Dana Wildsmith is the author of an environmental memoir, Back to Abnormal: Surviving with an Old Farm in the New South (MotesBooks), four collections of poetry: One Good Hand Iris Press, 2005), Our Bodies Remember (The Sow’s Ear Press, 2000), Annie (Palanquin Press, 1999), Alchemy (The Sow’s Ear Press, 1995), and an audio collection, Choices ( Iris Press). One Good Hand was a SIBA Poetry Book of the Year nominee and Garrison Keiller chose the poem “Making a Living” from this collection to read on NPR’S Writer’s Almanac. She has served as Artist-in-Residence for the Grand Canyon National Park and as Writer-in-Residence for The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and has been a Poetry Fellow with the South Carolina Academy Of Authors. Her work is widely published in journals and anthologies, including most recently: Writing By ear (MotesBooks), Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky), The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press, 2007), and Women, Period (Spinsters Ink). Wildsmith lives in Bethlehem, Georgia. She is employed as an English Literacy Instructor through Lanier Technical College and teaches writing classes at John C. Campbell Folk School.
Excerpt from Dana Wildsmith's newly published Memoir Back to Abnormal: Surviving with an Old Farm in the New South, (Mote Books 2010)
Springtime in the Country
“In Spring, at the end of the day you should smell like dirt.” -Margaret Atwood
It’s not the crocuses by Mama’s side porch, or grape hyacinths under the big cedar or yellow jonquils flagging Georgia’s roadsides which announce the coming of spring to me- it’s the southern wood violet and how its arrival affects the way we walk around Grace Farm. Some early morning in March or even late February, one of us will glance down to watch for ankle-twisting stump holes, stop in our tracks, and moan, “Oh, no. Look!” There it is: the first teeny patch of violets. Lovely they may be in their miniscule daintiness, but we know their power. Our violets have won the queen’s heart and her protection. Mama can’t bear to lose a single tiny blossom. She would as soon stomp on kittens’ heads as crush these miniature wildflowers, and we are all shamed into compliance through her example. For six weeks or more to come, we won’t so much walk our forty acres as lurch, leap and sidestep inch-high clusters of violets.
When our yard grass grows tall enough to warrant the season’s first cutting, we mow it not in soldierly lines, but patchily, shearing only those sections where no violets bloom. Passersby must think us a family of springtime drunks. They imagine us so enraptured by March’s lushness that we take to our woods for hidden bacchanalia, culminating in a rite of clan-wide disfigurement of the turf. Here a cut, there a tuft, everywhere a really weird cut. It can’t be helped. By Mama’s decree, her side yard remains off limits so long as one violet blooms. The horse pasture? Off limits. The path up the right-of-way? Verbotten. The crape myrtle row? Don’t even go there. And we don’t. Like all good enablers, we avert our eyes from uncontrolled grass growth and try to focus on the positive.
The positive side of being thwarted in any designs we may have had on Bethlehem, Georgia’s Lawn-of-the-Month award is that my family is doing our small part to uphold the southern tradition of each community having its oddball characters. That’s a good thing, because I don’t want small-town Georgia to lose its character- either of the human sort or in our landscapes. I can’t remember any of the towns I’ve lived in not having an old man who covered his fence posts with Nehi Orange bottle caps, or a woman who wore a heavy wool coat through Savannah summers, or her daughter who never married but carried a dog tucked under her arm every waking moment, or a grove of falling-down cracker houses with three generations of sofas on the front porch. The southern right to inter a worn-out sofa onto your porch was recently challenged in nearby Athens, to great uproar and protestation against loss of personal freedom.
I’ve been thinking a lot about personal freedom since I came back to the farm to live, partly because of my ongoing battle against ATV”s. These fat-tired motorized rhinos have claimed our dirt road as their weekend race track. Or, rather, their drivers have. It gets worse every month as more and more subdivisions pop up around us. People who used to live in one of the counties immediately surrounding Atlanta proper are abandoning paved-over, congested Gwinnett County and Dekalb County in favor of Barrow County. I can only assume these new Barrow Countians consider a dirt road walled by woods as public green space. “It’s just an old dirt road. Why shouldn’t I play on it with my dirt bike or ATV?” Because it’s illegal to ride any off-road vehicle on a public road, that’s why. “Nobody’s living in these woods. Why shouldn’t I ride my ATV through them?” Because they’re not your woods, that’s why. And because the weight of your machine is killing my Queen Anne’s Lace, my Fleabane, my Pipsissewa, even my southern wood violets.
Not that I would ever present that last listing as argument to any of the cami-garbed guys I stop mid-road. You can’t ride that ATV here. “Why not, lady?” Because you’re crushing the violets. “Oh, God, sorry! I didn’t know. I’ll call my buddy to bring his pickup to get me.” Nope, what I do is stand in the middle of the road with Fred-the-big-red-dog on his leash and my cell phone in my other hand. Fred hates anything with tires. When he sees an ATV (or motorcycle or F-150 or tricycle) he lunges and slathers (always an effective combination of deterrents) while I call the sheriff with my free hand. Dogs, sheriffs and an angry landowner—the great southern trinity of law enforcement. Make that one crazy-haired lady landowner who is rapidly gaining a reputation as a weirdo, and I can usually put the skids on ATV play, at least for right then.
