You don’t need a tour guide

New fir tips
New fir tips

Let me begin by pointing out the qualitative difference between a tourist and tour-ism. A real tourist is well-informed about what she wants to see and what he wants to do. Modern tour-ism is an industrial system organized to maximize profits for airlines, hotels, national parks and service businesses by co-opting a person’s normal curiosity and then herding them into an artificial experience, too often at the lowest common denominator, for a high price. Industrial tourism, as critic Edward Abbey pointed out, separates the tourist from what he originally came to see by inserting a commercial veil that dilutes the experience the traveler hoped to have.

Twin flower
Twin flower

A true tourist doesn’t expect guarantees of satisfaction from his experience. Traveling is a risk and  satisfaction depends on the traveler’s personal resources, her encounters with people she doesn’t know and his capacity to notice new and different things in the places and people he meets. Travel is a state of mined and you don’t have to go to distant countries and continents to be a tourist. No! You can be a tourist, even an explorer, in your own yard. Emily Dickenson roamed the world from her garden and Henry David Thoreau discovered the world from his cottage on Walden Pond.

Glacial groove
Glacial groove

I often travel to distant places but today I was a tourist in a familiar place as I climbed 500 feet to the crest of a barren ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Today I looked at the route with the eyes of a tourist and saw anew how the afternoon light slanted through the trunks of spruce trees. On the trail, I stooped to admire the tiny blossoms of the twinflower, noted the two-toned green of new fir needles, the tough three-toothed cinquefoil growing in the cracks of a granite knob, and the groove in a granite knob left by a retreating glacier. To be a tourist is to be mindful of the moment, to take nothing for granted, to humbly suspend one’s ordinary assumptions and expectations of the familiar in order to see the extraordinary world in front of him. For me, this keeps the world perpetually new.

Afternoon light in spruce
Afternoon light in spruce

Dreaming, learning, and then executing one’s plan of travel is the true joy of being a tourist. My daughter and I read up on Utah’s canyon country and then hiked for days in Arches, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde national parks without a guide or outfitter. Our most important equipment consisted of open minds to we could see what was before us. I travel this way in Mexico. In the company of a Mexican friend, we rode rural taxis through the mountains to attend patronal festivals, visit indigenous pueblos, and share coffee with her friends. We didn’t have planners, clerks, guides, or tour buses to get in our way.

Our experiences weren’t fabricated according to predetermined metrics ofGranite knob customer satisfaction; they occurred spontaneously out of curiosity, mindful observation and personal interactions. So, go on tour, close by or far away, keep your mind clear, your eyes open, and you will be your own best guide.

 

Granite knob

 

 

 

 

 

The Impossibility of ‘Empty’

Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.

Wetlands to cornfields.
Wetlands to cornfields.

During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.

Great American Desert.
Great American Desert.

Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.

Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.

Dust Bowl Farm 1938
Exile from Eden, Dust Bowl farm.

The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.

Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.

Surplus corn from drained land
Surplus corn from drained land

It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.

My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.

Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’

 

The Transubstantiation of Grain

 

New corn, field of hopes.
New corn, a field of hopes.

Have you noticed that seeds and grains possess identical appearances? Wheat planted as a seed is identical to the grain harvested later in the season. If so, why do we distinguish seed from grain when they are the same object? In the answer to the question lies what I believe is part of the mystery in the human story.

A seed planted produces a plant that reproduces itself as a seed. Grain, however, is a seed transformed by human intention when put in the service for other purposes. Further, I believe the cultivation of grain lies at the heart of civilization. Communal life as we know it, and the cultural elaboration that followed from it was, and remains, impossible without the cultivation of grain. Deep beneath the material aspects of grain cultivation lies a bit of cosmic mystery.

A grain appears identical to a seed but it isn’t. Grain’s destiny isn’t as a means of plant reproduction but as an agent of human transformation. It’s subtle but bear with me. Growing up on a farm, I participated in the differentiation of seeds and grains. Each spring we planted seeds to produce a crop in order to harvest the grains. Seeds were the means to the end, which was the harvest—the surplus production and sale of seeds beyond those needed for planting.

