This Is How The Sausage Is Made

It’s Monday morning and a good cup of coffee is a welcome treat in the cold rain. Congress says that this is Veteran’s Day, but we all know that the real observance is on the 11th. World War I ended one hundred years ago this eleventh month, on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour. Only 80 members of the incoming Congress, or about 16 percent, are veterans, so I’m not sure why the other 84 percent think that they should get an extra holiday.

But then Congress is good at looking after the concerns of Congress, voting itself pay raises, holidays and healthcare privileges, the reward, we presume, for providing us with so many, so very many laws and proclamations, and for the tireless effort to see who can redistribute the biggest share of our tax dollars to their own districts.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to join the largest segment of the US population which does not vote and appears to have little concern for political theater. We sympathize with their rejection of a forum which every year seems to more closely resemble professional wrestling, the main difference being that professional wrestlers are also professional athletes, while members of Congress need only money and popularity to qualify for their jobs.

In an effort to encourage more non-participants to vote, former First Lady, Michelle Obama, tells us that we don’t need any “special expertise” to vote, that we “don’t have to read every news article to be qualified to vote,” and that it’s OK to vote, even if we “know nothing about nothing.” I submit to you that this happens frequently enough without any further encouragement. It is precisely how, as Joseph de Maistre once said, a “nation gets the government it deserves.”

I’m pouring myself a second cup of coffee this morning to help disperse the grumpy reflections of a cold, rainy Monday morning. It’s never a good idea to start the day with a scan of corporate media headlines, which also seem to increasingly mimic professional wrestling jargon. It is of absolutely no benefit to me to know, especially first thing in the morning, who got “slammed,” “destroyed,” or “called out,” or who is “fighting” for what cause. I really didn’t need to know someone’s opinion, repeated over several tabloid websites, that Hillary is going to run again (this was an opinion, not yet a fact) and that we could have a repeat of 2016 with “Wrestlemania 2020.”

As the caffeine stimulates my memory, however, perspective begins to form. Politics has always been ugly. My own family history underlines this fact, and I can still hear my father telling the story of how he was voted in three different precincts in an election without ever setting foot in the county, and how he lost his student deferral during WWII because his father “voted wrong” in a local contest.

The “McCarthy years” are now forgotten to all but a small group of history students and people with good memories. Those who lived through the turmoil of the late sixties appear to have forgotten that as well, when we hear repeatedly that the country has “never been so divided.” Civil War historians are among the first to scoff at this statement.

Yet there is generally a strong sense that somehow, things are different this time. There is anger, suspicion and unrest, and at the root of it all there is fear, which makes people positional and cuts off any meaningful dialogue with opposing views. Granted, there is nothing new in our experience of fear or in its use as a tool of manipulation. But I submit to you that what is different “this time,” is technology.

Remember, we are wired to accentuate the negative. This is a survival mechanism and it takes conscious effort to overcome it, but we are so drawn to the negative that the survival of the businesses which dispense information is dependent on negativity to capture and hold our attention.

This is how politics has come to dominate the public discourse, even reaching into our private lives and personal relationships where all things are judged by this false dichotomy of left and right. Politics has always been ugly, but technology illuminates what was once hidden and makes immediate what was once gradually revealed. Politics is a sausage grinder, and technology is showing us all the gory details of how that sausage is made. We, who slow down to gawk at the scene of an accident, are mesmerized, horrified and addicted.

Perhaps in realizing that our fears are often magnified out of proportion by the processes we trust to inform our view of the world, we can begin to assuage those fears. If we’re going to have our sausage, it’s probably a good idea to know the list of ingredients in the mix, but watching a pig being slaughtered every morning at breakfast would certainly not improve our appetite or our digestion. Of course our vegetarian friends would tell us that we can endeavor to choose a healthier diet, and when it comes to politics, I can’t say that they are wrong.

 

 

 

A Tale Told by an Idiot

“[Politics is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

By the time you read this, the election will be over, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Granted, we still have to endure the hindsight, the analysis and the spin. The winners will celebrate; the losers will recriminate. Football and the holidays will bring a welcome, if temporary, remission.

