The Thing Called Hope

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.





  • It’s great to read you again, Kendra. I was in con­ver­sa­tion last week with a woman who expressed her aston­ish­ment at the miles of corn and soy­beans she rode by as she and her hus­band crossed the coun­try on their motor­cy­cle. Her face blanched when I con­nected the dots to GMO, corn syrup, and soy pro­tein iso­late. But there is always a pure green shoot spring­ing up toward sun and sky for us to encour­age. Your stu­dents are for­tu­nate. Have an inspired semester!

  • jean sampson wrote:

    Some­times I think that I know too much to be hope­ful, but, really, with­out hope, our world will grad­u­ally come to a halt and all that we have feared and forseen, just might hap­pen. I am so glad that, after wind­ing through all the fields of con­t­a­m­i­nated, tampered-with crops, you found hope at the end of your jour­ney. Very engag­ing post, Kendra. Glad I found this.

  • Thanks so much, Toni. The irony is that right after post­ing, I found this link to a clip fea­tur­ing one of the women I’m fea­tur­ing in my class next semes­ter: Wan­gari Maathai, who started a global move­ment by get­ting women in Kenya to plant trees:

  • I used to have a recur­ring dream over sev­eral years where a voice called to me over and over “Keep going” …I’d wake up and say out loud “keep going where?” Now I think it was just a encour­age­ment to just keep sur­viv­ing. Each day is a noble strug­gle in itself. Accupun­ture helped me a lot with sea­sonal depres­sion. good luck.

  • I love that dream, Tim. I need voices call­ing to me in my sleep. Can you arrange that :-)

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