Monday, August 27, 2018

Arbor vita

It’s one of the hottest, summery-est days of the year, and yet the signs of change to the next season are everywhere. Yesterday the soybean field out the south window of my office was at its peak of gold-hued beauty; today it’s all grey-brown blah. Life, I tell you. One minute you’re golden, the next you’re filler in a package of hotdogs. Of course, frequently it does take longer than a minute, but the end is still the same and it’s still cause for melancholy reflection.

So the big elm tree next to our house split in two a week ago. Half of it fell on the house. Miraculously, there was very little damage, certainly nothing major. Ironically, it probably would have been cheaper for us if there had been, since that’s just one of the mysterious ways insurance works. Regardless, the tree removal guys are out there right now, with a crane and a bunch of chainsaws and a big mechanical crab-claw thing that looks like it would be kind of fun to operate except that it’s about a hundred degrees in the shade out there, and we now have a lot less shade.

The tree was old, and it was only a matter of time before the other half fell, so K agreed to have not just the fallen parts removed but the whole thing. I don’t know why this makes me sad, but it does, and I guess this is one of those things that either makes you unaccountably very sad or else just makes you shrug. “Tree hugger” used to be a derisive term, but lately it seems to have been reclaimed by those who feel a strong emotional pull toward nature. Until a tree dies, I somehow always think of them as nearly eternal, like mountains or lakes. They seem so solidly enduring, such a steady presence amidst the frantic madness of the rest of the living world.

Our house is 120 years old; I have no idea how many years it shared with the tree, but I’m sure there were a great many. At the point when we moved in, it shaded the entire west side. There were birds’ nests in its trunk, and K attached a rope ladder to one bough so that our macaws could climb up and play in the branches. Whenever I looked out the west window of my office, that’s what I’d see—that’s all I’d see. I didn’t mind; it’s not like there was much of a view beyond it, and I liked looking for the songbirds that made such a racket each morning. There’s a lot more light in my office now—harsh light, searing with heat. It makes me think of those Edward Hopper paintings of people looking out windows like they’re waiting for something, except in the moment of the painting, there’s nothing out there but that hard, uncaring light.

There’s so much tragedy going on right now—too much, it often seems, as if there could ever be just the right amount of tragedy. Amidst all this, there’s something absurdly precious and pointless about mourning the death of one tree. Nevertheless, there’s an empty space now where there once was something grandly alive. I won’t ignore that, and hopefully that way I won’t forget it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Goats do roam; so do I

Yesterday I baled hay for the first time. I know at least a couple of you are likely chuckling at this and thinking “Uh, I did that when I was 12. So?” I hasten to add that I did this by hand, if that grants me any farm cred, since we don’t have a hay baler, and more importantly that up until now I’ve lived almost entirely in suburbs and cities. I will confess that I wasn’t even entirely sure what hay was, or how it differed from straw, or what one did with either besides decorating for Halloween, for some reason.

Go ahead and chuckle. I deserve it, though I also hasten to add that you’re never too old to learn something new, and that’s a pretty great thing that should never be ridiculed.

I baled hay because we are now the proud and delighted keepers of four tiny cloven-hooved weed trimmers. The zoo where K does veterinary work has an excess of baby goats, so we took home four of them to romp around our land and munch on the burdock and velvetleaf. They are preposterously cute. They have been around people their entire young lives, so they love to be petted and will follow us around constantly, bleating with anguish whenever we’re out of eyesight.

We named them after four ultramarathon races we’ve done. McNabb, K’s 50K PR race, is the biggest and the friendliest; he’ll stand very pointedly in front of me, like a puppy, begging for affection. Kettle is the brown one, sort of like a copper kettle, and appropriate for a hilly Wisconsin race, he likes to climb. Berryman is another well-named climber, and he and the littlest goat appear to be best buddies, which works because both are St. Louis-area races. The littlest goat is Double Chubb. Double Chubb likes to eat. We totally win at naming goats.

Did I ever think there would be a day I’d be standing in an old deer pen surrounded by chickens and goats while a bright red macaw perched above me on a post, surveying the new residents with a wary eye, all of us in the middle of rural Illinois? Obviously not. Twenty years ago, in the middle of the East Village of Manhattan, you might as well have told me I’d be colonizing Mars. (Never say never, but I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. I like potatoes, but not that much.) But listen: forty years ago, playing hide-and-seek in a banana grove on Oahu, I’d never have believed I’d be working on Wall Street and dining at Le Bernardin. (Well, once I dined there. It takes a while to pay off the loan.)

