A destitute family with no prospects moves, hoping for a better life. The son, just back from prison for manslaughter, rejoins them. They meet up with other destitute families all in the same boat—poverty, starvation, bad luck. When police kill the son’s friend, he retaliates by killing a policeman. He goes on the lam, abetted by family and friends. His mother and father both die and his sister miscarriages. It all goes wrong and it will never be right.

I have just encapsulated John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the plight of Tom Joad and his white family out of the Dust Bowl and into oblivion. The book won a Pulitzer; the movie won Best Picture. Kern County, California, where the book ends—with Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, having miscarried, breastfeeding a dying stranger—was not at all happy with the story. “What’s good for General Bullmoose,” after all.

And I have just described the desperation that goes on in poor black St. Louis communities every single week. It plays into the white perception that crime is a black thing, that blacks kill blacks and no one cares. That whites must gate up their homes and live separately. For self-preservation.

The 1930 era must have been shocked by the Joads. Movie and television entertainment were all giggles, screwball comedies; the nation did not see or hear about the Okies, the families wiped out by the Dust Bowl. People loved the book and the film; politicians denounced it as a communist plot.

Imagine the greater shock if the Joad family had been black.

Imagine a 1930 book about the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow era. Would not have been published—if written. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry et al, and now Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”, a must-read) and contemporary black writers–would not have been published. At the time, their ancestors were being terrorized by whites—not just in the South: in my town of Alton, in Belleville, New York, in the USA. Perhaps the message is that the poor of all colors fight a class war. There is some truth to that. But poor blacks, without the inestimable benefits of white privilege, have little to no shot. Horatio Alger is the whitest of white myths.

Last week, I wrote a piece about an innocent black kid shot to death in his own yard. This week it’s about the shooter of that kid. He accidentally shot the kid (he was aiming for someone else—a tragedy in every way—stole some money, went on the lam, his aunt aided and abetted his escape, and now he’s in jail. Winner? Loser?

Now he’s in jail. Like the cop killer Tom Joad. Root for the fictional one and not the real one. The real one on the home team.


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7-year-old St. Louisan Xavier Usanga was shot to death on August 12 while playing in his backyard. He was the tenth African American child to die from a gunshot since April.

It is fairly easy to pick up a newspaper and read a gun violence story and cluck your tongue and go the refrigerator and get a snack and not think a second about your own white child or grandchild because this kind of death will not come for your kids. What other response might there be?

It is more than easy than to sit with a group of white friends, shake heads, proclaim black kids getting shot a tragedy—but. But what? I have heard it. Black on black—they don’t care. They are animals (I overheard this at a local café).

Dawn Usanga, Xavier’s mother, who should be an existentialist philosophy professor: “In a way I’m kind of happy he died at 7. These streets didn’t have a chance to ruin him. He could just as easily been swept up in this war, and the boy who shot him could have been my boy someday.”

Is this the new norm of evolution? Black kids have a life expectancy of 7-10, so forget dreams? Just be cute black puppies and wriggly black kittens, just play in the backyard until you’re shot?

Remember history class—the Emancipation Proclamation? The slaves were set free. What did they do with their freedom? You know, we all know—they squandered it. My people, free people, white people came from (insert country here), and they had nothing, and they made something of themselves. My people, free people, black people were forced out of Africa:

“Overnight, four million slaves now free people were freed by a speech. Four million freed blacks, without money or resources, without housing or clothing, without experience of life away from the plantations from which they came, without family or tradition, without anything, walked away, many to the nearest city or town about which they had heard. They descended on Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, New Orleans, Memphis—with nothing. Ghettos the like of which makes today’s ghettos seem opulent, were born overnight. The residents had no sewage, no water, no food, no shelter. Most of them had long ago been separated from other family members via slave auctions.

