The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Short story: The Gravestone

Occasionally, I will share a bit of original short fiction or poetry in this space, instead of my regular column. I hope you enjoy it.


The Gravestone
Alan Wartes

Whenever we visited Grandma’s house she insisted on a trip to the cemetery, as if the sight of the living made her miss the dead more than ever. We’d barely have all the luggage stacked in her spare bedroom when she would tie a silky scarf around her thinning, beauty parlor hair and put on the same threadbare cardigan, with the same dusty wads of Kleenex in the pockets, that each year hung a little looser on her shoulders.
“I want to go see Mama,” she would say, as if her mother still lived in the run down duplex across town where she died just after I was born. I’d never seen her mama, except in black and white photographs that made it hard to tell if they were taken before or after she died. But her things were all over Grandma’s house: her hairbrush, her dust pan, her doilies under every lamp. Grandma was like the curator of one of those ragged little pioneer museums in western towns that the Interstate went around. New stuff we gave her every Christmas was still in the box under her bed. Waiting for us to die, I guess.
I didn’t mind trips to the cemetery, and I agreed with Grandma that Great Grandma’s ghost was still around. I felt her when I sat in the rocking chair in the hall, or when I stood at the back of the closet where some of her dresses hung. She was at the cemetery, too. Sometimes I thought she might be in her marble headstone, in the angular script that held her vast life like bookends: Ida Sue Leevey, AUG 1861-DEC 1955. Or maybe she lived in the dandelion puffs, or down the snake hole in the ditch across the fence, where I spent most of my time on those visits. Daddy once said if she was anywhere at all she was in the sticker patch at the edge of the dirt road where we parked the car.
This year Daddy told Grandma he wasn’t going to go the very minute he walked in the door after eight hours in the car from San Antonio. He was going to stretch his legs and eat a sandwich and be around alive people a bit first. Every time we visited he tried to get her to load some of the dead people’s stuff into the car and take it to Goodwill. He said we weren’t Japanese and didn’t need shrines to our ancestors in the bathroom medicine chest.
Besides, he said that day, there was a storm coming if she’d care to look out the window. Just then, as if every frontier ghost from every forgotten grave jumped out of the ground at once to punish him, a blast of sandy wind hit the house and shook it until it creaked and popped. The windows filled up with the red darkness of a scouring West Texas dust storm.
“Herman passed two years ago next week,” Grandma shouted, beginning to cry, which usually didn’t happen until we were within sight of the cemetery. Herman was Grandma’s third husband. The coins and key chain he took from his pockets the day he died were still on Grandma’s dresser top where he left them. Grandma took out a tattered tissue, found a corner big enough to wrap over her nose, and blew. I could hear it even over the gale outside. Then she picked up her shiny black purse and sat down in the arm chair by the door. My parents had fought for a lot of miles on the way back home after these trips about whether Daddy had any backbone when it came to standing up to Grandma.
“She’s worse than a kid,” Mama would say. “She plays you like a honky-tonk juke box.”
“Oh, and I suppose you think you’re any different,” Daddy usually replied. “Your high society folks come to visit and I don’t understand a single word you say for days.” He’d imitate the way Mama’s dad, a retired lawyer from Dallas, used fancy words just to say good morning, like he was making a speech for the jury. Mama usually sounded just like him by the end of the visit. Sometimes those arguments went on all the way to the Dairy Queen half way home, where we always ate lunch.
This time, though, Daddy was determined. He looked at Grandma sniffling into her Kleenex and said, “Two years, huh? Well, then, I guess he’s good and settled in. I expect he’ll still be there when we arrive.”
Daddy never liked Herman, a brooding barber who always smelled of Brill Cream and the blue sanitizer he soaked his scissors in. He spent all day talking to his customers about everything in creation, and by the time he got home at night, all he wanted to do was watch TV. I wouldn’t have minded that, except he only liked news and ball games; baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf - anything with a ball in it. At least he brought me handfuls of bubble gum from the shop, the kind with comics inside. Once he did a magic trick where he pulled a half dollar piece out of my ear. I got to keep the half dollar.
The dust storm blew for more than an hour and then turned the reins over to lightning and thunder and a deafening downpour of rain that sounded like all the fans stomping their feet on the bleachers at a Friday night football game. I sat by the window and watched the parched yard turn into a swamp and the street into a hurried muddy river. A few times the flash and boom came holding hands and the window panes rattled. Grandma kept her scarf on and never let go of her purse, but she did move to the kitchen table where she could listen to the radio for news of tornadoes. Mama tried to distract her with questions about all the relatives, usually guaranteed to produce more conversation than you bargained for, but this time it was too one-sided, so Mama just flipped through magazines and clipped out recipes. Daddy took a nap in Herman’s fraying old La-Z-Boy, with a two-year old TV Guide still in the pocket on the side.
