Thursday, October 27, 2011

In a time of war

When our extension agent heard my plan, a wince of discomfort crossed his face.

“You know they’re beneficial,” he said.

Oh, I knew. Believe me, I knew about ladybugs and how they control aphids and other undesirable pests. I also knew that ladybugs as we know them—the American species—are disappearing under the onslaught of the introduced multicolored Asian lady beetle. I also knew that every autumn we’re inundated by masses of lady beetles swarming our house, creeping through the tiniest crevices and flooding our home.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. So when I asked the agent for recommended methods to alleviate the invasion, instead of a concrete answer I received a lecture on their benefits, their harmlessness and the short cycle of their nuisance. 

“It’ll be over soon,” he said.

But not soon enough.

Ideas for coating the exterior of the house with insecticides, of meeting the swarms with flamethrowers, or even calling in air strikes from Ft. Riley quickly went out the window. In the end I was reduced to the most low-tech solution available: the common fly swatter.

It’s admittedly a slow process and ultimately doomed to failure. But there is a certain grim satisfaction in destroying them by hand, perhaps even a psychological response harkening back to our Neolithic ancestors when we met the enemy face to face. 

Unfortunately, our fly swatter, a cheesy plastic paddle loosely connected to a thin metal handle, fell apart after the hundredth or so beetle. A second swatter suffered a similar fate. An online search found fly swatters of various sizes and shapes, most made of plastic and none suitable for longevity. I wanted something big and beefy, something with a handle that wouldn’t flex and bend like a willow switch and a head that could dish out as well as take abuse. I wanted something lethal. And then, almost by accident and not a little sleuthing, I found it.

Wal-Mart, late evening, we’re tired and want to get home but I’ve circumnavigated the store twice looking for fly swatters and still drew a blank. Finally, seconds before getting into the checkout line, Lori asks a clerk if they had any, and if so, where. 

“Aisle 12, end of row, in a box,” she said.

In other words, clear across the store. No problem, by that time I was determined to find them or die trying, so we wearily trudged past the produce, the frozen food, the baking and breakfast and candy and Halloween rows with their temptations and enticements, past the paper goods and cleaning supplies to an indeterminate row of various and sundry items including mouse traps, cockroach strips, wasp and hornet spray, where we found tucked into a narrow slot, unmarked and unidentifiable except for the black wire handle jutting out, the Black Flag Super Swatter.

“Flies don’t stand a chance,” the cardboard wrapper screamed in red block letters. “25% Bigger. Higher Hit Rate. Maximum Snap!”

They were beautiful. Black overall like a Glock or an M-16, with thick wire handles and a substantial head with an embossed black flag, they were the epitome of murderous efficiency. The product description was enough to make me drool. “The Black Flag Super Swatter is the ultimate tool in your arsenal of bug killing weapons,” it read. “No chemicals. No odors. Sheer power. The stout combination of metal construction and oversized head propels the Black Flag Super Swatter to crushing swatting speeds. No more miss-hits: flies don’t stand a chance! And it’s backed by Black Flag’s legendary money back guarantee. If you break your Super Swatter for any reason, any time, we will replace it for free.”

The image of the last fly swatter broken and dismembered on our porch came to mind. No more! And what was best, the icing on the cake, the pièce de résistance, was the price: 99 cents.

I grabbed six of them. 

“Why do you need so many?” Lori asked.

“You know how hard it is to find a good fly swatter? I’m stocking up while I can.”

A man browsing wasp sprays glanced at us and then studiously scrutinized a label. I could only imagine what he was thinking—what kind of pigpen do they live in that they need so many fly swatters? I smiled at him and said, “It’s a man thing. The more the merrier.” Instead of agreeing, nodding, smiling or acting in any way that he heard, he turned and wordlessly disappeared around the corner.

The following afternoon I slipped out the front door to flank the multihued beetles as they besieged the south-facing side of the house. Uncountable multitudes filled the air as they winged in from the fields, seething and boiling against the walls and windows as they probed for chinks in my defenses. Brandishing the Super Swatter I descended upon them unawares, taking them at their backs and hammering them into red splotches, the swatter rising and falling with deadly accuracy until my clothes and skin were speckled with entrails and viscous fluids. Their corpses piled up against the foundation and still more fell, until at last I retreated to rest my shoulder. 

