Common Work

NONFICTION

“As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth: the fertility of the soil … the common work of the tribe.”–Gary Snyder

“I think we’re neighbors. Tell me again where you live.” Kathy’s on the phone with me about some community theater business, and I’ve tried twice already to explain where I live, but she’s just not getting it. I run down the directions one more time: follow Harry McCarty Road all the way to the end, even after it turns dirt, to where it dead-ends into Briscoe Mill.

“Is Briscoe Mill the name of a subdivision?”

No, it’s a road.

“But what’s the name of the subdivision?”

Because I live on a hundred-and-something-year-old family farm, I am a resident of one of Barrow County, Georgia’s original subdivisions, I suppose. Maybe that’s what I should tell Kathy. Two generations of my family live on 40 acres of pine woods split in two by a narrow dirt road. Mama’s house is just across that road from mine. Hers is the old Edwards farmhouse, built in 1906. Mr. Edwards added two rooms in the 1940s to its original four, and the house hasn’t been changed much since, except when we turned one of the back bedrooms into the house’s first indoor bathroom. It’s a plain wooden farmhouse with a high-pitched roof, a vernacular structure known in architectural terms (at least before its additions were made) as a four-square Georgian. There’s a front porch the width of the house and a back porch cut just short of running house-width by a small pantry jutting out at the northwest end. The original well is under the back porch, dry now and filled in with cement, but the well-house stills stands. It’s where Grady the cat sleeps most afternoons.

The siding on Mama’s house is mostly original, wooden planks weathered to grey. None of the farm’s buildings has ever been painted. We’ve added a poured concrete side porch to the house and taken away a fireplace. We tore down the outhouse years ago; I forget just why. The steep roof of Mama’s house is fringed with lightning rods. One of the glass lightning-rod bulbs broke long ago, but the others are still in place—four light purple blown-glass bulbs topping twisty cables that run down the corners of the house. The house hasn’t been struck by lightning since Mr. Edwards had this system installed after lightning traveled down the chimney one early 20th-century night and struck the bed his girls were sleeping in. One of those daughters, Lona Bell, told us that lightning bolt split their wooden bedstead in two as she and sister lay there in their bedroom, which is Mama’s library and wall-to-wall now with books. I’d wager not many people driving past Mama’s house of a day would guess such an old plain house held shelves packed tight with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer and Celestine Sibley.

When Mama married Mac a couple of years after Daddy died, Mac put in a small cottage behind the farmhouse. He had the contractor build new to look old to keep the character of this place. Here is Mac’s daytime space, housing his family furniture, his computers and his pipe smoke. I live in the barn. Most people who drive here with a purpose—a new UPS driver, someone delivering flowers, an acquaintance following directions we’ve given them over the phone—cannot believe the old barn across from Mama’s house is actually my house. My house began life as the Edwards’s cotton barn. It’s small, Georgia cotton barns having been typically built as A-frames with open wings on each side to house the wagons. Daddy first enclosed those wings in the early ’70s, changing a small barn to a small house. Since Don and I have been living here, we’ve bumped out the bathroom to three times its size and added a dining room and a screened back porch. Our house is still teeny by modern standards, but big enough. The siding is still weathered wood and the tin roof has long gone red with rust.

Neither house has central heat or air. Mac has offered to install a heat pump to cozy up Mama’s house through the winter and cool it off through Georgia Julys and Augusts. Mama always thanks him, and refuses. Central air doesn’t fit the soul of an old house, she tells him. The house itself would not be at ease with such. Most of the year, both houses stand open-windowed and open door to the outside weather. We rely on ceiling fans and old sheltering trees to keep the heat down. Come winter, we have poured-glass windows to let the sun enter as wavy rainbows of warmth. We also almost always have thick layers of dust or pollen over our floors and furniture. You can’t let the intangible outside in without allowing the tangible, too. Mama and I alternate between wearing ourselves ou trying to sweep up leaves as they’re tracked in or just making a clean sweep of yesterday’s mess and then ignoring the floors for the rest of the day. Mentally and time-usage-wise, the second is the better choice to make, but it must cause casual visitors to think us either a family of blind people (Can’t they see the leaves and sticks and spiders and lizards in here?) or else to think of us as purely sorry, as no-account people used to be called in the South.