Oat harvest - fruit of rain, soil, labor.
Oat harvest, not for seed but for feed.

Planting corn or wheat each spring was our act of faith because we couldn’t control the weather, prevent infestations of wheat rust or cut worms, or changes in the price at market. Everyone depends on agriculture—grain—but few of us are directly connected to it. Nowadays we know grains indirectly and invisibly through their by-products: flour, grits, pasta and ethanol. Culturally, we think of ‘harvest’ and Thanksgiving as wrapping up a season in hoped for abundance and material security. It’s a warm, cozy idea but farmers are less sentimental. Harvest is do-or-die; the yield of grain per acre is a judgment on their management of resources and risks. The yield is the fulcrum for debt or surplus.

Grain underlies the larger mystery of settled human populations and the civilizations arising from them. Settled populations anchored themselves around and through the cultivation of wild grasses to harvest their seeds as food. Emmer and einkorn are the Middle Eastern ancestors of the modern wheat. Teosinte, a wild grass of Mesoamerica, became the mother of maize in all its forms, and is no longer a wild plant but depends on humans to reproduce.

Careful observation and selection over centuries produced plants able to produce greater yields of grain per acre, withstand droughts, winds, or blights. Humans chose grains with particular traits to maximize production on various soils and environments. Just as our ancestors domesticated or shaped the evolution of wild plants, in like manner the plants and their needs influenced and domesticated the shape and structure of human communities and cultures.

Corn harvest, the fulcrum.
Corn yield per acre, the fulcrum of success.

Dry grains, easily stored and transported, and densely nutritious, made it possible to amass surpluses to support larger communities and specialists, like potters, weavers, warriors, priests, and doctors. Cultivation accentuated the division of labor, the creation of classes, and defined gender roles. The particular needs of each grain—wheat, maize, sorghum, oats or barley—distinctly shaped the labor, lives, idioms, customs, and celebrations of the people who depended them. The relations between grains and humans is a symbiotic one. Neither modern civilization nor contemporary grains came into existence without the other.

Before the ‘Big Bang,’ our universe is believed to be compressed into something the size of a grain. Yet, within its cosmic hull lay everything that was, is, and will be. In a nano-second, this proto-universe hurled toward eternity the myriad potentialities that have and still interact, combine, and recombine as suns are born and die, galaxies form and disappear into black holes, civilizations rise and fall, and people are born, nourished and die.

Like the universe before the ‘Big Bang,’ a seed contains all the potentialities of the plant that grows from it and, by extension, the grain contains human intentions whose use will have primary, secondary and tertiary effects on human lives and civilizations. Grain is transformational in the human story. Although grain retains the outer form of a seed, the reason for its existence—its purpose—is altered, as if in a secular version of transubstantiation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaos—Life is impossible without it

????????????????????Chaos—the primordial material of God’s Creation. Chaos—the disastrous state of our children’s room. Chaos—the erratic anarchy threatens governments and officials. Chaos—the breeder of social dysfunction. Chaos—the disordered state of many minds. Chaos—the  emotional plasma of adolescence. Chaos—one half of a cosmic dynamic duo. Chaos—the womb of creativity. Chaos—the antidote for boredom. We need chaos as spice to add meaning to our lives. Without chaos there is only stasis. Without chaos, no one possesses the power of inspiration. Without chaos, we have nothing to strive against, for we are driven toward order. We crave order until we have too much of it. We welcome order until it stifles us. We use order to protect ourselves from others unlike ourselves. Too much order makes us prisoners of fear. It feeds on us to maintain its existence. We become bored prisoners of stasis until a random event, an unseen conceptual meteorite, an unexpected political candidate, an unheralded economic collapse breaks up the carapace of order, sets chaos loose, and frees us once more to pursue a creative path toward a new order. Chaos. Life is impossible without it.

 

Abandoned. The Loss of Ourselves

What does abandoned mean? Immediately I think of desert islands, marooned sailors and objects of no further use left behind. The word ‘abandoned’ cries out as forsaken. The words for abandoned pile up: Deserted. Desolate. Derelict. Ditched. Dumped. Scratched. Chucked. Discarded. Thrown-away. Forsaken. Jilted. Rejected. Severed. Separated. Cut-off. Disconnected. Vacated. Emptied. Unwanted. Left behind.

