Tag Archives: Family

Cutting board

1. Two nights ago I walked out barefoot, pulled the cover off the little grill. It was dark. My steak—$2.15 at the local store—was a shadow over red coals. I cooked by smell. Sear one side over the hot mesquite, wait, grab with the tongs and turn. Wait some more. When it smelled right I flipped it onto the hard rock maple cutting board. It bled onto the wood.

2. I am the age my father’s father is in my earliest memories of him. I see him in the mirror. My hair less white, my soul more dissipated, but it’s him nonetheless.

3. It’s a hundred days’ walk from Joshua Tree to Gorham. I could be there by the twentieth of January.

4. The turn of the season is sharper here than anywhere I’ve lived in a quarter century. October has settled in. The rabbits fatten. Sleek clouds turn bright pink before the workday’s close.

5. My grandfather’s last words to me were an apology. Christmas dinner cold across the street, leftovers packed and sent in different directions with my aunts and uncles, and I walked over to his house to say hello. He lay on the couch. “Chris, I’m sorry. I wanted to eat dinner with you.”

6. In his yard there was an old well head, cemented over with the pump still working. At six I could just reach the handle. Fifteen strokes, or twenty, and rust-colored water spilled out the spout. A scent of leaf mold and secrets. My grandfather worked in his garage shop. His sons stood nearby handing him tools.

7. My cutting board is well-used, a skein of sharp knives’ slices in its sturdy grain. It is 3/4 inch maple cut in the shape of a pig, a jigsaw project cliche, a hole in the tail for hanging on a kitchen peg. Each year I think to myself I should plane it down, take an eighth-inch off each side, the marks of cast iron rust and olive oil. Each year I put it off.

8. Tonight I walked out barefoot and in shirtsleeves and shuddered against the wind. It is 52 degrees. I have grown soft. The Milky Way shone diffused through a high haze. Cassiopeia pointed at Polaris. Between them, the head of the king, Gamma Cephei, grew brighter as my eyes adjusted. In a thousand years it will be our pole star. The Earth’s axis wobbles inexorably toward it.

9. My grandfather was proud of me. His clever grandson learned to read years too early, ridiculous polysyllabic words in a toddler’s mouth. He bought me high school textbooks before I started school. No one thought “multiple myeloma” was too difficult a name for me to understand.

10. 2,600 miles from Gorham to Joshua Tree in half a century. The light that reached my eyes tonight left Gamma Cephei the year he died. I do not remember the sound of his voice, except when he laughed.

11. When he was the age I am now, my grandfather placed a slab of 3/4 inch maple on his jigsaw, carved out notches for ears and mouth, drilled a quarter-inch hole for an eye and a half-inch hole in the curled tail. It was an idle kindness, a present for his young daughter-in-law who lived a few miles south. It is 500 times that distance from him now. I cannot use it without hearing his laugh.

The fleeting idea of permanence

I wrote an essay about a dozen years ago that is now obsolete, a hopeful piece about eternity in a marriage that has since ended. There is a line in it:

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

This week the US Department of Energy announced it would offer more than two billion dollars of your money, and mine, to help turn that “un-named valley” into an industrial wasteland.

I am getting roundly sick of this.

I have come to terms reasonably well with the end of the marriage, am in love anew and making a life I like better than the old one, working to avoid all my old mistakes. But careful curation of happy memory is part of how a person moves on from what was. There was a time when an old man could wander out into the desert, find an old familiar spot and recall wistfully his making love with his new bride there a half century before, noting the trees’ growth and the rocks’ increased age. And now I wonder will the wash still be there? The rocks? Those ancient, “essentially non-biodegradable” trees? When I wrote this in 2000, they stood for permanence.

Palen Range


The dark wood is cool in my hand, and smooth. It sheds sawdust to my old grafting knife, a slow, reluctant yielding of deep brown flecks like ground cinnamon, powdered chocolate. I put a moistened fingertip to the pile of dust on my knee, then to my tongue, and am surprised despite myself when I taste nothing but cellulose.

Just as well. There isn’t enough of this tree for people to start eating its wood. Restricted in range to the increasingly impacted Sonoran Desert, the desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is faced with threats ranging from harvesting for “mesquite” charcoal to suburban sprawl to exotic plants spread by cattle grazing. And as goes the desert ironwood, so goes the desert: the tree is the shelter under which the rest of the desert lives.

