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.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
The old mill at Clyde, Kansas
The language of trees
I’d like to learn the language of trees but then there are so many other things I want to learn, too. I once owned a book and might still do in which the author sets out to expound upon the uniqueness of the various species, the physical and emotive qualities that distinguishes them one from the other, an idea that at first showed merit until one gives it too much thought and the whole thing falls apart. Trees with emotions? The emotions are ours, at once colored with our own prejudices and experiences, also some hearsay. And heresy. Oaks are magnificent, elms unsightly; redwoods stately, walnuts dirty; willows graceful, cedars nuisant, unless the cedar is one of the biblical cedars of Lebanon, so often invoked in the Old Testament and of course different from our own variety, the eastern red cedar. Because the word cedar incites such an inflammatory response from many midwesterners of the farming bent, and because quite simply the red cedar is not a cedar, I hereby proclaim a new name for the evergreen, to wit, the Virginia juniper. Let us make peace.
Language denotes sentience, so perhaps I’m overreaching. From the dawn of time humanity has endowed, or attempted to endow, trees and even stones with a lifeform not unlike our own. For centuries a lively thread of discord existed between Buddhist masters over whether trees could attain enlightenment, and if so, if they would then possess the 32 marks of Buddha. In some ways Japanese Buddhist traditions split from their Chinese counterparts over the issue of sentience within trees and stones, a divergence that might seem pedantic or even silly to those raised in Judeo-Christian traditions but not at all at odds with Druidic beliefs, nor of many other so-called primitive religions. Even Socrates argued that trees might have souls.
At heart is the idea that we humans are merely minor players in the web of life and not its central focus. Anyone who has beheld the graceful arc of a comet superimposed against a billion flickering galaxies can attest to the finiteness of our existence, or even apprehend something greater than we’re capable of understanding or, indeed, even possess words for. For that matter, the selfsame transcendence can be had through immersion in a river or stream, preferably one containing trout, where the current’s tug draws us out of our own narrow confines into a larger spatial universe containing centuries-old snowpack, springs, rivulets, brooks, confluences, watersheds, minnows, lunkers, tadpoles, single-cell organisms, midges, caddisflies, mayflies, translucent shrimp, hellgrammites, algae, moss, rotted leaves, fallen trees and a million other sentient and nonsentient beings that comprise the whole.
In olden days the vast unbroken forests were particularly singled out for reverence, a term rarely used in this post-modern era. Wholesale logging has all but eradicated old-growth woods with their sentinel trees, leaving us with only remnant pockets to remind us of what was lost through cupidity and greed. One offshoot of this has been the inevitable elevation of prime specimens, the giants of hoary age, whom we have mantled with a nobility based solely on longevity. Proximity to humanity also engenders an almost familial aspect to these leviathans, as was the case of the massive cottonwood that fell several years ago in Blue Rapids. It was a sapling when the town was founded in 1869, and losing it was like losing a member of the family. A good portion of the town’s population turned out to bid it farewell in an inferno shooting flames a hundred feet into the crisp autumn evening, an act the ancient Druids would have respected.
I’m as guilty, or as human, as the next man. When in the presence of trees of notable stature I find myself enthralled, though in honesty I rarely take trees for granted. They spring up across our yard, some in odd places such as the elm and maple saplings pushing through the forsythia by the road, and for the most part I allow them unfettered access. My wife prefers a more organized yard. We’re now engaged in a spirited debate over what to do with several hackberries that cast their shadows upon her garden area. At first she wanted them removed, but now we’re at the stage of discussing trimming their branches. Several 12-foot-tall elms have grown too close to the house, though, threatening the roof and probably the foundation as well. They have to go and I am loathe to perform the axework.
Recently a sycamore has been calling to me, if that’s the word, drawing my attention whenever I cross the bridge over Fawn Creek. It’s not the largest sycamore I’ve seen by any means, and it tilts at an angle as if its roots were undercut by the stream. But there’s something about its stark contrast with the neighboring trees writhing along the creek’s course, the broad supplicant sweep of its bone-white limbs, its pallid singularity in woods gray with winter. Glimpsing it one evening luminous in the hard light of a setting sun made me want to photograph it, but my days have been hectic and clouds have invariably rolled in so I put it off until I could no longer resist the tug.