Empty barns and farmhouses dotted the Minnesota countryside around our farm in the 1940s. Gray, unpainted houses with square, boxy lines and broken windows, stood vacant, like homely brides jilted by owners who went under, sold out, or moved to town. Deserted, vacated, and left behind—abandoned.

My college sweetheart and I married but disconnected gradually over a dozen years. We separated at Christmas when everyone else was tightly coupled to spouses and children. A sad time when I felt jilted, forsaken and rejected—abandoned.

The Casa Loma, a rural dancehall and bar near our farm, closed in the 1950s. AMy beautiful picture man bought it and opened a junk yard. Soon he filled the lot with the worn-out carcasses of farm pick-ups, mangled sedans, dead combines and invalided tractors. He ran a hospice for derelict hulks of iron and steel, unwanted, disowned, thrown-away—abandoned.

Years ago, on a hiking trip across Wyoming’s high, open range, I came upon a cluster of rotting log cabins. Once a gold camp, its population consisted of half-wild range cattle that loitered in the saloon under its sagging roofline. The cadavers of autos made in the 1920s lay on their sides long ago amputated of useful parts. Rotted wooden ladders descended into pitch dark shafts bereft of ore. A ghost town, vacated, empty, deserted—abandoned.Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

In my files resides a book manuscript I can’t sell. Well-written, articulate, and informative that no editor wants to publish it in these times. I can’t bear to throw it away but I can do nothing with it. Thus it is buried in file case, unread, useless, unwanted—abandoned.

One night while canoeing Montana’s upper Missouri River, my father and I camped near homesteads built in the early 1900s. In the morning, we wandered among the small cabins of cedar logs and sod roofs, rusting hay mowers and breaking plows. Homesteaders tried to sink roots in the early 1900s, then ripped them up and walked away during the dusty 1920s. As one-time farmers, we understood. Disconnected and isolated from markets in this beautifully desolate place, they chucked farming and ditched their dreams. Their hard work thrown away, discarded, left behind—abandoned.

A good friend lost his wife to another woman. For a long time, he lost his good spirits and went about as a vacant soul, a desolate and disconsolate temple of the spirit. Morose and distraught, he told me about feeling cut off, jilted, unwanted—abandoned.

For eight years I worked to earn a PhD and become a college professor. After the courses, the lectures, the seminars and exams, I knew this wasn’t the life for me. I severed connections with the academic world and gave up serious scholarship for a public life. A false dream rejected, set aside, left behind—abandoned.

Writing, careers, spouses, cars, homesteads, houses, mines—we abandon them, leave them behind, and cast off each one like a husk to assume something else. Those who abandon do so for a lack of hope, or out of hope for something better. And those who are abandoned are forlorn, diminished, forsaken. Whatever and whomever we leave behind, reject, throw-away, cut off, separate, forsake, ditch, dump or discard—all are a part of who we are and were and what we dreamed. Abandoned houses and cars, junk yards and careers, give mute testimony to fate, folly, and the human inability to foresee the future. Those whom we have abandoned write our moral epitaphs with their pain and fear. Abandoning something or someone may open new possibilities for us but there is always a moral price we must pay.

Behind Our Mask

My daughter is an actor on stage, my father was a legislator, and I am a writer. Each of us wears a ‘mask.’ Not a physical mask but a figurative one, a persona. On stage, my daughter creates a person that isn’t her own but draws on her inner life. It’s for her art. As a leader, my father’s partisan expressions reflected his values but not his nature. He did it to influence followers. As a writer, I choose my words to show you—the reader—what I want you to see. Actor, politician, and writer, we wear our masks for effect.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t show everything to everyone because we can’t. It’s humanly impossible because we aren’t omniscient. Our mortality limits what we can know and reveal about ourselves at any one time. As mortals, we are restricted to revealing what is useful in living our lives.