I harvested this piece of ironwood in what I thought was as benign a fashion as possible: I found it, and a couple others, sticking out of the gravel in a dry wash. Something, it seemed — a desert windstorm, a flash flood, a band of stick-fetching coyotes — had carried them from a copse of trees a hundred feet away. They looked like they’d lain in the sun for years, wearing a gray patina that only year-round UV can provide. A few passes of the knife over this piece, though, and gray gave way to reveal this deep, confectionery brown. A few strokes with the coarse section of a four-way file, and the wood looks nearly polished.

I’m not the first person ever to pick up a piece of desert ironwood with art in mind. The Seri people along the Gulf Coast in Sonora, Mexico, among the last hunter-gatherers on the North American continent, list ironwood carving among their contributions to world culture. You’ve probably seen their work, or its imitators: deep, dark fluid sculptures of sharks, sea turtles, birds and desert animals. The best carvings, made by artists with a hunter-gatherer’s familiarity with nature, seem about to come alive. Frogs crouch in a pose they strike when under threat by something big. Sea turtles seem to bear exaggeratedly large forepaws, until you learn that, like husky puppies, baby sea turtles have to grow into their feet. Sharks are, I think, the pinnacle of Seri art: carved as the natural curves of the wood suggest, they are fluidity embodied. You expect them to flick a tail and disappear from the display case.

Other Sonorans have adopted the art form as a means of generating tourist revenue. The differences aren’t hard to spot. Where the Seri opt for spareness of form and smooth line, their Mexican neighbors turn out angular pieces with gouged-out hatch marks. The Seri rarely carve fish other than sharks, and almost never portray subjects other than local animals. Sonorans, on the other hand, will offer carvings of everything from stereotypical siestans leaning on saguaros to stunningly detailed representations of local beer bottles. The Mexicans’ powered machine shops turn out sculptures at a far faster rate than the Seri’s human-powered hand tools. More to the point, the Seri, with an ecological ethos not uncommon among hunter-gatherers, carve only wood from downed or dead trees. The Mexican machine shops, with their higher capacity, have spurred a demand for cutting green trees. The US and Mexican governments have taken some steps to restrict trade in non-Seri carvings.

I’ve been carving this piece of wood for several months. You wouldn’t know that to look at it. It’s hardly an intricate form; a rectangle, with a bend in the middle, which I labor to make symmetrical. I imagine polishing its final, perfected geometry with double-ought steel wool, fixing a barrette clasp, giving it to Becky to wear in her hair. The colors of wood and hair would complement one another well, differing shades of dark brown. For the hundredth time I consider carving a bas-relief on the surface, a raven or coyote, something appropriate to the provenance of the medium. Perhaps the leaves of the desert ironwood itself, plain compound leguminous leaves like those that littered the wash from whose gravel this wood protruded, driftwood miles from the nearest sea. It’s hard to say. There is something in the heft of the wood, the soapstone texture, that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, and yet my inclination is to scour the slightest ridge away, to make a mirror of this dark piece of old dead tree.

The eponymous “bean trees” of Barbara Kingsolver’s Tucson novel were wisteria, thirsty exotic plants brought in from the Far East by way of England and the East Coast, growing in a well-watered downtown garden behind a tire repair shop. The wisteria would wither, with most of its human neighbors in Tucson, if not for the constant pumping of millennia-old water from aquifers under the city.

But climb the adobe wall that fictitious vine encumbered. Cross the street. Pass the Sonic drive-ins and Waffle Shops and motels and the metastasizing spread of stylish homes of ringing urban Tucson, get out into the unadulterated, stinking hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert, where the rattlesnakes and tarantulas play; there, you’ll find bean trees of another sort. Native to the place, they do just fine without any help from us or pumped Pleistocene aquifers or the Central Arizona Project. Four species of palo verde, acacias with sharp claws that snag hikers’ clothing like rabid Velcro, knee-high desert senna with its complement of buzzing pollinators, the notorious and fashionable mesquites, and the desert ironwood, beans all, make up much of the perennial plant cover of the Sonoran Desert. Column cacti may have better PR, but if it wasn’t for the bean trees, there’d be damn few saguaros to grace kitschy postcards and travel magazines. The desert ironwood and its cousins are the ecological foundation of the Sonoran Desert. Remove them and the rest of the plants and animals in the desert would likely vanish as well.

