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, June 25, 2009
Other places, other gods
All road trips come with their own unique admixture of successes and disappointments, of highs, lows and humdrums that are no more, and no less, than manifestations of the ordinary lives we lead. Someone once said that you don’t know how good you have it until you don’t have it anymore, which is about the same for digesting the afterimages of an outing. In my case, our recent visit to St. Louis remains a muddled, confusing mess in equal parts photographic, written word and uncertain recollection, now to be sorted, organized, vetted, judged, revised and, in many cases, deleted. Each step a spelunker’s descent into the caverns of memory, each discovery a reawakening and a renewal.
For better or worse. Because of a genetic predisposition for negativity and a penchant for continually sensing greatness through better, and more expensive, tools, so much of what I remember now carries an air of regret. Perhaps it’s simply an aftershock, normal after a drive where the road seemed endless and the cities and towns mirror images without the slightest redeeming characteristic to set them apart or otherwise distinguish them, an inexhaustible procession of fast-food joints, mega supercenters, squalid billboards, bewildering cloverleafs and insane traffic, with some rain and lightning thrown in for good measure, and a faint shimmy from the front of our Taurus that grew worse as the miles stretched into infinity. Most of which could have been alleviated by taking backroads, our usual forte: Lesson learned, sort of.
And yet, even in the midst of a lingering despondency there are glimmers of depthless awe and exquisite beauty that reel me in like a trout. While sorting through the hundreds of photos taken during our four-day jaunt, I was struck not so much by the limitations imposed by my camera and lenses but by what was there all along, and what remains in our absence. For we captured merely an echo of another time, transposed into the present like two slides sandwiched together, the ancient and the new conjoined into a seamless fabric and us on the outskirts looking in. Riverboats and paddlewheels navigating past sleek bass boats, vast steel bridges swiveling on a dime, the slow ponderous weight of the Mississippi, lush fields inundated and flooded, agriculture and industry sharing the rolling green hills, American expansionism, burgeoning cities with gleaming towers, hamlets moldering into impenetrable forests, Germanic culture and the new, fusion-based ethnicity where anything is possible, majestic churches whose slender spires raked the sky like daggers, upscale wineries and hillsides terraced with measured rows of grapevines, art so intuitive it rendered us speechless, and a name that will forever inspire awe: Cahokia.
Begun as a small village around 700 A.D. near the confluence of the Mississippi River and Cahokia Creek in what is now western Illinois, the area exploded a century later as the Mississippian culture ascended into a complex social, religious and political system. By 1050 Cahokia became a regional center surrounded by farmsteads and satellite villages, extending over six square miles with a population of up to 20,000—the largest community north of Mexico. The majority of its residents lived in small single family thatched huts, but ceremonial structures and homes of the elite were build atop earthen mounds. Some mounds were conical, others rectangular or wedge-shaped, and all were aligned on a true north-south axis. The centerpiece of the city was the massive Monk’s Mound, the largest prehistoric earth construction in the Americas, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of soil. Here the leader lived and ruled, but the mound was more than a mere pile of dirt. As with other ancient civilizations, it was a solar calendar marking the solstices.
And then, like Chaco, Mesa Verde and the Mayan and Incan cities to the south, it was mysteriously abandoned.
Getting there in this modern age required a harrowing jump onto a congested and insane series of flyovers and underpasses and traffic hellbent on getting from point A to point B in the least amount of time. The park staff were either too helpful or at worst incompetent, and through a series of bizarre steps I was left with a purchase I only half-heartedly wanted and a fading desire to look through the rest of the visitor center. My plan to wait out the day until shadows textured the mounds was dashed by a fateful juxtaposition of people and withering heat, so Lori and I did the only thing left to us—we walked the Grand Plaza, circumnavigated the Twin Mounds and Stockade, and made the long march to the top of Monk’s Mound.
The day was excruciatingly hot, with a heat index of 106 degrees. Coupled with the high humidity, it was nothing less than brutal, with little shade or cover and the sun like molten fire on exposed skin. The few passerines kept to the shade, panting, their beaks open. But for all the misery there was an abiding sense of wonder on that flat bottomland studded with grassy mounds of a lost civilization, where the sounds of a hustling city fell silent to the whisper of wind and the chitter of swifts as they hunted the crest of the highest embankment. What are road trips but our own search for our place in the universe? Cahokia, Chaco, Chichen Itza: Since man first looked to the night sky and felt awe, he has reached for the stars.