When it’s needed, a new drama, a scandal or a disaster will be presented for our consumption, and then comes the next election cycle and the long crescendo of sound and fury until 2020, when it all starts over again.

If you’ve studied marketing or been involved in sales, you understand that marketing is a form of conditioning. Technology has enabled non-stop saturation by marketing, and we are well-trained to respond in predictable ways. (Keep in mind that marketing, politics and propaganda are all first cousins.)

Media companies have always known that pouring gasoline on fires is profitable, and social media, well, that, my friends, is a magnifying glass on an ant hill on a sunny day. We are inspired, frightened, angered, but always confounded and often burned. We’ve been feeling the heat for a long time now.

Think about this while the memory of the most recent campaigns is still fresh in your mind. Try to hang on to this memory through the coming distractions. Remember all the promises from our politicians telling us we aren’t going to take it anymore, that it’s different this time, and they are going to create new solutions to our problems while they repeat the speeches we’ve heard all our lives. Yet we take their words, and words about their words, so personally.

Unless they are self-deluded (as some clearly seem to be), politicians know very well that we will forget their promises as soon as the next drama is presented for our consumption. We could stand on the deck of a ship, blowing on the sails, and have as much chance of altering its course as the speeches by our professional windbags have of affecting our future.

This is truth, but in the aftermath of a bitter and disgusting election cycle, it will be the losing team that first comes to recognize it. Let the winners celebrate while they can. Their elation will be short-lived. Ilana Mercer wrote, “The glue that allowed so lofty a debate throughout early America is gone (not to mention the necessary gray matter). The Tower of Babel that is 21st century America is home not to 6 million but 327 million alienated, antagonistic individuals, diverse to the point of distrust. Each year, elites pile atop this mass of seething antagonists another million newcomers.”

The United States today is less a nation than it is an economy. We are no longer united by common ideals and purposes.  It is our patterns of consumption that bind us,  that direct the action on the stage. It’s time we learn to understand what builds and maintains that stage.

History is moved by forces that are much less dramatic than our headlines, though quite extraordinary in their effects. It is energy, more than any other single factor, that decides economies. It is economies that decide history. This interaction draws the boundaries within which we strut and fret our hours on the stage. No matter how enlightened the ideal or passionate its devotees, there is no political philosophy, no social movement, that can bring peace and prosperity unless there is energy to fuel it and money to pay for it.

If we look at the history of world energy consumption and pay particular attention to the transitions from wood to coal to oil to natural gas, we begin to see the shape and the dimensions of our theater. Periods of peace and stability tend to occur when, and arguably only when, the energy supply is plentiful and affordable. When the energy supply is tight, the economy behaves in unexpected ways – unexpected because we insist on trying to understand history in social and political terms. The world supply of energy has been tight for some time, but a growing debt bubble has delayed the consequences.

People who follow markets often say that a rising tide lifts all boats. When the tide goes out, everything sinks. Some things sink faster than others.  Debt can temporarily keep peace and prosperity afloat (think of the remarkable story of American energy, which has been almost entirely fueled by debt). Debt is the star of the show on the world stage now, and the curtain is just about to go up.

Debt patches but does not repair, delays but does not resolve. It creates wealth disparity, and the greater the debt, the wider the distance between the haves and have-nots. Debt bubbles always burst, eventually, and when they do, there is always pain. Economic depression and war are common symptoms of debt bubbles collapsing – debt bubbles caused by tight energy supplies and transitions.

If you’re pleased by the results of the election, enjoy your moment, but it’s probably not a good idea to celebrate by borrowing money to make a major purchase. If you’re grieved by the election, you won’t have to endure the celebration of the other team for long.

I realize there is little comfort in the cold equations governing the forces that make history. But there may be some practical value in breaking the spell that has mesmerized and transformed almost half the nation into political devotees, stirred the pot of hatred and mistrust and weakened our civil society. No political party, and particularly the democrats and republicans, have any long term solutions to the problems that affect us the most.

If you are reluctant to believe that energy is the main driving force behind history, or if you seek more information, a good place to start is an article by Gail Tverberg, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.”