If you’re a plant that wants to survive in the desert, it’s a good idea to sink your roots under a desert ironwood, or one of its cousins. Shade is one reason: as sparse as a bean tree’s leaves generally are, they’re better than nothing at all. Then there’s the heat and the humidity: even droughty desert legumes exhale a little bit of water through their leaves, and their loss is your gain. Higher relative humidity due to the bean tree means you’ll transpire less water yourself. There’s the simple fact of shelter: germinate under a bean tree and it’s less likely that browsing animals will find you and eat you. Leguminous thorns also help protect young plants. Nitrogen from shed leaves is augmented by that excreted by birds and other small animals who come for shade, shelter, or nutritious bean seeds. The shade beneath the trees is optimal habitat for cacti. Each majestic saguaro, each venerable multi-stemmed organ pipe, each white-bearded senita you see on your travels to the desert quite likely got its start beneath one of the region’s legumes. Remove the trees, as happens when a subdivision goes in or wood is cut for the burgeoning gourmet “mesquite” charcoal industry or the bosque burns after an invasion of exotic buffelgrass ups the fuel load, and you close down the nurseries from which new generations of column cacti are fledged. With this in mind, Bill Clinton — in one of his final acts in office — established a bit less than 130,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert as the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Desert ironwood trees tend toward far longer lives than do mesquites or palos verdes. One live tree near Tucson has been carbon-dated at 1200 years old: 300 years is a fairly probable average life expectancy. Even after dying, the tree can provide an oasis of shade in the desert for an immense stretch of time. The wood is, in the words of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Stephen J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum & UC Press, 2000) “rich in toxic chemicals and essentially non-biodegradable.” Once ironwood dies, nothing eats it, though I’ve seen termites making stalwart attempts. Firewood-sized chunks found in desert washes have been determined to be 1600 years old. A standing snag may, after its death, provide valuable habitat for a thousand years.

This knowledge, gained after I collected the few pieces of wood now sitting on my writing desk, does not exactly fill me with an uncomplicated sense of joy in acquisition.

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

The valley was bleak indeed. It was October, far from the hottest part of the year, and yet we saw little in the way of vertebrate life during the day. A house sparrow that had probably strayed from the alfalfa fields flitted briefly into the ironwood canopy, then returned eastward. Other than that, I don’t recall seeing so much as a lizard. Not a creature stirred the desiccated husks of summer annuals, the pallid leaves of desert ironwood and palo verde. All was silent. This was driven home when, eyes on the desert pavement at my feet, I absently muttered something to Becky. She replied with a tone of amusement. I looked up to see we were at least two hundred yards apart, yet we could hear each other’s normal speaking voices perfectly.

That afternoon I found a comfortable-looking spot in the wash, shaded by a bit of ironwood, and laid down for a nap, shifting my back to gouge out a depression in the gravel. I opened my eyes for a moment, saw nothing but a few ironwood leaves silhouetted against an impossibly blue sky, then dozed. Not a few minutes later, something soft brushed my cheek, and I started awake. Eyes the color of polished ironwood gleamed: Becky had kissed me. The image of my wife’s face, bean tree leaves behind her, deep blue firmament framing all, would prove to haunt me through months of desultory wood carving.

Things picked up a bit when the sun went down. A wind came up from the south, bearing the slightest odor of the Sea of Cortez. Zeke, our dog, noticed a desert packrat or two whose stick homes we had missed among the fallen trees. Far-off coyote song punctured the twilight, the local great horned owl providing a bass line. After dark, the valley was palpably alive.

I sat by a fire. We were far remote, there was an abundance of dead wood in the wash, and I wanted a fire, so the first two clauses in this sentence seemed sufficient justification. Ironwood burns hot. A pile of fuel the size of a regulation softball, and we couldn’t get closer than ten feet to the blaze. With wood like that, you don’t need much fire. The next morning, half the small pile of scraps I’d collected lay unburned next to the coals. I grabbed a few and put them in the truck. They’ve sat near my computer since then.

I pick up one of the larger pieces now, a rough, splintery crescent a foot long, four or five inches wide at its thickest. It looks weathered, old, rotten, yet it weighs at least three pounds. I heft the wood in my hand. I can’t be sure this stick is a millennium-and-a-half old, but I can’t rule it out, either. When did this piece of wood die? When did its tree release it into the desert soil, there to bleach and suffer futile attacks by termites? 1500 years ago the Anasazi were just learning how to add roofs to their adobe houses. Augustine was writing his Confessions. The Roman Empire had collapsed within living memory. And this stick, perhaps, or one just like it in the same valley, was already turning gray on that alluvial pediment west of Blythe. “Essentially non-biodegradable,” these few pieces of dead tree straddle the line between biology and geology. A tree grew them, but they may as well be rocks for all the effect that the centuries have on them. “Driftwood,” hell: it’s just as likely that I found these pieces where they fell, and the ironwood grove drifted away from them over the intervening millennium. The immense antiquity of this firewood makes my collection of it seem, in retrospect, abhorrent, like the actions of the guy who cut down the world’s oldest bristlecone pine to count the rings.