Then, suddenly, the rain stopped, and even before the little rivlets of water had finished draining off the window glass, the sun came out like the whole thing was just a big joke. But the river in the street had annexed the sidewalk and part of the yard.
“I want to see Herman,” Grandma said by the door, loudly enough to wake Daddy. He sat up slowly and pulled the handle to put the footrest back under the chair. His hair was sticking up in the back and his lips were tight, the same look he got whenever the car wouldn’t start, or when I’d borrowed one of his tools without putting it back.
“He passed on two years ago next week, and the least you can do is pay him a visit once a year when you can tear yourself away to come see us,” Grandma said, tightening her scarf.
“Us? Us?” Daddy said. “You got a roommate I don’t know about? Herman is dead, Mama. He’s dead. There ain’t no ‘us.’”
That’s when Grandma went and got in the car.
And that’s how we came to be driving under the big iron gate that spelled out “Rosewood Cemetery” in an arch. The road was low there so the water, which was the color of rusty hot chocolate, came almost to the tops of the tires on our car. Grandma sat beside me in the backseat dabbing tears out of her eyes like the funeral was today. The southern sky was filled with the rumpled backside of the storm, now orange and flame yellow in the early evening sun.
Rosewood was like most West Texas cemeteries where there wasn’t enough water or enough money to make them into English parks with bright green grass and shrubs and armless statues everywhere. There weren’t any marble benches where you could contemplate anything, just gravestones and barbed wire, which kept out the cows and tried to make the big emptiness hold more meaning than cotton fields could convey. Some of the gravestones stood higher than the fence posts, which practically made them Egyptian monoliths in country as flat as a chalk board. Others hunkered down low to the earth like everything else that still had a memory of buffalo hooves and bobcats.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Grandma began to wail as we turned down a muddy track that led to Herman’s grave. She leaned forward and pounded on Daddy’s shoulder as he stopped the car. “Oh, sweet Jesus, what have you done?” she cried.
“Okay, okay, it’ll be okay,” Daddy said, noticing whatever she saw long before I did.
“Ohhh!” she moaned and rocked in her seat, front to back. Daddy got out of the car and walked toward the grave. I opened my door to follow him.
“You stay here, Daniel” Mama said, as she reached back over the seat to take Grandma’s hand. But I pretended not to hear and ran after Daddy. Then I saw what the commotion was about. There, tucked in the corner of the fence, was Herman’s gravestone right where it always was, except this time it was leaning half over on its side, nearly submerged in sticky red mud. A big sink hole, more than a foot deep, had opened up right over where Herman’s chest would be, and extended all the way over into the spot where Grandma always said she expected to be buried before our next visit. Daddy walked around the mess a little, testing the ground with his weight, then went back to the car.
“It’s not so bad,” he said through Grandma’s window, which she had rolled down. “The ground’s more solid than it looks. Come on, I’ll help you.”
“I don’t want to go over there! Herman is all washed away! I’m all washed away, too!”
I was used to Grandma’s theatrical flair, but this was different. I saw real fear on her face as she strained to look past my dad to the ruined graves. Her eyes flashed all around us as if she expected to see Herman’s muddy body lying on the ground somewhere, or maybe like she felt him just behind her, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
“It’s just a little mud, Mama,” Daddy said. “The gravediggers’ll get out here tomorrow and fix it right up.”
“No, no, no!” she yelled. “I’m all washed away with Herman!”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, Mama, Herman is gone,” Daddy shouted back with more emotion in his voice than I’d ever heard, even when he was at his maddest. “Your mama’s gone. They-” he swung is arm out wide around him. “They’re all gone. You are here, and I am here. Did you notice that Mama, huh, did you?” Daddy clutched the shirt on his chest and pulled it so hard I thought the buttons would pop. “Did you notice that I’m standing right in front of you?”
“Oh, dear, sweet Jesus!” Grandma sobbed and looked past him toward the listing gravestone.
He turned and kicked the nearest stone, which belonged to Felix Norwood, January 22, 1901-June 7, 1967. Grandma wailed.
“Stop dying, Mama,” Daddy said with the veins standing out on his forehead. “Stop it. The only thing that washed away today was a little good for nothin’ dirt. It’s clean out here, and alive!” He lifted his arms up over his head. I couldn’t tell whether he was surrendering or celebrating. He walked away from the car and went over to lean on the fence, breathing hard, looking far out toward the horizon. 
I noticed a snake near the fence, lying dead-still in the mud, and I thought Daddy was wrong about nothing getting washed out by the storm. I went to move its body over into the ditch where it had a chance to rest in peace. The green scales on its back shimmered in the setting sun like wind-waves in tall grass. Just as my fingers touched its cold head, it sprang forward, whipping away through the mud-stained weeds under the fence and into its hole. Before long the snake’s head reappeared, so deep in the darkness that I could only see little hints of sunlight in its black eyes and the ghostly shape of its head.
I stood there a long time, until Daddy started the car and honked the horn for me. I was thinking about things that live down holes too deep or too narrow for me to enter, and about what is really gone and what is not.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Tao of Farming