I think masks reveal more of us than they hide. When I visit anthropological museums in Mexico, I study the indigenous masks from Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and Olmec civilizations. Made of clay, stone, metal and wood, they present a bewildering array of heads. The faces aren’t realistic and some are hideous, nightmare visages with long, forked tongues protruding from their mouths. These are bizarre to someone formed in the representational artistic traditions of western Europe. We expect the realistic figures from which we might infer their character. To the indigenous cultures, the funeral masks represented who the individuals were to the people of that time and place. In those largely preliterate cultures, the masks expressed symbolically the qualities, character, and personality of the deceased. They were three dimensional eulogies for nobles, warriors and priests.

The masks beg timeless questions. Who are we? What are the secrets to our identities? Questions that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and writers have asked these questions for ages. Some clues still come from masks.

In Masks of the Spirit, Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, Peter and Roberta Markman describe Mesoamerican masks as metaphorical expressions of “a particular relationship between matter and spirit, the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible.” Central to basic Mesoamerican religion is a belief in the natural world as merely a skin or mask of the supernatural. “The mask and its wearer exist in a series of relationships” that visually express the inner, spiritual identity of the wearers. They conceal and yet reveal the inner spiritual force of life itself, and create a “metaphorical relationship between man and the numinous.” As symbols of transformation, the masks provide the means by which humans transcend material existence to unite the realms of matter and spirit.

Does the mask or persona I wear daily to work, to school, or at home fulfill a similar function, even if on a mundane level? How much of my mask is designed to hide who I am and how much of it is intended to reveal my identity? Does the mask truly represent me in all times and places? Is it authentic?

Like Mesoamerican masks, I think mine mask—and yours—is fashioned by family and society to help me live and work harmoniously if not happily. For the most part, you and I accept our personas as a ‘given;’ like the sky or the air. We take it for granted and seldom examine our identity unless we are in crisis. Society accepts my mask and yours because they are consonant with our respective communities and cultures, their histories and traditions.

My mask presents an imperturbable face of understatement over a buttoned-down persona that rarely makes overt expressions of emotion. This mask fit well over the introverted side of my personality, especially during adolescence, when I thought (erroneously) my reticence added an element of mystery to my imagined ‘coolness when, in fact, it simply hid my social awkwardness. It worked well in an emotionally guarded family living in the fervently indirect social environment of rural Minnesota.

As I entered upon a career, I updated the mask without changing the underlying design as I adapted my persona to new settings and new colleagues. It represented who I thought I ought to be, wanted to be, and was. The mask felt comfortable in Minnesota in a profession where its qualities furthered my aims and ambitions.

I spent time in Mexico as an adult learning the language and culture, and arrived wearing my usual Minnesota mask. But the peoples and cultures of Mexico are different from those in Minnesota. And so are the masks people wear. As I worked at learning the Mexican culture, some of my Minnesota persona felt out of place and I had to assume another one to ‘fit in.’ As actors know, masks possess transformative power. In Mexico, my assumed role, drew upon aspects of my personality and character little used in Minnesota. Before long, a more extroverted and emotional facet of my persona emerged and struggled for a place alongside my buttoned-down imperturbability.

I liked the Mexican ‘mask’ and experiencing myself in a new way. At the same time, I faced the question of which persona, which mask, reflected my authentic identity? Was the more open, extroverted Mexican persona more authentic than the buttoned-down professional mask everyone knew in Minnesota? Which was real and which a pretension?

After several years of struggle, I now regard each mask as authentic. Masks are transformative and the sum of my being is greater than I can express in the attributes of a single mask. Each persona reflects an authentic part of me consonant with where I am and who I’m with. Like the Mesoamericans, I believe we have relationships with our masks as we have with ourselves. My mask—and yours—is a channel for expressing our life force in a manner accessible to others.

 

 

The Intimate Hand

Response to Daily Prompt: Handwriting

In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a  text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.

I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.

The joy of a handwritten letterl
The joy of a handwritten letter.

When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.

Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.

Dad's writing.
Dad’s writing.

My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.

My mother's hand.
My mother’s hand.

Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’

My uncle's autography.
My uncle’s autography.

My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.

My brother's script.
My brother’s script.

Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.

In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.

My writing.
My writing.

When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.

You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.

