Dreary winter days.
To lighten up Brett:
Go into her office in the cottage where she’s always slaving over her laptop,
and say: “Come on, let’s go monkey with the chickens.”
* * * *
In the week of Superbowl and State-of-the-Union Address, I am in the shed today, sorting seeds.
In corn, “Platinum” hybrid.
Early Girl tomatoes.
Varmints invariably get the asparagus. Never any luck with asparagus.
* * * *
Junk in the woods:
– five old steel washing-machine tubs (Ginny and George had saved them frugally, one day to be planters)
– four steel 55-gal drums, generally rust-free
– bales of fencing
– bucket-like thing that must have come from a very small bulldozer
– sunken canvas tarp, cadaverous-looking, down where the vinca grows [Ginny used to believe, where the vinca grows, there had once been a foundation
– rusty conduit from hydraulic-mining days
– neolithic stone mortars embedded in earth, fashioned by Maidu for pounding acorns into mash (at least ten of these)
– two huge cylindrical iron tanks, immovable
* * * *
Cold Christmas of 2008. News is of Israelis bombing Palestinians, and of economic depression worldwide. Deep snow here in the mountains. At the ATM machine of Wells Fargo, while I stood waiting for it to grind and clank and deliver my money, I watched an ant (one of the small, coppery-black Argentine variety) come out of the “INSERT YOUR CARD” slot and immediately reenter the bank by the “Take Your Statement” slot.
* * * *
Late fall: The field mouse and the bulldozer: Barbara’s cottage will require its own septic tank, and there’s been a bulldozer/backhoe in the meadow this week, excavating for a new leach field. For some reason, the machine that was rented is as big as a Tyrannosaurus rex, looming up higher than the garage. Yesterday morning with dew still on the grass, the operator got the diesel engine running and began ranging all around and, first of all, plucked out of its foundations Dashiell’s old iron swingset, because it was in the way – and then suddenly I became aware that he’d leapt off his high throne, climbing down out of the cab, saying Poor little guy! and he was creeping up on the foundation of Barbara’s new cottage, with handkerchief out. He’d scared a field mouse. In his handkerchief he brought it over to show me the frightened refugee, its whole body as small as a strawberry, elegant grey fur, eyes like beads of caviar, little pink hands trembling. He took it over and set it down in the tall grass far from the job site, and scaled his machine again.
* * * * * * * *
Expensive Arborist comes to call: that peartree is doomed. The oaks are fine – this is just a particularly big year for the little green caterpillar, and those two-hundred-foot trees are in the prime of their lives. No sign of leaf curl on the young peach. Have not sprayed this year.
* * * * * * * * * *
Pacific weather system keeps rain heavy. National Public Radio from the valley is slashed by static. Strange satisfactions of this pleasant so-called Recession. Idly Google-Earthing places I used to live, and even “street-viewing” them. They haven’t changed. Someone else is there now, and it’s fine for them to have it. Tonight in the kitchen, suddenly the compost bucket looked a lot like the soup stock pot, the one on the left, the other on the right. (One on the stove, one on the sink drainboard.) The difference between the Saved and the Condemned is a personal judgment call. And one realizes this is not “hitting bottom,” rather it’s an inspired old innovation. Surely for thousands of years, grandmothers have had the same reflection.
* * * * * * * *
Used heavy-gauge “gopher wire” mesh to create a long enclosure to lower over the rows of broccoli. Weighted it down with several huge, heavy truck-tire chains. Still the rabbit can get to it, and nibble the plants to the ground. It’s very uneconomical, this war I’m waging. I think I’ll never recover the broccoli of yesteryear, the cauliflower of our first seasons here.
* * * *
Thinking about that baffling custom “the Eucharist,” the weekly eating of a god’s “flesh.” It’s interesting because it’s a barbaric enormity. But yet a true worshipper wouldn’t have it otherwise. A thoughtful worshipper will, no doubt, want authenticity, and not empty ritual, and will occasionally send his thoughts in the direction of seeking bedrock meanings. One can see how a Muslim or Jew, say, will think X-ianity must be baloney, because if you actually believed that could be “God” lying on the silver platter, you definitely wouldn’t do that to it. (Be honest, an imam might say, What do you think or pretend you believe?)
