Thursday, December 22, 2011

An imaginary war

It wasn’t just cold on the main street of Barnes, it was antarctic in the old-fashioned sense of the word. An icy wind sluiced up from the south unopposed by structure or hill or tree, kicking up clouds of dust, whipping flags to froth and jackknifing down collars, turning skin to stone and eyes to icicles, and in every which way making life miserable for the hundreds of people lining the street. But not so miserable that any were willing to leave.

My wife and I were there for different reasons, me to photograph the annual lighted horse parade for the newspaper and her to simply be with me. Or at least that was the reason we provided when asked. To tell the truth I think there was an inward draw for all of us, something unspoken and unspeakable but that harkened back to our childhoods which were so different, or even further into the deepest recesses of our human genome when nights were haunted by fanged creatures and bewildering arrays of stars, beauty and terror compounded into a tapestry woven by unlimited imagination and breathless awe. These bright colored lights, this silent procession, were more than the inaugural of the Christmas season, they were subliminal reminders that the true spirit of the season lies not in dogma but in childlike wonder.

And so we watched and felt it wondrous in that small-town, cheesy sort of way where minimalism is the rule and passion makes up for the rest, the families with young children and the elderly and every age in between, and afterward drove to our homes in the velvety darkness under a panoply of glittering stars, and in the succeeding days put up our Christmas trees and decorated our houses and bought gifts which we wrapped and reverently placed beneath our ornamented trees in rituals dating back far before the birth of Christ when there were other gods and other beliefs.

December was a long graceful slide toward the waning of the year. In downtown Washington Christmas music wafted from speakers placed around the square. A manger sprang up on the courthouse lawn. In the news office we engaged in a running discussion over the relative merits of musical artists and tastes, my editor favoring the oldies such as Perry Como and Bing Crosby which I considered outlawed by the Geneva Convention as cruel and inhumane punishment, ditto for most country yodelers. Days grew shorter as the solstice approached, the bleached winterscape so barren and sere succumbing to nights pulsing with color and dazzle. Despite the cold and the short days it was, for most people I know, their favorite time of the year, a tripartite festivus stretching from Thanksgiving to New Years Day with Christmas the glorious centerpiece. It was also, I discovered, a No Man’s Land of competing ideologies.

When the first rumors trickled in, mostly from casual comments dropped by conservative friends, I dismissed them as the machinations of the lunatic fringe. Liberals wanted to ban Christmas, they said, though when pressed details were sketchy to the point of nonexistence. (None of my liberal friends had any idea what they were talking about, singularly and collectively expressing nothing but adoration for the holiday.) Five minutes of research tracked the rumors to a certain news organization and reports of government entities banning nativity scenes from public facilities and schools that no longer allowed religious festivals of any kind. Much of ballyhoo centered on egregious acts of political correctedness divorced from common sense of which the religious right is also known for, such as efforts to ban Halloween in schools and of course the shrill outcry over the invidious evils of Harry Potter novels. And some of it involved injunctions filed by atheists opposing religious displays on public property as a breach of the separation of church and state.

Which was not to say, as Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry did in an infamous political ad, that the Obama administration was waging war on Christmas. 

It would pass, I thought. Christmas will come and Christmas will go and the rumors will suffocate from a lack of substance. 

I should have known better. Perry’s ad seemed to trigger a wave of conservative angst that spilled over into every facet of life, most evident, at least in my case, on the social network site Facebook. The entries came from numerous sources, many copied, shared and forwarded by friends, acquaintances and family members, all of whom seemed royally pissed off about a perceived state of permissiveness toward the sanctity of the season. They railed about non-Christians using Christmas trees and the use of X instead of Christ, about the one true meaning of the season and how Jesus “missed” hearing people say “merry Christmas.” One major touchpoint that set them gnashing their teeth was the use of “happy holidays,” which in their minds was a willful denouncement of the birth of Christ. Oddly enough, they didn’t complain about the commercialization of the holiday. 

What an unhappy lot, I thought. Jeez, can’t we all just get along?