But do I have the right? Legally, yes. In Georgia, in Barrow County, it is illegal to drive or ride any off-road vehicle on a public road. This comes as a rude surprise to many new arrivals. They have moved to the country to get away from urban sprawl, to have a little ease from restrictions. Isn’t that sort of freedom also my desire and aim? Yes, but I prefer to gain ease from life’s restrictions by blending into the quiet of my woods, by letting nature take the upper hand. So far as I can tell, ATV-ers want access to undeveloped land in order to destroy it. They want into my woods so they can kill all the small life growing on the floor of my woods, so they can kill the stillness, so they can kill the smells of reindeer moss and pine needle beds and wet white clay. They would disavow this, of course, and with actual sincerity. After all, how can someone be held accountable for setting out to kill what they don’t know is there? You can’t see reindeer moss when you’re sitting atop several tons of fiberglass and steel. You can’t hear a forest’s various modes of silence over a gas engine’s howl. Wet clay’s cleanly sharp odor is smothered by gas emissions as thoroughly as new puppies drowned in a sack.
Who in a motorized world notices the small and the silent? I do, as Emily Dickinson did:
“A little bread- a crust- a crumb-
A little trust- a demijohn-
Can keep the soul alive-“
I need a dose of wildness to keep my soul alive. We all do. Any head-butting which goes on between me and ATV owners has its origin in our differing ideas of what “wildness’ is. ATV wildness comes at the world from the outside, in the form of a deafening gas engine carried along by eco-system-flattening tires entering undeveloped areas in order to enjoy by destroying. This is pleasure through conquest. I am of the pleasure-through-conjuncture school. Conjuncture: “a combination; as of events or circumstances”. Have you ever had a relationship in which strong love spilled over into strong desire, and vice-versa? Then you know what I mean by conjuncture- you submerse yourself in someone or something outside of yourself and find not that you lose yourself but that you emerge as more than you were before.
I find all too many people lately believing in the progression to a stronger, more assured self through accumulation of goods. It’s like that cold weather advice our TV announcers always give before the harshest day of winter: dress in layers because layers give greatest protection from the cold. Our popular culture wants to assure us that our greatest protection from anomie will be gained through the layering on of possessions. If those possessions in some way mimic sentience- if beeps and roars and whistles make them sound alive; if response to some signal on our part makes them act alive; if movement and heat and breath-like exhalations make them look alike- we are even more disposed to accept Blackberries and I-Pods and ATV’s as indicators not only of self-worth, but of character affirmation.
The truth is that our individual character becomes most evident when we are most stripped of our accoutrements, when we are what we are, and not what we possess. As a child of World War II-era parents, I wonder from time to time how I would have fared had I been a victim of the Holocaust. Perhaps never in history have humans been so robbed of everything as were those souls transported to concentration camps. How did they do it? I wonder not so much how their bodies survived—that was usually a luck of physiology and circumstance—as how their spirits kept from calling it quits. I would not have made it. I would have destroyed myself with anger at the injustice of it all. But someone like the writer Corrie Ten Boom possessed the sort of temperament which allowed her to set aside anger as irrelevant, to focus on the positive. Finding something positive about life in Auschwitz seems to me like trying to teach opera to a chorus of tone-deaf illiterates, but Ten Boom managed. Once when her sister (a person obviously with leanings more like my own) challenged Corrie to find something- anything- good to say about body lice, Ten Boom replied that their infestations of lice kept sadistic camp guards from bothering them! Corrie Ten Boom had character of the sort which needs no ornamentation or supplementing.
This morning when I stepped out into early spring’s frosty world, I wondered how even Ten Boom could bear the cold of a European winter with no way to fight against it. A detail which always strikes me first when I look at photos from concentration camps is the flimsiness of those cotton pajama-like outfits the internees wore, with almost never a coat or hat in sight. How could they come to terms with constant cold? How could anyone live that way? Georgians did, to a lesser degree, until very recently. There was little nostalgia-inducing about spending winter in an old cracker farmhouse. Those high-ceilinged boxes were cold. Cold. I can tell you first-hand how unheated bedroom air grows so heavy with cold during the dark hours that you wake to feel the temperature as a physical weight, heavier even than the seven or eight quilts mounded over you like dirt over a new grave. And I have come to believe many cases of failing bladders among folks my age and older can be traced back to early morning hours spent carefully motionless in a farmhouse bed, arguing against an obvious call of nature, so great was the bladder-owner’s unwillingness to step out of bed into that black lake of icy air.