But there is something in the desert ironwood that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, which naggingly reminds me that issues are never as straightforward as ideology would insist. Who would criticize the Seri for turning ironwood detritus into grocery money? Ironwood supported human beings long before the first Seri carver ever saw a chisel. Leached of a mild toxin, ironwood seeds were used for centuries as food by the Seri, the Tohono O’odham, and other Sonoran Desert people. Warriors and hunters used ironwood bark tea as a ceremonial purgative. When an O’odham couple married, elders gave them an ironwood branch to hold between them, so that the wood’s durability would infuse itself into the marriage. Though we’ve done it some wrong the past few decades, this is a tree whose memory is long, and it was deeply involved in human lives long before the invention of the four-way file and the chain steakhouse.

I look again at the piece I’ve been carving. I won’t be collecting any more, and I certainly won’t insist on a fire when I’m camping in ironwood country, but giving this piece to my wife seems, somehow, appropriate, a way to infuse this marriage with the permanence ironwood engenders. A bit of dark wood, and the knowledge that more grows, protected, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

The land

Cathedral Range

Strip from me all that is me, and what remains?

The land remains.

Take from me my home, my garden, the promise of enduring love and the prospect of love anew, take from me my arms and eyes and ears and tongue, extract my heart and bury it amid the rubble of a life once cherished and what is left?

The land is left.

There are small trees here, struggling to wrest light from the live oaks’ morning shade, and I planted each one. I planted each one. One must plant trees without expectation, and I have eaten well of these trees’ fruit nonetheless, and yet. And yet.

Granny Smith’s roots leach lime from my true love’s bones.

The Bishop pine I planted from a one-gallon container, half expecting it would die, half assuming I would drink its shade in fifteen years. Long, drowsy days in a lost, imagined future and I mourn them. It is waist-high, breast-high in months, and I will not be here to fix a hammock to it. Who comes after I leave might cut it down.

The pull of hearth and I resist it, the tug of memory and I resist it, the binding of shared paths and I resist it, and all that persists the earth I walk on, the earth whose paths open up and lead away from here. Places beckon full of memories I never had, red earth and juniper, coyote caught singing in the monsoon’s false dusk, a roar of unexpected waters. Sorrow threaded with bright joy.



Pyramid Lake, May 1996

Thank you, my best friend, for being who you were and always will be to me. The best dog — the best person —  I ever met.

I miss you so.

Love, always.

Thanksgiving over years

Earthquake come…. NOW

We got Zeke in 1991. That was the year we first cooked a Thanksgiving dinner, had a couple friends over. The next year the three of us were in a larger apartment, and we had about 20 people over on Thanksgiving — B’s relatives, mine, friends and coworkers with no other plans. We did it every year for a long time.

It might have been Zeke’s favorite time of year: a stretch of four days with neither of us going to work, two dozen or more of his friends coming over to visit, pounds of surreptitious treats snuck to him under the table. After a few years, I managed to train him to beg only from B and me. At least while we were watching. I never quite got the guests trained, though, and Thursday evenings Zeke would be lolling groggily, belly comically distended, getting up only to ask me for more pie.

And then there were the bits of meat and cartilage for the next few days as B cleaned the turkey carcass. The bird was consistently a few pounds larger than the dinner itself required — funny how that always worked out — and for Zeke, the result was that the holiday was usually of true Old World “feast” magnitude, indulgence spreading over days.

By the year before last he had grown tired, and though he tried gamely on Thanksgiving 2005 he could barely cope with my niece’s focused adoration. Last year the invitations to Thursday’s dinner expressly included the reminder that it would be Zeke’s last. Neither he nor I had much interest in the guests, or in the dinner: we spent more time walking in the park than socializing. He still wanted the leftovers, though: I had the bittersweet joy of bringing them to him while he rested over the next few days.

And now, leftovers is all that remains of this holiday. Getting in the truck tomorrow morning and heading for the desert. See you when it’s over.

Deborah Tall

To understand New York’s Finger Lakes, imagine a well-worn field plowed twice a year for generations. All that grows is gouged away, over and over, without remorse, without exception. The very lakes themselves were scraped out of the earth by a mile-high sheet of ice, and that ice was merely the most recent in a long series. Those who lived there when whites first arrived were driven out, murdered and burned and forced into refugee camps to die of dysentery. Settlers set the subsequent woods ablaze time and again to “clear” the land — the nineteenth-century appellation “The Burned-Over District”  does not refer solely to Western New York’s endemic millenarian religious fervor. The onset of the 20th century was the subtlest pass of the plow: the land’s economy faltered in the 1930s, never to recover.

