Thursday, May 19, 2011

Driving America

On Friday, The Woman and I will drive Georgie The Dog to The Farm. We will leave very early-- 6am-- and so we'll see the industrial landscapes south of Chicago in a hazy early-summer morning light. Then we'll start the longest and flattest segment, passing through Indiana, then Ohio.

Normally we stop outside Youngstown, Ohio, where the Best Western motel accepts pets. This time we're going straight through. The dog is dying, very slowly, and we want to get her back to the hayfield and the creek so she can spend her last days and weeks surrounded by the smell of deer and coyotes, ducks, hawks, mice, voles, and all the others who share the hayfield, the woodlot and the creek with us.

It is hard to explain this longing we have for that place, that topography of ridges, hills, lowlands, rivers and creeks, ground down mountains that we are in the midst of back there. We were raised there, both of us, and the smell of forsythia, mowed haygrass, cow manure, and dried leaves is deep inside us. We have been visitors to the Midwest for decades, attentive and observant visitors, each in our own way. The Woman sees the space laid out as if a painting, or a tapestry. She calls it the Place of Weather. Weather is topography in the Midwest. You can see it coming from a great distance. The extremes of cold and heat, tornadoes and blizzards, deluging rainstorms and long browngrass droughts are the features to which one had best be respectfully attuned. It is, in other words, a topography of time; it is space laid out as time, space so open and uninflected that it serves as a gessoed canvas upon which we paint our broken narratives.

Those narratives are narratives of passing. My Puritan forebears settled in Connecticut, but failed; moving westward, they failed their way across New York, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, sojourning for a few generations in the frigid plains of western Minnesota before my grandfather's stroke led them to California for his health and they found their small paradise of orange and lemon trees, wisteria and roses, sufficient to allow them to set aside their predestinarian anxieties and believe they were, indeed, of the Elect.

My Mormon forebears came here from England, Scotland, Ireland, promised by the missionaries that free land and passage to America, a new community and a promise of prosperity in this world and in Eternity would follow the small gesture of accepting a huckster's cosmology. Driven out, they pressed further and further until they passed through the flatness to the mountains and, surviving the passage, they settled where the bones of the continent thrust up behind the settlements: Springville, Provo, Spanish Fork.

On both sides, then, my family came to the Midwest so as to pass through it to a promised land. And now we are doing the same. In a year, perhaps less, we will empty the rented house in Ukrainian Village, pack the books crammed into the office at the university, hand over the spreadsheets and loan forms for the Roy Lichtenstein show and for the shows thereafter in the Modern Wing at the museum, and we will resettle fully back at the farm, to write, paint, weave, compose, plant, weed, tend and harvest.

The myth of American movement is an eternal westering. We are restorationists. The demography of the future is, again, following that vector, this time not to California, bankrupt and bitter, but to the hot stretches of the arid zone, to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. Those lands are gorgeous. They are technicolor extravaganzas; outside the townhomes of Tucson, wild pigs root among the cacti and the bare mountains loom behind; from the panoramic windows at the back of the houses in Santa Fe, the scrub pine leads up into the foothills of the Rockies. Those are places where we white people can feel our newness, flaunt our dominion, until the water runs out and the power grid fails, in a decade or a century.

We are going against that tide. Back east, the drone of the tractor as Harry hays the field will temporarily override the bustle of the creek and the buzz of the flies batting futilely against the screen door. Long after she has been turned to ash and strewn across the hayfield, there to mingle with the ashes of my mother and father, the dog will snuffle in her sleep, and we will hear her. It is not a bad thing to return, and it is a good place to return to.

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