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.’

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New.”

Before going to Mexico in October, I started a blog of my experiences rather than keep a journal. Instead of writing privately for myself, I posted my experiences and reflections publicly as if I were a ‘foreign correspondent’ to my readers. Every author loves to be read, and writing for others invites their reactions. Writers love readers’ comments just as actors and musicians live for the applause. The responses keep me going.

My blog – ‘Adventures in Midlife Spanish’ – is aimed at adults who dream about learning Spanish but believe it’s too late to start; that they’re too old to learn. I show them they can learn and offer practical suggestions to accelerate or encourage their learning. Language and culture are inseparable, and my posts reflect on aspects of Mexican culture from the standpoint of a norteamericano with a foot planted in the cultures on either side of the Río Grande.

While in Mexico, I wove together themes from the history, customs, and meaning of El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, the celebration of Independence Day and its links to the on-going political protests, the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican identity and a note of praise for the ubiquitous but essential tortilla. From Mexico it is easier to better understand my native culture when I see it from a new perspective. From there I am free to consider beliefs I haven’t questioned before.

After returning from Mexico, I started a second, concurrent blog called ‘Loose Leave Binder – Reflections on Thoughts, Words, and Deeds.’ The title reflects its looser, more eclectic themes. This is where I post pieces not related to learning Spanish or Mexican culture. It is a place where I can try out ideas and see what others think of them.

Now retired, I’ve returned to writing the way I’ve always wanted to write: To write for the pleasure of individual readers rather than to advance the causes of institutional employers. After thirty-five years of writing impersonal ‘white papers’ and ‘issue briefs’ for various corporate and government organizations, I’m free to write personally without an impersonal mask of dispassionate omniscience. Blogging invites a more immediate, spontaneous style of thinking and writing; it’s a style I had to re-learn in the place of habitual objectivity and self-censorship.

Words are like a mob of extroverts; once I put them down on the paper or screen, they immediately invite other words to associate with them. Then this gang of associated words take me to places I hadn’t thought of going to. That’s the thrill of writing, I don’t know what I’ll produce until I’m done. Blogs seem to write themselves and I’m simply a channel.

Blogging is my discipline. With every post, there are decisions to make that will shape my work. How often to post? What subjects to cover? Should I create a connected series or follow my whims? What is my ‘tone’ of voice – didactic, conversational, or meditative? These and other questions shape my writing, provide continuity, and set a standard against which I measure my work.

The joy of blogging is like going to a high school reunion; it’s a party where I encounter the English language again as I would a boyhood pal, we are new to each other, and yet, we are familiar with much to say.