Deborah Tall, who died last week of cancer, was disappointed with her new Finger Lakes neighbors when she arrived at a teaching post at the north end of Seneca Lake in Geneva. She found the present-day human component of the landscape sadly lacking.

No one’s about to step out of the woods and tell us what in another place would be subject of song and legend — oh whale who wandered from the sea, stalled in lake water, turned to stone…— the landscape brought to life as story. I need to learn the plot and poetry of this place, the outlines of time passing on it, in order that it not be merely scenery. But my neighbors are reticent, sedentary. They mumble and nod the rare times we pass on the road. No one, as in my rural fantasy, has come by with a welcoming plate of homemade cookies, with chat and advice, not to speak of legends. By nightfall, their houses give off the platinum glow of television. We’re left to our own devices.

That passage, from near the beginning of her 1993 book From Where We Stand, sounds like scene-setting for the usual fish-out-of-water-meets-locals schtick, where the writer’s imaginings and stereotypes are dashed, only to reveal the true, humbling richness of the local culture, which enchants the writer-tourist immeasurably and irrevocably. As if to point up that expectation, Tall followed the passage above with references to Pueblo culture as relayed by Leslie Marmon Silko, the Ronga of South Africa and the Masai of Kenya, the Romans and the Apache. Double-barreled foreshadowing all.

But that first act shotgun on the end table is never fired. The locals are flat, impassive, odd in an alien as opposed to heartwarmingly quirky way. They are pretentious white trash. They let their Colonial houses fall into disrepair and hang engines like deer carcasses from front-yard sugar maples. They shrug off the potentially colorful decaying downtown in Geneva in favor of eating at the Ponderosa Steakhouse up on Preemption Road. They open businesses that then close, with no new quaint businesses to take their place. Tall is forced to import her picturesqueness from other times, other places. The Far shore of Seneca Lake, the ridge that rises up to run back down to Cayuga on the other side,  becomes the Connemara of her memory. An abandoned drive-in where route 96A meets US20/NY5: the Temple of Karnak. The few locals who provide interest are either dead Depression-era painters, or 19th century writers. Tall talks to one local Seneca, as far as I can remember the only living human being in Geneva with an actual speaking part in her book aside from a few of Tall’s similarly isolated colleagues at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The other locals — the disappointing inhabitants of the post-glacial, post-Haudenosaunee Finger Lakes — become extras, if not props. Tall admits as much on page 55, when she writes:

[I]t comes as a shock to drive up to the Dunkin Donuts here for my coffee one morning and find it darkened, a hand-lettered sign on the door: “Closed Due to Death in Family.” That a family stands behind the franchise counter is altogether unexpected.

The first time I read that passage, I threw the book across the room in a fury.

I know that I have readers who knew Tall, and more who respected and admired her, and this harsh appraisal of her writing so close on the heels of her death may seem unnecessary and cruel. I beg their patience. I say “the first time I read that passage” above because I have read it many times since. I have read the book entire many times since.

Another quote from the book:

But in declining upstate New York, transplanted European names echo more and more ironically. After living here only a few months, hearing on the radio that a meeting of Nobel prize-winning scientists is taking place in Geneva, I gasp with pleasure, then wonder where they’re staying — at the town’s one hostelry, a dilapidated motel on Routes 5 & 20?

That dilapidated hostelry, the Chanticleer Motor Lodge, suffered a setback during its design phase a half-century ago. The designers had assumed an adjacent landowner would sell his lot so that they could raze his small house and put up Atomic-Age motel rooms. But unlike his neighbors, the man didn’t budge. They built around him, and his small house is still there, the motel hard up against it, though the recalcitrant owner — my great-uncle — died some years back.

Clarke Equipment is neither donut shop nor franchise, so if Tall needed her lawnmower tuned up and drove it to the little shop three or four miles west of her college, she might have been less surprised to find a living, breathing man with a family behind the counter. My father’s brother Jack opened the place when he gave up dairying. But if she’d walked into his efficient, plain, and somewhat grease-covered workshop and expected local color along with the spark plugs and air filter, she would likely have walked away as disappointed as she was with her other neighbors. The story is there. My uncle has known searing grief and quiet contentment and sharp joy. None of them are put out for display like the fancy new riding mowers out front, facing the highway. They are his concern, and not his customers’. I am his nephew, and I feel, writing this, as though I am intruding. The stories did not come up greeting Tall at her front porch with a basket of jellies because they do not walk up and present themselves anywhere. I was born into the stories. They are mine by birthright. And yet I heard few of them until I was nearly forty.