Remember, it’s all about energy, and the human energy we’ve wasted on politics and media can be better applied to a stage where we can be more effective. After the votes are all counted, it’s past time to get our personal houses in order. We would be well advised to reduce debt. Learn to live within our means. Disconnect from the echo chambers of politics and media. Concentrate on our families and our local communities. Do not neglect the faith and the spiritual growth that gives meaning to our lives and fills the void that we seek to fill with consumption and distraction. Doing this will not alter the course of world history or prevent energy transitions and collapsing debt bubbles, but it will make our personal journeys safer and more comfortable.

 

 

 

 

Generations

“People try to put us down, just because we get around. Talkin’ ’bout my generation.” That was a hit song in 1965 and to this day, “My Generation” is still played on the radio, somewhere, every day.

It’s not one of my favorites. I’m too young to be a hippie, too old to be a millennial and too contrary to be told I have to like certain things because I was born in a certain time period. If I live long enough, the nursing home is going to rock to Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Carlos Santana, Steve Morse, Keb Mo and Heart and a variety of music we don’t have room  to discuss here. Sixties music is generally too “sad sack” for my taste, though I respect the intentions behind it and the volatile times that inspired it. At the moment I’m listening to Polish bass virtuoso, Wojtek Pilichowski. Earlier it was Waylon Jennings and before that, Anoushka Shankar. Good music transcends generations and all boundaries.

“Why don’t you all fade away, and don’t try to dig what we all say.” Generations always poke fun at each other across the generation gap. Lately a favorite target of boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, is the millennials who were born between 1981 and 2000. Millennials, so they say, are inept, self-absorbed latte drinking, safe space seeking, easily offended weaklings who don’t know how to change a tire, but want a trophy for trying.

It never seems to occur to said boomers that if their millennial doesn’t know how to change a tire, it’s probably because they weren’t taught how to do so by their boomer parents, who, by the way, were the ones who invented participation trophies. It could also be that the millennial doesn’t know about cars because they can’t afford to buy one. They have too much student debt. Their parents told them to go to the best schools so they could find a job with perks and benefits, but in the boomer created tapeworm economy, those jobs are scarce.

I know millennials who have seen battle serving their country, and not one of them would I consider weak in any way. They didn’t create the problem that they were sent to fix. Their parents created that problem, and while they were at it,  wiped out about a fifth of the rain forest and put three fourths of all animal species at risk of extinction. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s a bit rude to have a big party, hand someone a broom and then insult them while they try to clean up the mess left behind. It may not surprise you that some refer to baby boomers as the “me generation.”

Last week we talked about changing times and the experiences some of us had growing up that will not be available to those who come after us. Some of those experiences touch the memories of the last century and even hear echoes of the century before that.  But the rate of change in our world is accelerating, and what is familiar now may not be even 20 years from now.

Recently I went to a place that held a lot of memories for me growing up. It’s called a “mall,” and they are disappearing rapidly from America. When I was the age of our youngest millennials, the mall served many purposes. We couldn’t afford to do much shopping in a mall, but just about anyone who was willing to work could manage to buy some kind of car to get there, or knew someone who had a vehicle.  There was a theater and an arcade and numerous places to eat, but these were all ancillary to the mall’s main function for us, which was to serve as a center for social life. It was a place to be, to hang out, to spend time together under the same roof, face to face, engaged in conversations in real time without any electronic aid.

One of the first things I notice about malls these days is the fact that young people don’t often go there.  On my recent mall visit,  I spent most of my time at a bookstore inside (another place that sees fewer visitors each year).

There is a coffee shop at the bookstore and I was talking with a young lady who works there as a barista. I commented that when I was her age, there were a lot more of my peers in the mall.  I asked her where here friends gather when they  get together. She thought about it for a moment, and gave me a very thoughtful reply. What she said also supports what I have read of current demographic trends.

Apparently young folk don’t gather in person as much as their parents did. They still visit at someone’s home or go to events together, but much of their socialization now is electronic. My young friend also believed that spending so much time in virtual reality has made her generation somewhat lacking in self-confidence in traditional social situations. We’ve all seen a group of young people leaving a restaurant together, silently, phones in hand and engaged with the small screen.

