Brantley, who is seven, was helping me lay the fire in the fireplace. We put a wide flat board at the back. “Look,” he said, “it’s a smiling guy face! See, he’s got eyes, and a nose, and a mouth. And he’s smiling at us!”
“It really is a smiling guy, isn’t it. I guess we can’t burn him, can we.”
“Nope,” said Brantley.
(This is an excerpt from an essay which originally appeared in the New Hampshire Times) Read the full essay
Waterloo Road runs east and west in front of my house, along the Warner River through a narrow valley on the shadows’ side of the Mink Hills. Before the sun rises on December mornings into the pale blue gap between a bank of clouds and the horizon, its orange light lies first on the crown and shoulder of a little mountain called Chandler just a mile south of our house. During the summer the sun rises too far north on the horizon to light the mountain like this and so, after a week of overcast mornings at the end of November and another week of mornings when I left the house before the sun had risen, this first light on the mountain takes me by surprise.
For weeks, of course, I have been dimly aware each day that the daylight has been weaker, the darkness gathering more quickly on the drive home. Vague feelings of discomfort and anxiety trouble me as this darkness closes in at both ends of the day.
I like the darkness of a summer night, when the dew releases the smells of the earth and grasses, but these long December nights with their crystalline starlight give me the willies.
Each morning for the past two weeks I’ve been sitting by the wood stove to drink a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise, though more often than not all I’ve seen for my trouble is the progressive lightening of a heavy grey sky.
On those days when the sun itself has appeared, its rays stream in the window on the southeast side of the house and daily reach deeper and deeper into the back of the house. I’ve watched the sun rise first over the edge of a pine grove, then, several days later over the roof of a neighboring house, and now over a low hill south of the river. Its path seems to be dropping away from the earth like the spiral of an orange’s skin as the knife peels it away from the fruit.
If this were my first experience with the phenomenon, I might have great cause for alarm. There is nothing in the observation of the sun’s daily slippage south to suggest that the process will be halted or reversed. At this rate, if nothing changes, I estimate that by February the sun will be rising over the eastern shoulder of Chandler Mountain and setting on the western. By spring it will flicker briefly like an airport beacon on the mountain top and then disappear forever. It is a particularly, perhaps exclusively, human fear, this annual concern with old Sol’s faithfulness to his duties on the planet.
On December 21, if the sun’s rising is not obscured by clouds, and if my good intentions prove sufficient to wake me in time, I plan to trace on the back wall of the sitting room the outline of whatever shadow the sun’s light casts.
That tracing will remain like a low-water mark as a record of this shortest day of the year, next to the door-jamb where we’ve been marking our kids’ heights as they grow.
Brief as my recognition of the solstice will be, it is nevertheless in keeping with what all ancient astronomical observations and celebrations everywhere and in every era have meant to do—remind ourselves of our place in the universe, swinging around the sun through space on this little ball of living dirt and water, utterly dependent on that fat hot star, our gravitational minder, for the light and heat that give us life.
Tomorrow, December 3, I will indulge in a little temporary fossil-fuel-assisted climate change by boarding a jet aeroplane and sitting in it while it flies from Indiana to San Francisco. It will be a brief two-week visit with my old dad, and I expect to indulge my cravings for fresh vegetables by buying everything that fruits this time of year in the Bay Area. Yes, the Great Drought calls into question the permanent nature of that climate, but please, just sell me five pounds of tomatoes. I’m only here for two weeks. (Oddly enough, as I write this, a huge storm front is raining on much of California, raising worries about mudslides, but doing little to change the long-term levels of water in the state.)
Here in Indiana at the Grant St. Micro-Agricultural Research Station (a.k.a. my 100-square-foot front yard food garden), we had our first killing frost in late October. Dozens of green and foolishly expectant tomatoes still clung to the vines. Knowing better than they did about what was coming, I picked them and took them to the basement to ripen. They were hard and green as Granny Smith apples.
Last night, December 1, we sliced up the last of those garden tomatoes. It was a little mushy and bland, but offered just enough of the mildly piquant aromatic flavor that only a tomato can deliver to remind us of what it is to pull the red ripe fruit from the vine in the early evening of a day late in August and slice it, still warm, into the company of crisp japanese cukes, scallions, fennel and fresh mozzarella.