The one exception to our unofficial mandate against climate-controlled buildings is the corn crib. A Georgia corn crib is traditionally built small, just 12-by-12 or so, a rough shack with one wall that can be let down on hinges for shoveling feed corn from wagon to storage. We’ve turned utilitarianism on its head with our corn crib’s current incarnation. It’s a guest house/sewing room/writing studio now. Being so small, it heats up before noon on summer days to a temperature too sticky for working comfortably, so we’ve insulated it like crazy and installed a heater/air-conditioner unit. We’ve also put in a stained glass window from a country church Daddy helped tear down, an iron bed, bookshelves, coffee pot, mini-refrigerator, computer, printer, sound system, and a glass and gold French Provincial phone my students gave to me. From the outside, the corn crib is weathered wood with rusty tin roof. Inside, it’s all creature comfort and art work.

Some day we hope to connect the corn crib and our house—the cotton barnby means of a glassed-in breezeway, a sort of open-to-the-view hallway. This will be wonderful for us, but rage-inducing for the dogs. Already, the wall of windows Daddy put in along the back wall of the barn, which lets us look out into deep woods, also lets squirrels come close enough to chitter nasty squirrel comments to Fred and Max, our resident farm dogs, who then fling themselves, all claw and snarl, at the window.

I call Fred and Max farm dogs, but we don’t farm this land as the Edwards family once did. By the time my family bought the land from the last generation of Edwards’ to live on the last remnant of what had been hundreds of acres of Barrow County farmland, their original farm had been subdivided among children and children’s children until they’d deed-whittled down to one L-shaped plot of southern woods, a pointy-roofed farmhouse, Lona Bell’s flower beds and Lona Bell. A year or more after this last Edwards daughter signed papers and moved into a singlewide just down the road, I would glance out my kitchen window every so often and see Lona Bell’s cotton-bonneted head bent over a dahlia bed near the road, digging bulbs to transplant to her yard. She considered this earth still hers to dig in every sense but the legal one, and I wasn’t about to argue against her claim being the more abiding. After all, her family had farmed my land to cotton and tobacco through all the last century and a chunk of the one before. Calvin Edwards’ plow furrowed ditches and ridges spring after spring for so many years that 75 years after his final plowing those waves of earth still cause my steps to rise and dip when I tromp there under 30-foot sweet gums and pines. I’ve seen no photos from his farming years, so it’s easy for me to forget that once the hill behind my house stood bare as a knuckle ringed with barbed wire. Every 10 yards or so, Calvin set in fence posts he’d rough-axed from trees he’d cut down to clear for his fields. When I sink to my knee in another leaf-hidden fencepost hole, I remember his farm as I’ve never seen it. It’s as if the former Mr. Edwards has reached up and snagged me from earth he worked, to remind me his life was hard, and always only one misstep from something broken or somebody dead.

My family’s life on this land is not nearly so hard. Our livelihood does not depend on crops wrested from rocky ridges, and Max and Fred are the only farm boys running our hill and swimming the lower creek these days—two orphan pups tossed out like beer cans on the side of a road and recycled by us into a couple of Good Old Boy dogs. They love trucks and chasing deer and fishing, but when we head out to work the landwell, sir, that puts a grin on their faces. And don’t tell me dogs can’t smile. The minute I tuck the limb saw under my arm and shove my leather gloves in my jacket pocket (not the cotton gardening gloves, which signal boring, stay-in-one-place work), those guys start grinning all over themselves. We’re working now, say Max and Fred. This is how life should be lived, yessir.

