Far too regularly, I seem to succumb to despair.
The things I care about seem so obvious to me–and yet so unimportant to my own family members and most of the people I know. My struggle with industrial food, for example … Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing, why it matters to me, why, with the meager means at my disposal, I keep tilting at this vast, impersonal windmill.
The feeling was only exacerbated by what I did on my summer vacation.
I spent a chunk of July helping a friend of twenty years move from Tacoma, Wash., to Killeen, Texas. And contrary to popular belief–and the weather reports–this was a good move for her.
After two years of journalism headlines about historic layoffs and shuttered newspapers, this friend became the only person out of all my writerly acquaintance to actually obtain a print journalism job after being laid off–and not just any job but one that was better by a quantum leap than the one she had before.
Then, too, there was the added bonus that the move became the occasion for an almost Homeric road trip. Oh, what big fun–what an adventure–that was.
To leave Tacoma, we in effect turned our backs on Mt. Rainier and the dollhouse communities of arts-and-crafts bungalows around Puget Sound to head first north then south and east through the blessedly cool, moist Cascades … We climbed toward Mt. Davis, through the Snoqualmie Pass, passing cornflower blue lakes and snow-capped peaks … in July!
How shocking it all seemed after a month of near drought amid central Virginia’s red clay hills. And I was even more surprised, once we hit southeastern Washington, to find myself surrounded by something surprisingly like high desert: an arid country, almost innocent of grass, alternating with trees only where the rivers flowed.
The interstates followed the old Oregon Trail route as we continued east and south. At a rest stop on the banks of the Columbia River (!) I found myself thinking of my Albemarle County neighbors, Lewis and Clark, and how strangely our paths were intersecting so many miles from Virginia, so many scores of years after they first set out to map the continent. How lush and abundant the continent had seemed to them then–an endless resource. And how different it all is today…
More of this kind of reflection was to come–it was, in some ways, the point of the trip, which we’d designed so that we could ditch the interstate south of Salt Lake City and wend our way through national parks and Indian lands to sights we had never seen and were likely never to have the chance to see again …
Anyway, we knew we were headed for desert, so we treasured the flush of green along the roadsides as we drove south from the Oregon state line through Pendleton, LaGrande–still roughly following the Lewis and Clark route. But south of Baker City, things dried out for good and, all the way into Idaho and beyond, I became more and more aware that the vast fields of wheat and potatoes we passed were kept going … by mechanical means.
And that was just the part we could see–the irrigators, that is, standing like sentries in the fields waiting for marching orders. What we couldn’t see, but that I knew to be there as surely as I know what’s really in the Cornflakes sold at the rate of 10 boxes for 10 dollars at Kroger, were the “inputs”: the genetically modified seeds engineered for resistance to who knows what, the fertilizers whose runoff poisons the rivers on which so much life in the West depends, the pesticides without which those vast monocultures of grain cannot survive, without which they’d simply be eaten to the ground …
There may be something like the West for scale–Australia, I’m thinking–but there’s nothing where I come from like the vast fields we passed, in which wheat ears glittered–for miles–like bronze waves on a sun-splashed sea.
Yea, verily, we have corn in the Southeast–but this corn, “knee high by the 4th of July” as in the old adage, undulated across the hilltops as far as the eye could see. And the eye can see plenty far in those parts.
Nor is there anything in the Southeast–at least not for the past 50 years in the parts I call home–like the scars on the land. The recently harvested fields, which looked like the Sahara–or Mars–blowing thick drifts of dust into the breeze in every direction. The erosion gullies, open wounds in the hillsides suppurating topsoil.
Just to look on them was to ache.
I also saw–and held my breath as we passed–feedlots, and the image of the cattle straining their heads past the troughs that held their day’s rations to nip at the few blades of grass growing outside the fenceline is one that’s branded on my mind’s eye. I’ll not soon forget it.
So I returned home to Virginia with two week’s worth of iPhone pictures of mountains and national monuments and with the taste of New Mexico green chili sauce and Texas barbeque lingering on my tongue.
My emotions were mixed. I felt gratitude to have spent time among people I’d known for many years and loved as long as I’ve known them. But I also felt crushed with the weight of all the wrongness I’d been witness to. Soil treated like trash: as inert matter not a living thing, used as a vehicle to introduce fertilizer and pesticides to plants… Amid all those vast acres … was there even one earthworm to be found?
I just wanted to make like any good Southern woman of privilege faced with the unfathomable … and take to my bed …
So what has given me hope? Or quelled my roiling fear to the extent that, after this long silence, I’m again moved to write?
There’s no one answer to that question.
I think it began with my students. The semester began at the end of August, like it always does. And I noted, as I always do, that there’s a question in the faces they bring to me. And that questioning recalls to me what it felt like to be so young–so passionately alive–and so without a clue.
It hurts me that they know the world holds out less hope for them than it did for my generation–and the generation before mine. They seem to need something, something like–oh, I don’t know–like perhaps a signal fire to light their way through this blighted, fallen world?
Since I need basically the same thing, I can’t be that for them. But I can show them where to look, how to rake the coals. I can help them, maybe, to kindle a light of their own.
So that’s how it began. And this is how it continues. This is the thing that gives me the courage to take one more step into tomorrow. It’s a memory from my summer vacation: a memory of the “White House” ruin at Canyon de Chelly.
From the south rim overlook, the ruin looks like no more than a thumbnail-sized niche in the opposing canyon wall. But people have lived there since the 12th century before Christ. Navajo families still live there and grow peaches and corn–as they did millennia ago–and tell stories and make paintings about how the world began in the long-ago time …
This is my memory of the place: We stood at the scenic overlook, trying to make sense of that vast expanse of rock. Norma would come only so close–she’s afraid of heights and snakes, which makes so much of our journey, through very high places infested with rattlesnakes, a minor miracle. And an artist came to talk to us.
He was an odd little man. Dark-skinned and dark-eyed, furtive yet jaunty in the way of all beings both shy of and sure of other humans.
He pointed out the “White House”–we would have surely missed it had he not been there. He told us his name … then five minutes later said another name altogether … and stitched it all together with a story about a turtle and the beginning of the world.
Norma bought the painting he’d made of the turtle–as much for the story, she told him, as for the artwork.
And then a violent wind blew up–so strong the grit stirred from the canyon wall pricked us as with the stings of many small bees. And we were driven back to the safety of the car … to continue our journey east and south …
What does it mean? I had no idea then and have little notion now. But somehow, suddenly, looking back at me, furtive yet jaunty, is the thing called hope. And it doesn’t have wings and feathers like in the poem, but lives in an ancient riverbed in sight of a White House and a place where peach trees have grown for 32 centuries.
And it’s making me think, hope–no–pray … that perhaps we may endure.