. My desk calendar reminds me it’s time to send a bi-weekly invoice to my employer, so I fill it out. It’s the 52nd invoice.

Without fanfare, it marks the second anniversary of my job. More importantly, it marks the second year without a vacation.

It’s actually closer to three. I stare at the number for a few seconds and let it soak in. In the past I had five weeks of annual vacation, and every one was used hard. This is where I am today. Briefly—very briefly—I glance toward the future, but before an image can form I return to the now and hit the send button. The invoice is electronically delivered.

Taking a long sip of coffee, I start another project.

***

The photographs are old and faded to amber shadows. “I don’t imagine there’s anything you can do with them,” the lady says.

I’m not sure. According to a book I own, Photoshop, my image editing software, can perform miracles, but it’s deeply complex and I’ve a long way to go before being considered even adequate. It’s like walking blindfolded. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never been here. This is a new place.

For decades the woman has wondered what to do about the pictures. Several times she’s considered throwing them away. In one, her great-grandfather stares off to the right. It’s a staged pose, him dressed in a dark suit with a white bowtie and a spray of pale flowers pinned to his lapel. In the other, her great-grandmother stares at the viewer. She’s wearing a high-collar dress with billowy sleeves. She’s nearly transparent.

I make no promises. Later, the photos are scanned and saved. After making duplicates of the originals, I commence. The man looks to be in better shape so I start with him. The image is speckled with scratches and dust. Selecting a medium-sized soft brush, I begin painting the artifacts away. Then I zoom in until the left portion of his face fills the screen. Dark spots mask his eye. I begin removing them, one by one.

***

Doubt and uncertainty are the burdens we carry. I’ve known people whose every move seemed calculated and certain, who never expressed a wavering thought. Such cannot be said about me.

Eventually the rest of us either succumb to dubiety and walk away from whatever troubled us, or find the resolve to do something about it. Many months of fruitless questioning had passed before I back the truck into a narrow space between the shed and the clothes line and cut the engine. I am about to do what I swore I never would.

After placing three cinderblocks around the truck, I lower the camper jacks and begin cranking the legs down. Once they hit the bricks I loosen the tiedowns and remove them. The camper slowly rises above the bed of the truck. It creaks and groans and suddenly lifts free.

Last week I had to stop at city hall to pick up a packet. A dozen or so men were standing outside smoking cigarettes. I felt their eyes on the truck, and as I drove away they watched me until I was out of sight. “Nice rig,” I said, putting words to their thoughts, but the sound came out hollow.

When my mother first saw our new 4X4 Dodge three-quarter-ton with Hallmark camper she turned to me and said, “I hate you.”

The camper was an integral part of the truck. And in some ways their combination satisfied me in a way that no other vehicle ever had or probably ever will. It was our escape from the rat race. It was our pride and our joy.

I slowly drive out from under the camper. It leans sickeningly to the right. When it stabilizes, I start lowering the jacks. The truck looks naked. I can’t say how I feel. It hasn’t hit yet.

***

As if surfacing from beneath still waters, the man slowly appears. I add contrast to the overexposed parts of his shirt and tie, summon detail from the flowers, and smudge the background to an ivory gradient. After several hours he looks as if he’d just stepped into the photo studio.

The woman is not so easy. I begin by removing the largest scratches and defects, and move on to increasing contrast. There’s not much to work with. I use every trick and technique I know and a few new ones I learn from the book, and with a black mask I paint around her eyes and sharpen the iris. Nothing I do satisfies me. When my time runs out, I put away my tools and save the image.

A day later I return. And another day, until a frustrating week stretches out. The image becomes a metaphor for larger things than a simple monetary sideline. Her eyes stare back at me as if imploring. Rescue me, she says. Make me whole.
And I cannot.

***

On the count of three we toss the toilet. It arcs across through the air and disappears into the bed of the dump truck with a resounding thud. Fred and I are standing in the back of my truck, now filled with other people’s junk. We’re part of a crew that volunteered to spend the day working on a city-wide clean-up. I hate to admit that it’s nice having the extra space now that the camper is gone.

We’ve been commiserating over our work schedules. “Being an entrepreneur isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he says.

By the time we call it quits it’s late afternoon. Fred and his wife start painting the front of their business. I go home and stare at the unfamiliar sight of the camper behind the house.

After a shower, I sit at the computer and bring up the photo of the woman. She is disappearing into the past.

How can I bring you back, I tell her.

***

There are clay-colored sparrows in the yard, and several white-crowned, too. Moving slowly away from the house, I snap the binoculars to my eyes at the slightest movement. In short order I add Savannah, Lincoln’s, Harris’s, and chipping sparrows. The season’s first chimney swifts chitter overhead. The land is unbelievably green, the grass wet with morning dew.

I want to open the camper and step inside. I want to remember.

