Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Platitudes, vicissitudes and the blaming of Mother Nature
It was either the thirtieth branch dragged to the street or the fiftieth or somewhere in between that sparked the revelation.
By then my muscles were throbbing and I was rapidly losing the ability to grip with my right hand, or else the saw was dulling, which was also likely. No doubt a combination of the two. I’d cleared the field to the west and now focused on a small lot across the street from our house. Four bristling stacks of tree limbs, tree trunks and tree tops charted my progress. A fifth was forming as I methodically whittled down the fallen willow, but the farther down the trunk I worked the thicker it became, until finally I left the saw buried in the wood and sat down on its corpse for a drink of water and a few deep gulps of air.
My vantage gave me expansive views of the ridges rising to the south and, nearer to my location, the ring of trees separating our lot from the neighbor’s. The tallest, a magnificent locust, had several major limbs hanging broken, two of which draped on the ground like thorn-studded curtains. Since they were still connected I could not simply pull them down but instead had to find a way to saw them off. An extension ladder might reach but I wondered how safe it would be. Along the row of trees a good half showed signs of damage, and piled at their bases were twisted remnants of more. My task was far from complete but I was about done for.
I might have been a little snarly sitting there all sweaty and sore, mulling over the work ahead and the warm sunshine and the fact that my first sign of spring wasn’t flowers thrusting through damp soil or budding trees or even the song of a phoebe (which I still haven’t heard), but a brown recluse spider marching across the bathroom floor as if it owned the place. Coupled with this intrusion were hundreds of multi-colored lady beetles now seeking escape from our home after overwintering uninvited and unwelcome, a cockroach in the basement and the season’s first box elder bugs basking along the south-facing walls like miniature sunburned beach babes on the Riviera. So much for the arrival of spring!
As I sat there mulling over the injustice of our insectan vernal vanguard, the strangled gurgle of a brown-headed cowbird came to my ear. It was about as welcome as an insurance salesman. I looked around and saw it at the highest point of a gnarly locust, its iridescent blackness gleaming in the half-light with all the attraction of an oil spill. An easy shot with the Beretta 20-gauge, I thought, mentally lining up the front bead and vaporizing the beast with a load of magnums. The thought cheered me up somewhat but the bird kept gargling anyway.
It was almost too depressing seeing the trees in such ragtag shape, so I turned my back to them and faced the other way. The downed willow, now limbless and prone, made the ideal perch for sitting and stewing. The dirt road descended gradually into the two proper, where more prickly piles could be seen, ever growing as residents cleared more damage. Beyond the distant ridges the Georgia-Pacific plant rose like a pale fumarolic monolith with its perpetual plume of white steam wafting heavenward. The absence of trees opened the sky nicely, affording an unbroken expanse of clouds now slowly breaking apart to reveal patches of blue. The season’s first turkey vulture soared past, wings cocked in a glide. Great, I fumed, first bugs, then parasites and now the death-eaters.
If not for my wandering eye chancing upon the ragged outline of the woods mantling Juganine Creek, the day might have progressed into a long fever dream of cutting and dragging and stacking, all under the treacly notion espoused by many in the past months that it wasn’t a ravaging we’d endured, not devastation on a biblical scale, but a necessary pruning by a benevolent and wise Mother Nature.
All well and good, I silently asked—more a snarl actually—but what of the trees by the creek, splintered, sundered, their fractures glowing like bones against the darker shadows? Who will tend to them?
Come to think of it, why should I have to clean up this mess? I’m not the one who thought it needed pruning. It looked perfectly fine to me!
If Mother Nature did this, she did a crappy job and selfishly left the cleanup to others. Some pruning job. Some mother.
It dawned on me that sayings people offered in the aftermath of the ice storm were nothing more than platitudes expressed in the hope of finding a reason for the wholesale thumping we’d received. They can’t very well blame God and Satan seems an unlikely target, so they have to come up with another deity. And what better than a maternal goddess, who loves us and only wants the best for her children?
If only it were so. But like other myths stretching back to the dawn of time, perhaps it’s time we let this one go. For if we follow the line of reasoning that the ice storms were her way of pruning, then what do we tell the good folks of Greensburg—that the F5 tornado was Mother Nature’s way of urban revitalization? I don’t think so.