The next day the assault renewed, the enemy’s numbers undiminished.

Or so it seemed. But I knew, and my swatter knew, that we’d slaughtered a veritable army of the interlopers, an army that would never again reproduce to bother humanity, and that each day, week after week, we’d continue the good fight, one foe at a time, until winter clamped down or one of us surrendered. 

This has been something of a Pyrrhic victory, I’m afraid. Outnumbered and alone, hampered by a torn rotator cuff and suffering from battle fatigue, the cost of triumph has been high. Nevertheless, I will not yield. The black flag is raised. No quarter will be given, no mercy shown.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rites of autumn

        After a while, the pumpkin became a problem.

It was a big pumpkin, a venerable giant of its race, a specimen to enter into the county fair with pride and a deep-seated assurance that any and all competitors would quail at its sight. I remember wrestling it into the car—I believe it was the Chevy Vega, the Microsoft version of automotive engineering with its underpowered aluminum engine, execrable performance and repulsive styling—barely squeezing it into the back seat for the drive home to our apartment, and then manhandling it back out to stagger ungainly to the porch where it commanded a presence not to be trifled with. Or, at least, that’s how it seems when filtered through the decades separating then from now.

To tell the truth, knowing our financial situation early in our relationship when all the world was fresh and new, it probably wasn’t that big. We were newly married and had bills piling up from job finders and the new (used) Vega, a replacement for the Karman Ghia that self-destructed during our relocation to Denver, and pumpkins were far down the list of necessary expenditures. But it was sizable enough to become a problem once Halloween came and went.

The pumpkin was Lori’s idea. I would have preferred using the money for candy, ostensibly for the hordes of trick-or-treaters we expected, little ghouls and goblins clamoring for sweets as if entitled to the largesse of their anonymous neighbors. And I begrudged them, oh, most assuredly so. It was my candy, cunningly selected to my own refined tastes, Brach’s candy corn, dark chocolates and Butterfingers, Twixes and Mr. Goodbars and Paydays, and I wanted it all for myself. Being forced to distribute my personal stock to the masses was socialism, pure and simple. 

The irony is sweet as sugar and as cloying. At the time I was not only a member of the National Rifle Association, I was also a registered Republican and voted accordingly. You could say I fought socialism before most Republicans ever heard of the term. 

Fought, and lost. The pumpkin graced the patio with a rustic autumnal flair, the iconic symbol of harvest and fall and the changing seasons. Had we added a brace of corn stalks or a hay bale the representation of a rural ideal would have been complete. Had we carved a menacing expression into the pumpkin a darker, more menacing tone would have been injected applicable to the approaching holiday.

Carving it, however, was forbidden. Lori adamantly refused to let me get anywhere near the pumpkin with a sharp knife. My entreaties for adhering to tradition and customary rules of observance fell on deaf ears. Stymied by her refusal, I sought reasons that might explain this inexplicable mindset. Did she have an underlying phobia about jack-o’-lanterns as some do about clowns, public toilets or germs? Had a jack-o’-lantern in the past done her wrong? Did leering faces smoldering in the dark summon childhood nightmares long forgotten? She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say. Nor would she budge. Of all the pumpkins in our apartment complex, only ours remain unscathed.

Halloween rolled around. Trick-or-treaters came and went depleting my precious candy stock, leaving me sullen and nursing my grievances, but also turning my thoughts to what I considered the next step in the evolutionary cycle of pumpkins, to wit, pie. 

I can’t recall being a huge fan of pumpkin pie in my youth. In fact, I can’t recall pies of any kind. There was my grandmother’s pound cake—impossible to beat and, in what seems a contradiction in reason, the only species of cake not requiring copious layers of frosting, preferably vanilla, preferably fringed with thick gobs of frosting flowers and flourishes and, preferably, all mine—and pecan pies, which I refused to touch. There must have been others, lemon meringue, chocolate and pumpkin, but if so they’ve receded into the unrecoverable past. Dessert was unfamiliar territory until I met Lori’s Kansas grandmothers who dutifully fed me until I swelled like a tick, but it was their pumpkin pie that made a believer out of me.

