Essays and More
Thanks to the tremendous and humbling response to these few essays, a better publishing platform was required. To Tumblr we turn! Please visit Notes from an American Farmer!
The End of the Waters (Paugwonk, August 2011. Note: I thought the Russians hacked this one into oblivion last year. Thanks, Spotlight).
Highway 53 runs south from Virginia, Minnesota, the Queen City of the North, to Duluth, on the western shore of Lake Superior. It was built to connect to the taconite mines of the Iron Range with Duluth’s international port, more for the bosses and overseers than the ore itself, which went by rail. The highway is a monotonous and pale road, bordered by thin red pines, whose branches offer little shade. That’s how it is in the northland. Millions of trees cluster close, though whether the conifers are weather-beaten or maybe it’s the angle of the sun, none of them throw shadows. In summer, the roads are snakes of blacktop desert.
Hermantown is Duluth’s doormat. All the homes on Highway 53 are for sale and are unsaleable. It was not the Great Recession, or the early ’90s real-estate bust, or anything specific that put Hermantown down. Rather, it was the slow ebbing of American manufactures and the subsequent erosion of the Dream. A large chunk of the houses were built as a revitalization project during the 1930s. No one is going to revitalize Hermantown now.
Down the pale road and past the overgrown lawns of Hermantown, what strikes us first as we drive into Duluth is the elevation. Rounding a final turn, the slate-blue expanse of Lake Superior hits us in the face like a glass of cold water. The cliff we are driving along is so high, it seems as if we can see clear to Sault Ste. Marie. If only we could reach out through our windshield, we could raise and lower the Aerial Lift Bridge by hand. The view is jarring and we swallow, thinking our ears must pop and that’s when we realize everything behind us has been a plateau, a great wooded plateau stretching all the way to Canada. It is marvelous in this age of Google Maps and GPS to be wowed by geography.
The descent down begins at a hairpin left turn, at which the angle of the road decreases sharply. The intersecting streets and avenues are now labeled by number and are spaced at regular intervals. From the wilds of the north, we have arrived upon an urban grid, albeit one laid out across a giant hillside. Our friends live on 17th Avenue, on the corner of 9th Street.
Their house was built in 1913 and it bears traces of the Arts & Crafts style, with ornamental built-ins and a stained glass window installed above the stairway landing. There is no air conditioning and there’s a heatwave on, so the floorboards and wainscoting bake. Inside it smells like my grandparents’ house, of the hint of cigarettes and Packards in the driveway and lonely housewives and the radio crackling with news of the Allies’ push across the Rhine in tanks made from American steel made from ore shipped from Duluth.
In truth, it is our friends’ vacation home. To Minnesotans, the decision to buy a second house in Duluth is baffling. A cabin on the shore of one of the more anonymous 10,000 lakes is what you are supposed to buy. Not a house in a city up a hill from the biggest lake of them all. And where do you put your boat? Unless it’s an international cargo ship, you don’t.
So, why? On a superficial level, one reason is price. Fourteen hundred square feet, architectural details, garage, and a stellar view, all for less than one hundred thousand dollars. To an easterner, where such a house with such a view would cost at least four times that, any amount less than a hundred grand is magical, like Pi or Fibonacci’s Sequence.
A more important reason, however, is sentiment. Our friends met at UMD–the University of Minnesota at Duluth, home of the 2011 NCAA Hockey champions. As our friends put it, something special about the city drew them each there. Because of this, when they met, they reasoned they must share a fundamental compatibility, because why on God’s green earth would anyone else not playing D-I hockey choose to go to college in Duluth? They grew up elsewhere in Minnesota, hadn’t they heard about the winters? Returning now, married and with two kids, gives them the chance to explore the origin story of their marriage, to rediscover day after day what brought them together in the first place.
Before iron ore, fur pelts drove the old northwest economy. In the mid-17th century, French explorers dreaming of western waterways and lucrative
commerce with the Ojibwe and Sioux established trading posts on the western shore of Lake Superior. The city is named for Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (the latter a title of French nobility and the antecedent to the modern monsieur), an intrepid soldier devoted to France’s interests in the New World. Born in 1640 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Greysolon was one of those faceless actors in history whose ambitions made a tremendous contribution to the spread of Western culture across the North American continent. In addition to settling disputes between the Ojibwe and the Sioux which preserved valuable trade in the area, Greysolon also rescued Father Louis Hennepin, the pioneering Jesuit who named Saint Anthony’s Falls in present-day Minneapolis, from Indian captivity. In 1686, Greysolon also established the trading post that eventually became Detroit.
