Monday, November 21, 2022

Snow Falls and the World Changes


We awake to a cold, clean silence, a remembrance that if silence could have a color, it would be white crystals of snow drifting their serene journey to the earth. This pristine white, this cold, clean silence was our first snowfall on the thirty-five acres my wife and I now own, and we celebrated the morning with a walk cradled in quiet contemplation of the beauty surrounding us. The trees were draped with snow which accumulated and fell in feathery clumps--one down my neck, providing an early-morning wake-up! Our footprints painted the canvas of the snow as side by side Sandy and I walked the familiar yet newly-created trails across ridges and down hills to the bottom land. 


Ours were the only tracks on the land, the animals we shared the land with bedded down. No squirrels chattered at us, hiding behind the gray, shaggy bark of hickory trees. No ground hogs lumbered across the gravel to the safety of brush across the drive. We had evidence in our Airstream Basecamp travel trailer that a mouse had moved in, and Sandy, while sipping her morning tea, had even seen the little critter moving around behind a smoked plastic cabinet door in the kitchen area. It was a quiet morning, though, and would be a quiet day, the insulating blanket of snow absorbing and muffling sound until it slowly melted as the morning advanced to afternoon.


That evening we sat outside beside our campfire, enjoying the crackling of the fire that accentuated the silence of the evening. It was then that we shared a moment on the land with a creature other than ourselves--and that wild citizen of the woods turned out to be a spotted white and gray domestic cat, some neighbor's pet ranging wide and making its way to us. We called to the cat but it would not approach, staying tucked safely and half-hidden at the base of a tree about thirty yards away. Sandy stood and approached the cat, calling reassuringly, but the cat, although curious, was also cautious and slid away into the darkness. Perhaps it will be more trusting with its next visit.

Wilderness writers have described the "cathedral of the forest," the forest as a place to awaken the spirit or to enliven the spirit on the level of the senses. The bare limbs of trees or the umber of oak still retaining fall's russet splendor; all the shades of autumn's fallen leaves that carpet the forest floor; the rich smell of the moist earth; the sharp, cold breath of wind as it whispers across the crowns of the trees; the swaying of limbs and the hollow, sodden sound of clumps of snow falling from sun-warmed branches--to be a part of this morning, this first snowfall--to be a part of this world rather than a stranger who intrudes--this means all the world to me. It puts me in my place, where I feel at home, reassured by the continuity and continual rebirth of existence. There is no ending that there is a beginning, no heartbeat without the silence between. The unique beauty of a snowflake drifts the silent sky and falls upon a tree branch. I see that beauty, a frozen moment in time, and become it. The world is still, the sun shines, and for a timeless moment I am wondrously at ease, fulfilled to simply be.

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Saturday, November 12, 2022

Just Being Neighborly

"I'm an angry man" were the first words my neighbor spoke to me when I first met him. He had pulled his ATV up onto my gravel in front of my travel trailer, dismounted, and settled himself, both legs solidly planted. His last words an hour and a half later were "And this is the last time I'll ever speak to you."

First of all, even though he said he was angry, he never seemed all that angry in his composure or speech patterns, no livid face or spitting while he was speaking. If he was angry, he wasn't mad-dog angry, perhaps more a habitual state of mind. To me he was more bitter--and certainly confrontational. It's sad that one of America's small farmers carries such unhappiness in his heart.

