Thursday, August 27, 2009

Available Surfaces IV: Earth Angel

". . . .for beauty is God's handwriting." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first time I flew to England, I woke up from a troubled airplane sleep and looked out the plane’s porthole. We were over Ireland, the pilot announced, still pretty high but beginning to descend. I was struck immediately by the clarity of definition of the fields below. I don’t mean that they were in some way better focused then what I was accustomed to seeing from the air in the USA; I mean that their edges were sharp and definite. Ireland—and England too, once we reached it—was a mosaic, or an opaque green stained glass window, its leading starkly apparent from the air. I realized that what I could see was a long history of ownership, of human occupancy. The outlines of a narrative were deeply incised, and long maintained, on this earth. Later, when I walked there, I could see the details of it, but not the underlying form, the skeleton. All of it was symptomatic of a social and a physical history, one that had been written and rewritten time out of mind, so many times it would be an archeologist’s lifework to resurrect even a fragment of the rough drafts.

An aerial view of a typical landscape in the USA—no matter how complex the natural features may be—has softer margins; parts of the midwest and south appear almost Impressionistic when seen from the sky. This is partly because we, the fence-building Anglos, have occupied these surfaces for a far shorter time than our ancestors across the pond have lived on theirs. We have fought plenty of battles over ownership, but have had less time to build stark monuments to what we have won, or stolen, and held onto. Stone fences may or may not make good neighbors, but in any case we employ them less than our counterparts in the UK. Our technologies of demarcation are more fluid than theirs; we expect, I suppose, to live on our land for a shorter time, generationally speaking. A barbed wire fence is effective, but impermanent, as any rancher will testify. And a barbed wire fence is almost invisible from the air.

Nevertheless, we have written, and are writing, our story on the landscape too. The perception that our story is newer than England’s or Ireland’s is an illusion precisely to the extent that it is an extension of theirs, a continuation of it, and so it continues to occlude and deny other narratives that American earth has recorded from millennia of the stories of societies, technologies, demarcations that were here long before us. But the story that we read from the air is undeniable: field, rangeland, circular track of a wheeled irrigation system, yes; but also mounded earth of another people’s epos.

In the agricultural region where I grew up, there were farms whose fields had of necessity to accommodate remnants of so-called “Mound Builder” culture: mysterious hillocks on flat floodplains where no such hillocks should be. From the air, these mounds appear as nodes around which the poem of the plow divides itself. The effort to bulldoze them away would be great, but I never heard anyone even speculate about that possibility. Though the mounds were not burial barrows, they were monuments to the dead. We were capable of razing monuments to the dead: our history is full of such razing. But why go out of your way to do it? Better to plow around it. The history that is written in the earth belongs more to the dead than it belongs to us.

About a mile from our house, on the adjoining farm, there was a knoll in the middle of a large field; an ancient pine grew from its center, and that tree was surrounded by a dense grove of smaller trees and brush. The explorer brave enough to penetrate that hedge would find, at the foot of the pine, an old graveyard; long untended, its stones were in every possible stage of disorder and decay, but it remained untouched by generations of farmers who doubtless “needed” the land. When I was in my teens, I hiked there two or three times a year. There was an atmosphere of sacred places there, which presented itself even to the firm agnostic I was in the process of becoming. That aura did not belong to the gravestones, or not to them only: it arose from the whole conjunction of the human and natural alphabets that collided there: eroded stone, decaying pine, plowed field with furrows that swerved around the place where I stood. It would, I suppose, have made an orderly and beautiful effect from the air, a juxtaposition of textures what would draw a hawk’s eye immediately toward the grove’s central tree. I was often greeted by red-tailed hawks as I approached the graveyard; they roosted in the ancient pine, and would rise up at my approach resentfully, drawing their hawk mandalas in the sky around me as I plunged into the grove.

In Ohio I once visited an effigy mound made in the shape of a hawk, broadcasting its imperious form skyward. There are many such mounds in the Ohio Valley, including an enormous effigy mound in the shape of a snake, holding an egg in its mouth. The mound builders, whoever they were, had intentions of which we know nothing, but the earth retains the stories they wrote. Hawk, snake, alligator: these characters inhabited a people’s spirit—their minds, their wishes, their dreams, their nightmares. Were they writing messages to their gods, or to aliens in fiery spaceships circling in the sky? Nobody knows. I prefer to think that the story they wrote in earth is simply that: their story, incised in the most permanent medium they knew, written for no sky tourists but for themselves and for the generations to come.

Mostly what we write on the earth we write by accident, by which I mean that, intent on a mundane task we contribute something without thinking about it to the narrative: the script of a plowed field, the tracery of a highway system, hole dug in the back field for a septic tank. No matter: the story is written, intended or not. The future will read it, and will judge it for what it is. All the circles I made decades ago, riding my uncle’s old John Deere, dragging a harrow behind me, are still there in the earth I moved, however occluded by the circles made before and after me by others. The mark remains, like a giant fingerprint. And everywhere we turn, the earth is marked, its poem still being written.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]

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