Greysolon’s efforts undoubtably preserved the northwest fur trade for several decades, though, ultimately, French trappers were supplanted at the end of the 17th century by the English Hudson’s Bay Company. Over the next hundred and fifty years, various outposts were built and either abandoned or destroyed (including several by John Jacob Astor), until the rise of the iron industry. Eventually, that, too, collapsed, making Duluth a city built on the promise of prosperity rather than its realization.
Maybe that’s what attracted our friends in the first place. Duluth still stands at the end of the waters, a gateway to the old frontier. Such places have always drawn people who see the potential of things, such as our friends, who are cheery and optimistic and are the sort who say yes rather than no.
4th Street is one of Duluth’s main thoroughfares along the base of the hill. It carries traffic to Lake Avenue, which runs southeast to the restaurant district and, eventually, over the Aerial Bridge to Park Point, a long strip of land reaching out from Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin, its sister city across Saint Louis Bay. Compared to Duluth, Superior is the older, frumpier sister with thicker ankles. The people of Duluth do not regard the people of Superior.
The north side of Park Point is a long sandy beach gently curled so that beachgoers are treated to the site of their city rising up across the still lake. Because it is fresh-water, there are no shells to cut your feet upon, there is no briny aftertaste when you dunk your head into the clear coldness. There are no breakers, barely a tide, and no undertow. It is an ocean without the hazards of the ocean. Like affordable housing, it is another of Duluth’s miracles.
On our last day in Duluth, I ran the six miles from the corner of 17th and 9th to the end of Park Point. The day was hot, but less humid than the one before, for which I was grateful. Still, since we hadn’t seen our friends in a year, our nights had been occupied with too much eating and drinking. My body performed, shall we say, inefficiently. When at last I reached the end of the point, sweat clouded my eyes which, combined with the glare from the sun, cast a bright sheen across my vision. I untied my shoes and carried them in my hand as I crossed the small path to the beach. There, I, too, looked across the waters to the city.
We had come from those heights, down the pale road and past the desperation into a city that, despite itself, endures the rise and fall of industries. It is tourism now that keeps the city alive, though I don’t know many people, Minnesotans or otherwise, who shake their children awake at dawn to drive to Duluth. So maybe, tourism, too, will fail and something else will take its place. The medical industry, we hear, is recently big.
To my eyes still colored by the sheen, the buildings against the hillside appear white and gleaming. With the busy harbor below it and sweeping beach, I am reminded of Monaco, or at least my idea of Monaco. When I tell them of it, our friends find this comparison absurd, but I don’t know. There are only so many places in the world that feel totally apart from the rest of it. Monaco, I imagine, feels this way. Most islands, I suppose.
For the moment, despite the crowded beach, I feel as if Duluth is my secret. I am Greysolon, I am Sieur du Lhut. I strip off my shirt, beat my chest, and dive into the inland sea.
The Diesel Catechism (Our Town, March 2013)
My father-in-law drives a Ford F350 diesel pick-up truck. Always has. The current one, a decade old, is gray with old towels laid over the seats to keep them new. The engine rumbles, but not as loud as some of his previous trucks–the green one, the blue one, or the brown. That’s thirty years of pick-ups, thirty years of selfless work in the sun and the brutal Minnesota cold, so his kids could eat and go to college and build lives of prosperity. I suspect these lives far surpass what he might have imagined during his childhood on the prairie where, often, all his family had to eat was milk, butter, and flour, warmed together in a rib-coating porridge. Sometimes, in late January, inside his kitchen in suburban Minneapolis, with the winter sun warming his back through the sliding glass door, he’ll sit down to a plate of this “milk mush,” made by his own cracked and calloused hands, and ponder the wonders of his life and marvel at his good fortune, which, of course, we know is not just good fortune, but also the reward of an honest, hard-worked life.
No two diesel engines sound the same. Their knocks and rattles, their echoes off the neighborhood ranch houses, are their own sort of internal combustion catechism, a fuel-burning call-and-response that says I am coming home. Seventeen years ago, when my wife and I were dating, we would often be sitting on the couch in her parents’ living room when we’d hear the rumble of his blue truck turning onto Maple Street. In that quarter mile, as the diesel grew louder as it neared, I would have plenty of time to do a little pondering of my own, namely on the brevity of my existence should honor fail me in regard to his daughter. If there is a diesel in the driveway, there is almost always a shotgun in the basement.