My father’s family is thick on the ground in Geneva and the land around it. My mother’s family lives up and down that far Connemara shore across Seneca Lake. My siblings and I were born in the village of Penn Yan, near where Tall first settled when she moved to the area. Reading Tall’s book for the first time, I felt I was reading an erudite, cultured, well-researched and privileged savaging of everyone to whom I am related.

That anger boils up in me again as I write these lines.

And yet I have no right to that fury. The year that Tall took her job in Geneva was the year I left New York.

The Seneca grew corn and beans and squash in this soil. George Washington — playing Realpolitick in the New York frontier — sent General John Sullivan to the Finger Lakes in the autumn of 1779 to wage war on the Seneca, who had allied somewhat reluctantly with the British. “War,” in this case, is a bit of a euphemism. Sullivan and his 3,000 troops waged genocide, leaving a swath of destruction up the east side of Seneca Lake that anticipated both Sherman’s march and the use of Agent Orange on Vietnamese farms. Thriving agricultural villages were burned, peach orchards razed, longhouses torched, women and children and elders massacred, and the survivors — their food supply deliberately destroyed — fled to winter with the British along Lake Erie, where they died by the thousands, of starvation and dysentery.

Fast forward one hundred fifty years, and my taciturn grandfather — a tenant farmer — drilled beans into the same soil from which Seneca bean farmers were routed. One day it came time to slaughter one of his herd, and he sent my father off on some important task at the far end of the farm. My father could not bear to watch an animal killed, and so Uncle Jack and my grandfather waited until he was out of sight beyond a rise before bringing out the knives. In those years they lived on a farm with small red brick house, L-shaped with a wing of bedrooms on the second floor. The closest town was Seneca Castle, named for a fortification that has been restored, whose caretaker Tall portrayed in the book. The Seneca history of the land is too little told. The land is as drenched in blood as it was beneath my forebears’ feet that day more than 60 years ago. A book entire about the Seneca, the deep map of ancient stories on the land in Ontario and Seneca and Yates counties, would be one I could read with an altogether different rage in my breast, one I would not think to hold against the author. But to dissolve my whole family into a faceless, banal mass? It was as if having failed to learn any of the local story, Tall decided it simply was not there, a miasma suffused in television light and enclosed in fast food cheese paper.

But Tall moved there, and lived her life there, in Geneva and Penn Yan and Ithaca, and drove the roads and watched the planes take off and land at the Seneca Army Depot, the runway lights flashing on just before approach, mysterious and malevolent cargo there to leach into my aunts’ and uncles’ drinking water. She stayed her life and added to the place, edited local magazines and sponsored readings.

I left.

It is an issue of town and gown, I suppose. I have bitterly resented the academics, the privileged and fortunate both, enjoying a life of mind that has been denied me due to accidents of birth and biology and happenstance. This rage itself derives from the Seneca County soil, which my mother tried unsuccessfully to shake off her boots after high school. She headed for Manhattan as soon as she could, but was back within months, trapped in a drafty house on a ridge above Penn Yan with a silent husband and a swelling brood of children. For years she lived vicariously through me, her oldest. Nearly from birth until we moved a hundred miles away, she told me in a thousand little ways that I was destined to leave. (And leave I did, though not at all in the way that she had planned for me.)

In all the years we lived there, in all the years after we moved to Buffalo in which we spent weeks out of each year visiting relatives, growing from birth to adulthood, I met exactly one person in the Finger Lakes who was connected in any way with a nearby institution of higher learning. That person was my father, who worked for a few years running an IBM System 360 mainframe in a non-academic role at Cornell. He may, in fact, have been the only person I met for the first six years of my life who even had a college education.

Tall writes, on the slippery boundary between tourist and local:

A car pulls out right in front of you on a two-lane road. You have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting it. It creeps along at twenty miles an hour, turns off a few hundred yards down the road. You lean on the horn, let them have it.

Next day, you only have to go a short way down the road to pick up a neighbor. You pull out of the driveway as you do every morning and meander down, indignant at the out-of-state Buick that races up onto your bumper, honking. You let them have it.