I’ve also seen couples my age at the same restaurant, waiting for their order, phones engaged and no one talking. If smart phones had existed in the 70’s and 80’s, does anyone believe that they would have been scoffed at by the generation that now condemns their use (but still drives with a phone in one hand)? I didn’t think so.

So meme on, if you wish. Everything on this page is painted with a broad brush. It’s all in good fun, right? We’re carrying on a tradition as old as humanity when we poke fun. But lately it seems that some of the humor has developed a sharp edge. If our younger generations are somehow lacking in any way, I think some of us may be in denial as to who is responsible.  The young do not spring from the the earth fully formed.

We like to talk about how much better things were back in our day. If that’s true, is it the fault of our children? We had one of the greatest opportunities any generation has ever had for a better life. We took full advantage. We partied hard. Perhaps we should be a bit more understanding of the people to whom we’re handing the broom – and the bill for the damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Everything There Is A Season

 

History is a plow behind a blind mule that never stops pulling. We can put a hand to the plow and try to guide it, or we can get out of the way. Some of us walk the rows and sow seeds. Whatever choice we make, sooner or later we all grow weary of  our labors and give the reins to someone else. Everything we cultivate, and everything we harvest will be turned under to nourish the next crop, just as we were once nourished.

Last night it was 46 degrees. Perfect sleeping weather. Today I stood in our garden, warmed by the sun while a sprinkle of rain played counterpoint to the heat. Not a single gnat or mosquito violated my airspace. We have tomato blossoms, and future sandwiches are ripening on the vine. November is just two weeks away but turnip and mustard greens are growing faster than I can pick them. Not all climate change is all bad, all the time.

Yet somewhere today, and not very far away, there is someone still without power, or without a home or a business to go to because of the recent hurricanes. The “gallinippers,” mosquitoes several times the size of what we have here, are plaguing eastern North Carolina and south Georgia where the storms passed. Parts of North Dakota have already had 17 inches of snow. Wildfires continue in the west where almost a million acres have burned so far this year. We count our blessings living here.

Here is where the early days of fall bring my favorite weather of the year, the kind of weather that makes memories and polishes them with the deep blue skies and crystalline air of the season.  Sometimes there is a whisper of sadness in the wind. Some of the very best memories, hiking and hunting with my dad, the old stories by the fireplace with our grandparents, my mom’s butternut squash pie and the approach of the holidays,   were harvested this time of year.

The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient. Weather is fickle but the earth has it’s own wisdom, and though the grass is still green and the tomatoes red, the flowers of September are drying up and dropping to the ground in the ongoing cycle of birth, death and renewal. It reminds me of the impermanence of all things, and the loved ones who have gone on ahead to the undiscovered country. There is a chill in the air that hints of the season to come.

There is another sound in the wind this fall, and it’s not one we’re ever eager to hear. In the distance, the growl of bulldozers followed by hammers driving nails heralds the surrender of more mountain habitat to the inexorable pressure of a growing population. There is some consolation in knowing that we’re taking better care of our mountains now than we did in the past.

A friend once told me that a developer is a person who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is a person who already has one. There is some truth in that. Many of us who made it here safely want to close the gate behind us. It might be selfish, but it’s honest. If you’re new here, please understand that some of us have been around long enough to remember unbroken ridge lines and dark skies at night. It’s nothing personal. It’s just hard to see the mountains scraped flat and washing into the creek in a land where it takes ten thousand years to grow an inch of topsoil.

Harder still for those who remember the communities that once took root in these valleys and coves, communities of faith and shared hardships and common interests. People knew who their neighbors were, how they were related and the quality of their characters. Some families still living here can trace their ancestors back to the first European settlers who came here 200 years ago.

Echoes of those communities still exist, but the houses in the woods and on the ridge lines are not often pioneers looking to build a new life. More often they shelter a type of refugee looking for a place to live out the rest of their days in a place that isn’t as hot, or as crime ridden or congested as the place they came from. If I  were hot, or scared or crowded, I would want to come here too.

Once a youthful pioneer spirit took hold of these hills and looked forward to the future, grew families, built communities and put down roots here. Now, many of us sit behind locked gates and look out our picture windows at the windows across the valley, reflecting on our own bygone days. Many others don’t have time to sit, making our livings on and over the land but rarely having time to touch it, and every year another layer of concrete and asphalt puts it farther out of reach.