As it turns out, there were two shotguns and a rifle. The first time my father-in-law asked me to hunt with him, I declined, a decision I regret now, along with all the other times he asked and I likewise made excuses. “I went with him, once,” my wife told me. “He just likes to walk in the woods.” It’s not that he’s never killed, he has, but life is hard and killing is a burden. It is better to walk in the woods with your friends and sons and grandchildren, let them enjoy the sport, while thinking about the few great shots in your own time, and how lucky you are just to have lived long enough to appreciate the memory.
My father-in-law raised hell in his day, probably more than he’s told us and more than he’d like us to know. I wonder sometimes whether this is where his silence and humility comes from, a small reservoir of regret that gives him patience with others and frees him from hypocrisy. I have never seen him angry and I have never heard him yell. When I ponder this, I realize I was never afraid of my father-in-law in the diesel pick-up with two shotguns in the basement, but rather, I have, from the beginning, regarded him with awe. It sometimes seems impossible to me that such a man should even exist, a man who does not yell, who keeps his peace, who, it seems, wants little more than a crisp twenty in his wallet and a full tank of gas.
I never thought we’d own a truck, but we have one now. The Farm demands it. Ours, a GMC, is likewise gray and diesel. I make excuses to drive it, like running to the post office or the bank. We joke that the truck plays only country music, which, of course, is filled with stories about fathers and sons and men trying to be better than they are. So when I’m driving to the bank, I think about my father-in-law, and when I’m driving back from the post office, I think about my father-in-law.
I think about his long and rich life, I think about the stories he’s told us of growing up in Goodridge, Minnesota, of sleeping in winter on the swayed back of the family’s old nag to stay warm, of not having electricity or television, of walking to school, of working so deep in the taconite mines of the Iron Range he thought he’d never see the surface again, let alone make it to his second job driving a delivery truck, let alone his third job stacking pins at the bowling alley, of going union and getting a job running a loader down in the Cities, of waiting to get laid off in winter, of getting the call to plow snow for 72 hours straight in negative ten degree weather and leaping out of bed because the money was buried under the drifts, of driving the family Datsun into the ground because what else could they do, of forcing himself to quit smoking for the love of his children and saving the money to buy the family an ATV, of never carrying debt, of saying goodbye to his only daughter when she left to study abroad for a year, of saying hello to the five-foot-nothing cocky East Coaster in khaki pants who followed her home, of welcoming him into the family, of saying goodbye to his daughter again when she married and moved east with her short husband, of giving up their vacations to visit them, of laughing off the pain when this son-in-law carelessly smashed his thumb with a sledgehammer, of driving four hours north alone in March to fix the family cabin when no one else could or would, of surviving a small cancer scare that none of us talked about because we were too afraid of losing our lion in winter, and of littler things, like welding back together the small latch of a horse stall because I needed his help and didn’t know where else to turn.
When I return to the Farm, I turn off the radio and climb down from the truck. I’ve been meaning to cover the seats, and I wonder whether we have some old towels at home. I shove my hands in my jacket and think to myself, he wouldn’t have waited this long. A man takes care of his truck, takes care of the things he wishes to last. The wind cuts across the hill. It’s late and I’ll be here long after dark. There’s work to do and much still to learn.
Treasure Simple Gifts (The Paugwonk Courant, December 2012)
Aaron Copland’s “Simple Gifts” is one of those enduring melodies you hear everywhere–the intro to a morning newscast, the background to a cartoon, or, in the worst of times, the piano interlude played while waiting for the president to enter a memorial service in a town close to your heart. That I recognized the song drifting through the CNN b-roll is thanks to Mr. C, the enthusiastic and dedicated director of the East Lyme High School Viking Marching Band when I was a student there, a hundred years ago.
East Lyme is a town much like Newtown. Small, but not terribly so, with a strong school system, old homes and churches, and a loyal local community dedicated to the schools’ sports teams and, bless them, their marching band.
East Lyme is also the childhood home of one of my best friends, Amy Hoadley, who later married a man who also became one of my best friends, Rick McLeod. They live with their children in Newtown, not too far from our home in Milford. When driving there, our daughters, Abby and Hannah, know when they see the flagpole on Main Street, that they are almost to Ainsley and Noel’s house. Ainsley and Noel are seven and four. So are Abby and Hannah. At the flagpole, they clutch the backs of our seats and pull themselves up with excitement. Our children love visiting their friends in Newtown.
My enduring friendship with Amy and Rick is one of the great simple gifts in my life. Just two weeks ago, when it seemed as if many of the other simple gifts in our lives were stressing us out–the Farm and the kids and school–Rick said, stop worrying, come up here, I’ll make dinner. That’s one other thing about Rick. He is a fabulous cook. More than that, he’s a generous one. Our friends in Milford know him as Oyster Stew Guy, because last summer he brought a pot down for the annual Oyster Festival and spent the afternoon ladling it out to anyone who waded through our backyard. Thick, swimming with oysters, brightened by a dash of sherry–it was the best oyster stew anyone could remember. I don’t think he managed to save more than a spoonful for himself, but he didn’t care.