They don’t know that I’m using them. Or maybe they do, but don’t care. They have their agenda, I have mine. Mine is to trim dead branches, cut back catbrier, keep privet from making any more alien inroads into the woods we now walk, where fields once ran to rows of cotton. Such maintenance work is my public purpose, at any rate, should anyone ask. My private and truest reason for going into the woods is to be alone and outdoors, to escape everything indoors, everything “seared with trade … that wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins, that most sensual of priests, put it. Every time I’m wild to get away from heat pumps and leaf blowers and windows that are never used for their purpose, I go to the woods. My daughter calls me a Luddite, and she’s probably right. I do tend to resent and avoid the noisier of the technologies of our times because many such advances work to encapsulate us and persuade us to not think of nature as a member of the family. Not a member of the family? Not ours to love, and therefore not our responsibility. I am noticing more and more instances of people viewing nature as yet another form of disposable resource: theirs to make use of; someone else’s to maintain.

Lately I’ve been having dreams, nightmares, really, about invasions onto my land. In one dream, I have come home from work to find Barrow County Road Department trucks filling in my creeks with dirt because “we can’t allow open creeks—they’re a hazard.” In another dream, I step out of the woods by my garden shed and run to snatch Max away from dozens of snakes’ heads popping out of the yard like March’s first asparagus, while people I don’t know are milling about wondering aloud why I’m so upset. In last night’s dream, I went for my evening walk, but instead of picking up fast-food bags and lottery tickets and beer cans drivers had chucked from their car windows, I found bag after elephant-sized bag of garbage filling and spilling over our ditches.

A week or two ago, as I rounded the curve where our dirt part of the road begins, I had to slam on my brakes because a lottery ticket booth sat smack in the middle of our road.

This wasn’t a dream, mind you. This was a real wooden pink-and-white Georgia Lottery booth, the kind you see in gas station mini-marts, now standing at attention on the dirt, ready for business. Suddenly I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not. But, nope, there it was, as four-square as an outhouse. What does this possibly say about my life when a metaphor takes solid form and blocks my drive home from Quality Foods? Besides being a teacher, I write poetry—four books’ worth so far—so I notice metaphors. Who but a Luddite poet would see this stolen and dumped lottery booth’s appearance as a metaphor for our society? It’s not as if illicit goods have never ended their sorry journey on our road before. I find more than my share of crack pipes and stashed appliances swiped from construction sites and condoms soggy with stolen love. But the lottery booth was plunder on a Powerball scale, and it stopped me cold.

Now, I have to tell you the first thing I did when I saw that Lottery booth was laugh.

Then I drove quickly around it so I could tell someone at home what I’d found. This was a good story, and a good story to a writer is better than a winning lottery ticket, or it’s right up there, anyhow. But the thing is, now I can’t unwrap my mind from the idea of someone stealing a five-foot-high wooden booth and carefully positioning it in the middle of my road, its cheery pink-and-green logo facing oncoming drivers as squarely as some new highway sign. What could have possessed this ambitious thief to invest so much time and trouble? Was Lottery Booth Thief simply an extremely tidy person, someone like me who won’t have a litterbag in the car because a passenger might put litter in it?

Trash has been on my mind this month because of a cedar tree making newspaper headlines here, a tree gaining fame through its demise. The family who owned the land ordered this 50-year-old, 60-foot deodar cedar cut down to clear the way for a new building, the placement of which was, according to the landowners, decreed by building and zoning regulations. I have no doubt the owners are speaking truth. I’m certain the neighbors know the owner is speaking truth, but truth doesn’t get at the heart of the neighbors’ anger. What the property owners aren’t understanding is how much the locals needed that tree. City dwellers spend their days learning to not notice trash in the gutters, trash on the edges of yards, trash windblown to concrete gutters and the feet of concrete buildings. It’s ugly. But a 60-foot cedar can’t be made ugly, even if trash piled around its roots like the trash bags of my dreams. Before the cedar fell, its neighbors had only to look up to see something undefiled. Their lives needed that luxury of beauty, even though they have not said as much, stating their anger rather in terms of the size and age of the tree, as if a tree’s right to life might be substantiated through statistics.