I have officially given up on the green beans at New Leaf Gardens. This year it was their turn to remind me that farming is nearly always an exercise in letting go.

We like to think that modern life has been made entirely mathematical, reduced to a predictable algebraic equation. In Math World most functions are linear and most variables can be boiled down to a single letter of the alphabet. If you want a good harvest of X just plug in a value for Y and solve for Z. Simple. If you get the wrong answer it’s your own fault—probably something to do with the order of operations.

If this is indeed a rule (a questionable premise), then let’s just say that farming is an exception. Take our green beans for instance.

The vines came up, deep green and gorgeous, as they always do. They put on radiant, flirtatious blossoms, as hopeful as teenagers at a school dance. A handful of them did more than flirt, and they grew up overnight into respectable beans. I hoped the rest would follow along; but they are stubbornly content to tease and titter and wait till next year. They look good, but it seems that’s the only satisfaction we’re going to get.

Why? Who knows? A paucity of pollinators? Perhaps, but unlikely. Our own bee hives are a mere block away, and I know of several others in the neighborhood as well. Not enough water? Too much? Soil pH not to their liking? The porridge was too hot? Too cold? You can drive yourself crazy wondering where the sweet spot of “just right” lies from one year to the next. Taking too much responsibility is not only foolish, it’s arrogant.

Sometimes plants simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and nothing you can say or do will brighten their sulking mood. That’s not what the chemical sales rep or the county extension agent wants you to hear—but it’s the truth.

Sure, there is a science to farming that is important. You ignore the factors listed above at your peril. But there is also an art to it that is nothing short of mystical--Taoist, in fact. As Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching says, "Governing a country (or tending a farm) is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking." 

To let go of the outcome and avoid excessive "poking" requires us to accept that we don’t “manufacture” our food; we facilitate its arrival. As any good midwife will tell you, the best birth is one in which she does what is prudent—and then gets the hell out of the way. The baby is coming (or not), is healthy (or not) largely under its own steam. The outcome is not ours to “guarantee”—only to influence as best we can. For all our big-brained expertise, at the end of the day we are all carried along, just like every other creature on earth, by a great current of Invisible Mystery. It’s nothing personal—just the way things are.