“They did receive hate. An abundance of hate. Hate was, however, low-calorie, thin material for clothing, non-paying, identity light. Hate begat disease, poverty, disgust. Disgust expressed by a generation whose grandparents and parents were slave owners. Disgust expressed by working whites who now had to deal with a potential enemy who would work cheaper.” I wrote this, for my book.

That white disgust is current. That myth of whiteness is now. That story—of the superiority of Europeans—is a white wet dream. There is no race called Europeans. There is no “white.” Pale complexion is a function of climate and environment. There is a single human race. Eighteen African tribes, eighteen women… are the mothers of us all. If you don’t know this, that DNA evidence made this possible, you might want to read a science book. If your drunk uncle was your source for “whiteness,” you might want to look up some peer-reviewed studies. Your drunk uncle was… not a scientist.

Xavier Usanga didn’t know any of this. He was a kid.  His mother Dawn said, “He was born with a smile on his face and he died with a smile on his face.”

The street Xavier lived on is described as an environment where young black men with guns have all the power. All the power. We all want some power. There is rampant absurdity in the notion that young black men only want dominion over a street, a street which is a universal symbol for the greater history of humans on our planet: conquering, annihilation, blood. It’s somehow gorier (and blacker, don’t forget) on the street level.

But it’s the same goddamn thing. Lawless gunslingers, huddled masses, the marshal off on a wild goose chase, drunken men challenging each other, like the scene in Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” where Trampas calls the Virginian a son of a bitch and the Virginian draws his pistol and says, “Smile when you say that.” The white myth, the founding myth. Leaving out the staggering number of girls in isolated cabins being raped by their own fathers, their mothers beaten.

But it’s the same goddamn thing.

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I was sitting in a sub sandwich shop (not Subway), and the ubiquitous flat TV screen was there. I bit into my sandwich and looked up at the screen: ESPN. Was the show football? Baseball? Soccer (I love soccer)? WNBA? No.

ESPN was covering the National Cornhole Championship. If you don’t know (I don’t know what “cornhole” means—I hope it’s something vulgar), Corn Hole is basically pro beanbag. It is good wholesome fun at a Labor Day picnic (unless “cornhole” is something vulgar and the kiddies get ideas), but ESPN?

The contestants stood about twenty feet away and tossed beanbags into wooden boxes with slanted holes in them. They scored either by getting the bag into the hole (a lot of my favorite games involving getting it into the hole—unless “getting it into the hole” is something vulgar), or knocking away another player’s bag which lies near the hole.

The sound was off, so I didn’t know what the athletes were saying—though they were banging their chests and raising triumphant fists, and a bleached blonde announcer, the type who does local news in small towns but isn’t considered cute enough for the Bigs, interviews the combatants. But the crowd was boozy and lusty. Men standing behind the bleached blond were gazing longingly at the bleached blonde’s ass. It seems as though the athletes had certain weight requirements: Tubby, tubbier and tubbiest.

Which leads me to last week, midweek, midday. I wasn’t feeling well. I had knocked off writing, and I was lying on the couch. I hit the old clicker to see if there was a ballgame on. ESPN again. Only this time, the event was, I kid you not, the National Cherry Spitting Competition live from somewhere in Michigan (I think the programmers were ashamed to say the exact location).

Old geezers (sorry, athletes) were standing behind a line, grabbing their crotches, contorting their mouths and spitting cherry pits across a paved asphalt area that has line delineating distance. The ESPN cameras weren’t good enough to show the teeny, flying cherry pits, so they showed the launch (the spit) and the landing, the pits tumbling to a stop and more old geezers (sorry, judges) with tape measures shuffling (no, not Shuffleboard) forward and taking measurements.

The sound was on. Reenactment:

Announcer 1: This is Fred’s 20th year of competition.

Announcer 2: He told me he hates leaving his sheep.

Announcer 1: Who doesn’t? But his son is on the farm to hump them while he’s here.

Announcer 2: You just said hump.