I know. The lifestyle nurtured by these mountains disappeared from more than just our own beloved valleys. It has departed from most of the nation. We traded our communities for interstate highways; extended families for Facebook chats; strength for comfort, and free thought for some kind of proprietary form of political correctness. We gambled freedom on security and lost some of both.

Maybe we’re only guilty of shortsightedness and lack of imagination, occasionally leavened by greed. Maybe we were just plain human. It’s hard to look very far ahead when your shoulder is to the wheel. A bulldozer may sound like death to some, but to others it sounds like paid bills and food on the table. To some it sounds like a new beginning.

We feel a sadness, but we do not despair. We have young people living here who will discover new frontiers, and old people looking as much to the future as they do the past. But when whispers of the past are carried down the mountain by an autumn breeze, I wish I could share with young and old alike, especially our newcomers, what these mountains looked like before they were scarred; what the night sky looked like before the stars were washed out by floodlights; what it felt like to kneel over a bubbling spring deep in the forest and drink your fill with no fear of contamination. I wish they could hear the singing on a Sunday evening, or feel the satisfaction of a group of neighbors raising up a barn or cutting hay together.

Some have brought with them just such memories from valleys far away, and they share values that we hold dear. Some newcomers are better stewards of our mountains than many who were born here. Many years from now, our descendants will look back on here and now with longing, and grieve the loss of what, we cannot imagine. Many lifetimes ago, someone who made the arrowhead I hold in my hand looked to the future with hope. If I could see his mountain, how different would it  appear from what I remember, and how alien would my grandfather’s mountain seem to him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep Calm and Carry On

The picture at the top of the page is the Karpman Drama Triangle. You may have seen it if you’re familiar with transactional analysis.

I first saw it in training for a job working with adjudicated youth. At first, I didn’t think anything so simple could be very useful. But a hammer is a simple tool, and so is a scalpel, and over time this triangle and the wisdom behind it became very useful for framing group interactions and helping to resolve conflicts within our counseling groups.

Recently I thought this might be a good time to retrieve this tool from the shelf and dust it off. Used properly it enhances our ability to keep calm and carry on amid the sound and fury of  our times. Never in my life did I imagine that the word “victim” could appear as many times in as many headlines and conversations as it has over the last year.

Let’s be honest now. When the word “victim” first appeared, you immediately shifted toward your default political opinion on this fiercely prosecuted but somewhat loosely defined word. Me too. We are conditioned for this response. But you can relax. The drama triangle is not a commentary on real life victims of malevolence or how we choose to support them. It is a tool for understanding how we subconsciously relate to each other as we play out these roles on the triangle, moving from one to the other, sometimes in a single conversation.

Persecutor, rescuer and victim are archetypes of human experience. We play all of these roles, but we usually stand more often on a particular corner of the triangle based on our early experiences growing up. Sometimes a traumatic experience can leave us stuck on one of those corners for the balance of a lifetime until and unless some internal notion or external force causes us to shift. The goal for anyone who uses the drama triangle – is to get off the triangle.

Habitual persecutors are bullies, and many of these were once victims themselves. Rescuers are the classic co-dependents whose self-esteem is tied to helping (or controlling) someone else.  Victims do not know how, or they have chosen not to be accountable for the choices they make.

The positions just described are our “go to” positions when we engage in drama, but day to day and moment to moment, we can play all the roles on the drama triangle. Here’s a classic example:  Junior comes home from school, drops his books on the sofa and proceeds to head out the door. Dad gets angry and tells him to do his homework first. He persecutes Junior by yelling at him, and Junior plays the victim. Mom attempts to rescue Junior by telling Dad that the boy has been at school all day and needs a break. Junior gets mad at Mom and yells at her to say that this is between him and Dad. Junior is now the persecutor and Mom is the victim. Dad intervenes to rescue Mom, telling Junior that he shouldn’t speak to his mother like that.

When you’re working with angry and dysfunctional people it’s easy to get “hooked” into playing one of the three roles, and so discussions turn into arguments and arguments into fights.  During group sessions  with the kids if we realized that one of our co-counselors was losing objectivity, we had a hand signal like a fishhook to let each other know to take a step back. It helped avoid much frustration and made us more effective in dealing with conflict.