It’s an audacious, terrifically naughty thing to do, to eat God. The subconscious mind experiences “pretend” actions as “real.” In the depth of his consciousness, the eater on his knees is actually, literally, annihilating the Creator. The only deep-psychology explanation I can see, for such a Eucharist, is that it involves a generalized vengeance toward God. One can only think it must involve a legalistic redressal of balance in the moral universe, a redressal that was initiated within a religious tradition (Judaism) that had already licensed a lively back-and-forth conversation between man and “Creator.” So X-ianity is a prank, an insubordination. The mean-spirited Tyrant must be brought to justice. He Himself is “redeemed” in the process. Weekly god-eating is the beleaguered Regular Joe’s justice, proposed originally by the Victim himself, as a way of rescinding the rule of “sin” that was inflicted “originally” upon created beings.
(These miseries – samsara – are the medium of consciousness.)
* * * *
Six o’clock in the afternoon. The last week of September, in the great year of 2008. Glass of wine with Barbara, in the meadow on wooden chairs after the carpenters’ quitting time. How long will she live in the little cottage we’re building for her? I look up and see a sight I realize I’ve always loved: there’s an hour of evening when the topmost heights of the tallest pine trees are still in direct bright sun against sharp blue sky. It may be twilight and cold down here on the lawn – down here, a chill is coming over us – but up in the high branches it’s still midday, it’s still full summer.
* * * *
When I was young, spiders were ugly. The older I get, the more I can see it’s a privilege to be in the room with one. (Compared to, say, being in the room with a duchess. Or a pop star.)
* * * *
My happiness is on these five acres. When I’m out at some desirable diversion, I count the minutes till I can get back.
* * * *
If we count up the “blessings” accorded us in our span of life – (wildflowers, the sight of stars, art and music of course, sex and all the seven harmless “capital” sins, children, food, various colors such as leaf-green and sky-blue, the sensation of cold, the sensation of comfort, the fascinating rumor of history and indeed the physical sensation of time moving in our bones, all of mathematics, music, sun on my shoulder, etc., blah blah blah, all these you might call, if not blessings, at least great good luck) – but the supreme blessing among them is surely our “self,” our tenure of a “self,” something of a “point of view” we can take, something separate from the vast pre-existent ‘Other’! To own a “self” (as it were in fee simple) is to have control of a small sovereignty which is a bite out of the Eternal Other, an incursion into the Eternal Other. In the economic metaphor that rules nature, a self collects the quantity “time” in a somehow separate fund. A fund parallel to eternity’s larger account.
I’ll say it again in a different way. We seem to discern this thing the “Other” (i.e., the rest of the universe). It definitely seems to be larger than ourselves, and it seems to have existed before us and will, apparently, exist after us. Within it we have a temporary freehold. We own this “self” only for a brief duration (as measured by the quantities it construes as “time”). The radical thing about this self is that it seems to contain – or at least behold – the infinite Other. This self sees the stars, as well as, moreover, the black spaces between the stars.
(The institution of a self seems to borrow not only from the time dimension but the space dimension too. The body’s “personal space” – that is, the space inside my skin, including my heart and lungs and liver – seems for a lifespan an inalienable possession. A piece of three-dimensional territory.)
I’ve used the word “blessing.” Of course supernatural or divine agencies aren’t necessarily involved in our gaining a self. One is always aware that this “self” is a construction of nerve impulses that evolved in my species for species-preservation, particularly for the sustenance of society, “society” being another evolutionary innovation, a survival strategy, which will help the species propagate and compete. The word “blessings” implies supernatural agencies. I might have called them simply a list of “good things,” to placate those who are more comforable in announcing skepticism. It is reassuring to go back to the scientific fact that all phenomena (the “self” as much as “the stars”) arise naturally from Nature, via evolution.
* * * *
However, some see nature itself as supernatural. (That must be an ecstatic frame of mind!)
