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 naïve 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.

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