A lifetime

You’re lucky to have a lifetime in one place, Dave — do you feel that way, or does it get to you sometimes?
Beth (via email)

I have sat on my front stoop for two hours, glass of homebrew in hand, and I can tell you that I am not in a hurry to move any place else. It’s finally sunny after many days of rain, but the temperature is still only 65 degrees in the shade, and the oak leaves have yet to reach their full extent — hell, the black walnuts and black locusts have barely begun to open. I wish every spring took its time like this! I watch a bumblebee have intimate relations with the fresh pink blossoms on a bleeding-heart. A male ruby-throated hummingbird hurtles up and down, back and forth in his U-shaped courting flight, like the pendulum of an invisible clock. I watch a rose-breasted grosbeak singing as he flies, the red triangle on his breast catching the sun like a tribute to the 40th anniversary of May 13. (Damn, I was only two years old in 1968!)

A sharp-shinned hawk circles with that peculiarly rapid flapping they do, rising from the vicinity of my parents’ back porch to disappear into the slipstream above the ridge on wings of gold. A little later, a turkey vulture glides past. I watch innumerable flying insects backlit by the sun, all drifting in the same direction, west to east, in the almost imperceptible breeze. And all the while I listen to Roscoe Holcomb piped over the Internet, that high-lonesome Appalachian blues sound. At a certain point my eyes tear up: I can’t help thinking of those tens of thousands dead in Burma and in China. Poor fuckers. Whether you live on the coast or in the mountains, the land you love can turn on you at any time. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with my last poem — the way we are bound to a particular place on this earth, even if we are a party to its undoing, and find it devilishly hard to pick up stakes. I mean, those folks in Picher, Oklahoma: Jesus Christ.

I like the way alcohol makes me feel content and dissatisfied at the same time. Newly energized, I get off my ass and pull a bunch of weeds just as the sun is going down. As soon as it slips behind the western ridge and the shadows disappear, the catbird flies to the top of the tallest locust in the yard and begins to improvise. Beth, since you asked: it gets to me every day.

19 Replies to “A lifetime”

  1. Damn, Dave, nice work. I love feeling like Plummer’s Hollow is real to me — as Tinker Creek is real to me. I don’t know how you manage to ramble and come up with something so tight, but sometimes you do.

  2. I’ve been reading bits of Jeff Malpas http://snipurl.com/jeffmalpas whose thesis seems to be that our identities, our very existence, are less, that we become shadowy, less material figures when a strong identification with a place is not part of us. You make me think that he is right. Identification with a single place for all your life is a rare choice these days, most often confined to those too poor to have a choice. It seems to me a desirable choice, and important that you’re sharing it here.

  3. I only clicked on the video after I’d commented. I guess your readers are remarkably like the guy looking on, staring closely, trying to ‘get some of that’.

  4. Thanks for the comments, y’all. Damn, maybe I should write under the influence more often. ‘Cause, you know, otherwise I’m pretty emotionally repressed. ;)

    Rachel – It’s simple, really: make a basic point at the beginning, throw out a bunch of random observations more or less in the order they occurred, then conclude with a variant on the opening point to create the impression that progress has been made. The Dillard comparison is flattering, but I’m not sure I have her knack for fiction.

    Peter – Me too. I forgot to make one crucial point, though: you can learn some things only through long-term residence in a particular place. (Nature writer and anthropologist Richard Nelson: “There may be more to learn from climbing the same mountain a hundred times than from climbing a hundred different mountains.”) For example, I have a pretty good idea of the rate and manner in which red oak stumps decompose.

    marja-leena – I’m glad to hear that I appear consistent. Seriously: that’s hard for me to tell, sometimes.

    MB – No, I don’t choose them, but I’ve been very pleased by the accuracy of the algorithm. That’s important, because I do very little semantic tagging of my posts, and would probably not be able to find some of these results by searching.

    If you read any WordPress.com blogs where “Possibly Related Posts” recently began appearing, they’re using a different and I would say vastly inferior service (which also isn’t limited to results from one’s own blog). I’m using this plugin.

    Jean – Thanks for the link. (I took off the parentheses so it would work – one link shouldn’t put your comment into moderation here.) I hadn’t heard of him, but his thesis sounds accurate.

    Re: the video, yeah, the presence of Pete Seeger as attentive watcher-listener was part of the reason why I chose that one from among the several Roscoe offerings on YouTube. But I felt like Pete was a stand-in for me, actually.

  5. And now instead of Roscoe Holcomb, I’m humming “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads – surely one of the most upbeat pessimistic songs ever written.