Ten Reveals from Our Conversation:
  1. "My wife told me to be nice when I talk to you." (Good idea.)
  2. "I'm not your neighbor. We just own adjoining land." (Well, I'm going to try to be a good neighbor.)
  3. "I see you've got a No Trespassing sign posted. You're from California, aren't you?" (Our insurance agent suggested the sign, and, yes, I lived in California 43 years ago.)
  4. "What gives you the right to buy this land? You're just driving up property prices." (We paid the asking price, actually lower than other comparative properties.)
  5. "So your wife's got a successful business?" (Yes, she does. Are you mean-mouthing my wife?"
  6. "My cows have gotten onto your land. What are you going to do about it because it's not my problem." (Then why are you here talking to me?)
  7. "He [a mutual business acquaintance] told you that? He's a liar!" (Hmmm?!)
  8. "I can't believe you still aren't arguing with me!" (And I don't intend to. How would it help anything?))
  9. "You can't solve anything about the cattle getting out, what with flooding and erosion at the creek fence. And I won't help you." (If it's a continuing problem, then working together is even more important.)
  10. "Well, if you want to, we can go down, and I'll help you get those cows back where they belong." (I really appreciate any advice and direction you can give me.)
I did speak with my neighbor a second time, though, no matter his words. I flagged him down as he was idling down the road in his side-by-side UTV, exercising his dogs. This time, I remembered and utilized the Mark Twain quote: It's hard not to like someone who loves your work, your children, or your dogs." And it just so happens that I do like dogs.

"Those are good-looking hounds you've got there. These are the ones you take to coyote-hunting competitions?" The next thing I knew, I was looking at photos on his phone of his dogs at competitions, and learning that the next competition would be in Missouri in a couple of weeks. As my neighbor drove off to continue exercising his dogs, I felt that the conversation had been fairly pleasant, with whatever negativity that arose directed not at me--more a chewing of old bones, to continue the dog metaphor. I was able to provide some updates on our progress regarding our property's fences and cattle containment without unduly tripping any emotional triggers. A few days later, I saw him in his field, spraying multiflora, and I'm happy to say he waved at me--a low-key wave, but nonetheless, he waved!

In the end, I've decided that my neighbor is always welcome on my land, as long as he comes in peace; and it also seems fair that if I expect my neighbor to peacefully interact with me that I also have peace in my heart. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the land.

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Sunday, August 28, 2022

When Buying Land, Do We Own a Bit of Nature?


How do we own land, how do we possess it? Right now my wife and I possess legal documents that say we own thirty-five acres of farmland in southeast Iowa. The abstract for the land will be our narrative of ownership, a record of the first owners, a thread of ownership down the years. For me, I've been engaged in a process of defining my ownership of this land, and so far I've found it possible to accept the idea stewardship rather than ownership.

Our thirty-five acres are mostly defined to the north by Big Indian Creek. The defining features to the east are the county gravel road and the rural electric easement that skirts the road, a strip of land cleared of trees, threaded with power poles and lines. The land rises from that northeast corner of creek, road, and bridge uphill to the south border of our land, higher and drier ground. Most of the thirty-five acres are covered with trees, the land dropping off from the south mostly to the north and east, down to the creek. The configuration of the land on the map is roughly a rectangle, but walking the land with its several ridges and ravines still is somewhat confusing, that confusion exacerbated not only by the lay of the land but also by the thickets of multiflora rose, which inhibit straight travel. There are sections of the land we haven't seen yet because of barriers of multiflora and poison ivy. Our first impression of our stewardship of this land is that we have to begin clearing out the invasive multiflora and the noxious poison ivy. We expect this to be a never-ending battle, not one we accomplish, check off the list, and then forget about.

My first connection with the land--and I believe also my wife Sandy's--has been to the several large white oaks that extend along the east and south sides of the property--about a half dozen that are easily over a hundred years old. Two or three are truly massive, a shading, abiding, gnarled presence on the land, whose presence seems to attract (or radiate) silence and stillness. I cannot help but pause when I stand beneath either of the largest two, both on the south end of the property. I feel myself rooting to the ground, extending both into soil and into sky. Am I embracing the world, is the world embracing me? Those ancient oaks allow me, remind me, that I am more than a bundle of frenetic, scampering simian activity. I can stop, cease my busyness, and just abide--be for a time, and perhaps if I visit and share the silent existence of the oaks often enough, I can expand my sense of self and become both the tree scamperer and earth abider simultaneously. 