I will eat tomatoes this coming week in Los Altos, but back in Indiana I don’t expect to eat another fresh one for what…maybe half a year? I won’t buy the imports as a matter of principle and taste, and though I might be tempted by a locally greenhoused, hydroponically grown tomato, I can’t really find the craving strong enuf to overcome my distaste with the idea of growing a food plant by dangling its roots in pea gravel and flooding it with a kool-aid of fertilizer and nutrients. Even if it’s organic. Even if it’s from a solar heated greenhouse.
Eating each food in its season is not some cerebral ideology I adopt in an effort to buy solidarity with my fellow foodies. It’s simply that this far into my life I’ve finally realized that keen appetite and anticipation are the better part of pleasure. Call it foreplay for the palate. Last night I ate the last Indiana garden tomato. Next week I will eat a few of the last vine ripened tomatoes in a warmer climate. And this March I will plant tomato seeds in the basement, watch them sprout and raise their tiny leaves to the gro-lamps. In May I will bring those starts up from the basement, harden them off outdoors in the cool spring evenings, and then plant them in the warming soil. In late July I will pick the first of them.
I can imagine the taste. I can wait for my pleasures. I will.
I named this space Curiously Local when I first began writing here in 2009. I had come into my 60th year, and was beginning to suspect that the next ten years of my life might turn out to be considerably different from anything I could imagine. Or worse, that they might end up being more of exactly the same.
Both outcomes begged the question, “Who’s in charge here?”. It’s always a good question to consider from time to time during the course of one’s life, but since good questions are those which can easily lead to unpalatable answers, I’ve ducked the issue whenever possible. Do we really have any control over how our lives play out, or do we only have control over how powerfully we want to believe in the illusion of control. And is control really the best way to think about what life is all about?
OK, so press me and I will tell you with a straight face that I have chosen the course of my life by making decisions, little and large, daily and weekly, and often with great purpose and industry, spectacle and noise. I will tell you that after I have made those decisions I nail them down in front of me like lumber on a boardwalk across a mucky and delicate wetlands.
But as satisfying as it is to make a decision–you know, lay the board down in front of the others, bang in the nails–I am quietly troubled by my suspicion that most decisions are little more that the inevitable expression of inclinations and habits. That class of determiners which we might call “The ways I am that make me do the stuff I do”. The rut-captured routines that are imbedded so deeply in us that we would have a devil of a time calling them up and naming them, let alone parsing the bargains we’ve made so we never have to acknowledge how helpless we are to change them.
Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles: his soul for all the knowledge in the world.
To keep these ideas at a certain level of generality is the safest course. I mean to say that most of us are familiar with what we mean when we talk about desire. And it’s not the same as want or need, is it. It’s not just a deeper, or stronger, or brighter or heavier type of need. Desire comes from a place in the brain that is not necessarily driven by anything we can talk clearly about. If anything, desire is controlled by the breath, and in turn controls the breath. And that may be some clue to it. We don’t want oxygen, and to say we need oxygen is a bland way of saying that without it, our revels are ended. So as I breath, desire breathes me.
But one day in the summer of 1958 I was playing in the backyard with a bow and arrow. The arrow was a real one, with a sharp metal tip, a target arrow which I had acquired from another kid in the neighborhood as part of a carefully calculated exchange of trade goods. It was one of my most prized possessions. I would draw a target on a cardboard box and launch the arrow over and over again, increasing my distance from the box only after I was successful at hitting it consistently.
This particular afternoon for some reason I decided to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. Maybe simply for the thrill of it. Watching as it reached its apogee and faltered, slipping over on its side and then gathering back the speed it had lost as it streaked back down to stick with a satisfying crunch into the lawn. I did not know my grandfather had quietly walked out to inspect my mother’s flower garden. He was a gentle man, slight of build and bald of head. He was also deaf.
I launched the arrow, watched it rise, and then saw my grandfather standing on the lawn with his back to me. I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t shout. I closed my eyes, and in that moment probably came as close as I will ever come in my life to praying.
The arrow landed three or four feet behind him. I don’t remember anything else.