Announcer 1: His last name is Hump. They call it “humping the sheep.” I apologize to the national network. Here we go. Fred steps up…launching…Oh, eighteen feet five inches. Wow, Fred?

Announcer 2: That was neat considering that Fred swallowed his pit last round—and that counts as a turn!

Announcer 1: Let’s go down to the field and our Cindy Big-Breasts. Cindy?

(Cindy approaches contestant with a microphone.)

Cindy: Tell us all how you did it. I hear you have a mouth secret.

Fred: Uh-yah. I take that there pit, moisten it, and I fold my tongue in two longways. Then I jump forward and fire, unfolding my tongue and whammo!

Cindy (to the booth): Guys, Fred just gave advice to all those young spitters with dreams out there.

Fred: Can I have a hug, Cindy?

Cynthia: Fuck off, pervert. (to the booth) Back to you, guys.

ESPN? Are you so cynical that you’ll show anything on TV that’s cheaper to shoot than baseball? Announcers? Trying to make sports heroics out of beanbags and cherry pits? Have you no shame? How about Mighty Mucus Blowing (brought to you by Kleenex) and Underwear Crack Tug (Michael Jordan No-Tag) and Women’s Distance Farting (Febreze)?

Give me games with stealing and slamming and putting the old ball into the hole (into the hole, Tiger!) and goals and “downtown” and shuttlecocks and pucks (unless “shuttlecock” and “puck” are something vulgar and the kiddies get ideas).



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Still, Life

Early morning, the sun half asleep, the breeze strong and cool. I walk ten miles, wind-aided, past Admire’s bench and across Piasa Creek. Carol Admire was killed when, a couple of years ago, a drunk driver hit her bicycle along the Great River Road. The granite bench is caked in a thin coat of mud.

Most of the lowland forest ground is hard-caked mud, scars from the two-hundred-day flood. Still the paved path along the river is iced with dust, and hikers’ footprints and biker’s wheel prints play a game of Twister.

Along the eastern point of Scotch Jimmy Island, a mass of twenty-eight egrets fish on stilt legs: babies chasing mothers for piscine bits, small snowy egrets and the great whites mingling, squawking. Egrets and herons sound angry, their long throats making them baritones. Happy egrets cry, “Meh-meh-meh.” You’d think they were grumpy.

On Stroke Hill, monarch butterflies flit above the last wildflowers, dipping low enough to sip at clover blossoms. Catbirds mew in the rests of cicada music. Hummingbird Man’s feeders dangle in the breeze, the collective tiny birds making a boat motor sound. Three shirtless, dirty, half asleep boys stand in front of a house and drink coffee and watch me.

The bluffs along the river have changed perceptibly since I moved back to my hometown. Tons of limestone boulders have shifted closer to the path, the trees preceding them having been crushed. The houses on top are closer than ever to the carved-out precipice, the detritus from the yards boating down waterfalls and settling below.

Stevie’s fish stand at the bottom of Clifton Terrace has been set on a trailer frame, hitched to a truck, the fish sandwiches which drew crowds of bikers and bicyclists and hikers now just a memory. Stevie still keeps a cooler of water on her porch, for those of us in the know. She is old, bony, high-spirited, but not as old as the Mississippi River and nowhere as old as the limestone brimming with 300 million-year-old fossils: trilobites, crinoids, horned and honeycomb coral.

The biggest change, the most shocking change, high above the river, is that my friend Orville and his wife Quilt Queen have sold their pickup truck, trading it in for a modest SUV. A farmer without a pickup truck is like a diner owner without pans. Quilt Queen said they didn’t like driving the truck anymore.

Change. I don’t like it. I’ve only had seven years to get used to things here in my hometown. And now they’re already… changing. I wonder if the river feels the same way. Its cult of fishermen and boaters throw their trash into the Father of Waters; invasive carp rise as clouds of silver and choke out the native life; there are as many bits of Styrofoam in the river as there are egret chicks, as many beer cans as frogs.