Their pies didn’t derive from a can. They grew their own or bought or bartered from neighbors, and unlike my wife they had no qualms about slicing, coring, gutting and skinning the fruit. Their pies were meaty and thick, heaped with whipped cream and spiced just right. More than dessert, they were revelations, culinary inspirations of perfection and, dare I say, a better reason to celebrate the harvest season than even candy corn. 

I know, it sounds blasphemous, but there you have it.

Lori, however, had other ideas. Or, to put it another way, she had no ideas. Day after day, week after week, the pumpkin remained inviolable and untouchable. I begged, I pleaded, I groveled, but to no avail. She was thinking about what to do, she said, and until she made up her mind I was to leave it alone.

Time has a way of making our choices for us. The pumpkin, not content to lead a solitary life of privilege, began to shrink into itself. Its coarse skin lost its sheen and spidered with cracks, the stem tilted like a sinking ship and a pool of viscous liquid pooled at its base. Insects, drawn to the sweet effluence, swarmed the porch in thick clouds. And then it began to smell.

Because we lived in the city, disposing of the pumpkin wasn’t as simple as tossing it into a compost pile or rolling it into a field to decompose. Nor would the trash man pick it up. Whatever Lori’s   incomprehensible reasoning to safeguard the pumpkin, whether vacillation, indecision, girlish stubbornness or something unnameable, daily it became more evident that the pumpkin had to go.

She finally relented. Wearing gloves now and protecting the back seat with a plastic tarp, I maneuvered the spongy blob into the car. An hour or so later we parked by a steep drop-off somewhere on a side road branching off Golden Gate Canyon where “No Trespassing” signs were ubiquitous. I hauled the pumpkin back out and placed it on the edge of the precipice.

“Any last words, fare thee well, bon voyage?” I asked.

She shook her head. 

For a moment she looked like a young girl, poutish, sad for misunderstandings and slights known only to her, wounded grievously somehow and now facing her tormentor. My mocking tone, my relentless insistence on murdering her prized possession, my loutish attitude, were obliterated by a surge of guilt. Standing there with one foot on the pumpkin I bitterly rued my actions and vowed never again to let my masculine stupidity blind myself to my wife’s sensitivity. But as I desperately sought a way to mollify the situation, to find common ground and alleviate any pain I might have caused this beautiful young woman, the whine of an approaching vehicle intruded. I nudged the pumpkin over the edge. 

Several things happened at once. Even as a car rounded the curve and passed us, its passengers eyeing us with distrust, the sound of a wet explosion echoed down the canyon. We smiled back as innocently as we could, just a pair of weekend sightseers enjoying a mountain drive and some fresh air, newlyweds feeling their way into a future bright with promise and empathy, and pumpkins, too, some carved and some not, some big and some small, every one a reminder of what matters most. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reverting to wild

First came apartments, one to two bedrooms with inescapable views of major streets, intersections and multi-floored buildings, followed by duplexes and yards that needed to be maintained. Like most urban denizens we moved around with blithe frequency, playing the rent game as others do the stock market. We went where rent was low and amenities high and transferred loyalties and addresses when the two reversed. New lodging was stimulating; moving wasn’t.

Our first house was an opportunity for improvisation. Indoors, outdoors, we could remake it to whatever our dreams and finances would allow. After a few years of improvements the housing market collapsed and the neighborhood went to seed. We barely broke even when we finally managed to escape.

The American Dream is about upward mobility. We found a house on the edge of a 600-acre rectangle of wild land complete with two small ponds and unbroken views of the Front Range. For a long time I thought it paradise until civilization encroached, and then fought years for its preservation. Shortly after winning the battle we grew weary of urban life and ditched it for a small Kansas town on the northern edge of the Flint Hills.

It’s always the same. A change of scenery invokes a chance at reinventing oneself, or at least a reappraisal of priorities. But we had done the unthinkable this time, walking away from careers and family and the Rockies in a complete and utter repudiation of all we’d known. Friends thought us nuts, family thought us insane. Looking back on the past 11 years I’m unsure how much reinvention was engineered versus simple acceptance of our new reality. Our only plans were to see where the current took us.