When a Manhattan friend once suggested we travel to Europe one summer and I said “Sure! I just have to get a passport!” she stared at me and laughed like I’d said sure, I just have to figure out how indoor plumbing works. She’d been all over the world already, and my being a nearly 30-year-old woman who had never left the country marked me as a first-class hick. Since then I’ve met many people who got their passport for the first time when they were even older than I was—some who had never been in an airplane before. There’s no shame in it. Nothing says you have to do any of this stuff by a certain time or you are doomed to loserhood forever. You can always have new experiences—and they don’t all have to be on an epic scale, either. You can pick up a pitchfork—a real one, not some toy that accompanies a devil costume or an “American Gothic” backdrop—and slide its tongs along the ground, lifting a loose thatch of pale gold strands. You’re not 12 years old, no, and that’s fine. Your 12-year-old self wouldn’t have imagined or appreciated this quite the same way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Caving on

We celebrated K’s birthday weekend with a trip down to Mammoth Cave National Park. Caves are not really our thing; I enjoy the sound of the word “spelunking,” but I have no desire to enact the word’s meaning. However, this was the closest National Park, a not-too-terrible five hours’ drive away, and we’ve been trying to get in as many of the parks in as we can before they get turned into oil fields or bases for the Space Force. What’s more, even though I was a lot more excited about hiking the back-country trails, you don’t go to a place called Mammoth Cave only to spend the whole time above ground. (You also don’t go expecting to see any mammoths. Not only are they extinct, they never made it to the caves. The “mammoth” in this case just means big.) As such, we grudgingly allotted two hours to a cave tour.

Our cave guide looked a bit like Jerry Garcia, though he acted like everyone who has held a once-loved job just a bit too long. He seemed weary, tired of telling people not to litter, not to deface the cave walls, not to take the cave tour at all if they didn’t think they could walk two miles that included very tight passages and a lot of stairs to climb. “The cave is dark,” Weary Jerry warned. “Parts may be wet and slippery. There’s a section that’s extremely narrow—they call it ‘fat man’s misery.’” There were chuckles, though I sensed anxiety, and I wondered if a name change was in order so no one would feel fat-shamed. K, however, was immune to fat-shaming. “Guess I’m gonna be miserable,” he joked cheerfully.

We did not end up being miserable, though at first we weren’t all that enthralled. Last year we’d visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park and taken a self-guided tour of some truly astonishing cave formations. You would not believe what can happen when water meets limestone. In contrast, the cave at Mammoth was big, empty, and nearly featureless. But then after all, we’d chosen the “Historic Tour,” which turned out to be less about what the cave looked like and more about how we had come to be in it in the first place. Why had people ever entered it? What made anyone think that going down a dark hole through slippery, narrow, miserable passages leading who knows where with who knows what lurking ahead—how could this possibly be a good idea? But they did go. Thousands of years ago, well before it was “discovered” by Europeans, people explored the caves.

“This,” said Weary Jerry, some of his weariness receding as his eyes glimmered in the very faint light he held up. “This is all the light you would have if you were one of the first people here. How far would you have gone if this was all you could see?”

People murmured indistinctly, though “not far” seemed to be the general buzz, and not at all was what went through my own mind. Ironically, at that moment many friends of mine were finishing an ultramarathon back home, one that I’d done several times in the past. The idea of running in circles under the hot August sun for eight hours is a definite “not at all” to most people, and yet it made so much more sense to me than the idea of spending any amount of time here, without proper lighting or footwear, a paved path or a guide, even a jaded one counting down the days ‘til retirement.

“We’re coming to the ‘bottomless pit,’” the guide went on, the edge returning to his voice as he no doubt was making bets with himself as to how many morons would toss coins down there this time. “Up until about 1840, this was the farthest anyone had dared to go. At that time, a slave named Stephen Bishop, who was one of the cave guides, extended a ladder over the pit and became the first person to go beyond it.”

Bishop, we learned, opened up a whole new part of the cave full of wonders to discover, including a river with eyeless fish no one had known even existed. He continued to explore the subterranean world and ended up creating some of the first extensive maps of the caves. And thus were we here, because one person, and others after him, and untold numbers before him, not only asked a question—What’s out there?—but decided the answer was worth pursuing no matter what.

People are bizarre. You think an eyeless fish is weird? It isn’t. If you live in a river in a pitch-black cave, what is there to see? People meanwhile can see, yet they willingly go where they can’t—and try to anyway. The human condition is crazy with contradictions, our stubborn belief that unswerving persistence will pay off paired with an openness to possibilities, an insatiable curiosity, the desire to delve into the unknown and find out what’s there. Let’s see how far this cave goes. Let’s see how long we can keep running. There’s a bottomless pit ahead of us that seems to mark our absolute limits. Let’s try to cross it, shall we?