To become one with the land is our highest sense of ownership. When ownership identifies as obligation, then our legal title to this patch of land begins to make sense to me. We humans have changed the land, shaped the face of the world. On this patch of land, I will have a chance to "unshape" the world, to rewild our bit of earth by removing that which is alien and by adding a bit of civilization by building and landscaping in a sustainable manner. I don't hike this land in the same manner as I hike in one of our state parks. Sometimes I will hike with a trekking pole, but sometimes it will be with a long-handled shovel so that I can remove multiflora root balls. Next spring I want to hike and discover blackberry patches, to mine the motherlode of morel mushrooms. I want to build a tiny eight-foot by eight-foot house that overlooks one of our small ravines, situated so that I can sit and allow the vista to take my eye to the horizon.

Camping in its purest form is the process of interacting with the land yet leaving no trace, to move across the land like a deer or a fox. The deer has its copse of trees and its form in the grasses where it sleeps and rests. The fox has its den where it waits out the storm and where it raises its kits. Sandy and I will have our little Airstream Basecamp for staying on the land, some small shelters we build to keep us dry and warm, and eventually a small home. Sometimes we'll hike with trekking poles, sometimes with shovels. I have a lot of research and learning to do. I want to learn the names of all the varieties of trees on our land. I want to learn which variety or varieties of grasses are the best seeds to spread. Most of all, though, I want to balance my civilizing and "uncivilizing" of the land with abiding on the land. I think if it as a partnership, for the more I live on the land, the land will live in me.

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Friday, May 20, 2022

My Love/Hate Relationship with Zane Grey's Writing, Part 2

Oddly enough, "Part 1" of my love/hate relationship with Zane Grey's writing was posted on this blog twelve years ago. So in the last twelve years, have I reconciled my conflicting perspectives of Zane Grey? The short answer is no; I am still conflicted. Seeking wider perspectives, I searched for other articles about Grey's bigoted writing, the racist and sexist elements in his writing. An article posted on Literary Hub, "In Praise of Racist Books: Notes of an Immigrant Reader," drew my interest, written by Black scholar and professor Louis Clude-Sokei. (A hit on my "Part 1" Zane Grey article also was pulled up, always a hoot to find myself on the internet.) 

Clude-Sukei grew up reading whatever books he could get his hands on, most of them by default White writers writing for a White audience. A first his reading simply matched his life experience--it was a bigoted, racist world he lived in, and the books he read were consistent in vision. Then Clude-Sukei grew more sophisticated and grew "to enjoy the frisson of contradiction." He writes about how "those damned racist books": "taught me that we are all shaped and rendered impure by racism, colonialism, and various forms of inequality, all the time and in all texts. Who or what we would be without those forces is unanswerable." The racism and gender rigidity in Grey's novels are historical footprints of times past (and present). 

Here are a few concepts from the article that resonated with me:
  • "I’ve [Louis Clude-Sokei] lived by Joan Didion’s evergreen dictum, 'Writers are always selling someone out.'”
  • "Not seeing myself in any of the characters enabled me to identify with all of them, so innocence was impossible. And suspecting that the author might have been hostile to someone like me only made the dance of interpretation more exciting. This all taught me to find freedom even in narratives hell-bent on my erasure."
  • "One can love a work of literature while vehemently disagreeing with it. This seems so obvious it’s hard to believe it must now be defended. To teach students the opposite is to hobble them with a need for innocence."
  • "To cleanse the past, though, is not only to rob ourselves of the prickly pleasures and unique challenges of such works. More importantly, it can aid in the removal of evidence from the scene of crime."
  • "To make sanctuary in hostile or indifferent territory is a necessary skill."