Mankind has always struggled with the concept of nature, and I suspect it will struggle until the sun goes supernova. Even as I struggle here on this patch of prairie earth. There is no Mother Nature, only the elements wild and untamed. The thought is oddly liberating. I wearily stand and stretch my aching muscles. I’ve done enough for one day. Now it’s time for a short nap, my way of dealing with nature gone bad.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
The memory of trees
The acrid smell of smoke, box elder bugs flitting about, the season’s first lacewing, delicate as a snowflake.
For a moment I take it all in, the musty smell of prairie at winter’s end, the low gray ceiling, the gently rounded hills tinged russet and ochre, and atop the highest ridge a single lightning-blasted spar of a cedar like some weatherworn sentinel, yet surprisingly resilient, showing a little more regrowth each year. From it I take as much comfort as I can, and then cross the yard and slip between two strands of barbed wire to enter my neighbor’s field.
Like everything else, the fence took a beating during last December’s ice storm. Severed strands of wire lie curled against tottering posts or writhe snake-like through the grass. What’s not broken sags under the weight of fallen branches, some six inches thick. Dozens of smaller trees are draped across the wire or collapsed on the far side like the Confederate dead heaped by the fence on the Hagerstown Road in the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady. An inglorious and abrupt finale, theirs under a withering enfilade of musketry, these shattered trees under an armored layer of ice.
It’s one thing to stare out the window on an apocalyptic treescape with a vague idea of cleaning it up later, and quite another to get in the middle of it with only a bow saw, muscles unused to hard labor and the proverbial clock ticking its own peculiar form of deadline. The city’s promise to remove all tree limbs if placed beside the road came with a catch: the work must be completed by the end of March. That leaves me two weeks or so, less when figuring in the days I’m at the office.
The real question is always where to begin when faced with so enormous a task. Nearest the road, I reckon, and start dragging the smaller limbs toward the fence. Many are entwined and tangled into unyielding masses that require judicious yanking and swearing. Underfoot the deep grass conceals downed timber from years past, a sort of hidden graveyard of tree bones, making footing treacherous. Laced throughout are sharpened stakes poking up through the soil like pungee sticks, the outcome of branches plowing into the ground point-first and shearing off under the implacable weight of winter.
When I get to the fence I toss them over to start a pile. The road dips toward the town proper and the river beyond, and past the burned pastures I spy a dozen more bristling piles rising like unkempt tombstones beneath the once-majestic woods. Almost four months have passed since the storm and still the town looks like a war zone. But the weather has finally relented and the sound of chainsaws comes like the distant drone of bees, and in that there is a measure of hope, too.
Back and forth I weave through the lethal field, jerking out the sharp stakes whenever I find them. Larger boles and entire trees, mostly narrow and tall, are sawed into manageable lengths. Before long I’m sweating fiercely beneath my sweatshirt; the experience is refreshing after the long cold months. Fallen timber behind the shed goes into the brush pile, rising ever higher like some woodsy megachurch for all creatures large and small.
As I work, I recall the sound of their falling, brittle in the darkness. It’s a sound I will carry with me to the grave.
I arrive at the thickest trunk and take stock. The smaller limbs go first, then propping a large rock under the main portion, I start segmenting it into manageable lengths. The wood is still green and shockingly heavy. Lifting one end straight up, I kneel and center the piece on one shoulder and stand up with it more or less balanced. In this way I stagger to the fence and tilt it over.
A second length is even heavier, making my shoulder feel raw and blistered. When I get back to the pile I take off my gloves and plop down in the grass. I’m just about done in.
They tell me the hailstorm of 1974 carpet-bombed the city with an almost preternatural ruthlessness, shredding trees of each leaf and twig, shattering every north-facing window and car windshield, stripping roofs, obliterating the greenhouse and hammering thousands of golf-ball-sized indentations into wood, siding and metal. The scars are still visible on several buildings in town, notably the old Masonic Lodge and the wooden counter of the State Bank of Blue Rapids. About the only thing that didn’t suffer damage was the stonework of the venerable old limestone structures, many of which were raised in the late 1800s. They tell me when the storm was over the silence was unlike anything they had ever heard. Residents emerged from their battered homes shocked into muteness. No birds sang. The birds were all dead.
Two years later, when we first visited, I never noticed. Now, surrounded by splintered trees, I take a quick survey of our yard. The elms, half-dead to begin with, may never recover. The willow across the street lies prostrate, roots upended, exposed to a sky imagined only through the physics of photosynthesis. Mounds of branches scattered below the maple show a wholesale divestiture though the tree itself appears sound enough. Tree tops everywhere are gone, leaving skeletal arms to implore an unyielding heaven.