Still, life persists. Wildflowers poke through asphalt and sidewalks heave from tree roots and groundhogs—which we love once a year and shoot the rest of the time—bore their way to happiness and dinosaur alligator gar and snapping turtles rule the murky river depths and peregrine falcons hold the blufftops and silver-spotted skippers sip their nectar suppers and blue-tail skinks sun in tree tunnels and orb spiders master weave between twigs and branches and communist, cooperative ants will outlive humans by eons.

Still, life. I’m not sure we deserve it.

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It sits silently on a two-foot-high tree stump, its long-muzzled head pivoting left and right. I hike over the hilltop and there it is, staring at me, and since he is a young herder dog, I am leery of going forward. He could take me down.

Hello, I say, but the youngster, whose lifeless tail makes no indication of mood, doesn’t make a sound, just stares. And so I walk slowly, passing him, looking over my shoulder, and already he is focused on the road behind me. Is he a stray? Is he restrained in some way? Is he just high on life and fearless?

The road slopes down toward the river. I drop below sight of the handsome dog. But I keep looking behind me—he is a herder after all.

On the LaVista trail, I hear a birdsong pattern: “ree, ree; ree, ree.” I imitate the pattern by whistling, and instantly the bird responds. We call and respond back and forth four or five times: “Ree, ree; ree, ree.” But I can’t see the respondent, and I don’t know the song.

On down the curving hill I walk. “Ree, ree; ree, ree,” into my right ear. The singer, whatever it is, is following me, watching me from high in the treetops, luring me with a song that is clearly not over. Then higher up the slope in the thick forest, a blue jay calls, and then it adds: “Ree, ree; ree, ree.” My chorus friend answers the jay, and now we are a trio. Two blue jays are hopping from tree to tree and singing with me and watching me.

Yesterday, lawnmowing day. I push the mower across the backyard, and then I see Bunny, the surviving rabbit of three siblings. He pops out of the snowbush and watches me and nibbles wild violets. I try not to anthropomorphize him—he needs to stay wild—but we meet face to face often. I stand and talk to him. He doesn’t find me boring.

Yesterday, Bunny sits in my path and watches. I turn off the mower. Bunny, I scold, Bunny begone. I turn the mower back on, and finally he hops across the yard into the weed patch where the ribbon snakes den up in winter.

Two nights ago. I need Cheez-its. I walk outside in the dark and circle left toward the carport, intending to drive to the local convenience store. And I stop. Sitting on top of the car is a large shadowy creature, its ears pointy and long. It sits perfectly still this shadow, as something inanimate. It watches me.

A noise comes from the woods, and the creature turns its head and shoulders sideways. It is a feline—many times larger than Scout the cat, is this wild, calm, lithe dark shadow. Its head turns back towards me.

What is any animal doing on the top of my car? But there it is: Shadow, nonplussed, watcher. I take one step forward, and the bobcat simultaneously stands and leaps backward, landing far ahead of the car. It jumps my six-foot-high fence and vanishes.

I look up into the starlit sky, the cat shadow gone like disappearing ink. Venus chases the half-moon. A plane high and silent passes east to west.

I watch.

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Village News

Godfray Village News
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
As you know, the Village of Godfray has passed the Godfray United Neighbors Nervous Unless Toting (GUNNUT) ordinance. Every Godfray citizen of voting age is hereby ordered to keep firearms in the home.

As you also know, you responded to the new village mandate by purchasing a Nerf Super Soaker Barrage with “durable construction; large reservoir holds a whopping 84 oz. of water; three spray settings to choose from; capable of reaching targets up to 38 ft. away.” Ha-ha. The joke is on GUNNUT.

As John Wayne would say, “Not so fast, pilgrim!”