Instead, I made a circuit of the field and return to my desk. Picking up my pen, I begin tracing the contours of the woman’s face. It’s like a caress, with each touch bringing her nearer. Maybe I can do this, I think. Maybe together we can bring life back to both of us.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sudden summer, little acts of war

There’s a fine line between whining and stating the obvious, and I, for one, am not going to split hairs about it. What is, is, and no amount of sniveling will improve our sad lot. But we all have days that are so rotten, so despicable, so unequivocally detestable, that we’re left with a profound sense of wretchedness that can only be alleviated by voicing our grievances. Not that anyone cares to listen.

Such is not the point. Besides being therapeutic, complaining is really an assessment of our situation. It’s like making a grocery list only instead of getting hungry you get more depressed. But at least you know where you stand.

And, too, let’s not forget the lesson of Job. He wasn’t exactly silent, and look where it got him.

The day of my debacle started innocently enough. Off to work early, back home before sunrise, a quick nap to refresh myself, a cup of coffee to jolt me awake, and I was ready. The first order of business was to mow the yard.

I stuck my head in the shed and promptly yanked it back. Several hornets flew out. The mower was almost within reach. Slide one hand in, hook a finger around the handle, draw it back. Be ready to run.

I reached in and a hornet buzzed my head. I recoiled as if snakebit.

Because of allergies, my mother once cautioned me not to get stung. Since then I’ve had an irrational (rational?) terror of anything with wings and a stinger. Once, when wandering at night down the alley behind our house, I put her warning to the test. I was up to no good—window peeping, if I’m not mistaken. While skulking around, I felt a sharp pain lance my ankle. Dancing around and trying not to curse (I was a good Baptist kid, regardless of my current deviant behavior), I yanked off my shoe and found a hornet. It was dead and I wished I was, and, indeed, I thought I soon would be. Obviously my mother was wrong.

Now, peering into the darkness of the shed, I wondered if we’re doomed to endlessly repeat these little acts of war.

I armed myself with a can of wasp killer. A few squirts and I felt safe enough to stick my head in; the mower and gas can were soon mine. I filled the tank, inserted ear plugs and yanked the cord. It roared to a start.

I managed five passes. Grass, twigs and shreds of bark blasted from the broken discharge chute, peppering me with chunky dust. As I whipped the mower around for another run, the handle snapped in half, almost pitching me facedown in the dirt.

I stared at it in wonder. It was incomprehensible that I would leave it that way all winter without repairing it. After dragging the mower behind the house and abandoning it, I went in search of something else to do.

The back room was heating up unmercifully. I laboriously hauled the window air conditioner up from the basement and then remembered I had to first install a support brace. I took the new DeWalt cordless drill to the long screws. The battery was dead.

I don’t mean dead as in discharged. I mean dead as in pushing up daisies.

While my other drill was charging I opened the window and set the support in place. I hadn’t noticed the hornet nest at the top of the sill. The window was promptly shut.

I couldn’t reach the hornets with the spray, so I settled down to wait. I waited, and waited, and waited some more, and watched as they seemingly settled down to wait me out. Hornets, I realized, have more time on their hands than do people. And more patience as well, especially when there’s a crazy man waiting to kill them.

The time spent waiting gave me time to think. Not just of the wasps and hornets flying around—their numbers this year are staggering—but of various problem areas. The mower died and the window screens are shot full of holes and the front door has gaps through which bugs enter and the side wings on the window air conditioner broke last year and I hadn’t replaced them. Another winter project that went unprojected.

The upstairs unit still worked, though it was a real wall-banger. I dragged it downstairs and set it off to the side. Now for the wasp.

I opened the window. It flew in and met my hat, which had been transformed into a weapon of mass destruction. As in, I destructed the mass of the hornet.

I set the unit in place. Naturally it didn’t fit right, leaving a huge gap for bugs to enter. I removed it and laid down foam weather-stripping and tried it again. The gap was smaller but still there. Already hornets were looking for a way in and I was the first thing they encountered, and they did not seem at all amused.

Half a roll of packing tape and it was done. I figured it would hold back the autumn hordes of lady bugs for at least three-and-a half nanoseconds.

I cranked the air conditioner on high. Sheba bolted for her cage.

The temperature was close to 90 by then and very humid. I wondered where spring had gone. President Bush might think global warming is “fuzzy science” but the seasons are getting more irrational all the time. We’ve had winter in autumn, autumn in winter, spring in winter, and now summer in spring. Just thinking about it made me dizzy.

Eventually the sun slipped over the horizon and dusk fell. I slipped into a pair of shorts and found the top button missing. My favorite T-shirt had a new hole in it. The pillow I sit on while rubbing Sheba had lost its stuffing. Sheba needed her nails trimmed and her fur combed, neither of which she’s fond of. My coffee was lukewarm. The book I was reading was not the one I wanted to read. I was miserably hot but too frugal (or cheap) to turn down the central air conditioner. My shoulder felt dislocated. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

I wasn’t whining, I was calculating. My problems were enunciated one by one until I grew sick of hearing them. Lori came in and sat beside me. Sheba tore off for a potty break and did a big sideways dance of joy. A robin sang the night down. There was no traffic on the road. We were no longer in the city. Lori’s fingers touched mine. This world is perfect.