 

 

Response to the Daily Post–Price

A rug tienda in Mitla
A rug tienda in Mitla

Some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We’ve all met them—crabbed creatures with small hearts whose concept of reality is limited to accounts expressed as debits and margins of profit. Lamentably, we are all infected to a degree and fail to distinguish value from price.

Here, in Oaxaca, artisan goods are plentiful and, except for high end shops in the city center, they lack price tags. A buyer must ask how much, “¿Cuanto cuesto?” Asking is a good thing for a curious buyer because it may lead to a conversation, possibly an education, if not a form of fleeting friendship.

Pasale,” the weaver says, inviting me to enter his tienda or shop to look at his rugs or tapetes. Most artisans sell directly from their tallers or workshops with a stall at the weekly tianguis or market, and occasionally at the periodic ferias or fairs held at public celebrations, such as during Holy Week.

Zapotec rug motif
Zapotec rug motif

He is an engaging man in his forties with an open expression and easy way of speaking. Although I’m not in the market for a tapete, I pause and admire his work out of respect for his craft. This tienda is ablaze with rugs in brilliant colors—crimson, cinnamon, chocolate, gold, black, blue—woven into the Zapotec motifs of the indigenous people resident for millennia in this part of Mexico.

Me encanta los colores, modelos y diseños. Muy hermosos.” I tell him I love the beautiful colors and designs of his work. He smiles. I’m not in the market to buy one, I tell him, because I already have many in my house. But I admire your work. There are no other customers at the moment and he is happy to talk.

Esta es nuestra herencia, de generación a generación.” He tells me weaving is his family’s heritage. He learned from his parents and grandparents and now teaches his children to weave. Like most weaving families, they memorize their designs and motifs; there are no patterns in books. This is innate knowledge they pass on to succeeding generations much like families pass down to daughters and new brides the treasured recipes of the grandmothers. Recipes explain how to make a cake, but a family recipe is about a cake that transmits traditions as part of the family identity. And so it is with weaving. It’s more than a skill, it’s an identity.

Weaver's yarn-natural dye
Weaver’s yarn-natural dye

As a family, he and the children card, spin and dye the wool, and then work the telar or loom to produce tapetes, table runners, bedcovers, shoulder bags, and coasters. Weaving has a small margin of profit, he says, and the tourist market is always uncertain. Sometimes he sells only one or two tapetes a month, at other times more.

Why do this if the margin is so small, I ask.

Me encanta telar.” I love to weave, he says with a smile that comes from deep satisfaction. Despite narrow, uncertain profits, and hard, meticulous work, it is a labor of love, an essential part of his identity as a man, a resident of Teotitlán, and as a Zapotec with a language and culture extending back several thousand years. Even through the veil of Spanish, his and my second language, I hear his pride, authenticity, and love of creative work. In these intangibles of heart and soul, family and tradition lie the fuller value of the tapete, the rug some discerning tourist may buy as cheaply as possible to hang on her wall. It’s the love and dedication represents the full value of his work.

I ask if his price includes compensation for the time spent making the tapete. It doesn’t, he says, shaking his head, his expression wistful. This is true for all the artisans of tapetes, camisas or shirts, and faldas bordadas or embroidered dresses, rebozos, carvings, and other items. It is true of painters as well. The rug spring from a love of the labor more than mere financial gain.

The full cost of the tapete isn’t reflected in its price because the cost doesn’t account for the time spent making them, nor the accumulation of skill from years of practice and application. The cost includes the tangible materials, transportation, and other measurable items plus a margin above out-of-pocket costs in order to sustain the enterprise.

Embroidered madil or apron
Embroidered madil or apron

How to put the true price on several thousand years of cultural life, the accumulated skill and wisdom in creating art like no other in the world? Any astute observer will quickly see the disconnect between the hidden cost of producing a tapete, its intrinsic value and its market price.  A five-by-seven foot tapete may take two months to produce and sell for $1,800 pesos or just over $100 dollars. To this yanqui, that’s inexpensive and a good buy—if I think only of the price.

But, after conversations with many artisans, it’s clear the value of what I want to buy is at odds with the price offered. This isn’t because the weaver is a poor businessman, it’s because art isn’t a commodity, each item is an individual work incompatible with ideas of piece-work and mass-production.

