Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (5): Impermanent Earth

Mark Bryan - The Tornado Man
Mark Bryan - The Tornado Man

For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak,I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Dirt mattered. It made a difference that my family owned land, and that it was good fertile land; it supported crops, it supported grassland for cattle, it supported trees of many kinds. It supported everything that we were about. When I was small, I realized that the land supported our house, held it up from—what? What would happen to the house if the soil beneath it suddenly melted away? What was underneath it?

In the little Methodist church we went to every Sunday, I heard the word firmament, I learned the importance of a good foundation: You have built your house upon the sand. I could imagine the consequences: one good rain and the sand would wash away; the house would fall down, an idea inevitably invoking images of wolves and pigs. Build your house upon a rock. And build it of brick, lest there be a storm of wolf breath.

I had dreams, when I was a small boy, of tornadoes. They came near us sometimes in reality, and those black storm-cones invaded my sleep. Sometimes our old farmhouse, which usually felt so safe and permanent to me, seemed built of straw. When the oak trees in our yard were storm-whipped, and hail pounded the windows, I could imagine it all coming unstuck, blowing in a cloud of dust (including all my toys and the family dog) into the unknown horizon. The Wizard of Oz was an ordeal for me the first time I saw it (on our old black and white television on which the famous transformation into color never happened); I identified too strongly with the people in Kansas, who, for all their flatness, were like us. We, too, were flat characters compared with witches, wizards, and munchkins; we were simple and stupid, we trusted the walls of our house, we presented our two-dimensional sail-like surfaces to any fierce wind.

In that same church, I heard of the Apocalypse, the End of Time. How would it happen? By fire, some said, since there was a promise it would not be by flood. The world had already been virtually erased once that way. We children loved the story of Noah’s Ark. Why? It was a horrifying tale, but the Bible’s account did not dwell on so many deaths. While the animals made their way up Noah’s ramp, I imagined what it would be like to be one of those not chosen, which was just about everyone. If I had been alive then, doubtless I would have been left to drown. 40 days of rain and the water rising: your mother, your father, your brothers and sisters and neighbors one by one going down. At the End of Time it would happen again some other way, we were told. Worlds could be destroyed again and again. Everything could be swept away. And yet, it seemed, there was always something else.

My father was a gardener. The distinction between a farmer and a gardener is one of degree, not kind, and yet there is a distinction. The gardener has his eye out for every plant, and worries differently about the quality of his soil. The farmer, generally, applies chemistry en masse; the gardener scavenges manure, crafts his tilth, turns over individual leaves looking for blight and pests. My father lived in both those roles, and they often contradicted one another in his thinking about crops and land, but he was untroubled by such considerations, understanding that he had different jobs and those jobs had distinct parameters.

Once, while he was breaking up land for a new vegetable annex, my father’s plow turned up several objects that first appeared to be round white stones, but on closer inspection proved to be fossils of seashells. He brought them home and lined them up on the porch.

“Where did they come from?” I said.

“Out of the ground.”

“But before that. How’d they get into our dirt?”

“From when this was an ocean.”

“This was an ocean?”

“Yes; everything here was under water long ago.”

“Was that Noah’s flood?”

My father, no great churchgoer, paused. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

So the water had come more than once. The promise meant nothing. I was five years old; I felt the earth I was standing on turn to water, felt everything familiar, everything I loved, everything I was, flow away. The limestone fossils lay quietly on the porch, witness to the fact that something else, something utterly different, had been in this place once. If I squint through the warped lens of my memory, they look like a row of skulls: memento mori, not for me or for any human individual, but for all worlds destroyed in any past and for all future worlds and their destruction.

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