This is then THE fundamental false dichotomy to be deconstructed: the apparent “self/Other” opposition.
* * * *
How a Real Carpenter Moves Around a Job Site. The widow Barbara’s cottage is being built at the edge of our meadow, as August turns to September. Billy, Bruce, and Mike are (respectively) the master and journeyman and apprentice who arrive each morning, in pick-up trucks, with also a dog named Jed. They’re our heroes. Each day after they’ve got in their pickup trucks and gone, we filter out onto the job site to see what miracles they’ve wrought in a day. In the day it’s 90 degrees on that rink of plywood with no shade.
A professional on a building site doesn’t move with impatience, as I myself would (trying for “efficiency”). A professional has a slow, considerative way of traveling on the open floor, among the standing 2×4 studs, as if moving in a dream, moving through future-time. It’s not just caution alone. It’s a trance. It is future-time, there. In fact I’m sure at night carpenters do dream of the job: they inhabit it so completely during the day — all day, each day, nine hundred square feet of plywood platform within a little framework of standing golden 2x4s. Just as I, myself, crawl into intractable little cramped spaces of my novel, while I lie in bed, I’m sure they know those four rooms as well as I know my characters-and-plot, and at night they’re back again on that plywood floor, crouching to drill into a stud for a plumbing vent, wrestling the Saws-All as it sabres a window-opening in CDX, cheating the tub into place inside its cage of 2x4s. All day in the sun, in an eternal noon, tall and slow in their brimmed hats, leather belts swagging the heavy burden of hammers and pouches, when they move through the future they treat it tenderly and dreamily.
* * * *
May 3. Bok choy has failed decisively. Not one sprout appeared. Have hoed up that row and will attach it to adjacent corn plot. Corn, now, corn is exciting. Not like bok choy. Every kernel germinates, and fast, so in a matter of days I see the entire complement of thirty-six miniscule pale phalluses, not a single dud. Corn is an experiment this year, but it already looks like it will be a success. I’m planting so many because — as I understand — you need a lot of them to get cross-germination, and they must be planted in three or four rows to take advantage of the wind.
* * * *
Outside urban economy, how much painting there is to do. Scraper, bucket, brush. Country-music on the radio. Here with wooden buildings, the old-fashioned media prevail, window-glazing with putty, not Hardi-Plank siding or vinyl-covered windows. Wood is, by comparison, such soft stuff. It’s something’s flesh. By the time you’re done painting it all, it’s time to start again. To maintain it requires, of one man, a lot of painting.
* * * * *
Oakley, in these last weeks of his life, sat in our wicker chairs with us, and kept mentioning the two immense trees at the far end of the meadow, how well they were leafing out this year. He continues to like gin-and-tonic but without the gin. It’s about all he has. Of course the obvious circumstance is that he will never see another springtime. He keeps reverting to the subject of the pretty leaves. When he was born in 1922, astronomers thought the universe consisted of this little Milky Way galaxy only. Oakley would have been taught in gradeschool (as I was too!) that our universe is an isolated cluster of stars, an island universe surrounded by a black void. And the black void, simply, “goes on forever.” That was roughly the picture my generation got, too.
Now, especially since Hubble, we know that the universe is actually expanding, flying apart ever faster, so we’re losing data and galaxies at the outer edges, but still, we can see four hundred billion (400,000,000,000) galaxies out there. What a universe to have lived in, during the period 1922-2008. And moreover what a place to be departing from, to sit on a meadow in, and admire two big oaks.
* * * *
The garden in March is a ruin, but there are still parsley and onions for Hunter’s omelette Sunday night shared by all.
* * * *
[March 15: The experiment of freezing last summer’s great tomatoes has failed. Brought out two of them from the freezer — they made a billiard-ball clack, knocked-together — but found when they thawed they collapsed into little wrinkly orange bags in a bowlful of their own water.]
* * * *
Back again on this topic of clotheslines and drying laundry in the sun.