On the larger stage, communication technology has become pervasive, but running counter to its many benefits is the ability now for the whole country, or at least the media consuming part of it, to all be on the drama triangle at the same time. Think of the many ways this plays out in media, as one political party or another strikes out in anger to rescue a diversity of victims. If we’re positioned as victims of the right, or we want to rescue their victims, we attack the right, thus becoming persecutors. If we stand as victims of the left, we do exactly the same.

Another word we see frequently in the news is “protest.” Let’s consider the phenomenon independent of whatever merit or sincerely held belief may be behind it. Protests, especially the ones that take place in the light of  television cameras, when we view them from the perspective of the drama triangle, are often occupied by victims and rescuers who can quickly become persecutors, especially when the counterprotestors appear. Social media is crowded with protesters  who persecute other people verbally because, if we give them the benefit of the doubt, they think they are rescuing someone else. Some are just bullies, and there are scores of victims.

No matter what our political beliefs are, using this simple tool can provide a better chance of communicating with someone who believes differently. It gives us an effective way of framing things that helps avoid unnecessary anger when we realize that we’ve been hooked.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the Karpman triangle can also help us to discover whether a strongly held opinion is something we truly wish to keep, or just a temporary role we’re playing.  It works because in pausing to think about the three archetypes, we are holding up a mirror to reflect our current state of mind. Sometimes all we need to change our minds is a different point of view.

It would be difficult for the nation to “get off the triangle.” Drama causes us to consume media. Billions of dollars in revenue and our entire political system depends on us staying hooked, moving endlessly through our roles.

Cheap and Effective or Toxic and Ugly?

 

This week we’re going to give you something to think about besides politics, though for some, this issue, like all issues, can be political. This problem will be with us long after whatever media circus currently occupies our pixelated collective consciousness.

Seth McLamb is a young father, an outdoorsman and an engineer with a background in environmental studies. His generation will discover to what extent we have erred in soaking our environment with persistent chemicals, and his concern in this letter is the widespread use of herbicides along roadsides and rights of way. As if to add further credence to his concerns, a very recent study found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is contributing to the demise of the honeybee.

“I am writing to address the recent spraying of herbicides on roadsides by the NCDOT and power line right-of-ways by the BRMEMC. I have degrees in Environmental Sciences and Mechanical Engineering from NC universities. In the “Answer Man” column in the August 15 edition of the Asheville Citizen Times, the NCDOT’s Division 14 Engineer was quoted defending the practice of spraying roadsides as part of an “integrated vegetation management plan.” Driving along roads in Tusquittee and Fires Creek it appears that spraying has been the only part of that plan to be implemented. Dead vegetation hangs limp along the roadsides making it very difficult to enjoy the natural beauty of our area. Highway 64 going over Chunky Gal Mountain is the same.

“Considering that one of the primary reasons that people (and their money) visit Clay County is to take in the breathtaking views and experience our piece of untouched wilderness, leaving swaths of dead and dying vegetation along every roadside in the county fails to nurture the natural beauty of the mountains that we live in and makes for poor long term economic planning. Within the overarching scheme of negative economic impacts, we can consider lower property values, fewer jobs (e.g. NCDOT and BRMEMC clearing crews), reduced vacation rental revenues, lost restaurant sales, and decreased boutique shop incomes as very real potential outcomes. Many of the people who choose to vacation in Clay County come here on recommendation from friends or family members who have already visited our beautiful county and some of those folks end up buying a home here, extending their economic contributions indefinitely. Spraying herbicides along roadways and powerline right-of-ways will make this season’s visitors less likely to return next year and also less likely to recommend our county to a friend. Not to mention the poorly studied long term environmental impacts of the chemicals being sprayed along many miles of roads and power lines in western NC and north GA. The current practice of calling chemicals “safe” until proven otherwise is misguided and dangerous.

“I urge the residents of Clay County to contact the NCDOT Highway Division 14 office and the BRMEMC to voice your concerns about the widespread spraying of herbicides in our county and the impact it will have on your livelihood and your quality of life. The beauty of our county is our number one resource and we should not settle for vegetation management practices that detract from Clay County’s appeal to visitors and residents alike.”