The deeper I delved into this inexplicable vindictiveness directed toward “godless” liberals and Democrats, the less I understood. Whatever alleged assault was being launched against Christmas was mostly imaginary, a natural outcome of differing cultures, theologies and ideologies butting heads. Unfortunately, their message became a platform for demonizing others whose doctrines were different.

I tried taking this in and not letting it rankle, but it bothered me on multiple levels. Some were even contradictory. While it bothered me that Christmas had become little more than a commercial venue, I also appreciated the gifts Santa was slated to bring. (Yes, I peeked). It bothered me that the very people who should be most compassionate about the reason for the season seemed intent on keeping it to themselves or drawing a line in the sand with a sword. It bothered me that America had become a nation of whiners and martyrs who felt entitled to whatever rights their deity, political party or ideology promised as birthright while refusing to grant the same rights to others. 

But it didn’t bother me enough to skip the Blue Rapids lighted tractor parade. 

It was another frigid evening with another frigid wind slicing from the south, the town circle ringed with vehicles and people and kids running about, our small round park ringed with lights and decorations of which the best was a tall illuminated Christmas tree topped with a blazing star. As I waited for the floats to begin their procession I huddled out of the wind against a limestone building, watching the throng and the lights and a full moon lifting golden above the post office. On the opposite side of the square the sound of children’s voices singing carols lifted into the crystalline air, pure and sweet and innocent. There were only about six vehicles in the parade but they were our own, and anyway it didn’t matter how long or short the parade lasted. What mattered was that we were here as a community to celebrate the best of the season, one filled with light and love and wonder and hope, and it showed in our expressions and our actions as we waved to one another and shouted “Merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays,” and the floats with their Santas and their snowmen creaked around the square twice to give us all a good look and everyone, Protestants, Catholics, agnostics, atheists, whites, browns and blacks—believers all—cheered and laughed and waved in perfect harmony until the last float disappeared up Main Street, peace on earth, good will toward men.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Occupy Blue Rapids

       Much has been written about the Occupy Wall Street movement—oceans of ink, in fact, though it’s questionable how many people actually read those millions of words to their bitter end, much less grasped the meanings behind it. My own experience was surprisingly detached. On the one hand I applaud any grassroots attempt to highlight corporate greed and malfeasance; on the other hand, I never quite understood what the protesters hoped to bring about through their actions. CEOs handcuffed and hauled to jail? A total collapse of the financial underpinnings of the United States? Equitable student loans? Free donuts? 

Concurrent with the protests was a series of requests we received from a liberal organization intent on expanding the movement into small town Kansas. While I normally find their messages timely and pertinent to my own set of beliefs, these were wildly comical. For instance, they suggested I photograph the bridge over the Big Blue River to illustrate our decaying and neglected infrastructure. Considering that a new bridge is being built as a replacement, the idea had zero merit. Their suggestion to stage a localized Occupy Wall Street protest outside our bank was just plain silly. Our bank is locally-owned and never engaged in the wild excesses of the major financial institutions. It illustrated a point, however: one must choose one’s battles wisely. 

I had other, more important, issues to contend with. Mice, for one. The first few frosts drove any sensible beast indoors, including a foot-long black snake that had the misfortune to become entangled in a sticky trap. It took my wife and I a good thirty minutes to painstakingly extract it. Mousetraps baited with peanut butter were spread throughout the house, and as the days went by their telltale snaps echoed down the halls with lethal crispness. Weatherizing our drafty century-old farmhouse also occupied our time, an annual occurrence made necessary by an absence of funds. If I had Bill Gates’ financial assets I’d raze the place and start all over with a kitchen the size of Delaware and a bomb-proof tornado shelter replete with library, generator, built-in wine racks and beer tap.

Nevertheless, nestled as I was in my rural complacency, I wondered if I was missing out on a major event, one I could someday brag to my grandchildren that I had been part of. I was too busy creating a life to get involved in the peace movement or the hippie culture in the 1960s and missed entirely protests over the war in Vietnam, possessing both a high draft number and a complete detachment from anything not associated with my own narrow orb. The conflicts that defined my generation were sadly absent in my personal history. And at my ever-advancing age I knew time was running out. The detestable Tea Party was completely out of the question, so here was a semi-liberal movement that seemed to be gaining traction and notoriety while simultaneously remaining so vague that anyone with any objection or bone to pick could join.