We who are buyers or “consumers” (how I hate that word!) of art, miss much of what we purchase when we concentrate on getting it for a lower cost. To some degree, we are all infected with a commercial perspective of wanting a bargain—of getting more for less if we can. We call this ‘thrift’ and tell ourselves it’s a virtue. However, most of us aren’t thrifty (look at our credit card debt) and our ‘thrift’ looks more like the cardinal sin of greed.

If the price is all we see, and the bargain is our ‘object,’ then we miss the intrinsic value of the object and—more importantly—we fail to see the human and cultural richness invested into the tapete. In that failure, we missing seeing something of ourselves in the lives, the hearts, the souls that produced the rug. As affluent buyers, generosity rather than ‘thrift’ becomes us. Paying full price, giving artisans a complement, a word of conversation, adds to their lives and enriches ours as well.

 

 

A persistent memory

April 10, 1947. Home.
April 10, 1947. We reach a new home.

My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.

This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.

I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.

County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.

Warm air, sun, thawing ground, April 1947.
Warm air, sun, thawing ground.

Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.

Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.

A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.

The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.

After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.

Barn of indistinct color
A barn of indistinct color

They name it The River Farm.

Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.

He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.

I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.

The farm as I leave it to others.
The farm that rims my childhood.

But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.

 

 

Telephones and Sloppy Joes, Five Scenes from Childhood

I wasn’t quite seven years-old when the lineman from the phone company in Janesville, Minnesota, installed a wooden box – a Western Electric – on the living room wall. A crank projected from the right side, and the receiver hung in its cradle on the left. The daffodil-shaped mouthpiece jutted from the front. It looked like a museum piece Alexander Graham Bell himself had used – even when it was new. We moved onto the farm in 1947 but had to wait until 1950 to get it when post-war shortages ended. When we needed to call, we used our neighbor’s phone. The neighbors on either side of us had phone service from two different towns and the ten miles between the towns necessitated an expensive ‘long distance’ connection. At the time, we had the best of both worlds. We shared our phone line with 11 parties. Our number – 57F4 – had four rings.

My parents called by lifting the receiver and listening to make certain no one was on the line. Then then they cranked to call the operator – a pleasant-voiced woman called ‘Central.’ They gave her the number and she made the connections. When any of the others received a call, our phone rang too. My parents soon knew the other parties’ ring pattern. Rings invited snooping and sometimes my parents asked eavesdroppers to stop breathing loudly when they listened in! Lightning nearby made the phone’s bell ‘ding.’ Decades before Doppler radar, we knew an approaching storm’s ferocity from the frequency of the ‘dings.’ This wooden box with the daffodil served us for 15 years. In the early 1960’s the company added direct dialing and soon everyone had a private line and a rotary phone. The advent of private lines ended phone-sharing and eavesdropping, and with it, we all lost some of the close-knit feeling of being a community of farmers who knew each other’s business (discretely, of course). Privacy replaced community.

For a short time in my young life, I feared the telephone in certain weather. As a boy of ten or so, I feared lightning. Not the string lightning that zapped the earth from cloud to ground. I liked to watch that! No, I feared something I had never seen, and – so far – have yet to see. My fear began with an eerie story an adult neighbor told me. Heinz said balls of blue lightning sometimes formed on telephone lines during thunderstorms and entered farmhouses through the telephone. Then the balls rolled on the floor.

Southern Minnesota is muggy from late June to early August, and muggy, summer nights breed thunderstorms. On such nights, when the night air is absolutely still, you can hear the corn growing. It is a faint sound – or rather, millions of faint sounds – as expanding corn leaves split their sheaths. Nights like this often produce ‘heat lightning’ or ‘St. Elmo’s fire,’ a burst of static electricity without thunder. On hazy nights, it was possible to see lightning flickering malevolently, far away, along the horizon. I dreaded the still, summer nights when my parents left me to baby-site my seven-year-old sister while they went to play bridge in town. What if that awful ball of fire shot out of the telephone and rolled around on the floor? I soon out grew out of my fear and grew into a fascination for Southern Minnesota weather, such as early spring thunder snows with lightning.