How odd, then, to have a mental panoply of former abodes march through a weary mind on a sweltering mid-August afternoon, as if the current had broken me against a midstream boulder, dazed, bleeding and not quite certain how I arrived at such a destination. 

Nor am I certain what triggered the flashback. One heartbeat I was following the mower down yet another long row of overgrown grass and the next I was hopscotching down memory lane, and none too happy about it. The memories did nothing but complicate a ridiculously simple procedure without providing enlightenment or stamina. Instead, I caught myself comparing yards, vistas and that ineffable concept of place, which might have been the whole point, I suppose.

If there was a planned trajectory in the type of neighborhood we gravitated toward—a dubious proposal at best, but interesting to contemplate—it was from the inside out. Meaning, a life closer to careers and interests within the established metropolitan core in exchange for suburban commutes with more open space and elbow room. The same theory applies to housing; while apartments were fine for starters, eventually we wanted volume both within and without. We wanted a garden and some nice landscaping, preferably a mountain view and fresher air. A commute however brutal seemed a small price to pay.

Each was more spacious, more scenic, more accommodating to our growing need for solitude. In that respect, the leap from Front Range to tallgrass prairie was logical, if not belated.

But it wasn’t just solitude we craved, it was a sense of the wild. Not wilderness per se but a place where man and nature coexisted, where wildness began at the end of the porch. After covenant-controlled neighborhoods where every facet of landscaping and decor was regulated and enforced, we yearned for unfettered freedom.

Which comes at its own price, I might add. The place we found was all we’d asked for and more—more being the key word. Our two-acre spread on the edge of town is indeed wild and getting wilder all the time, mainly through attrition, mine that is, a combination torn rotator cuff and meniscus damage to my right knee and an ocean of grass to tame.

Taming it hasn’t been easy this year. While much of the state burns to dust our area has received copious, and continuous, rains. A climatologist declared it the “garden spot” of Kansas, an apt description both pastoral and bucolic. She failed to add that gardens require tending. Mowing has been a twice-weekly affair and even then I’m barely keeping up. In fact, I’ve taken to cutting corners, literally, leaving slices and borders and edges uncut to save time and effort. Six inches here, three feet there, our yard reverts to the wild. The effect has been as startling as it has been rapid: wildness triumphant.

I’m letting it go, and without rancor. We can only do so much, and anyway this is what we always wanted, even if it was never put into so many words. 

Friday, October 07, 2011

The new frontier

       We entered from the north though I could not say with any certainty where we were. A small town, a dead town, a town with no future and no past worth remembering, its broad main street devoid of marker or traffic or vehicles or any sign of life other than the cartwheeling swifts zippering the cloudless blue vault pressing down like an unbearable weight. Most of the few businesses had collapsed entirely or burned to charcoal stubs and the others shuttered. Not a breeze stirred the dry air nor in any way relieved the sense of oppressiveness that hung like a shroud over the town, only the road leading beyond the last fractured ruin yielding of any hint of release or escape.

I was reminded of spaghetti westerns where the protagonist rides for endless days and nights through a preternaturally empty land until cresting a low rise where in the distance shimmering like a mirage the outlines of a town emerge from nothingness, insubstantial and otherworldly, more menace than promise, and upon entering what few residents brave the harsh midday sun scramble indoors as if fearful of being seen, their closeted presences marked by the merest shift of a curtain or the creak of rusty hinges as doors slivered open and slivered close again.

