I Swear I Found The Key to the Universe
I know I could be wrong. Believers do say that only God is infallible, and even He appears to have made quite a startling mess of His great Creation so far. And I'm surely as flawed and fallible, in my own humble and self-effacing way, as any of the rest of you post-lapsarian yahoos, so yes, I could definitely be wrong.
I suppose I could be wrong about this. All right, I know I could be wrong. Believers do say that only God is infallible, and even He appears to have made quite a startling mess of His great Creation so far. And I'm surely as flawed and fallible, in my own humble and self-effacing way, as any of the rest of you post-lapsarian yahoos, so yes, I could definitely be wrong.
That's the nature of grand, inclusive pronouncements, isn't it? They do never cover all the instances, all the variants, the multitude of individuals or circumstances. So maybe I'm wrong. But I'm going ahead with this line of thought because just now I find it satisfying to ride my own happy fantasy. But I do have an obligation to test it, to see how well it glides, how fairly it floats, what stresses it will carry and which questions or objections or exceptions could crack it. So I guess I need to order the whole business, put it out to an audience, and see if I'm alone in my own tidy recurved universe or if I've somehow (it does happen, sometimes) crafted or discovered some seed of common human feeling within the unlikely nebula of my own life and times.
Do you have any idea how I spend my weekends? Well, it's not all sex and drugs, let me tell you. (There is generally some rock and roll, but probably some Hank Williams and maybe a little bit of Blind Willie McTell, too. And just a couple weeks ago I even tried some Verdi, but I don't expect to make a regular thing of that . You'll definitely all want the new John Fogerty record, though.) Mostly, I dig. Or, having dug, move that dirt or rock to some other place. I've done this all my life. Lately I've accepted a trainee into the folly, in the hope that I shall not die the last person possessed of my peculiar predilection.
For thirty-two years I have used my free time to reconfigure the topography of parts of this neglected, overgrown small subsistence farm on a back road in Alna, Maine, enjoying the occasional greater or lesser interest and enthusiasm and involvement of my one wife and two children and a succession of dogs. The place still looks pretty rough. I can only say you should have seen what I started with.
I had a tractor once, a used twelve horsepower Kubota. Then we decided we required another baby and, forced to choose between tractor repairs and child care, I made the responsible decision. Since the early nineties, then, I have trod my self-designed rut using a shovel and a wheelbarrow. There are fewer hydraulic oil stains on the driveway, but also less live cartilage in my back. I hope my daughter appreciates my sacrifice.
On the nineteenth of September, the state of Maine unable to present sufficient objections to further delay the deal, we adopted our grandson, in some small part bringing his life into alignment with the great Grandpa Jones song, "I'm My Own Grandpa." Now he cannot call his caseworker when life goes against his wishes. Until the neighbors notice something awry he's ours to raise as we will. Grandma has her own twisted ways of messing up a boy, and I have mine. I have pressed him into service as toddler labor. Sixty days short of his third birthday he owns his own wheelbarrow, shovel and dirt rake. We work from the end of naptime until dark; a light rain does not deter us; transitioning out of diapers, we make sure to stop about hourly to try to pee. You can take a leak anywhere you like out here, and that's good for a boy-it gives him confidence, eases anxiety.
Now, you take a kid at ten or twelve and he or she likely will resist brute labor. And why not? The clever introverts will have discovered books. The rest will be lost to sports and video games. Ask your priest-he'll tell you you have to get 'em young for the dogma to take. So by the time he discovers that most young men detest digging and planting, grading and contouring, building walls, leveling roads, thinning woods and pruning trees, I hope my boy may have absorbed into his soul and sinews the joy and comfort and satisfaction and rightness of such work.
And here's my thesis, my first principle, my outrageous claim: that we are evolved to spend our weekends cleaning up the woodlot, smoothing the driveway, removing the great thickets of fir in favor of a nice parkland of oaks and maples. I'm not the only person who lives this way. I've run into a few others. The Internet, and the dissemination of my essays around the globe through its agency, have brought fellow travelers to me. I'll get messages from strangers who will tell me, yes, just so, I am they and they are me and we are all together.