I was raised in a desert place and find the destruction heartbreaking. By the time the trees recover I fear I will be an old man, living in my memories as the trees live in theirs. Together we look toward the hills and that lone battle-scarred cedar, itself a kind of miracle, and find all the answers we need.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Who we were, what we lost
In the past months several friends have attempted to glean my opinion on the so-called immigration crisis, that being the flavor-of-the-week news item. Indeed, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, eclipsing at times even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the clueless arrogance of the Bush administration, the wholesale pandering for votes by the latest sorry crop of presidential candidates, the escalating cost of oil, our shrinking dollar, global warming and its adverse localized effect, The Winter That Would Not End. So far I’ve remained silent, preferring to let greater minds than mine try to find answers to an unanswerable question. Now, though, I’m willing to offer my take on the subject: When your world is going to hell, find a scapegoat.
Such is not my course of action, but I see it in the hysteria surrounding the immigration policies being bandied about by politicians only too eager to have other issues draw attention away from their own shortcomings, failures and outright corruptions.
It was the book, “Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West,” by Hampton Sides, that brought me out of the closet. After reading of the invasion of Canyon de Chelly and the ruin of the Navajo nation, I discerned a pattern that was poignantly fresh.
Imagine, if you will, from a Navajo’s perspective the encroaching hordes of Irish, Germans, Scots, Brits, French, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Slavs and other Anglo-Saxon races fresh off the European continent and the East Coast, not to mention the Spanish siphoning up the Rio Grande and the Camino Real. At first a trickle, then an unstoppable flood, the Native Americans watched their lands being overrun by outsiders—thievery in their words, Manifest Destiny in ours.
If you can imagine how they must have felt, multiply that by the countless other tribes that were here first, who considered their lands not only home, but sacred to their sense of place.
Does it remind you of how many Americans feel about the incoming waves of immigrants flowing unstoppable across our southern borders? “This is our land,” they say. “You aren’t welcome.” Any Native American would find humor in this.
This is merely the latest mass movement across this northern continent, and trying to stop it would be like trying to hold back the tides or the stop the spinning of our planet.
I’m well aware of the dangers involved. Robert Kaplan’s excellent book, “An Empire Wilderness,” points out the demographical shifts and the associated social upheavals following the rise of huge meat packing plants in Dodge City and other Midwestern areas when large influxes of minorities were brought in, first Vietnamese, then Hispanics. Crime rates along the Mexican-U.S. border are legendary. The inability of local, state and national infrastructures to deal with crushing numbers of illegal immigrants is stretching, if not destroying, resources in hundreds of places. Companies who hire illegal workers are often guilty of undercutting local pay rates to the detriment of established businesses. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are reasons for this movement, and to stanch it we must correct the underlying issues. It won’t be easy; it might be impossible, considering the differing political spheres across dozens of nations. America, however, has elected to create a Berlin wall along our southern border. Not the northern border, mind you, or along the porous coasts, but from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The problem, in other words, isn’t social policies in Mexico and points south, or the unimaginable wealth to be had in America—it’s the immigrants themselves. Brown-skinned, black-haired, speakers of a foreign tongue, threatening our American (white) way of life.
It reminds me of what a woman told me not long ago.
“I’m not a racist,” she insisted, “but we need to stop them from coming in.”
Them who? Mexicans? Asians? Guatemalans? Hmong? Chinese? Russians? Who are they? And if by them we mean Mexicans, have the guts to say so. And then tell me why we need to stop them. I’m still a little fuzzy on that.
Talk is cheap, but I smell racism at the core of the debate.
I’m seriously considering taking up Spanish again, not only in preparation for our next trip across the border but because it will sooner rather than later become the dominant language of the United States. And I want to be able to meet these newcomers with something more than fear, hate and distrust. I want to say, ¿Còmo està usted? I want to say, Bienvenida, mì amigos.
I’m also cognizant of my own prejudices. I believe the Islamization of Europe has disturbing consequences for the entire world, not because of their race but because of their violence at the core of their beliefs. I’m equally leery of the Christian right, who have the same ideals and better teeth.
In other words, before you condemn me, understand that I realize my own inconsistencies and admit that I have no solutions for what seems an insurmountable problem. Building a wall and deporting hundreds of thousands of people, though, is not the answer.