Other than the obvious lead-in to a Westernized version of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the parallels between the settings are becoming evermore narrow and aligned. Our passage had taken us from the interstate somewhere west of Abilene, the concrete ribbon bisecting the rolling wheat fields designed to shuttle travelers past without slowing as if to screen them from rural America’s dawdling antithesis of hurry. The severance of modernity and antiquity was as abrupt as it was complete, for within a mile of our departure point we folded back the fabric of time to traverse a former era. A small clean town rose with the dawn, its streets lined with pickup trucks, the only cafe a mom-and-pop with specials scrawled on a chalkboard by the front door, the whitewashed grain elevator a beacon throwing back the aslant morning sun. It could have been the 1950s, or the 1930s, men in overalls and baseball caps, a woman in a summery dress, children swinging in the park, the ages having stumbled and faltered into something found only beyond the far peripheries of sprawling cities. With a little imagination it could be any decade since the invention of Ford’s wheeled chassis. Increasingly, it’s becoming more like the mid-to late-1800s.

According to the latest census figures, the Great Plains are emptying out. Rural America accounts for just sixteen percent of the nation’s population, the lowest ever, and the numbers continue to slide. And unlike a laid-back sense of time characteristic of small towns, the rate of depopulation is staggering. Washington County, where I work, lost ten percent of its population in the past decade (and, indeed, possesses not a single traffic light within its 900 square miles). Other western Kansas counties have been hit even harder, but we’re not alone. The other Great Plains states suffer similar declines. The concept of establishing a buffalo commons in the heart of the nation, once reviled as the mad ravings of eastern elites, now gains traction as businesses collapse, residents age and services crumble. 

When Americans pushed to the Pacific Ocean, Frederick Jackson Turner declared, the frontier was officially closed. There was nowhere left to go except inward, and census figures proved him right. That outward expansion built what would be known as the American character, self-sustaining, immune to hardship, innovative, hardworking, disdainful of government, and for decades to come it would be most abundant in those bound to the land. By 1850 fifteen percent of the population were clustered around burgeoning cities and towns, the rest scattered in small enclaves. That number has reversed. The frontier has returned.

For Turner, the frontier was not so much a place as it was a process of adaptation and change, of savagery supplanted by the beneficial forces of civilization. Native Americans had a different word for it but a white-dominated world view predominated in Turner's day. Manifest Destiny was nothing less than God at work, divine, ordained, sanctified. The idea still resonates among a subset of people whose grasp of reality remains firmly planted in an Old Testament notion of predestination, evidenced recently by a statement by presidential contender Rick Perry wherein he declared America “the last great hope for mankind.” 

If that includes the political farce now being foisted on the American people, most of whom are urban or suburban, then the world is doomed. As for rural America, hope is a nebulous concept, and rapidly fading.

Recently I attended several public hearings about proposed post office closings. While each has its own ambience dependent upon the mood and make-up of the attendees, they remain sad, angry, incredulous affairs reminiscent of gladiator days, a lone and beleaguered U.S. Postal Service representative pitted against an indignant mob. Odds I would not favor except that like Belshazzar I’ve seen the writing on the wall and the ghostly message is not favorable. Your days are numbered, your kingdom will be divided.

Other than a few voices quickly silenced I see none of Turner’s American character, and I wonder if connections can be made between the depletion of the populace and the can-do spirit of its people. And like the stilled voices vainly trying to rally the besieged community to action, whether combat or creativity, my own musings have been met with vehemence to the point where I wish only to cover the meeting as a reporter and swiftly return home to get hammered. 

I am, however, uniquely ill-suited for mandated silence. These people are the new pioneers, their lands and their homes bordering a reclaimed wilderness, and the sooner they realize this, the better. As the great emptying continues services will be lost, isolation tightened, permanence jettisoned. What remains even now is fragile and tenuous, but not gone, not yet.

We choose to live and work here. This is our home. But everything around us is changing and we are changing, too, and need to change even more. Never before in our nation’s history have we reversed course so radically as we have in the populating, or depopulating, the interior frontier. Every step we take from here on will be into virgin territory, uncharted and unmapped, against the odds and with no surety of success. But then, the odds weren’t very good for our ancestors, either.

Fight we must—but we must choose our fights. We must plan and seek alternatives and work together for solutions. Somehow, before all of this is nothing but a fading memory, we need to become a community.

Communities that do have a fighting chance. Those that don’t will within a generation or two be as deserted as the unnamed town we once stopped at, but only in passing, and for only a short while to stretch the miles from our bones before taking flight toward a ribbon of highway that would lead us home.

Sunday, October 02, 2011