My mother’s sister’s husband, a farmer, found a glass sponge in the 1960s while plowing a field twenty miles north of Ithaca. In the 1990s news broke that a Cornell paleontologist had found more of them nearby, and the find made the global news, and I remembered the fossil my uncle found which had been sitting on my grandmother’s porch during the intervening decades. I called her to suggest she talk to the paleontologist. She wasn’t at all interested. She told me that I should call myself, that she’d be glad to show him the fossil if he was interested enough to drive all the way to Ovid. I called Cornell, left a message on the paleontology department’s voice mail with my phone number and my grandmother’s and more information than they really needed about the fossil, and neither of us heard anything from Cornell after that. The lack of enthusiasm for the other side of the campus boundary runs both ways.

My grandparents, my aunts and uncles have never been anything but kind and generous to me, and yet my mother’s thwarted need to leave suffused my bloodstream along with the polio and smallpox vaccines they gave me in my first days at Ovid Central School. I read Tall’s sidelong sketches of the faceless people living along Seneca Lake and raged at her insults, and through my anger I agreed with her, which made me rage all the more.

Her book was unflattering, not least in what it showed me about who I am, the stupid shame at being still un-degreed, the resentment of the young with doctorates who make assumptions, the resentment of my fellow un-degreed who make assumptions, the gulf between me and the people from whom I come.

I have read it yearly since the day I threw it across the room. I wish I had thought to tell her that, to grab a cup of coffee somewhere and make my ill-formed arguments, to see her nod or flinch or tell me where I was being unfair, and now I cannot. It is too late.

There is a slab of marble ten miles west of Geneva, still upright after a generation, diminutive and with a carved lamb atop it, thirty years of rain having rounded off the detail. It has my cousin’s name on it, and my uncle stood by as they lowered her into the soil the Seneca once cultivated. She was only a toddler in the days before child car seats, and she is surrounded by her grandparents and great aunts and uncles, an array of tombstones with my last name on each one. I was a child when she died and I remember her, and I know well my uncle grieves her still though he has never mentioned her to me since, and though he would not have talked of her to a customer in his shop I would gladly have talked of her to a fellow poet. But I did not, and now Tall is there with little Carol, forever home in a place that is my home no longer.

Aunt Selam


Image yoinked from PZ. I assume he got it from behind the pay wall at Nature.

It might be the most beautiful face I’ve looked at in days. And I see a lot of beautiful faces in the course of a day.

This is the skull of a three-year-old girl, of the species Australopithecus afarensis. She died 3.3 million years ago. The Nature story refers to her as the “oldest known toddler.”

What delicacy, what sweetness I see in this face. I wonder at the contours of her lips, her cheekbones, her eyelids. I wonder where the long hair faded into shorter muzzle hair.

She died when she was Sophie’s age. A little older. What would a three-year-old Australopithecus have learned about the Pleistocene African world? Fear of snakes and lions and hyenas, probably. Fear of older troop members, perhaps. Did she play? Did she have friends?

She was my aunt, more or less, and yours too. The feeling swept over me when I saw the photo: recognition. And then an odd reverence.

She is a transitional fossil, by the way. The Nature article has the details, but her scapula is intermediate between humans and the other African great apes.

The creationists will deny this, claim the Link is still Missing. After looking at this photo for a time today, I find I pity them. They cannot feel the sublime and terrifying sense of heritage you and I share with this little girl. They cannot see the family resemblance, cannot look into those three-million-years-vacant eyes and know that they are kin to the chimps and gorillas, and thus kin to the lemurs, to the snakes and frogs and sharks. What a lonely, pallid life those ideologues must lead, with only a book of stories to fill in for the whole living world.

And I find I also pity Aunt Selam. Only three years old. Regard for children is far from a universal thing among humans: parents have reacted to the deaths of young children in many ways throughout history, not all of them involving weeping. But from what I know of our closest kin, I suspect these scientists may well have found the earliest known evidence of an elder’s searing grief.

Again, in this, we are kin to all. We are who and what we are because of those deaths. Natural selection works one tragedy at a time. The creationists find awe in one long-ago life sacrificed so that they might live. I owe my life, my identity to the sacrifices of billions, nay trillions of my ancestors. Hardly a source of cold, dispassionate fetishized rationality, that notion. We know so little of Aunt Selam’s life, but it’s already as compelling as anything on the Sunday radio, far more remote and far more believable.

Let us give thanks.


Becky’s cousin got married Saturday, a big church wedding with Chinese banquet following. The cousin is a wonderful young woman and her new spouse a stand-up guy and we are happy for the two of them, and yet there was something abut the wedding that attracted our critical notice.