I continue to sense myself at the brunt of an American avant garde when I wield wooden clothespins (British usage “clothes-pegs”) in the meadow. I sense myself the cleverest fellow in the world. My dryer is idle. No sound of propane jets. Early this morning I was pinning up laundry again, in a parka, January sun just coming over the tops of the far pines. Economists are coining new words, or reviving old ones, to describe the mix of inflation and recession that is coming over us all as the consequence of our rapacious and stupid relationship with Mother Earth. Oil prices (but also prices of all raw materials including land) are driving up even the cost of broccoli and steak and have brought the Limits of Affluent Growth to our attention. The word “stag-flation” is being brought back from the seventies. Funny word.
A good word for what’s coming is “impoverishment.” In an economist’s sense, that is. Lack of wealth. Scarcity of resources and capital. But it’s not altogether bad news, because another fitting expression would be “simpler living,” wherein lies elegance. Also, the resources we continue to retain are our entrepreneurial and human-capital talents. So wealth is there.
That “putting up laundry” places me in an avant garde must sound pathetic. It’s a grandmotherly expression. And I know well, there are still neighborhoods (for some reason I picture them in Eastern states) where even “recycling” a little glass or aluminum is, still, a humilliation or an effeminacy or contemptible. I’ve been with people like that, and I know they’re not bad people, not at all. I also know that my own sanctimonious holier-than-thou attitude, on these topics, is a privilege of one who can afford the “off-the-grid” life of divorce from the corporate (or, for a word-and-book man, academic) job scene. And one who is happy to live modestly and work at all kinds of different things. My boys Hunter and Dash don’t have all the latest coolest stuff, unfortunately. I know most folks need two huge jobs and total tie-in to all conventional institutions, just to keep up with normal. And I know I’m not keeping up with normal.
But it strikes me as rather a happy prospect that, soon, there will be fewer and fewer people trying to keep up with “normal.” There will be fewer of us looking down upon the economic choices of folks in (terrible expression!) “third-world countries.” Because I announce and declare now from the foothills, like Isaiah in my remote avant garde, we may already be a third-world country. Complete with a third-world country’s classic “dual economy” unsupportive of a middle class.
* * * *
More of Oakley: In the weeks before he died, sitting beside Barbara on the porch in the afternoon drinking tonic-water w/out gin, he told her, “I’ll be waiting for you sweetheart in my little carboard box on the mantlepiece.”
* * * * * * * *
That certain events “grow larger as they shrink into the past.” Found myself using that expression in a letter of condolence to a friend of mine whose close relative had committed suicide. And then last night, I discover myself Googling “GLOCK, 9MM, CHROME” in “Google Images,” because I wanted to get the details of a memory right. Long ago a screenwriter friend of mine displayed for me, from a desk drawer, the chrome-plated Glock nine-millimeter pistol he intended to use on himself one day. His first novel, thirty years earlier, was briefly on the best-seller list, and once he wrote and produced a major motion picture, still rentable in most video stores. His life in a rented apartment in Mill Valley. Upstairs from the coffee shop where he liked to hang out in the afternoons, and “hold court.” The poster on his apartment door of James Joyce (looking dapper and austere and unforgiving, legs crossed in a white linen suit) had been there for twenty-five years. He later used the gun on his own stomach sitting in that same desk chair, where the window beside him had a view of the roof of the former “Varney’s Hardware” just being transformed into a Banana Republic.
* * * *
From the point of view of environmental soundness , the citizens in the best position for creativity are the cityfolk, not us country people. The great possibilities for innovation (as well as probity) are in the cities. Out here, the mess is still being created and the old Romanticism still prevails.
* * * *
People who will find themselves somewhat plagiarized in my new novel, if they look close:
poet Charles Entrekin;
poet and anthropolgist Gary Snyder;
agriculturalist Wes Jackson;
my old workshop-mate of twenty-five years ago Lynne Schatz.
Let us see if, in the published book, they can detect ideas I took and churned in.
* * * *
The Catholic catechism’s radical mysticism, in chapter on ‘tenth commandment’ to avoid envy: the impoverished are to rejoice because: “To see is to possess.”
Also this, elsewhere: “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love.”