We piled the kids into the car. Driving is one of the few times these days that I have a chance to chat with my wife. We put on some Christmas songs, the kids read some books, and Michelle and I talked about what the next year might bring as the bustle of Milford fell away and the countryside improved. We passed the Ram Pasture on Route 25, a stop on Rochambeau’s march to Yorktown in 1781, and carried on to the center of Newtown. “The flagpole!” our daughter, Abby, shouted. The flag itself was high and bright, snapping in the breeze.
“I call it turf and turf,” Rick said, presenting us with a prime rib and what looked like a butterflied chicken, grilled over sliced lemons. “The correct term is actually ‘spatchcock,’” he said. “A spatchcock chicken. Isn’t that great? Spatchcock.” We laughed. Spatchcock is a pretty hilarious word, when you think about it.
So we ate and I drank and my wife drove home. She asked me if I felt better. I do, I told her, I always feel better when we go there. They are the best friends in the world.
Their daughter lost a friend on December 14th. Not a best friend, not yet, but who could say what might have happened? I was thirteen when I met Amy, alone with my tuba in the parking lot of East Lyme High School. She had no reason to befriend me, slightly chubby, nauseatingly earnest in my enthusiasm for band, an import from Salem, the cowtown north of East Lyme. But she did. And when high school got tough and awkward and trying, Amy was always there. She understood me, as her husband does now, and that is the best simple gift you can ask from a friend.
When I think of the friendships that won’t happen, the ones that have been cut short, I weep and I weep and I weep. And then I force myself to think, there will be other friendships, new ones, and they will be unbreakable. The children who ran from that school will pass each other on the sidewalk beneath the flagpole thirty years from now and they will embrace and remember what no one else does, not the way they remember it, and then they will return to their families and the simple gifts that I hope life showers upon them year after year after year.
We performed “Simple Gifts” from the suite Appalachian Spring in our junior year of high school. “Copland didn’t write it,” Mr. C said. “It’s actually an old Shaker melody.” Then he taught us the words.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Even now, I can’t read the text without hearing the song in my head.
We love Ainsley and Noel as we love our own, as the good world has come to love all the children of Newtown. They deserve to inherit the valley of love and delight.
Pantsapalooza (Our Town, December 2012)
There hangs in my closet a pair of blue pinstriped seersucker pants with pink whales embroidered on them. Once upon a time, these pants were the crown jewel in a year-long, pant-buying spree that included, not just whales, but marlins, ring-necked pheasants, twelve-point bucks, and shades of lime green and bright yellow. I called it Pantsapalooza and I would walk pants-first into parties exclaiming, “hey, check out these pants!”
That is what happens when you leave Salem for too long. You become a crazy person.
Readers of the Paugwonk Courant–the official newsletter of Treasure Hill Farm–know that I’ve spent much of the past year not just horse farming, but identity farming as well–searching for those bits of myself, my childhood here in Salem, that I’ve lost along the way. You know how many times I’ve told people, “I used to eat pizza and play Mrs. Pac-Man right there in that building! It’s amazing, isn’t it! Right there! Thirty years ago! We can’t take those buildings down, the Nostalgia Department prohibits it, ahahahahahaha.”
It’s a wonder I haven’t been punched in the mouth.
But it happens to all of us. You are born in a place, you grow up in a place, then you leave. If you’re lucky, maybe some day you’ll have a chance to return.
The much-used phrase, “you can’t go home again,” comes from the title of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous novel of the same name. Wolfe’s character, George Webber, laments:
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile…back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country…away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
Geez, Wolfe, lighten up. The traffic on I-95 isn’t that bad.
It’s unfortunate the author wasn’t from Salem. If he was, I like to think here’s what he might have written instead:
“You can go back home, now quit your navel-gazing, put on some real pants, and pick up the damn shovel. This field is lousy with rocks.”
I wonder if anyone has yet to write the Great Metaphor Essay about the new rotary, about how time does goes on, things do change, but all we do is go around and around and around.
Not that I really believe that. We all go forward, whether we want to or not. But we do get to choose the scenery. It’s funny, I refer to the old pizza restaurant as the building out front, rather than the Farm as the new building in back. We get older. Our points of view change. But to me, that building is beautiful. I’m going to miss it, miss a bit more of myself, when it’s gone.