This is the knowledge that awaits us as peak oil, and the financial contractions that inevitably follow, begins to take hold and to shrink our world: We aren’t in control. Some of the things we try, in an effort to re-localize our lives, will yield a bumper crop. Some will put on lots of leaves but no fruit. Others will refuse to germinate at all, no matter what we do.

That’s why diversity is so bloody important, mono-culturists be damned. This winter when I go to the root cellar I will mourn the lack of green beans on the shelf. Then I’ll shrug and reach for a jar of beets instead; or corn, cabbage, sauerkraut, black-eyed peas (yes, my roots are in the South), tomatoes, pickles, eggplant, chard, Brussel sprouts, squash, sweet peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, okra, onions, peppers. For every failure, there are usually a dozen successes, for those who bother to plant the seeds. That’s the mystery of it.

Had we planted nothing but beans, we’d be in big trouble now. Likewise, if we put all our time and resources into one version of “preparation” for the coming storms, we could get lucky, I suppose. But odds are better that we’d live to regret a lack of well-developed options. I learned a long time ago, navigating the back alley shops of Seoul, Korea, that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” shirt.

Having drawn a ten-mile circle around my home to define my world, I fervently hope there are many others like me out there getting to know their neighbors, resurrecting community, and working on the practical problems of doing for themselves. I also hope they aren’t carbon copies of each other. We need each other’s unique contributions like never before. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Resilience: A Way of Life

Today I am pruning tomatoes and attempting to give them some backbone—by re-tying the sagging, fruit-laden vines to their wooden stake. Tomatoes are undisciplined. Left to themselves they will sprawl everywhere like teenagers on the family sofa. It is tempting for the gardener to let them be, and, like a besieged parent, to go sit somewhere else. That’s a mistake. You only wind up with shaggy, unproductive offspring that now want the La-Z-Boy as well.

Training tomatoes is tedious and time consuming work. It requires patience and a soft touch. Pull a vine the wrong way and it will snap off—not so bad, I suppose. If you don’t mind fried green tomatoes. This measured, careful pace also means this is good work for thinking.

This morning I am pulling on the ends of two threads that have come loose in my mind. The first was suggested by Jim Kunstler in his blog this week. In typical incisive fashion (think incisors, as in teeth), Mr. Kunstler lamented what he sees as a dangerous drift in American politics. Specifically, he wondered how it ever came to be that Glenn Beck, of all people, could pass for a political leader, presuming to speak to and for large numbers of Americans; how eighty-seven thousand people could gather in the shadow of the Washington monument—on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, no less—to listen to “corn pone Nazis” like Beck and “badly educated, child-like, war-mongering” Sarah Palin.

Now, it is not my purpose here to take up that argument one way or another, though there is a ring of truth in Kunstler’s assessment:

Of course, what has allowed Beck to occupy center stage is the failure of rational political figures to articulate the terms of the convulsion that American society faces, brought about not by communists and other John Bircher hobgoblins but by the forces of history. The failure at the political center is a conscious one of nerve and will, of elected officials in both major parties playing desperately for advantage in defiance of the truth -- this truth being that the USA went broke trying to swindle itself into prosperity. Add to this the failure of the law to go after the swindlers, which has undermined the fundamental belief in the rule of law that enabled this society to function as well as it did previously.”
What really caught my eye, and sent me off to prune tomatoes with a splinter in my mind, came at the very end of the column:

“The bigger mystery in all this…is: what happened to reasonable, rational, educated people of purpose in this country to drive them into such burrow of cowardice that they can't speak the truth, or act decisively, or even defend themselves against such a host of vicious morons in a time of troubles?”
Not a bad question. But I’ll let it lie for a moment while we pick up the second nagging thread.

That is, the ongoing debate between two excellent “power down” thinkers, John Michael Greer, of The Archdruid Report, and Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement. Without drowning the unsuspecting reader in detail, let me summarize the conflict like this: Is it better to prepare for the changes we see coming at a collective level, and in cooperation with local and regional government (Transition)? Or should we focus our efforts on finding individual solutions, to have them ready if and when the need for personal action goes mainstream (Greer’s “Green Wizard” approach)?