It was hopeless and I knew it. Nevertheless I mounted the camera to a tripod and walked the road’s shoulder to the crash barrier and traversed the grassy slope until I could frame the sycamore through a thin lattice of smaller trees. Other than an occasional passing car there was only the trickle of water and a soft flutter as a barred owl coasted in for a closer look. After taking a few desultory shots I dropped down to the pebbled creek and slipped through the fence. Beneath the sycamore’s upthrust arms, now glowing spectrally in the deepening dusk, there came over me a sort of reverie of which there are no words, only a sensory recognition of two living beings meeting and communing on common ground. Perhaps it’s the only language we need.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
And one more just because I like it
Great Plains chiaroscuro
For a moment I could see him there, a man such as myself, working leisurely in the garden raking sticks into untidy piles to cart off to a larger and even untidier pile on the far side of his property, a place set aside for the residuum of nature’s vanquishing energy and now home to birds, voles, snakes and other small creatures, a man such as myself who watches the sky for signs and portends, who loses himself in the vast depths of a cirrus ocean whose delicate smoky wisps and strands of lace perpetually drift on currents of azure and indigo, a man who frowns deeply when a sudden crump of thunder intrudes like the hand of doom, and the sky darkens laced with serpents’ tongues of fire, sending the man frantically dashing to the basement where he furiously reworks the battlements of his terror, reinforcing the walls with thick studs and beams, sealing the windows and shoring up the ceiling, and stockpiling his crude cave with emergency supplies while keening and weeping like one gone batty even as the weather radio jangles its dire alerts and warnings in tune with a robotic voice warbling that the National Weather Service in Topeka has issued a —— warning, and it doesn’t matter what kind of warning, only that it hangs there like a capitulation to utter hopelessness, and the man, a man such as myself, goes stark raving mad as so many others on the Great Plains have done when Mother Nature goes on a bender.
For a moment only the image came, and then it slipped away. But not so far. Like an echo I could feel the rubber grip of a hammer in my hand, could smell the acrid bite of sawdust, could hear the telltale radio.
Eight people died the day the tornadoes came to Oklahoma last week; another died several days later. The largest tornado remained on the ground for over an hour, witnesses reported, a fact that chills me to the bone. Divorced from any relationship to the deceased, they become mere numbers on the blotter, devastation’s ghoulish math, but a part of my mind followed through the equation to percentages of population lost and the final summation of ruination and irreplaceable loss, one more nail in the coffin of the rural Midwest.
As I write this on the eve of our ninth year in Kansas, the early morning sun is shining brightly, melting away the thick layer of frost to pool beneath the car where bluebirds and juncos gather to drink their fill. Not a shadow on the horizon or the radar, and yet a sense of foreboding has fallen over me, one I cannot shake. My thoughts on the approaching spring veer from anticipation to apprehension, partly due to last week’s warnings and, of course, after what took place within the bounds of our southern neighbor. Lest anyone sneer at my concern, let me remind all and sundry that more than once last year we were chased by tornadoes, that on numerous instances we saw the destruction left in their wake, and that from a distant location I watched television announcers point to an odd-shaped glob indicating a hook echo, rotation, the potential of a tornado on the ground at our doorstep in Blue Rapids, and Lori home alone. I have stared up into clouds spinning in a milky vortex, rustling nearby trees and spinning and lifting leaves littering the ground, and felt the whirlwind’s caress like a whisper. I am no stranger to storms.
I’m also cognizant of predictions by climatologists that global warming will bring stronger tornadic activity to the middle part of the nation. If last year was a taste of what we can expect, then I suspect we’re in trouble. And I suspect that we ought to prepare for any eventuality, a thought that struck me with particular force this past week.
Like most people, the majority of our possessions could be easily replaced. It’s why we have insurance, after all. But what of the other items, the heirlooms, the treasures, the invaluable pieces of our histories? Are they stored in a safe place or would the first twirling dervish banish them to Oz?
I ran through a mental checklist of those things I would most want to preserve should our house be razed to the foundation, and then calculated as best as possible where those items were stored. The exercise surprised me. Most of the things I deemed most priceless were scattered on the upper floors of the house. Not that any were of real monetary value—35 years of diaries, some photos, a wedding ring that needed to be resized, a few books and CDs. Things with which to rebuild a shattered life.
Unlike the man I imagined hammering together a storm shelter, my own preparations were more systematic and measured. Downstairs I cleared a wide space where we could hide and retrieved each item I’d identified as indispensable, storing the diaries in plastic tubs wrapped in heavy plastic bags and the rest in other watertight containers. While I was at it, I filled a five-gallon water jug and stored it beside the lantern. I also ordered a second weather radio to supplement the one we keep on the second floor (forewarned is forearmed) and began searching for an affordable external hard drive for a snatch-and-grab mad dash should the occasion arise. Should it not, the extra storage would be welcome for redundant backups of photographs and writings.
