I've been spending a lot of time reading lately. It's too dark and cold out right now most days for me to do much else after work. Most of my reading relates, in one way or another, to our little endeavor here. In addition to the how-to type books on orcharding and forest farming, two books have lately stirred my thoughts on what it means to belong to a place. One is "Citizenship Papers," written by the farmer-poet-essayist Wendell Berry. The other is "Cities of the Plain" by Cormac McCarthy.
In "Citizenship Papers," Berry tries to instill a new sense of patriotism, a sense of citizenship rooted in the locale of its occupants. His essays, a few of which are written in "articles" or numbered sections, call to mind the form of the Constitution and the American state papers as much as they challenge the rhetoric of phoney patriotism espoused by Fox News and lapel-pin politicians of the times in which these essays were published. The essays are meditations on people, place, and livelihood, and the inter-relations between them that form a real economy, in contrast to the so-called global economy which few at the time were warning against, and in fact many--especially Thomas Friedman and his ilk--were celebrating.
I was 15 years younger when Berry published these essays, and I didn't really understand at the time the fury that drove the anti-WTO riots in Seattle or the threat posed by Wal-Mart to local economies everywhere, though I do now. And I suppose it also took some years of working jobs hardly worth doing and spending time in places "hardly worth caring about," in the words of James Howard Kunstler, for me to really appreciate Berry's wisdom.
It's not that I was working for slave wages in a sweatshop in some third-world wasteland; on the contrary, these were anonymous glass cubes, corporate office parks, surrounded by identical landscapes of big-box strip malls, bordered in every direction by miles and miles of impermeable groundcover: Farmland and woods sacrificed for economic growth and the American dream of never-ending prosperity. And at the end of the day, what virtue or satisfaction is there in contributing, in the most abstract and immeasurable way possible, to an economy that operates on the logic of a cancer?
On the other hand, what could be more important than producing food? Without it, no one and nothing lives very long. The American family farm, though it has been in decline for most of a century, seems finally to be making a comeback of sorts, as local food movements heralded by the likes of Wendell Berry and in response to the dangers posed by GMOs, monoculture farming, and peak oil take hold in communities, both urban and rural across the land. Severine von Tscharner Fleming and "The Greenhorns" embody the spirit of a generation of young Americans who have turned back to the land after seeing the Ponzi scheme of American life begin to crumble, vis-a-vis an economy where they can't find jobs and are laden with six figures of college debt. Maybe they, we, are the vanguard citizenry of a new nation forming, one that has grown distrustful of a society chasing the empty promises of technology and infinite economic growth: These things that only create dead spaces wherever they go, in places formerly teeming with life.
Berry's Japanese counterpart, the farmer, writer, and proto-permaculturist Masanobu Fukuoka is often quoted from his book "The One Straw Revolution" with the saying: "The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings." I agree wholeheartedly with this intellectually, but I know it to be truer on an even more visceral level. Maybe it's the thin trickle of Cherokee blood coursing through my veins that feels at home in this place, or some kind of recognition by the generations of western European farmers and peasants that round out my ancestry which pulls me towards a life in touch with the land. There is a joy in recognizing the color of improving soil, and I love the bone-tired sleep that only comes after a full day of working out in the sun and the wind. There is beauty and wholeness and poetry in the landscape that surrounds us, if we attune ourselves to it.
Cormac McCarthy's "Cities of the Plain" is the final novel featuring John Grady Cole in his "Border Trilogy." It's been a long time since I read "All the Pretty Horses" and I haven't yet read the "The Crossing," but "Cities" serves to single-handedly lay to rest the era of the American cowboy. Set in the border country around Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas in the years after World War II, the novel follows the tragic courtship between John Grady and a Mexican prostitute. On a grander scale, the two characters represent the death of the Old West and of Old Mexico. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham and the rest of the hands on Mac McGovern's ranch are the last representatives of a dying way of life, one with a nobler, deeper, connection to the land and the animals that inhabit it, and the work that connects them all. The tragic narrative arc of "Cities of the Plain" is reminiscent of "No Country for Old Men," a novel set in the same places but 30 years later.
While there is a sort of car-wreck fascination that Cormac McCarthy achieves so well in the tragic nature of his main characters, it's the moments in between the storyline, the vignettes from hunting trips or conversations around the dining room table that reveal the true nature of the way of life that is dying even as his characters live it. There is an ongoing and half-hearted discussion amongst some of the characters throughout as to what they'll do when the army buys up McGovern's land to build a proving ground, but no one really wants to leave. The outside world and its corrupting forces are finally too much to resist for John Grady Cole, as he succumbs to his obsession with the prostitute, in spite, or in denial, of the true circumstances of her existence.
The book's epilogue left me a bit perplexed, at first. It begins with Billy Parham, John Grady's friend who failed to save him in time, reacting to his buddy's death, and then leaving the ranch, and then leaving the countryside entirely, which was stricken by drought. The narrative then jumps 50 years into the future, where Billy is homelessly wandering across the southwest. Somewhere in Arizona he, meets a stranger after awakening from a night spent sleeping beneath a highway overpass. The stranger's dialog with Billy is like a weird hybrid of Castaneda's Don Juan and the writings of Heidegger. I couldn't make much sense out of it, though the stranger is reminscent of the blind Maestro, a Mexican man who counsels John Grady during his courtship and who refuses the role of padrino in the marriage.
The epilogue finally ends with Parham waking the next day after his encounter with the stranger, after sleeping in a concrete pipe on a highway construction site. The night before, he confuses the current landscape with the one that disappeared in his youth: "Out on the desert to the west stood what he took for one of the ancient spanish missions of that country but when he studied it again he saw that it was the round white dome of a radar tracking station." And so the scene concludes with Parham walking back east to the country of his youth, very much to my mind like Harry Dean Stanton's Travis in the opening to Wim Wenders' "Paris, Texas." Parham contentedly wanders the backcountry of New Mexico he grew up in, and has been taken in by a kind family when the novel ends.
This blog post has turned into more of a book review than the essay I'd intended it to be, but maybe that's just another way for me to call attention to the importance of place among people in the grand scheme of things. Though I've been reading more non-fiction in the last few years, when I do read fiction, the writers that appeal to me most are people like Rick Bass, Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, and Edward Abbey. The characters in works by these writers are inseparable from their landsccape and their communities, and sometimes the characters are less important than the communities, landscapes, and natural rhythms that they inhabit.
Then again, almost 20 years ago when I registered for my senior seminar in college, I remember my initial ambivalence at signing up for a course titled "Poetry and Landscape," thinking to myself, "Are we really going to do a whole semester course on this?" As it turns out, that was one of the courses I enjoyed the most and one that has made the most lasting impression on me. I still enjoy reading Roethke's "The Far Field" and the poems of Robinson Jeffers, as well as many others we studied, though now maybe more than ever I understand Jeffers' sense of desperation and D.H. Lawrence's revulsion as they grappled with a future coming into view bent on annihilating the things they loved the most.
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