My recent foray into Zane Grey's world was his romance The Light of the Western Stars. In the novel, Madeline Hammond leaves the privileged world of the East, seeking her brother in the wilds of New Mexico, during the beginnings of the revolutionary times in Mexico in the early 1900s. She experiences the vivid roughness of the environment and the people who live there. Action includes lightning storms, fast horses, wild cowboys, gunfights, and of course love. Grey's ability to describe the Western environment is at times sublime.
Rain fell steadily. The fury of the storm, however, had passed, and the roll of thunder diminished in volume. The air had wonderfully cleared and was growing cool. Madeline began to feel uncomfortably cold and wet. Stewart was climbing faster than formerly, and she noted that Monty kept at her heels, pressing her on. Time had been lost, and the camp-site was a long way off. The stag-hounds began to lag and get footsore. The sharp rocks of the trail were cruel to their feet. Then, as Madeline began to tire, she noticed less and less around her. The ascent grew rougher and steeper—slow toil for panting horses. The thinning rain grew colder, and sometimes a stronger whip of wind lashed stingingly in Madeline's face. Her horse climbed and climbed, and brush and sharp corners of stone everlastingly pulled and tore at her wet garments. A gray gloom settled down around her. Night was approaching. Majesty heaved upward with a snort, the wet saddle creaked, and an even motion told Madeline she was on level ground. She looked up to see looming crags and spires, like huge pipe-organs, dark at the base and growing light upward. The rain had ceased, but the branches of fir-trees and juniper were water-soaked arms reaching out for her. Through an opening between crags Madeline caught a momentary glimpse of the west. Red sun-shafts shone through the murky, broken clouds. The sun had set.
I enter Grey's world as an immigrant, a time traveler. The author has his "boxes" or perspectives that inform his writing: the sensitivity and intuitions "unique" to women, a "let's bash Mexicans" box, the insipid anemia of Easterners and the childlike impulsiveness of Westerners, the regenerative qualities of nature (which at times Grey romanicizes until it becomes a cliche).

I love Grey's description of the natural world, and I love his passionate characters and storylines, even with their brittle characterizations and moral binary development. As an immigrant reader, I enter Grey's novels, recognizing that I'm entering territory that will sometimes be hostile to my world view. I enjoy the frisson of being on guard, of advancing into a perspective that I at times will vehemently disagree with. Like all travelers, I advance cautiously into the "history" of the writing, the world at times beautiful and at times ugly, a stranger in a strange land--a situation not all that different, actually, from every time I walk out my front door. 

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Upping My Travel Writing Game

Guyana Highlands of South America
"Tom, why don't you plan out a route to California?" My wife Sandy asked me this question after lunch last week--when we had been planning a camping trip that same morning to an Iowa state park a half hour's drive away. That required a shift in mental gears, I can tell you--not a bad shift but certainly a significant change of perspective!

By happenstance, my step-daughter had recently given me the new issue of National Geographic magazine, the April issue, and I was reading the article "Up the Mountain, to a World Apart," about a "venture into a remote part of Guyana with no roads and no guarantee of getting out" to a region of "sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains known locally as tepui." A scientific expedition would climb these unpopulated, untrammeled environmental time capsules to learn more about the process of evolution.

Reading the article was an eye-opener for me, a reminder of just how powerful and immediate travel writing can be. The opening paragraphs place the reader right next to conservation biologist Bruce Means. 
"Grasping a sapling in one hand for balance, Bruce took a shaky step forward. His legs quivered as they sank into the boggy leaf litter, and he cursed his 79-year-old body. At the beginning of this expedition, Bruce had told me that he planned to start slowly but would grow stronger each day as he acclimated to life in the bush."
Later in the article, writer Mark Synnott places us deeper in the bush, describing the conditions that the explorers were facing. 
"For days we'd been trudging across a swampy floodplain through ankle-deep mud that almost sucked our boots right off our feet. It rained incessantly, and even when the sun poked through the low clouds, it never penetrated the dense canopy overhead. Down in the steamy understory, mosquitoes and biting flies reigned, and our sweat-soaked clothes, slick with mud and ripped by thorns, stuck to our rashy skin. Every day we crossed countless tea-colored rivers and creeks via precarious log bridges. The slow-moving water, which was also our drinking source, was stained from decaying vegetation--something that no amount of purifying could remove."
Ah, what lovely, descriptive prose! The writer follows the most basic and important descriptive writing axiom: show, don't tell. He uses "sense words," words which connect the reader's experience to the description, not ideas but physical sensory input. Look at the touch words: grasping, shaky, and quivered, to name a few. The sentence that begins with "Down in the steamy understory" is rich with sense words: "steamy understory" with touch and vision; "mosquitoes and biting flies reigned" evokes sight, sound, and touch; "sweat-soaked clothes" evokes, of course, smell. Taste? With every breath filtered by steamy jungle air, with sweat on the lips and mud everywhere, how could one not be tasting the jungle? The sentences weave together our life experiences and imagination to place us in that jungle--all while we sit comfortably in our chair at home, perhaps a cup of tea (with sugar and milk) beside us. Travel writing at its best!