We were almost back to the parking lot when we came across an earthworm trying to wriggle across a sunblasted stretch of sidewalk. It writhed and contorted in pain even while stretching to full length to pull itself toward the safety of the grass. The sensation of the suffocating heat radiating off the concrete must have been like frying in a hot skillet. Reaching down, I gently picked up the worm and set it beside cool waters flowing from a culvert. The worm rolled in the wet grass as if in ecstasy. Remember this, you gods of small things, for when I transgress against you in other ways.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Something in the night
Things always seem better in the half-light of dawn, though that’s a long way down the road. For now there’s only the unrelieved darkness and the faint call of a nightjar, and a lingering nightmare of broken pipes, water up to my knees and upset neighbors hammering at the door. A clamoring mob with lighted torches and noose might have come next had I stayed in bed. When dreams reach a tipping point it’s time to rise no matter how exhausted, and so I did, wearily, angrily, clomping down the stairs as if the force of each footstep would dislodge the dream and send it cascading to the nether regions where nightmares go to die.
A vain and futile hope. I started a pot of coffee and threw open the windows to a cool breeze redolent of damp grass and deep woods, and stared out at the flickering traceries of lightning bugs. Most wove indistinguishable patterns across the darkness but one pulsed brightly from the birch, a fallen and stationary star. Something about it felt odd, an arrhythmic cadence out of sync with the others or a radiance slightly off hue, bluish-white rather than whitish-blue, until I remembered reading about a predator that mimics the irregular phosphorescence of lightning bugs to draw the unwary into its lethal embrace. Being done in while engrossed in a fervid mating ritual seems heartless and cruel but might be the most life-affirming method there is of bowing out.
One hardly needs a reminder that the world is a brutish, dangerous place. Humans are remarkably adept at preying on one another, the ultimate mammal in terms of murderous efficiency. The lower orders have evolved into their own niches, whether omnivorous, carnivorous or herbivorous, creation’s ornate food chain where quarter is neither asked for nor given. The quest for sustenance knows no mercy.
I’ve been doing the math lately and it’s been a matter of subtraction all the way around. Several tomato plants have disappeared, strawberries absconded during the night, bark stripped from cherry seedlings, sweet potatoes decimated, even a towering pokeberry, one of the toughest hombres in the yard, sucked dry within days. Of the two small rabbits moving timorously from the safety of the brush pile, only one remains. And then the gray tabby appeared.
It was at first a pale shape stalking the twilit gloaming. As I watched, it seemed to flow bodiless above the grass like a wraith, impossible to fix with the eye, a ghostly form of tight-packed muscle and feline grace. Without hesitation I unlatched the window screen and removed it with only a faint rap as it cleared the frame, but the noise was telling. The shape froze, and seemed to constrict into itself. I sensed it watching the house as I broke the rifle and fed a heavy pellet into the chamber. By the time I raised the barrel the cat was gone.
Two days later I watched it cross the field and disappear into the thicket. Feral cats and young birds and bunnies do not a good combination make, so I trudged out to see if I could scare it off. A few well-placed stones flushed nothing but an immature robin, and a slow circumnavigation of the tangle proved fruitless. Standing there facing an impenetrable green wall, it was easy to let my imagination run riot, and I recalled the old tales of hunters going after man-eating tigers in the jungles of Borneo and India. I once relished reading their exploits, living a sort of vicarious adventure the likes of which I would never experience, so that here, even in the light of day, I imagined hidden eyes glaring out at me, fangs bared, talons flexing for the kill. An uneasy silence had fallen, whether from my own futile ministrations or of something skulking in the underbrush. After a while I went back inside, but kept the screen removed.
I remembered once hiking with my parents and brothers on an old fire road somewhere in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. We were far from the camper and dusk was falling when something crashed through the trees nearby. It approached with the sound of rending saplings and snapping twigs, not at all like the silent stealth of a deer, and as we stood rooted in place the sounds came ever nearer. I was all for fleeing but my father told us to stay. Hackles raised, I stared at the solid vegetal wall, certain that at any moment an enraged bear would emerge, take one look at us and charge. Closer and closer the sounds came, sharp and explosive, and then with a suddenness that was like a great inhalation the woods grew deathly still. It sees us, I thought. We waited, five small figures on a two-track road in the middle of nowhere, shadows rising from the low areas, barely breathing from the tension. What seemed an eternity later the hum of mosquitoes intruded, a noise so commonplace and ordinary that it shattered the spell. We were alone, and began the walk back in a humble and fearful silence.
One day, two, the yard was empty of rabbits. I watched and waited and felt sick to my stomach, alternately raging and fretting. On the third morning I drew the blinds to find the tabby lying by the broken stub of the hackberry within feet of the brush pile. It studied me as I slid open the window and unlatched the screen, and watched with golden eyes as I hunkered down to load the rifle. My hands were shaking and sweaty. The breech snapped shut with a clunk I felt sure would send the tabby packing, but when I glanced out the window it was still there. It stood facing me, tense, tail rigid, standing its ground even as I shouldered the rifle and fired.