On the base of the Statue of Liberty a bronze plaque reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Looking at the course Americans seem to favor toward immigration, we should pry that sucker off and toss it into the sea, melt it down for another panel in the southern border fence, or better yet, enshrine it in a museum where our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can come and see who, in the words of a poet, we once were.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Close the door, turn out the lights
For a moment I pause at the top of the stairs and gaze at the library. Everything is softened under a layer of dust, the table, the irregular stacks of books, the sagging bookshelves, the rocking chair. The room personifies neglect and the state of our lives. Even the stairs portray incompletion, raw wood, carpet removed, stripped, sanded but unfinished yet, a project begun years ago and stalled and finally forgotten.
The nearest stack of books teeters precariously on a stool so I straighten it up. On top is a nonfiction account of the Ypres Salient where some of the fiercest fighting in World War I took place; beneath are books of poems by Theodore Roethke, Walt Whitman and Donald Hall, and a study on Pueblo birds and myths. Bottoming the pile is a retelling of the Cinderella story. All are unread, as are three hundred or so others lining the shelves. My fingers come away chalky white. I wipe them on my pants and start down the stairs, and cannot help but smile and promise the room a good spring cleaning. Someday. Someday soon.
The final week in our ownership of my wife’s shop went nothing like I thought it would.
It was, in many respects, an important reminder of the things that make life worthwhile. Years ago, when I first made moves into an unlikely career of journalism—untrained, unschooled and above all unprepared—I sought advice from a birding friend turned editor of the Washington County News. He told me one of the most difficult stories he’d had to write was about a four-foot stretch of newly laid sidewalk. “What can you say about a sidewalk?” he asked. He preferred to write about people, he said. Which was exactly the opposite of what I wanted. People were complicated, mysterious and terrifying, especially to one more attuned to silence and solitude. A sidewalk I could deal with.
My first article involved a swimming pool. Naturally, it wasn’t about the pool as much as it was about the man who donated the money for its construction, and of his great-grandson who appeared at the library one day carrying a faded black-and-white photo depicting the pool, the people and, indirectly, the impact it had on the community. The first lesson in journalism I was taught was that the story is always about people.
Retail is no different. Anyone who thinks it’s about product, inventory and profit (or loss) doesn’t know anything about owning a business. Like journalism, like community, like family, even, it’s always about people.
After three years of being in business, we were selling out to a partner. And while the prospect of having more time to do the things we wanted was like an electric current singing in our veins, there was also a bittersweet element in saying goodbye to something we had created from scratch. So much work and emotion goes into building a business that it becomes part of you, indistinguishable and inseparable from the person looking back from the mirror each morning. With three days left, I figured it would be quiet, a time of reflection and gradual withdrawal. Instead, it was like history being rewound.
I had no sooner unlocked the door when people began filtering in. There was Steve Rock, once a stranger in search of fresh habaneros—the hottest chiles on the planet—now a fast friend, and Duane Iles, ex-pharmacist, ex-enemy, whose crooked smile never failed to make me laugh, and Pat O and Nancy and the mayor, John Nowak, whose wry insight always helped me see the opposite side of the story, and others, a steady stream of them, some saying goodbye, and others, like Richard Olson, an ex-Santa Fean, opera connoisseur, art lover, chilehead and irascible, profane old fart whom I love dearly, who made me promise we would somehow find some other common ground to meet upon. There was little time for reflection other than to wonder what it would be like to not be available for these friends, what would fill that absence or how we would continue to gather.
We would never have known these and so many others without the business. As Lori said, that in itself is a great success, and a lasting tribute.
The final day was spent in packing and removing our inventory. There was little time to mourn our passing. We hadn’t eaten lunch so I promised Lori Chinese in Marysville, and as last minute shoppers browsed I hauled the remaining boxes out to the truck. In a perfect note of symmetry we finished exactly at 5 p.m. Lori emptied the cash drawer, turned the thermostat down, and killed the rear bank of lights. I removed two keys from my keychain and set them carefully them on the counter. It was like slicing off a finger. It was like sawing off manacles.
At the front door I paused and turned to look back one last time. Lori stopped beside me.
“Do you see anything of us left?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
I hadn’t worded it right. What I meant to ask was had we missed anything.
From outside came the wild cry of snow geese heading north, and the sunlight lay warm and golden on the damp grass and the splintered trees and the rusted metal wheels chained to the flagpole. It was the warmest day of the year, the kind of day that feels like hope, a day saturated with promise of an end to a long and bitter winter.
“We’ll always be here,” I said, and turned out the lights and locked the door behind us.