Clearly, you do not take the Village of Godfray or GUNNUT seriously. However, we believe in second chances. We note from the tax records that your domicile consists of 800 square feet. Accordingly, the following guns are deemed appropriate for you:

Glock 500 (“the mower”), Colt .77 (“the two-hand shredder”), AK-107 (“the driller”), Mossberg 117-gauge shotgun (“the pulverizer)”. We can assure you these peacemakers can reach targets farther away than 38 ft. Your targets–burglars, murderers, malingerers, bunnies–will be doused in a watery substance aka “blood.”

Just present this letter to any gun store or private citizen or teenager who has one in his closet or crazy old geezer who sits in his lawn chair and waves a pistol, and you will receive $200 in coupons good for: The Corny Maze, Gladys Hair, Hares R Us, Heirlooms Almost Always Make Us Cry, Gunny’s Diner, Shotgun Frankie and Frankette’s Hot Dog Emporium, Bullet Hardware and Fish Bait, Pitbull One Stop Insurance, Gas America, Rat-a-Tat-Tat Cat Groomers, Gaseous (French cuisine) and Chick Filly.

The Village of Godfray, a mucho-minded MAGA mingler, stands AND sits AND crawls AND sleeps with our President. If you don’t like it, we will send you back to All-Town where they love libtards, snowflakes, women’s libbers, underwear sniffers, darkies, fat cheerleaders, Old Black Joes, Old White Joe Biden, and “Old Man River.”

This is your last warning, journalist boy.

Elizabeth Warrant, Chairman (not chairwoman) GUNNUT (not Dunkin’ Donut)
Village of Godfray*

*not affiliated with the Village of Godfrey, Illinois, Godfree, Illinois or God Free Atheist compound somewhere in Illinois

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In the summer of 1990, I interviewed Dr. John Gofman at a conference at Northwestern University. Gofman, PhD and MD, was speaking about the medical effects of radiation. He had manufactured the first teaspoonful of plutonium for the Manhattan Project, and now he was an anti-nuke activist.

Gofman made headlines three years after Chernobyl, when he predicted that 475,000 people would die from cancers directly attributed to the meltdown. The official UN report, published in 2005, belied that prediction, stating 4,000 people were killed by Chernobyl fallout. In 2006, the book “Chernobyl: Consequences for the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” published by the New York Academy of Sciences, stated that 1,000,000 people had been killed including 170,000 deaths in North America. Gofman had been off by half a million people.

I mentioned to him that, at the behest of a committee of concerned citizens, I had recently stood in an illegal nuclear dump outside of Sheffield, Illinois. A cancer cluster was spreading around the area. At the time, there were tens of illegal nuclear dumps over all fifty states. After our interview, he turned to walk back into the conference, stopped and said, “Read about the Aztecs.”

This led me to learn about Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and sacrifice. The great Mesoamerican culture, which flourished between 1300 and 1521, had its core a firm belief that the sun was a deity, that darkness was a sign of the sun’s displeasure with its people. Huitzilopochtli, the priests decreed, demanded sacrifice—removing the beating hearts of enemies. Untold numbers of people were killed in frequent bloodletting rituals.

Hernan Cortes, with a small band of soldiers, brought down the Aztec empire with relative ease. The Aztecs, because of the need for human sacrifice, chased down and captured their enemies as opposed to killing them outright. Cortes, with the distinct advantage of guns, was a slaughterer.

John Gofman’s analogy, Aztecs and their “bond” with what he called the Neo Aztec nuclear industry, was clear. Radiation: The new Sun God. Religionists in the employ of the nuclear industry sold the concept of nuclear power as something which could not affect Christians; only non-believers would die. People actually believed that. Small wonder that the nuclear and chemical industries, for short term monetary gain, were able to kidnap and sacrifice a planet.

Imagine a time when civilization was temporarily, catastrophically disrupted, Dr. Gofman told me. Future archaeologists, lacking historical information, would discover, dig and open burial places. In some of those burial places would lie caches of nuclear waste. The scientists would die immediately. It reminded me of the movie which scared me to death as a kid, “The Mummy,” with Boris Karloff rising from the dead and going on a killing spree.