I decided to stage my own movement: Occupy Blue Rapids.

In honesty it had more to do with overworking than any actual complaint or dissent. I was tired from never having a real day off and saw no end in sight—until realizing that I could tap into a large network and become part of a revolutionary movement, all without leaving the comfort of my house. As a protest it was minimal to the point of nonexistent, but as a movement it was monumental. “I was on the front lines in Blue Rapids,” I could someday tell my adoring granddaughters. “Mine was the rallying cry of freedom from oppression!” 

Rather than making a public spectacle of myself and risking arrest, I broadcast the announcement over the largest social networking site in the world: Facebook. I explained that I was holding a one-day protest against deadlines, work of any kind, telemarketers, bills, news, crooked politicians, barking dogs, large corporations (except for, of course) and anything not associated with family, rabbits, books, naps, food and drink. “Nobody is invited but my wife,” I wrote. “I’m not getting dressed. I will perform no work. I won’t answer the phone or the door. The public is not invited. Stay the hell away.”

It was, admittedly, more of a sit-in than a protest. On the morning of the fabled day I got up as usual, made a pot of coffee, checked my e-mail and cruised the Web, read a book, dozed on the couch, enjoyed the company of my wife, read some more, drank some more, napped some more, and in general did everything more that brought me joy, enlightenment, relaxation, fulfillment or peace. By sundown I was ready to tackle the world, though a few cold beers slowly returned me to my senses.

As movements go, I’m not sure Occupy Wall Street managed to change anything. Politicians are still corporate whores, my neighbor’s dog continues to yap, deadlines are creeping in and I’m back to feeling stressed and out of sorts. In many larger cities police have moved in to forcibly remove protesters, in many instances using force equal to any third world country. 

My own occupation, however insignificant, brought about its own subtle, if not life-altering, transformations. I might not have changed the world but I feel refreshed and energetic, clearer-headed and more enthusiastic about the approaching holiday season. In other words, it was a smashing success. 

Perhaps most important was a side benefit of bragging rights. Someday, when the time is right, I’ll regale my granddaughters with my adventures on the front lines and the dangers we Occupiers faced. “Yep,” I’ll say, “it was tough, but it was the best nap I ever had!”

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The endless road

        One frosty morning, without planning aforethought or consultation of a map, I turned off Highway 9 onto County Line Road and headed north. 

Not that it was much of a road. For the first mile or so it was wide enough for one-and-a-quarter mid-sized cars to pass without too much maneuvering. The surface was fairly smooth though pitted with tire tracks that meandered, skittered, jitterbugged and otherwise charted anything but a straight trajectory. A fair weather road best avoided after rain. Plowed fields and scattered wild plum thickets closed in on the sides but never obstructed the view of an undulant land sculpted by glaciers of ages past. Dust plumed behind the truck.

My destination was the city of Washington, about 25 miles away. Normally my Monday commute lasts about 30 minutes unless I take backroads in which case the trip could exceed several hours’ duration. Driving backroads isn’t just for fun but part of my job, documenting abandonment and the remains of a former civilization, most of which had migrated to the city or given up altogether. While any photographer’s dream job, it has certain inherent risks, some of which I’ve yet to encounter or identify. 

One of my biggest worries is breaking down in the middle of nowhere. If I owned a new truck this would be less of a concern but our ’96 Dodge has issues with dependability. Lori keeps hammering me to buy a cell phone and I always balk at the cost. Plus, few backroads are identified by signs so I rarely know where I’m at. She also thinks the phone would come in handy if a floor collapsed beneath me and I ended up in a basement. The real question is whether I’d be in any shape to make a call, or if I’d get any reception. So far I’m maintaining my opposition but fear I’m losing ground.

Another risk is nosing around places where my presence might raise alarms. Tripping across a meth lab is always a possibility, but there are more likely scenarios.