After a while a soft rain begins falling. The telltale flashes of lightning bugs flicker out, leaving only the absolute darkness and a faint patter on the downspout, and a man looking out the window while something in the night looks back.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
A gap of unbridgeable proportions
It’s disconcerting to discover that the body you thought your own has been swapped with that of another, like a changeling left by fairies. That’s the only way I can account for what’s happened to me other than taking personal responsibility, and considering that even as I write this I’m savoring a tub of vanilla frosting, such an admission would be unbearable. Ours is a blameless society, and litigious, too, though who or what I could sue, or even why, remains beyond the reach of my most wildly convoluted scheming. In the case of the vanilla frosting, I doubt a judge would hear arguments linking Pillsbury’s lusciously rich, deliriously creamy offering to a diabolical global conspiracy fomented by clothing manufacturers to sell more product. But hey, it’s a thought.
However farfetched or tenuous the connection, the fact remains that Americans are becoming grossly overweight. An article from several years back put it in perspective by illustrating how even furniture is becoming broader to accommodate our expanding backsides. While I have remained above the usual Americanisms of over-extended credit debt, overblown mortgages and instant-gratificationitis, I have unfortunately joined the ranks of fellow citizens who through no fault of their own have become vertically-challenged. Ergo, I’m too short for my weight.
And yet, friends have remained trim while I’ve slowly swelled like a tick. What’s their secret? Have they developed an immunity to the allurements of vanilla frosting, all-you-can-eat buffet, green chile cheeseburgers, french fries, batter-fried okra, enchiladas swimming in a gelid soup of melted cheddar and onions, stuffed chile rellenos, barbecue potato chips and chocolate donuts? Do they possess inhuman levels of self-control? And please don’t mention the exercise word, for whenever I hear it I’m reminded of the Wicked Witch’s reaction to water.
Great passions, great lusts, such are the hallmarks of a select group of writers, artists and chefs who transcend the ordinary to wear their appetites with unembarrassed assurance, if not outright pride. Jim Harrison, the writer and poet from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has long been an advocate of an unrestrained life, indulging (and overindulging) in booze, gourmet food, fine wines, English shotguns, hunting dogs, farflung travels and exquisite literature to the point where his enlarged circumference regularly inhabits his poems. Unlike Harrison, however, who for all of his size looks complete, my own admittedly minor indulgences have resulted in what’s commonly known as the “beached whale” look. It looks good on him but not, alas, on me.
While in no way a surprise—I’ve taken to rubbing my belly and telling people I’m in my eighth month—my blubbery midriff proved itself even more of a detriment last week when I unpacked my summer clothes. For most of my life I’ve refused to wear shorts in public, not out of any ideology or bashfulness over my milky white legs (which, inexplicably, seem to resist tanning with remarkable efficiency), but because of something a boor told me in my formative years. At the time I was at that gangly age, all elbows and freckles and arms like twigs, when a cutting comment was enough to slice through tendons, muscle, bone and marrow and leave me gutted like a fish, the resultant gash inoperable, forever unhealed. Coming from a friend, or one who called himself a friend, only poisoned the wound further, even if spoken offhandedly or in jest. When my “friend” observed that I possessed knobby knees, the notion, whether true or false, became an inherent part of my being, as lasting as the V-shaped scar on my left hand caused by my grandmother’s door when it caught the wind and smacked me off the porch railing. No matter that my wife proclaims the shapeliness of my protrusive patellae, the damage done could never be undone.
Nevertheless, in my dotage I’ve come to the realization that what I look like is nobody’s concern but mine. Such contrarian contempt is, of course, merely skin deep, and subject to whims and fancies of which I have little control. Shorts are imminently practical attire for Kansas’s infernal heat and humidity, and I looked forward to dressing down even while grimly determined to silence the detracting voices that haunt my life. Shut up shut up I snarled as I unpacked last year’s supply of truncated pants, but the voices got the last laugh when I discovered that almost every single pair had shrunk over the winter.
Denial will take you only so far before leaving you stranded in a bad neighborhood. And here I stood in my favorite shorts, bought only the year before, sucking in my gut with Herculean might until my lungs groaned and popped and my liver wedged against my nasal passages and the room swam in dizzying circles, gaping in utter horror at an unbridgeable gap of shocking proportions sundering the button from the button hole.
It was no use. No amount of wrenching, tugging, inhaling or swearing would stretch the unyielding fabric to close that breach. One after another my summer shorts followed suit until a stack of useless clothing towered above the mattress, an undeniable, indisputable monolith to gluttony and excess.
I was undone. And recognizing the terrain as one familiar and dark, the wrong side of the tracks and night falling with implacable force, it was also a crossroads, a point of beginning. Redemption and salvage hinged upon direction and nothing more. The choice was mine.