I like to think that planning for disasters isn’t reactionary, it’s precautionary. And yet in most ways it is reactionary, protocols generated in response to external stimulus. If for every action there is a reaction, this, then, is mine: relish spring’s chiaroscuro of beauty and terror, watch the skies, listen for alerts and know what to grab, and when. A plan in place is all we can have.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Shadow of the whistlepig
It’s sobering to realize thirty years too late that the man you once thought you were was actually someone else. Three decades might seem a prolonged gestation period for self-discovery but some things take time or even occasionally require a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge from an outside source, however unlikely. In my case it was the finale to the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz’s book, Woven Stone, which explains the discovery of uranium near Grants, New Mexico, and the concomitant degradation to the lives of the area’s Native American and Hispanic residents, the dewatered creeks, ponds and polluted waterways, the implicit and rampant racism that ultimately reduced the local Acoma and Laguna people to a subclass of cheap labor and means of oppression through alcohol and employment conditions that left workers maimed, dead or riddled with cancer. “The American political-economic system was mainly interested in control and exploitation,” Ortiz writes, “and it didn’t matter how it was achieved.” I hadn’t expected to find myself within those pages but there I was, if only between the lines, a crepuscular if insignificant bit player identifiable to none but myself. In short, I was a hired goon, or gun, if you prefer.
Our lives cast shadows far beyond the length of our mortal spans. In some ways this is no more than the typical domino effect where a stationary object put into motion creates motion across a wider domain, or the law of physics which states that for every action there is a reaction. But to what do we ascribe the radiance behind those shadows that touch our lives years, decades, or generations beyond their genesis?
Shadows have been on my mind of late, both of the physical and metaphorical variety. A new cell tower to the south of our home splits the night with its ranks of blinding strobes painting ghostly silhouettes against the windows, a story I’d written a year ago resurfaces and stirs emotions I’d thought hidden, I find out my actions in Grants were part of the problem and not the solution as I’d believed, and now comes word that Punxsutawney Phil sighted his shadow on the morning of Candlemas Day and another six weeks of winter is assured.
Personally, I’m ready for a recount on all charges. But like the example of falling dominoes, some things can be changed and some can’t, which leaves us the unenviable position of either accepting our newfound prone positions with blind acquiescence or to seek to determine the course of events and to discover a way to live fully within our new topography. As an aside or potential alternate course of action, and as any psychologist will admit, denial also has its pluses.
While I’m not going to deny Phil his glory, I will say that he’s been upstaged in various parts of the country. Indeed, had our own whistlepig (whom we’ll call Flint Hills Fred) showed his muzzle around these parts on the morning of the 2nd, we would have had a 50-50 chance at an early spring, if, of course, one lends credence to such foolishness. Predictions from other groundhogs around the county showed mixed results, with one in Georgia foretelling the end of winter and another in Canada, of all places, announcing the opposite. Both conclusions are entirely plausible if not, well, predictable. In a fit of rage over the effrontery of being rousted from hibernation, Staten Island Chuck, another soothsaying member of the marmot family, bit New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the hand, an act which left meteorologists baffled, Bloomberg’s hand bloody and other groundhogs cheering.
Sometimes we’re unwitting bystanders to our own destinies. Back in 1972 I was a guard at the Kerr-McGee mines outside of Grants, doing my part to keep striking union members from destroying the two remaining mines in production. That I failed to do my job, and that they succeeded so dramatically, wasn’t nearly as important as the manner in which I handled myself, it turned out. Looking back on it with my blinders removed, it’s clear that any reasonable man would have joined the mutineers in setting the dynamite, however transient the results ultimately proved.
What conditions or demands led to the strike was never explained to the uniformed and armed misfits brought in to hold them at bay. In that climate it’s doubtful questions were even sanctioned. At any rate, most of the guards I met wanted nothing more than to be left alone, and in that they had washed up at the right location. Living quarters were squalid and cramped, work conditions brutal, hours long, and social time consisted of a six-pack and a room stripped of everything but a bed, table and chair, small dresser and a few pinups tacked to the peeling wall, plus whatever demons drove you to such a farflung outpost. And hanging over us all, or at least those whom I discussed it with, was the very real question of how we would handle trouble when, and if, it came.
We thought we were the rule of law, standing for truth, justice and the American way. In fact, we were hired to intimidate, frighten and bully the workers whose lands and ways of life had been raped.
It’s a shadow that suddenly darkens my past. But shadows, as Punxsutawney Phil knows, are cast by light, and light is the essence of rejuvenation and renewal. Stepping outside, I see reddish buds swelling the tops of the elms, green shoots rising from the irises, emerging insects and ragged formations of geese wending north, and hearing the meadowlark’s fluid, crystalline notes remind myself of the promise of a spring that will come in its own time, but which will come, of that there’s not a shadow of a doubt.
Saturday, February 07, 2009
Thursday, February 05, 2009
Lightning without thunder
One evening, in the vast ocean of darkness surrounding the writer Dan O’Brien’s ranch near the Black Hills of South Dakota, a light flickered and came to life.