Passing the night in a frigid bedroom under quilts piled on and tucked in by a grandmother or mother most likely never killed anyone, though, and it gave the added benefit of Building Character. I’ve written those last words with capitals because that’s how my mind’s ear hears them after a lifetime of being informed any odious situation will “build character”. Dry the dishes; it builds character. Finish your calculus homework; it builds character. Admit to your sister she was right and you were wrong; it builds character. First baby has colic for three months? It builds character. The Navy gives your husband back-to-back deployments the same year your daughter turns fourteen and begins to wear all black (clothes. lipstick, attitude)? Builds character. You receive a $500 windfall on Tuesday and on Wednesday your radiator needs replacing to the tune of $500, exactly?
What do you do with all that accumulated character? Each spring, I use it to hold my anger gauge at steady when yet another clump of abandoned puppies blossoms on the side of the road where some bubba left them to their own devices. The point here, of course, is that three-week-old pups don’t have devices. Someone takes care of them or they die. There are no other options, so my family takes up the slack. Fred and Max know the drill by now: I come home with an armful of wormy babies and dump them in the sink for a flea bath; each pup gets handed off to Mama who is sitting by with thick towels on her lap. Rubbed dry, they go into the pen with warm milk and dog food mush. Max and Fred always seem delighted by the whole process, maybe because it’s like watching a home movie of their own beginnings. In Max’s case, enjoyment of the proceedings certainly isn’t due to his great love of puppies because he considers any furry creature under five pounds to be a rat, and rats, to Max’s way of thinking, have been put on earth to have their necks snapped. We keep puppies at safe viewing distance from Max.
During the most recent puppy residency, Mama admitted to secretly loving being called on to house homeless pups in the unused dog pen behind her house. It’s the perfect way to have all the perks of puppy possession—their infant sweetness, how funny they are when they play together, their puppy smell – without having to commit to lifetime care. Mama steps out her back door and they all come tumbling to the side of the pen to assure her she is goddess incarnate. I should pause here to paint a picture of this pen, lest you have in your head the image of an eight-by-eight chain link box. No, no. This enclosure encompasses a fifteen by twenty foot swath of hilly yard with a huge gnarly apple tree as centerpiece. There are three dog houses therein, two insulated winter residences and an open-sided, roofed sun porch for our dog guests’ warm weather pleasure. We keep a store of dog blankets to pad the houses and a basket of toys and bones. They lead a well-deserved happy life while we search for homes for them.
Not every litter can be saved. Once we found a family of nine siblings in the falling-down barn which edges the far western corner of Mr. Edgar’s land. Just about the only thing holding that barn up is a thick growth of privet and sassafras and cat brier hiding his old cotton barn so nearly completely you have to know it’s there to know it’s there. We know it’s there, so we fought our way back that day through bramble and hedge to where we could hear small rustlings and whimpers. No mama, just nine brindled babies so feral, so starved, they had to be caught and “put down”, as the euphemism goes. They could never have been domesticated. We still wince over having had to order their death. At least we gave them a quick death, as opposed to slow death by starvation and disease, which had been their first lot. And at least they had had Mr. Edgar’s barn as some sort of shelter against the world while they lived. Where will such orphans go when all old barns and rock-footed farmhouses have been leveled in favor of Home Depots?
And should it matter? Do all things weak and vulnerable forfeit their right of proper care by reason of their weakness and vulnerability? If this seems reasonable, if we as a society are hurtling in the direction of respecting only what is new and foursquare, we are also moving toward misapprehending maintenance for care. The greater chunk of our discretionary time is spent maintaining those belongings we believe define us. We maintain, then we discard, then we replace. This is not care. Care involves an expenditure of thought directed solely toward the good of the receiver. The manner of care I have in mind is not precipitated by hope of eventual payoff. It is not virus protection for your laptop or oil changes for your Honda; that’s maintenance. I’m talking about a warm flea bath and soft food and soft words for a puppy who will the following Wednesday be euthanized by the county because he’s too puny and homely to be adoptable. I’m talking about Mama choosing to preserve and live in her old cracker farmhouse, with its one bathroom and gaps around the doors big enough to throw a cat through, rather than level one hundred years of character in favor of a ticky-tacky house with attached two-car garage. And I’m absolutely talking about us in the family adjusting our walking gait to drunk mode during the month or so each spring when wood violets are blooming in fat nose gays all across our yards.
Why does care of the tiny and valueless matter? Because it takes us out of ourselves. Any time we leave the accustomed confines of our outlook, we are required to incorporate new information about ourselves into our brain’s plush folds. Should we leave those puppies to die on their own, or risk briar-ripped arms and puppy bites and ticks and an afternoon’s plans gone to bust? The harder choice forces you into a series of compromises with yourself, with society, with the world at large. You come out on the other side of that process of compromise having Built Character. And the rewarding thing about character is that it is attractive. Local horse owners plan their Sunday afternoon rides to include our road because it’s pleasing to see Mama’s old house, grey and unassuming, standing just where it has stood for one hundred years, teeny patches of deep purple violets scattered at its feet.
MOTES BOOKS Order Back to Abnormal Coming Off the Press February 2010