I packed away the clothes with the vow that within one year I would slip into them unhindered. And, to celebrate my reformation, took my knobby knees in search of an unopened, virginal tub of vanilla frosting. I would need energy for the journey.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
The uncompromising wild
Twilight, and the low dusky form of the woodchuck shuffles past the shed and melts away into the gathering darkness. Not a bent blade of grass to mark its passage, not a whisper of sound. Only a fading retinal imprint and a pulse quickened to a dangerous level, and an unbidden memory that comes at me with bared fangs.
It was long ago in an age where anything that moved fell to our guns, and we oblivious to the carnage that would ultimately haunt our nights let our fingers rest lightly on the safeties. A small knot of armed men moving in loose formation, we traversed a country of short grass and stunted eroded hills, their windswept ridges pleated and creased. Our restless eyes paused for nothing but scoured the dusty land and cloudless skies for movement, all of which was predicated on distance, windage and velocity. Later in life I would again experience that intense attunement but rarely, most often in moments of duress when incoming bullets sang through chain link fences or kicked up dirt with an angry whine, or when in a split second of mindless reaction my pistol cleared leather and in that soft snick a new world opening where anything was possible, if ultimately short-lived. Settled within seconds, but never forgotten.
At my feet a pale piebald shape broke from cover. It seemed entirely without bones or structure, a formless gas-filled bladder whose short legs tore at the grass for traction, and I uncertain what it was other than something to kill quickened my pace until I was within an arm’s reach. In one swift motion I thumbed back the hammer on my single-shot shotgun and leveling it at the center of the spine squeezed the trigger. The blast punched the creature into the grass in a spray of dust and pebbles and sent the stock slamming into my shoulder. And before the echoes of the shot rebounded from the hills the beast was up and coming at me.
For a moment only I stood my ground, and then I began backtracking. Keeping an eye on the animal, I broke the barrel and sent the spent shell spinning into the air and fed another into the chamber. The barrel closed with a metallic snap that did little to mollify my growing panic. The creature, bloodied and filthy and trailing a crimson smear, was a rictus of sharp fine teeth and eyes burning into mine with a hatred so pure and fierce that it terrified me. No no no my mind kept screaming, this can’t be happening, the reloaded shotgun a mere useless appendage, my legs leaden and heavy and the gap between us narrowing with harrowing speed. Time seemed to slow to a ponderous hypothesis based solely on a geometric distance between myself and the wounded animal, accompanied by a fateful tune of my heartbeat hammering in the confines of my ribs. And then my father was at my side, bringing up his shotgun and firing once. The teeth, the glare, and much of the rest of the animal disappeared in a red spray.
The ensuing aftermath was uncannily silent. I studied the dismembered form and asked my father what it had been. A badger, he said. And added that I was lucky it hadn’t torn off my leg. He said next time to leave them alone, to give them all the clearance they wanted.
We left the corpse there, no more than just another unwitting nonhuman form to fall to our deadly ministrations, a piece of bloody meat that moments before had been a sentient being. And moving off went in search of other prey. Where we went, what we killed, or even if we killed, are lost to me now. What’s left, what has never escaped or faded, is the look in the badger’s eye as it came for me, and the sight of its slight broken body left discarded in our wake.
Decades later I saw the same look in another badger’s eye. It was dragging its shattered hindquarters off the road after being hit by a vehicle, its eyes scorching bright, teeth bared, savagely dangerous yet. There was nothing I could do but watch it struggle. Approaching cars gave it no quarter but passed within inches, their drivers’ humanity glaringly evident. My own sanguinary history allowed no room for incrimination.
Until, perhaps, one evening on the southern outliers of the Denver metro area. The sun had dropped below the Front Range leaving a salmon-tinted fire dancing across the peaks, and a rabbit showed in my headlights as a small furry object huddling into itself in shock. My speed was such that I was past it almost before it registered, and for several long moments I watched it in the rearview mirror receding into the rising darkness. Traffic was light but existent. I finally braked, spun the wheel and returned.
It watched me though eyes dull with pain, and wary, too, and yet never flinched when I gathered it up and moved it from the road into a patch of shrubbery. The pair of us remained together until the first stars speckled the eastern skies, when the rabbit unfolding like an accordion stretched and bounded off.
We touch the wild and the wild touches us, if unexpectantly. The inquisitiveness of rabbits and birds lulled me into a state of acceptance, until the woodchuck made its appearance. It seemed to possess a preternatural sense of its surroundings, though I managed to crawl a short distance from it with my camera before it heard some minor rustle of movement. And whirled, glowering with dark beady eyes chary with an uncompromising wildness, inflexibly untamable, ferociously solitary, before trundling off leaving me alone with my camera and the pallid blossoms of the peonies bleeding petal by petal into the deepening darkness.