The obvious answer, of course, is “both”. Solutions that don’t work for real people, living in real neighborhoods, on real income levels, aren’t solutions at all. So having a cadre of people working out the kinks in things like local food production, alternative health care, post-oil transportation, etc., can’t possibly be a bad thing. On the other hand, some of those solutions might be suited to wider application, so long as somebody is willing to attend planning commission meetings and lobby local officials to enact them.

There is a practical side to the argument, however, which brings me back to my farm, where I am presently kneeling, pruning clippers in hand, trying to make a bunch of unruly romas behave. People on both sides tend to present their ideas as items in a bullet list of “things you can do.”

  • Grow some or all of your own food.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Take responsibility for your own health care.
  • Walk as much as possible.
  • Barter.

It looks so tidy on paper. So easy. But the truth is, if you plan to do more than just play around at any one of those items, you’re in for a shock. Take it from me; these are not hobbies that you tack on to an otherwise pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle. These things are a lifestyle in themselves.  “Preparation” is a simple enough word, but is extremely messy and labor intensive in practice.

Sitting in meetings, making master plans, and getting the county commissioners to issue proclamations is excellent work. But sooner or later, those well-meaning activists had better be taking care of business at home. Therein lies the rub. When you commit to grow your own food, the pool of available time for day-long hearings inevitably dries up. You either let it do so, or it will be your vegetables that dry up, choke on weeds, go to seed, or enter the food chain in the stomach of a rabbit or squirrel. Getting to know your neighbors means being present when they knock to ask for a favor.

Earlier this week I was a member of a panel of local food-growers after an “eat local” film screening. Organized by Transition Boulder, it was a wonderful evening of discussion about what the word “organic” really means. My wife and I met new people and heard new ideas. We probably could have talked all night—about GMO seeds, unfair labor practices on farms that call themselves organic, the presence of feedlot poop in “organic” packaged compost, and so on. But after the sun went down, we had only one thing on our minds: Getting home to shut the chicken coop door before the skunks came out to play for the night. (Skunks will kill a chicken just for fun). Individual responsibility trumped collective brainstorming—and, for us, probably always will.

Which brings me to Jim Kunstler’s question: Where the hell are all the “reasonable, rational, educated people of purpose in this country”? Well, some of us are at home tending chickens and pruning tomatoes. Some of us have realized that we can’t be everywhere at once and have made a choice. We may not be making front page headlines in daring acts of activism; but having organized marches down main street in my time, I can tell you that nothing has ever brought my community together more effectively than putting a shovel in the ground and growing vegetables in plain sight.


There was a touch of fall in the air this morning. Overnight, it seems, the earth has tilted her head ever so slightly toward the coming winter, as if keeping an eye out for a visitor not due to arrive just yet. The sunlight is softer, with a bit more yellow in the mix. While we’ve been busy at the farm surviving summer heat—and an unusually hot season it has been—shadows have stretched out and lost their shape, like knitted sweaters hung out to dry on a clothesline.

The birds feel it too. Now the starlings travel exclusively in flocks, leaping in great black clouds from place to place. I imagine they’re brushing up on the close quarter drills they’ll use to get everyone safely south when the time comes. Robins stick closer together, as well, as if not daring to lose sight of each other for fear of being left behind. The bees in my backyard hives have taken to sleeping in longer each morning.

And, just like every year, it all seems so premature to me. After all, the harvest we’ve played midwife to since May is finally here in force. Sure, the ripening orange pumpkins already forecast Halloween, but there are plenty of the red, green, and yellow vegetables left to gather in first: tomatoes, pole beans, squashes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages. Carrot tops are still vibrant and green. How can the equinox really be less than three weeks away?

Well, I suppose that’s just the way things work on a round planet, spinning around a round star, itself traveling a circular pathway through the galaxy. Nothing ever stands still. There are no discreet, linear beginnings and endings; we might as well get used to it. The stage curtain always rises a little before the players are all in place, and starts falling before the last act is over. Everything is done in transition to something else, something new, or even something old that has come round again.