I don't know why we are not in the majority. Blame advertising, mass marketing, cheap Chinese consumer products, Wal-Mart, post-war consumerism, television, comic books, spectator sports, organized religion, party politics, dope, steroids, public education, fluoride, fast food, flatulence, fornication, fairies and other wee folk or Dick Cheney. There's probably some truth in all of that. There has not been for a long time an age when human beings lived their days among the other life forms and took their spiritual sustenance from that contact; persons like me who could not live whole otherwise may always have been a minority.
But I said I'd state with great assurance some startling, arguably fallacious premise and hang a whole essay (if retroactively, given the thousand words I've already cast before you without getting to my point) on it, and I shall. So: We'd be a better, happier, more sane, humane world if there were more like me. And I'm doing what I can to help my grandson/son grow in that direction. And I'm asking you to at least give the idea some thought, and to contemplate a society of simple idiots who on Saturday or Sunday afternoons grub rocks out of the soil and pile them up according to some scheme, or who level this knoll that another might rise from the product of its reduction, only to plant some shrub on the mound or in the hollow and pronounce it good.
There are those jobs where my customer says, do this, install that. There are those where the message is, I have about this much to spend-surprise and delight me. I'll work overtime and eat some hours for the latter sort. To the extent that H. sapiens is different from the other mammals, our uniqueness is in our need to create, to invent, to build or think in new, not yet done ways. Most of us have little chance to do much more than assemble components or shuffle products in our jobs. Even the professions are slaved to dull production: architects design flat, crappy suburban schools far more often than great skyscrapers; engineers cipher out the radii of two-lane intersections and loads for bridges no more inspiring than a pair of girders and their abutments. Even teachers all too often only pass along the packaged prejudices that will pass the scrutiny of Texas textbook approval committees soaked in adoration of Biblical prophesy and the lost glories of the Confederacy, priming their students to not embarrass the district on this year's version of our semi-literate president's standardized test. More teachers than drywallers admit to being "burned out." Who has the duller job?
You can fly all over this country, spend your money, diminish the atmosphere by your coming and going, and gaze upon nature. There are trees and mountains, rivers, wonders of diverse sorts. I'd never argue against any national or state park or natural area or wilderness or reserve or preserve you might suggest. But you'll never know any parkland, never understand a collectively-owned mountain with the intimacy possible when you live on and work with a piece of ordinary land.
Much of what I have done here will revert to scrub and bramble and thicket after I die or become too weak or senile to continue to cut and carry, or am seized and sent away for harboring or displaying unsettling thoughts. I think as I work that my purpose is product -a grove of ginkgos, a curved retaining wall, a woods road extension. And so it is to the extent that these ends give me focus and order and the satisfaction of seeing my plans put to concreteness.
But more fundamentally and necessarily, and essential to my emotional good health, this art, like I think all acts of creation however rude or refined, is about process. Writing the song and singing it, painting the picture, chiseling the stone, stacking the bricks to a height and in a form nobody has yet quite done-in these and similar acts are we made whole for a time.
It's wonderful to work alone, with only your thoughts and the wind and the wet woods and rough rocks and no thought of clocks or schedules and no stopping until night or accumulated aches shut you down. It's better to have a friend. A year ago Karter reduced my productivity by about a third-he was only two. Now, almost three, he requires less intervention, contributes more. If this business holds together, his increasing capability should intersect my arc of declination in just a few years.
We'd used up all our gravel by quitting time Saturday. "What should we do about that?" I asked my young friend. "You should call Jon Bardo and tell him to bring us more gravel , Grandpa!" So I have. Times are rough, to be sure, and all may yet be lost. But we're good at this and we aren't hurting anybody and one of us is too young to know any better and the other, having learned some things about life and himself through many trials and much error, is younger than that now.
Go a mile up Rabbit Path Road (yes, far too cute an apellation for such a wreck of a route) off Route 218 and turn up the driveway on your right. Listen for the sound of scraping shovels. Or, send your queries to email@example.com if you like, but then you won't see the Asiatic maples beginning to turn, watch the new grass on the path over the hill sprout, or be able to chat with the grandson.
This piece originally appeared in The Wiscasset Newspaper, Wiscasset, Maine.