***

I needed the luxury of the beauty of my woods during all my years of roaming as a Navy wife before I came home to my 40 acres. And it is a luxury, both in that I possess such a generous swath of land in today’s world, and in that I am not required to make use of that land in order to survive. This set of circumstances would have astounded and probably disgusted Calvin Edwards. It certainly surprises people I meet. More and more these days when someone asks how much land I have and I tell them, “40 acres,” they respond that I own a subdivision. I suppose I do. I think of my land as being subdivided into the wet-weather creek right behind my house, the flat stretch of small hardwoods leading to the footbridge across the wetlands and Fred’s fishing creek, then the hill rising thick in pines and cedars to a clearing where apple trees my sister planted stand watch over the wooden bench I rest on while Max and Fred munch on deer droppings, the dog version of M&M’s. Trying to choose which of these areas pleases me more would be like trying to name one’s favorite child.

Not that all is lovely here. I constantly grieve and fret over piles of deadfall rotting among the pines. Catbrier I haven’t cut back wends its ugly way up sassafras trunks, choking life from trees and weaving a low connective path for fire, should fire come. Dry blackberry canes snag like old brown claws from the sides of deer paths. Widow-maker pine snags dangle above my head wherever I stand. And both creeks always need cleaning out. After the most recent ice storm, my friend Terry Kay, knowing how driven I am, admonished me, “Don’t overdo the clean-up. God meant nature to have its own design.” He’s right, Terry is. And that is the luxury I would fight for—the luxury of contrast. In the natural subdivision that is my land, nothing is predictable. However many times each day the dogs and I tromp these acres, some little something has always changed from the time before. Those changes require of me: attention, consideration and the kind of figuring out that leads to poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins the poet used the ritual of form, sonnet form, to help himself figure out where to go with his unease in an industrialized world and with his guilt—as Hopkins the priestover loving the lush natural world. He went to where “morning at the brown brink eastward springs … with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” He went to whatever nature thrived in monastery gardens as I go to my woods, in order to find again “the dearest freshness deep down things.” It was not by accident that Hopkins wrote of the world being “charged” with God’s grandeur. He well knew how every charge exacts its price. The price he paid was a guilt-tinged duality; mine is the same.

I, who have so much compared to subdivision dwellers, want more. I want more land to let run to woods, and I want more time in the woods. Out there in the trees, my dogs become more dogly and I become less a woman of 21st-century America. I let go and let go until I teeter right on the last edge of my socially acceptable self. This is when I like myself best. “Why does one not like things if there are other people about?” asked Lawrence of Arabia. It isn’t quite that I don’t like things when people are about, but more that I like them better when people are absent. When people and things leave me, or when I leave them, I do the fullest job of seeing them, and loving them for what I see.

In a subdivision such as Kathy’s brain keeps trying to picture me in, I wouldn’t be able to step back far enough to see as well as my disposition demands. I know because I’ve been there and I’ve tried. Those years when the Navy moved us often, I tried to ignore my need for an escape, but it never quite worked. I was always yearning for a place like my woods. That’s how I’m able to understand why Lona Bell kept coming back to dig her bulbs months and months after she had sold the farm to us. I knew she couldn’t leave those flower bulbs behind, because for her and for her mother and for her mother’s mother, their flowers had been one of their escapes, a way of stepping back and recovering gentleness in what must often have been a subsistence life.

Mama now lives where Lona Bell’s parents lived out their married life. I can step from my porch to Mama’s in 30 seconds to tell her what I’ve been thinking about. She will take one look at me and know that I’ve done it again—I’ve let my mind philosophize me down a path that started out fairly clear but got thornier as I bull-headedly plowed along. I set out to simply describe an old farm and ended up keeping company with trash, bad dreams and a dead poet. Mama’s a champ at snatching me out of clouds like these. “Aw, honey,” she’ll say to me, “don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Dana Wildsmith is the author of four books of poetry, including most recently, One Good Hand. She lives on a 150-year-old farm in North Georgia where she teaches English Literacy and has just completed an environmental memoir.

*Editor’s Note: This essay received an honorable mention in The 2008 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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2 comments

  1. I love this essay. I have always wanted to live in a barn. We are strange birds or just trying to get back to nature I guess. Love the lottery booth metaphor.

  2. This essay took me on a most enjoyable vacation trip, for which I could never purchase a ticket! I was refreshed with reminders of my own grandparents’ lives and land.
    …and my escape has usually been a ‘convenient’ hotel room.
    Babs F

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