At an intersection bisecting the first mile marker stood a modern house and, behind it near a shady grove, the dilapidated remains of a limestone barn. Its roof was staved in and one wall crumbled to a pile of disjointed rubble. The early morning sun bathed the stones in a warm rich glow that contrasted nicely against a blue cloudless sky. I pulled onto the shoulder and parked and watched the house for signs of life. 

This is the tricky part, I thought. An inherent distrust of strangers isn’t limited to urban residents but translates equally well into rural parlance. Nor do I blame them. One can never be too cautious these days, and having strangers scoping out your house could precipitate a violent reaction. Seeing no vehicles in the driveway nor curtains parting, I opened the door to step out and photograph the barn when a black dog rocketed around the house and set to barking its lungs out.

The most complex situation can be simplified by a clamorous pooch. I opted for shooting out the window and continued on my northerly jaunt.

Driving aimlessly is an art most people have never mastered. We’re rational and methodical, and when behind the wheel of a vehicle determined to reach our destination at the earliest convenience. Driving backroads, however, is just the opposite. It’s anti-destination, driving for the sheer pleasure of discovery, taking it slow (often to ensure the muffler and oil pan securely remains mounted to the undercarriage), uncaring of time or distance or even direction. The land unfolds at its own pace. Roads branch off into the unknown, each an adventure-in-waiting. A sense of expectation heightens awareness. Our senses are fully tuned to the moment. There is no ambiguity. 

The road bore on and suddenly plunged toward the distant Little Blue River. I braked to study the road’s condition as it constricted between a pair of truck-eating ditches, its surface deeply rutted and bouldery. Heraclitus said we can never step into the same river twice, and here on the edge of the descent I fully understood his meaning. At the base of the ridge where the road leveled out I could see an ancient limestone house, hollowed-eyed, roofless, tucked into gray December woods. My pulse quickened. I slowly released the clutch and rolled forward until gravity and the road took me. 

Friday, December 02, 2011

Sue and Keith Jones, with my wife, Lori

View from the edge of now

The last thing I expected to see was a horned toad but then I’ve come to accept these gifts without fanfare or overblown rumination on the mysteries of life. The temperature was in the low thirties and a cold breeze slicing from the north but the bluff faced the south and the low sun warmed the deep grasses along the hillside. I’d spooked the little reptile on my way back up the slope from a low vantage about halfway down where a dead tree bristled from a rock outcrop, and for a moment I followed it, hoping to catch it and hold it if only briefly. I was either too slow or the toad too fast, neither concept entirely reassuring, when it disappeared behind a limestone rock the size of a dinner plate. “Why would it be out on a day this cold?” Sue Jones asked. Why, indeed. 

The stones, jumbled and oddly situated as if disturbed at some point in the past, were one of the reasons we wandered the edge of the bluff. We had driven up in a John Deere Gator, my wife and I and Keith and Sue Jones, a couple we’d met online through the historical society but never in person and whose land we were exploring. If anyone could be said to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s history from earliest settlements to the present it would be Keith. As unassuming, soft-spoken man in his early sixties, he had grown up on the land and absorbed its totality in the way few can or do. He wasn’t just part of the land, he was human embodiment of the land’s collective memory. 

Below the bluff and its oddly dislodged crown of stones the long meandering sweep of the Blue Earth River and its tributaries unfurled like a three dimensional map. To the north the Black Vermillion descended from its bastion of treeless knolls, its confluence concealed behind a stand of barren cottonwoods; to the southwest, near the base of the bluff, Spring Creek glittered like a silver thread stitching up a narrower valley angling from the southeast. Off to the side lay a comma-shaped slough that marked the former creek bed, now separated from the main channel. West of the slough a few hundred yards was a former excavation site where in 1971 archaeologists unearthed a Native American village dating back to about 3250 B.C.

Named the Coffey site, it wasn’t a hunting camp but a place of long-term residency occupied throughout the Paleo and Archaic periods. Keith had watched the excavation unfold from the bluff overlooking the valley, a birds-eye perspective providing a panoramic sweep centering the site within the terrain that formed its existence. His was a comprehensive view in contrast with that of the archaeologists who sifted through the soil in small constricted grids, their focus an almost granular dissection of the earth.