That something: Every reference to married couples — whether in the ceremony referring to the cousin and new cousin-in-law, in the invitations, the toasts, the table cards, whatever — took the form “Mr. and Mrs. [Man’s First Name] [Man’s Last Name]”

It was a little jarring to see written reference to “Mrs. Chris Clarke,” I’ll say that much. It brought forth images of unknown and entirely hypothetical women, as if I was nine years old and imagining my adult life with people I had not yet met. It certainly didn’t bring Becky to mind. Becky once, briefly, considered using “Clarke” as a last name for certain purposes, such as applying for jobs. Then she shook her head and came to her senses. The thought that Becky might be referred to properly as “Mrs. Chris” just did not fit any reality with which I am familiar.

I know this isn’t such an uncommon thing in some places. But this was in the Bay Area, at a wedding of a woman who has a career in high tech and no intention of giving it up. It was very strange.

I signed the guest register for us both, as “Mr. and Mrs. Becky Lum.”

Route Fifty


Photo by this person.

In 1984 my brother got squooshed by a high-speed truck outside Buffalo, NY. A few days later I packed some things and got a drive-away car with a couple of friends, and we headed east. Over the Sierra Nevada, past the glare of Reno, and into the outback of US 50 through Nevada.

On my first trip through Nevada’s steppes the landscape seemed remote, alien. By my third trip I had warmed to the Great Basin desert, if not vice versa. The Humboldt Basin, which route interstate 80 follows, is picturesque but to a degree unchanging, at least until one begins to be able to distinguish the ranges drifting past. That hurried winter trip to visit my brother was the first I took outside the I-80 corridor. US 50 is deserted, more or less — its motto is “The Loneliest Road in America” — and where I-80 sticks mainly to the valley floors once you’re west of Toquima Summit, 50 transects each valley and climbs up into the mountains beyond.

That trip brought me my first up-close glimpse of Nevada’s mountains. The next day, it brought me my first glimpse of Utah’s West Desert, the Wasatch Range and the red rock country beyond. Over a quarter century I have edited my memories, remembering only the highlights and unable to remember the long procession of images past the relative motionlessness of my vehicle. I have done enough driving in Nevada, and Utah, and Eastern California since then to know the feeling well. You drive for what seems hours and the range in front of you grows only slightly closer. Visibility of a hundred miles, on a good day when the air is clear of LA’s smoggy overburden, and you find yourself wishing for a fencepost by which to gauge the accuracy of the speedometer. I know what it’s like. But I do not remember it along Route 50,  and I have not been back since, at least not farther east than the road to Gabbs. Odd, that, because for years my memories of US 50 were often what came to mind when I thought of the intermountain West. But I haven’t been back since 1984.

There are days on which he would contest this assessment, but my brother survived his accident. Eleven days from today he’ll be flying out to visit Zeke, and after a day or two of walking the dog he and I will load up the truck, hie ourselves on out past the Sierra Nevada, and take US 50 east to Utah to look for trilobites. We may head over into the Red Rock country as well, to buy Siona’s mom a cup of coffee in Moab. Or we might look for a stand of yellow September aspen to sleep beneath for a few days.

I am looking forward to the horizon. I am looking forward to a valley full of cool sagebrush-scented air in morning, the tang of juniper and piñon smoke still clinging to my hair.

On the homefront

Becky has quit her job. After 9 years teaching in the Oakland Unified School District, with declining support and increasing demands on her each year, after losing student after student into the maw of poverty and violence, she has given notice. She’s almost certainly landed a job starting in September with the Berkeley schools. By “almost certainly” I mean that the principal has assigned her a classroom and she’s moved her stuff into it, but the district hasn’t yet finished the paperwork necessary to hand her a contract to sign. No matter: the important thing is that she’s out of Oakland.

And now it can be told, without risking her job: there was a salient piece of information I left out of the post linked to above for fear that she would suffer — well, perhaps not retaliation exactly, but certainly increased stress. There was this passage in that post:

They time my wife with a stopwatch.  The government curriculum must be followed!  An afternoon behind schedule, or ahead, and the warning letters come. No matter that the children struggle, or that having mastered the material, they sit despondent, bored. If her students learn too quickly, she is deemed out of compliance. If she takes time to explain, she is deemed out of compliance. If she is far enough out of compliance, she is deemed substandard.

This was not hyperbole. There were staff people, at the Oakland school where Becky taught the last nine years, whose job it was to time to the minute teachers’ compliance with the Open Court Reading curriculum. The one that caused Becky the most stress — a banal, bland, affable man — was notable for having taken some time away from the school a few years back to work at something else.

He was interrogating prisoners at Guantanamo.

And then he came back to regulate the learning process in the Oakland public school system.

Becky’s out of there now, and our home is a brighter place.