It was far away, a speck of luminance straddling the horizon, distance causing it to waver and jitter and flare, and with each guttering he thought it might extinguish, and each time it danced back to life as if sensing his hopes, as if to spite him. For a long time he stood outside studying it, working it like he would something stuck in his teeth, a wedge of gristle or chile seed, his eyes probing the speck, trying if possible through sheer dint of force to loosen it, to dislodge it from its confines, to make it go away. And it would not.
Maybe it’s a campfire, he thought. Maybe it will be gone tomorrow.
The next evening as the sun slipped its moorings and sank below the horizon pulling night in its wake, O’Brien walked onto his front porch and watched with a mixture of trepidation and dread as the eastern sky deepened to purple and the first stars poked through, mere pinpricks against a twilit backdrop, starting high toward the zenith and cascading lower, a starfall whose descent left one ember gleaming faintly on the far ridge-line, light-years closer to a solitude he’d taken for granted.
At the time I read this we were living in Denver, where the midnight sky was bleached by the incandent glare of the city and night itself seemed a relative term, one affiliated more with the steady progression of numbers on the face of a clock than any reality. The thought of being disgruntled over a solitary light miles away seemed hopelessly trite, a writer’s construct or a self-serving cadge for sympathy from an audience that had all but forgotten what an unbroken field of stars looked like. I remember how when the comet Halle-Bopp showed up, those wishing to see it were advised to get as far away as possible from the metropolis. And how far might that be? A two-hour drive onto the eastern plains would be just about right, astronomers said.
Now, after living here in Kansas for almost nine years, perched on the edge of a town that seems determined to slowly but inexorably swamp us like a high tide, swallowing us up or leaving us stranded like some two-acre beaconless promontory, I’m able to fully sympathize with O’Brien’s consternation, and on many fronts: Houses where fields used to be, the destruction of an old barn clapped together with railroad ties and the bone piles of packrats (and where the phoebe nested), the thorough erasure of clusters of wildflowers and meadows with waist-high grass where I would walk on damp spring mornings in search of migrating warblers and vireos. All gone. And not just gone, not just displaced by houses and driveways and cars and people, but a constriction of space, horizons boxed in and tightening like a noose.
When I complained of this to a friend, a native no less, she chided me for not moving to the country. If only it were that simple, I thought, or that affordable. Relocating is regrettably not an option, and anyway I’ve grown to love this little patch of prairie, despite its faults. And so those of us who crave elbow-room learn to make do, we go on, we’re not like Daniel Boone who when seeing smoke rising from a new neighbor’s chimney pulled up stakes and departed for a farther frontier, finding the place “too crowded,” as he put it. After a while that distant glow on the edge of the earth becomes almost familiar, a landmark of sorts, the sting lessened, even if a certain whiff of disgust lingers to taint the sight.
The world is changing, though, and not in some metaphorical sense. My friend, who several years ago managed her own escape from town to country, can feel its effects even as we can, separated by a scant dozen or so miles on a grid dating back to Thomas Jefferson, and now snared in a larger grid whose tall, slender spires symbolize the new monolithic altars to the gods of wireless communication.
How long ago it first intruded upon my consciousness I could not say; a few months, six at most. “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, and mine sweep the southern ridgeline whenever I set foot outdoors or sit at the dining room table, an act as natural as breathing and perhaps as important, if not crucial, to my sense of place. Through attrition our horizons in each cardinal direction have been altered, two homes to the west, one to the east, the promise of another to the north, with only the south remaining unchanged. Its grassy crest is swept with cloud shadows, furzed with encroaching cedars, tracked by the slumberous peregrinations of cows and host to the amorous courtship rites of wild turkeys, as well as generating thermals to hoist migrant raptors and passerines into the wild blue. And now, desecrating this pristine vista is a cell tower, hundreds of feet tall, with its damnable, detestable, blinding strobes sizzling every two seconds, shredding the night in steady, rhythmic pulses that stab the brain like a hangover.
This isn’t one of those towers crowned with stately crimson beacons thrumming the night like heartbeats, their slow steady cadence almost soporific. No, this monstrosity has a bank of high-watt beams that arc like camera flashes, slamming the retina with intense bursts of radiance, bathing our house and windows in light, throwing shadows on the fields, lightning without the thunder.
Besides the obvious light pollution and disruption to a night we had thought sacred, there are other, less-known problems with towers: the wholesale decimation of migrating birds, drawn to the blinking lights and eviscerated on the guy wires or towers themselves. One tower in western Kansas killed between 5,000 and 10,000 Lapland longspurs in a single foggy night. A 30-year study of a tower in Florida showed a mortality rate of 1,600 birds a year. And with the demand for wireless technology and digital TV, towers are proliferating at an unprecedented rate.
Daniel Boone would light out for the territories. Here in rural America, there is nowhere to run.