Farm objects, animate or not, pass season to season without stagger, like a deity the animals must have thought my father, moving yearlong from hay pasture to crop field, from timber to creek crossing, pausing only to inspect the light, the weather on its way. Then toss the salt blocks from the truck bed. Break the pond ice with the axe. Fill the troughs. Make life livable a sun-turn longer.
That one fine object in eight hundred acres of incalculable carbon organisms—What worth beyond my recollection? Seriously: Can we elevate the dead with language the dead can’t comprehend?
A felled white oak, for example, so grand we raced upon its hundred-foot length five feet off the ground. Our pirate ship. Our hull adrift from family squalls. How long it must have lain in woodland shadows so’s to gather within its slow moldering such fecund gardens of moss and fungi, skittering zoos of springtails and salamanders, red squirrels and striped skunks.
A hundred years certainly passed before that oak’s trunk weakened and came down in a full-blown wind or weight of ice.
A hundred years, too, our old house’d sat shifting on its stone foundation by the time we arrived in ’61 to inhabit its wild-critter warrens. We scampered. We scavenged. We shared our hollows with rats and mice, spiders and millipedes, bees slipping through windowpanes and flies laying eggs on lightbulbs. And a mother and father breeding upstairs—one more child to fill one more hollow opening wide inside the mother’s heart, a torn mouth’s soundless scream as dreams like dry leaves quaked and fell around her.
The house too would come down around us, time after time, until at last . . .
But until then . . .
The sunset shed a pink skin on the stucco façade yearlong as long as we stayed. The six rooms shrank as we grew, suffocated us, and far away would never be far enough.
So many dead.
That moss on the oak trunk was green velvet under my hands. The scarlet cups brimmed with rainwater. Overhead, on the branch of a sapling, a nuthatch wondered at my species, invasive and wrathful all of us, ripping away the old bark to expose the pill bugs beneath. The bird scolded us, then flew away. My siblings stripped twigs and poked and prodded the bugs’ bore holes. I looked beyond the swaying branch, at the beau-blue sky darkening toward winter slate.
I was thirteen, on the cusp of a second life. The beauty I found that day was only sadness: The oak was dead. The moss torn. The nuthatch would return, to eat the pill bugs.
We wrought destruction where we could, because we could, because we were angry about some niggling thing always, our petulance a scab that could not be picked by a mother who sent us out of the house, out from under my hair, she said.
Who could blame her: The squabbling carried through a screen door slammed five times, across the lawn and over a fence, into the woods north of the old house, where we’d search for puffballs grown roundly fat. Straining against the carapace. Tantalizing blisters on the musky skin of autumn earth.
We’d stomp on the puffballs to watch their spores explode from the basidiocarp. So small and manifold, those spores, they erupted as yellow or pink mist wafting out and up before settling down upon the moss and acorns, twigs and loam. We seeded the woods that way—through rage—and thereby seeded the ensuing calm brought on by awe: that such a marvel as puffball existed for no other reason than to explode from raindrop or rough wind, deer hoof or girl boot.
Explode that it might multiply and thereby explode again.
Like such terrifying puffballs as we.
Autumn begged destruction of all that spring had borne. Else next year’s crop would not survive winter. Wind blew down birds’ nests. Rainstorms washed surfaces. Deer rutted against the buckthorn, and berries fell with semen.
We were thus: children wild in a timber wild
[now grown to adults that seethe and buck against the civility of straight streets and squared corners, clothing dusted with our dead skin, forks and napkins, etiquette and rules . . . everything we censured.]
We writ our own laws in brawls. Games played out to the end. Cheaters shamed or envied. Sore losers ostracized. We put off long as we could playing what’d be wrong elsewhere, off the farm.
We were terrible.
We pulled the wings off flying grasshoppers to make miniature geisha fans. We crushed the abdomens of lightning bugs to make jewelry that glowed in the dark. We popped ticks swollen with dog’s blood, or impaled them on needles and held a match under them until they launched sputtering like tiny rockets aimed toward a farther world where children grew to understand:
that every hapless thing needn’t cede to a child’s boredom its right to live;
that a winged grasshopper squatting on a single leaf of pigweed, chewing, then stilled in that instant before it takes flight, cancels out with a flinch of swift verdict the parents’ endless shouting inside the airless house;
that narrowing speculation to that infinitesimal moment, that flicker, that convulsion, bears more resemblance to the idea of “God” than any awful Jesus painting on your Sunday school wall;
that a grasshopper’s five eyes, the flagellum of its antennae, sees as much heaven as we’ll ever see, and more;
that an insect’s disappearing whir into a cerulean sky replicates the path of an angel fleeing in disgust . . .
Somehow this has become about religion.
My brother taught me how to track animals along the sandy creek banks: This’s a coyote, this’s a fawn, that’s a coon and that’s a red squirrel . . .
You could tell if the critter was heavy or light, walking or running, if it lingered at the water’s edge or scampered into the brush. We’d touch a finger to where the paw pad’d sunk in fine sand. Temperature meant time: It was just here, brother’d say, and look up. Track’s still warm.
I’d look up, too, downstream to where the tracks led, hoping to see a creature careless of our scent, wobbling slow or slowly pondering its own reflection, maybe scrutinizing some pale yellow cloud of clouded sulphur butterflies at the water’s edge. And I’d hope it would get away, always, from whatever hungered for it, so that each wondrous moment would rise eternal beyond recollection, a permanence more capacious than God.
My brother’d learned his craft from a book, like what he learned from all the books, the only books he kept in his room, books that in those days might have been titled, How to Be a Real Boy, if they’d been honest about such bias. Hunting and tracking, guns and arrows, campfires and dens.
When he was gone to woods or pastures (or later, to small-town girls and teen mischief) I’d sneak into his bedroom and study his treasures: the buck antlers and buckeyes and buckshot, the arrowheads and slabs of mica and fossils, model planes and car magazines . . . His world begat things redolent and inscrutable, secrets for killing and flying on land or air, and every damn lesson a prelude to escape.
He learned, too, from the farm woods that were big and often gloomy, like him, a perfect habitat for what’s unknown and slipping by, scarcely out of sight of what’s to be dreaded: future to come, what’s not here along the beautiful creek banks but elsewhere, unhappy and without such sweet innocence as a boy seeking to be no longer such.
As if a two-year-old drew a line, pretending to write longhand through timber, Blackbird Creek flowed miles through our farm. Crazy snakelike, yes, southeastward past the property line eventually spilling into the Chariton River that spilled into the Missouri River that wound through the state until it, too, spilled into the Mississippi that flowed south to the Gulf and oceans.
I’d marvel. Such distance between me and a great blue whale! And yet:
To float face up in early summer waters, still cold then and crystalline, the creek, was to be threaded through the eye of the heart of the country straight to a hulking mammal skimming the sky.
Musing, I’d skim the flowing stream with wrinkling fingertips under the celestial vault and pretend I was that quiet beast of oceans humming to myself, wondering what’s up beyond the blue between the trees. Where’s the moving white cumulus going?
Cumulus: Latin to heap. And did they heap, those clouds! Roiling to soundtracks of hissing leaves and bird squawks and bellowing bulls.
Clearly to see, eye to eye, how clearly all things connected, micro to macro, threads enmeshed, and thus anticipate even then, as an adolescent melancholy on the cusp of puberty—my first death of the “I” I was—the eventual too-quick destruction of everything.
Exhaling all air so that I sank submerged with the same slow sorrow of a harpooned whale hauled up in chains from salt waters and eviscerated for what we cannot stand of our own species—and what we deny—while the shared communal sky goes ever after dark over the Anthropocene’s stagnant waters.