Seth W. McLamb

 

Falling Leaves, Gathering Memories

Spring cleanup on the farm is a fine thing, full of energy and anticipation, but I prefer the fall, mellowed by reflection and slowed by caution for that undiscovered yellow jacket nest and the snake looking for a place to soak up the morning sun. Autumn cleanup is subject to the welcome interruption of having to stand perfectly still while the wind catches falling leaves, plays with them like a cat with a string and discards them just as abruptly.

Fall is a favorite book in a series. We read it more slowly and savor it because we don’t want the story to end. Some passages we read over and over until they are committed to memory: Coffee on the front porch on a crisp morning; crunching leaves under deep blue skies in crystalline air;  stars, more visible at night, and unlike the winter skies, you can enjoy the view without shivering.

September ripens and Joe Pye, jewel weed and iron weed are slowly replaced by goldenrod and aster. We pause to watch hummingbirds jousting around the feeder as they tank up for their long journey south. We don’t want them to leave, but the nights grow colder, the flowers fade, and one day soon our valiant little friends will hover one last time by the window as if to say, “Thank you,” and “See you next year.”

Fall cleanup this year began with a neglected little corner of the farm which had collected brambles and dead branches, a half wild area at the bottom of our driveway with cherry trees, sumac and locust. Memories gathered there also.

It was there long ago that my dad an I setup a bee yard. He said that the hives would catch the morning sun there, and the bees would discourage curiosity seekers from entering the barn just beyond. In his later years he would bring a chair and sit near the entrance to the hives to watch the bees coming and going. He could gauge the health of the hive by the traffic, and determine what plants they were working by the color of the pollen on their hind legs.

Dad and I had many conversations in that bee yard. Some pieces of land just seem to be conducive to conversation. Under a big maple tree at the edge of that space Dad would visit with his friend, Jack Dayton, our long time county commissioner, when Jack was in the valley. In the late afternoon the cool breeze from the mountain would flow down an old woods road, through the mountain laurel and under the tree where the two old friends met to revisit their younger days.

Years ago when the road bank at the edge of this plot was bare, I would occasionally find an arrowhead after a rain. Finding an arrowhead gives one pause, especially in the fall, when the signs of change and decay are inexorable. Thousands of years ago someone spent hours to fashion a tool to feed a family, most likely with no thought at all that someday far into the future his creation would be someone’s curiosity or trinket.

What, if anything, will remain of our creations of plastic and particle board, even 20 years from now? Every year there is less of the Americana of the southern Appalachians. The old houses and barns, personal creations of oak and chestnut and heart pine, more durable than what we build today, sink slowly to the ground to disappear forever.

I’ve been asked on occasion why “you people” don’t clear away your crumbling old barns and buildings. The simplest answer is that “it’s none of your business.” But if anyone really wants to know:  Old things hold memories. If we’re lucky enough to stay on the land, there comes a day when the calendar and the ache in the joints tells us that it isn’t prudent to climb a ladder to nail the tin back on the roof. We would pay someone to do it, but money is tight on a fixed income.

It doesn’t bother us much, though we sometimes long for the old days when the old barn was new. There is a kind of quiet dignity in decay. It is as natural as the falling leaves, and the old things that make way for and nourish the new. This will happen without any effort on our part to hurry it along.

Yes, old things and old places hold memories, and not every corner needs to be cleaned up right away, and not every piece of ground has to look like a golf course. The modern world wants everything to be neatly cropped and categorized, and so effective is our masking of the real with the virtual that we have forgotten that chaos and decay are as natural as the changing seasons.

Leaves fall; barns fall more slowly. Trees grow where there were once fields and the bulldozer of modern life turns the forest to field once again. Time turns the bulldozer to rust.

These thoughts all occurred in the time it took the sun to move beyond the limb that was shading me, and I had to smile, remembering my grandfather who would interrupt his morning routine to simply stand and look at the mountain. The old hive stands got cleared away, the brush was piled and the grass mowed. All traces of the old bee yard are gone now, but the memories remain.