Canary-yellow writing pads and Ticonderoga #2 pencils, and I'm ready to begin the planning!
Now as I sit at the kitchen table planning my route, my old habit of planning with tablets and pencil to make my lists prevails: a list for food, a list for last-minute preparations, lists for our children as they keep an eye on the house for the month we'll be gone. We're packing for our five-nights out, knowing that we'll have food stores available at our destination. We'll be driveway-mooching at Sandy's parents, hooking up to 120v electric power to run our 12v refrigerator and lights.

The pencil scratches its way across the page, either adding an item or crossing one out. I'm glad I had the wheel-bearings packed last month at a local RV dealership. I've listened to the pounding of my little air compressor as I've topped of the trailer's tire pressure, and I've leaned on the torque wrench as I've checked that the wheel lugnuts are tight. I'll be de-winterizing the trailer next week. I was on my hands and knees yesterday, scrubbing the interior and removing my gear from this winter's 1-3 night local camping outings. 
 
I've spent the time in front of the computer screen, studying Google Maps and locating possible campgrounds and RV parks for overnight stays on our trip. Since Sandy will need a strong phone signal for her online work, I've called the overnight sites to inquire about connectivity. Of course, I'm not naive enough to think all the information I receive will completely match our needs, but it's a beginning. After that, it's just take it one day at a time. Our longest mileage planned is a little over four hundred miles, with most days ranging between 250 miles and 325. We hope to leave early enough so that Sandy will have some time to work in the late afternoons if necessary. 

I may very well be writing by hand in my daybook as we journey, skipping the computer and just taking notes and writing down impressions, details that I can include when I finally do post about our journey on my travel blog, Green Goddess Glamping. A few notes, a few photos, pleasant conversation with Sandy while on the road. Audiobooks have been strongly recommended for us while traveling, but Sandy and I are looking forward to just looking out the window and chatting. I've traveled before by myself on a trip off to the Carolinas, chronicled on my traveling blog under the label Green Goddess Expeditions

I've researched and written before about writing and travelogues, so long ago, in fact, that the original blogs I read for inspiration and direction are now defunct, the links no longer active. Mine are still available, though, the most recent being "Travelogues and Tiny Trailer Travel." I'm excited to travel with my wife Sandy. The last time we traveled the Iowa-California route was from west to east when we drove a much loved yet worn 1975 Ford F-150 from my parents' home in California back to Iowa, a gift from my parents to my son. That was quite an adventure, considering the worn steering linkage and the lack of heater or windshield defroster. I remember how the engine would cut out and stall at stoplights on the continental divide because the old carburetor wasn't fuel injection, and the high-altitude air was too thin for the carburetor adjustments. I just feathered the accelerator, though, and once on the road we were okay, especially when we dropped out of the mountains. We made it, finding peace of mind on the trip by deciding that if the old orange "Pumpkin Wagon" broke down, we'd just have it towed to the nearest gas station, hand the owner registration title to someone willing to take it, and then take a bus home. 

On an early winter overnighter with our Airstream Basecamp
This trip should be more pleasant with our 2021 Airstream Basecamp and our 2018 Nissan Pathfinder (with only just under 18,000 miles on it). I'm looking forward to sharing our time together. Sandy even wants to learn how to drive while pulling the trailer, and I'm sure there are some not-so-busy stretches of highway on the trip that will provide her with some low-stress experience. Travelogue writing is a skill that I'm continually developing, and I plan to focus this trip on sharing those travel moments the best I can, those moments of flicking the turn signal and then pulling off the interstate freeway, heading for the night's campsite, having rolled down that long, lonesome highway, a song in my heart and my wife by my side. 

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