  6. There was a brief profile of the musician Bon Iver in the Guardian newspaper today and he says: ‘its pretty telling how widely travelled people are and yet they never maybe examine where they are as much as they could’. I think its great to be rooted in one place, I’ve only lived in two places in my life (apart from a period of three years when I travelled a fair bit and lived two years in Malawi) and I really like that, the understanding of an area, knowing the birds and the trees that are local. I think being rooted in a locality gives more of a sense of oneself that radiates outwards

  7. Knowing one place well for a lifetime can be like traveling ten thousand miles. There are details only a discerning eye can distinguish over time. I have always been content to know one place, rather than a hundred destinations quick like a carnival ride. Of course staying in one place never guarantees the insight. That’s the trick of mind.

  8. Thanks, Dave, for your words and for the catbird. Funny, there’ve been catbirds in every place I’ve lived, all my life, (except right here in the city, where I haven’t seen one yet) and somehow I always think of them as the same individual bird. Place sometimes moves with you.

  9. CGP – Malawi must’ve been beautiful. But yes, you do seem pretty well rooted, and I’m glad to hear you think of that as a positive thing. I think you hit on an important aspect of adjusting to a place: learning the names of one’s fellow inhabitants. Here in the United States, even in some of the places that have been longest settled (by immigrants), few people know the names of even the commonest plants, birds or insects, and often have astonishingly poor mental maps of the physical geography, too. We are a peculiarly rootless people, and our commercial culture works actively to homogenize the nation and the world.

    robin – No, it doesn’t, and as I said to CGP, I think it has a lot to do with taking an active interest in non-human nature – but also in human history and landscape, too.

    Beth – Yes. I have the feeling that I could move many hundreds of miles south and still feel like I hadn’t strayed too far from home as long as I stayed within the ridge-and-valley section of the Appalachians. But if I go anywhere north of the terminal moraine, I feel like I’ve crossed into a foreign country. Maybe it’s the same with you and the range of the catbird, eh?

    marja-leena – You did, and it is. Looking around just now, I found a official directory of independently written plugins for MT: http://plugins.movabletype.org/ . But I only see two “related posts” plugins, and neither seem to be restricted to the results from one’s own site.

  10. Elizabeth Goudge, in her novel, The Scent of Water, speaks about a place being loved over many years by those people who live in it. From my brief sojourn with Plummer’s Hollow through your eyes, I would say that that is precisely what you are doing with that small intimate geography: you are loving it over a period of time, and it’s possible that you are part of one another in a way that we more transient people might have difficulty seeing or understanding. Whatever, reading your words and playing your videos carries that much more value to me because of your relationship with Plummer’s Hollow. It informs mine with the Lake here (Lake Superior).

  11. It isn’t always just love, of course. As with any long-term relationship, there are all kinds of emotions and history at work, but the familiarity, sense of companionship, and – yes – genuine affection keep me here… along with a certain admixture of good ol’ fashioned inertia. Unlike with a relationship between two people, though, I can’t say that my feelings for the place are ever reciprocated. The mountain would undoubtedly be better off – more intact as an ecosystem – if none of us were living here. Except, of course, that in practical terms our tenancy protects it from greater exploitation at others’ hands.

    Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate learning what readers are getting out of my posting here, and how it might be enriching their own lives. Makes me feel like this blogging thing isn’t a total waste of time.

  12. Dave, I first noticed Roscoe’s face (not knowing who he was) and thought you’d found a video of William Burroughs playing the guitar! He does look amazingly like him, hat and suit and all.Then I recognised Pete Seeger watching intently and I heard those beautiful mournfully serene high notes coming from the Holscomb/Burroughs throat while his coolly nimble fingers danced on the strings and I read your words, seeing you sitting on your front stoop in Plummer’s Hollow, glass in hand, nature buzzing all around, and it all came together so vividly, a sense of place and identity and rootedness which has nothing to do with insularity or ‘patriotism’ but must be something like the poem a tree would write if it wanted to write poems.
    All I can do is applaud and appreciate because I must be one of those shadowy beings that Jean quote Malpas about, with no sense of being rooted anywhere.

  13. Natalie – Thanks for that wonderfully impressionistic response, but I hardly think of you as “shadowy.” I haven’t read Malpas, but I do think the theorists of place go a bit far in their enthusiasm for their ideology sometimes. Attachment to place is definitely something that needs to be valued, especially as a counter-weight to the age-old contempt of urban dwellers toward country folks as uncultured, if occasionally amusing, bumpkins. But actually it’s the suburbs that seem to me to be the most generically placeless, at least here in the States. I’ve always felt that rural Pennsylvanians, in their disinclination to venture farther than the next town, have quite a lot in common with inner city dwellers who don’t like to leave the neighborhood. However, we also need translators, people equally at home in both urban and rural settings. Provincialism is an ever-present threat – just look at the lopsided results in West Virginia’s primary elections.

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