Our farm had 160 acres of arable land and another 120 acres of woodlands south of the meandering LeSueur River. The woods were magic – a place where a boy could have adventures, real and imagined. For most of the year, the river flowed slowly over a bed of silt and sand. It wasn’t deep, and as children we waded across it. After a little parental guidance, we swam in it. After the age of ten, I went to the woods whenever I could, with or without the Remington .22 rifle, just to slip the parental leash and the endless chores of pulling weeds.

A low, T-shaped ridge ran north for a quarter mile from our south line to a high cut-bank above the river. I loved to hunt fox squirrels there among the burr oaks with low crowns and spreading branches. In the spring, I watched migrating mallards and teal dabbling in the flooded meadow below the ridge. A few deer lurked in the flood plain forest of soft maple, black walnut, black cherry, and cottonwood trees. In the early spring break-up, the flooded river pushed up spectacular ice dams. Later, a cloud of warblers, orioles, catbirds, and thrushes filled the woods with songs. My Scout troop often camped in an opening below the ridge. In the fall, I hunted ducks and learned to snapshoot as they rose from the river’s surface. Before I got a driver’s license, the woods was a haven, a hangout to be safe but adventurous. My mom and dad loved the woods, and sometimes camped on the ridge during the songbird migrations, when the wild phlox carpeted the woods. We buried their ashes, but not their spirits, in an opening where they used to camp. Some things defy the grave.

At puberty, I began to think about serious, grown-up careers. One of Dad’s friends, an older man named Ed, had been a U.S. Forest Ranger and advised on us our woods. He was almost a member of the family, and often stayed for a meal and conversation. Ed knew more about hunting, fishing, and camping than anyone I knew and I eagerly learned from him. When dad was too busy with farming, Ed and I often went hunting, fishing, or camping. In his wool shirt, and puffing his pipe around a fire, he told wonderful tales of his life as a ranger. I idolized him for a few years because he had lived – or said he had – the kind of life that appeals to a 13-year-old boy.

Ed’s stories fed my dreams of a career as a game warden or forest ranger. It was manly, adventurous outdoor work. I would be a well-armed game warden looking for poachers, or a forest ranger battling a huge fire. Rangers and warden had to know a lot of natural science, but I already knew a lot about biology from simply living on the farm. By high school, however, I knew the old-fashioned woodsman’s life I idealized didn’t exist – if it had ever existed. Instead, I grew up to be a historian, camp and fish when I can, and wrote a book about rangers, forests, and the conservation of wilderness because some dreams are too good to let die.

‘Sloppy Joes’ are one of my favorite foods because the dish is tied to memories of a particular ritual on our farm. A ‘Sloppy Joe’ is a hamburger bun filled with a loose, hot filling of ground beef, onions, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings. My mother made them each fall for the opening day of pheasant season but we rarely had it otherwise. In truth, there was nothing intrinsically special about the taste of ‘Sloppy Joes’ except as an essential part of the day, along with several hunting dogs, our shot-guns, and canvas hunting coats.

Pheasant season opened each year at noon on the second Saturday of October. By then, Dad and I had posted the farm with ‘No Trespassing’ signs to keep out all but our hunting party. It was the one day in October when he didn’t pick corn, regardless of how ideal the weather. Our usual gang of hunters arrived about 11 a.m.: Mom’s cousin John, Ed the ranger, Al our dentist, Irv the feed mill manager and his son Buddy. We ate buffet style, and helped ourselves to buns, ‘Sloppy Joe’ filling, dill pickles, potato chips, coffee or pop, and Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. Well-fortified with lunch, we went out to hunt. Part of the ritual lay in the way we swept the fields, moving in almost military formation along the fencerows, through the weed patches, across corn stubble, and then skirting the river before hunting back toward our house for a second helping of coffee and cookies. I haven’t carried a shotgun or hunted pheasants in more than 40 years. Yet, the passage of time hasn’t dulled my delight in a plate of ‘Sloppy Joes.’ The goodness doesn’t come from the ingredients but from the memories.