Considering the proximity of the ancient camp to the bluff, he couldn’t help but wonder where the inhabitants buried their dead. Within the greater Manhattan area which included the Coffey site, 19 burial sites had been discovered. As all were situated on hilltops, it didn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to wonder if what appeared to be an inordinate concentration of rocks near the crest of the bluff might be indicative of a burial ground.

“If Woodland Indians marked their territory with cemeteries,” Keith said, “then it seems logical that our pasture might be where those graves were located.”

Limestone outcrops along the edge of bluffs in the Flint Hills region are as ubiquitous as the unceasing wind, but Keith’s conglomeration consisted of a loose circle roughly 35 feet in diameter. And unlike other such concentrations crenellating the ridgelines like so many broken teeth, these rested uneasily atop the soil rather than sunk into the ground through the eons of weather and gravity. There were signs of badger activity but otherwise the bluff had been relatively undisturbed since Keith’s great-grandfather bought the farm in the 1870s. 

It was impossible to stand within that circle without being moved by the imagery bestowed by the overlook. Close my eyes, turn a page, look back, and the land is once again wild, wilder than now though it successively grows wilder with the depopulation of the Great Plains, and the river broad and clear a half-mile removed to the west, woodsmoke rising from a primitive settlement, the small exposed gravesite a homing beacon for dozens of miles around and the night sky seething with stars and mystery. The place had little of the imposing earthworks of Cahokia or the astronomical alignments of Chaco, retaining more a sense of the discreet and unobtrusive as if the inhabitants were content to live their lives in relative obscurity. There was no grandstanding or monument making, their gods demanding neither temples nor conquest, their existence featherlight on the land. And all gone, disappeared with few visible traces other than a stony disarray on the edge of a bluff.

Almost bisecting the site was a fenceline which to the east continued as a gravel road. It was, Keith explained, Parallel Road, also known as the Old Pikes Peak Trail Road, misnamed through accident or romantic impulse, the actual trail following the 1st Standard Parallel from the Missouri River before veering off to the northwest near the ghost town of Barrett. The road and the fence were the demarcation between Pottawatomie and Marshall Counties, surveyed in 1830 by Isaac McCoy whose journal became the first written account of what would become Marshall County. It also traced the northern boundary of the Delaware Outlet which provided access to hunting grounds for the Delaware Reservation to the east.

Not visible were the bridges that once spanned the Blue Earth River. One crossed to the town of Cleburne, the other to Irving, nothing of which remains except for a few limestone foundations disappearing into the encroaching woods. Keith told us of the private railroad spur that once paralleled the road, of grand businesses that once thrived in the area, of a spring on the eastern slope of his property that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about, and of the eventual collapse and unsettlement of the valley. The flood of 1993 took out many of the huge cottonwoods bordering the river and the river itself has changed course several times making life along its banks an unpredictable gamble. Countless times the road to their farm has been swamped by the Black Vermillion, an erratic and eccentric river to say the least.

It struck me that most people wander through life without a thought or care of their place within the world they inhabit, or, as some acquaintances do, relegate their corporeal existence to a mere shadow destined to flower into life at the moment of life’s cessation. Neither option grounds one to a sense of place but then people no longer seem curious about their surroundings or the immense sweep of time of which they are a part however finite. Keith is an anomaly in that every tree and shrub, every road or path or track, every ridge or hill or valley within the area he encompasses is at once familiar and recognizable in its historic setting. He’ll disagree with such an assessment but his modesty belies the wealth of knowledge and experience he possesses. For him the past is never past, and if the future remains veiled it can nevertheless be glimmered through statistics, the U.S. Census no more than a crystal ball predicting the inevitable erasure of human civilization in vast swathes of the Midwest, the land slowly reverting to the wild, a return of game and fish, towns fading into ruins and the eternal wind whispering through waist-deep grasses masking a jumbled outcrop whose riddles might forever remain unsolved, the abode of badgers and grasshoppers, bright butterflies and a small improbable spirit in the guise of a scurrying horned toad.