We “New Aztecs” are sacrificing our children to Huitzilopochtli Inc., purveyors of chemicals and the poisons in our food and water, makers of guns for mass murder—now an afternoon’s activity at the mall; to unchecked capitalism in search of profit, minus few or no safeguards regarding the environment. The stockholders of Huitzilopochtli Inc. rely on passivity of people. Sinclair Lewis’s character Babbitt is the perfect metaphor. Huitzilopochtli Inc. relies on indolence. Television and now smart phones are the perfect metaphor for the ass-sitter class.

Few of us would, say, stand in front of a Chinese tank; step forward at a lynching and attempt to stop it; boycott a store because of its discrimination policies; speak out in a public place when we see injustice; place ourselves in harm’s way with certain death but feet away; march; or merely just cast a vote.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a short story, “The Last Tree.” With it would come the last flower, the last bee, the last child, the last memory. We would become Mars. It seemed so absurd that I erased it. Now it seems utterly possible.

Ironically, we will soon land people on Mars. Dear Martian bacteria: The Aztecs are coming.

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

On my morning Genehouse walk, I was riled enough to not see a thing—just plowed ahead ignoring the sights and sounds. I did note on Stroke Hill that the cicadas were deafening. About six miles in, I called my friend Sheila S. I’m checking in, I said. I’m going to write about El Paso, and I want to talk out loud.

Sheila S. said: “Did you hear about Dayton?”

251 mass shootings in 216 days. 29 people murdered in the last 24 hours. All by assault weapons. All white males. Most citing President Donald Trump as their inspiration. Is Trump responsible? Absolutely.

Aren’t we all responsible?

There is another mass: Mass white racism. Doesn’t matter if it’s silent or subdued—or even if it’s on display via social media. It all plays into basic ignorance of our origins. All of us, all humans, come from Africa. The European thing, the white thing, is myth. James Baldwin characterized it as: “People who need to be white.”

The human thing, the fifteen or so common African ancestors from which we all come—mitochondrial DNA, dear hearts who will want to deny truth—is a failed experiment. We stood up on hind legs half a million years ago—peanuts in evolution terms—and in the blink of an eye have nearly destroyed every other life form and the support structures of air and water.

“I didn’t come from monkeys.” That’s right: You didn’t. Well, your 40th great-grandmother was a monkey.

It is arrogant and wrong to declare a single specie sacred. The woman-hating patriarch dolts who wrote the Old Testament were ignorant of science, of evolution, of biology, of the extent of the world. In the beginning, four billion years ago, prokaryotes, life forms in the oceans which would evolve into all life, appeared. This is the prologue to the genealogy of humans. DNA is the historian. No skeletal evidence, of someone not related to Africans, exists. Every human bone ever found is related to the first tribes of Africa.

The one fatal characteristic of humans? Insatiable lust for slaughter. I have it, you have it. Religionists have it in spades. Most of us don’t act on it. We invented the concept of laws to keep ourselves from slaughtering our neighbors.

Sometime in the Twentieth Century, the civilized world, reacting to the carnage from slaughter lust, banned guns. Except us. Our founding myth is gunslingers, free rangers, Marlboro Men. Armed pioneers holding off the hordes of redskins. We love slaughter. We drink blood, dip our babies in blood.

That love has led to Dayton. To El Paso. Only the NRA and gun stores have a vested interest in the very white sickness of gun love, of gun Viagra.

Supreme Court Justice and Republican John Paul Stevens: “Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday. These demonstrations demand our respect. They reveal the broad public support for legislation to minimize the risk of mass killings of schoolchildren and others in our society.

“That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms. But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment.

“Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that ‘a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’ Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.”

Beyond the “relic” clause lies owning guns in the home. I personally won’t do it, but I don’t care much if you do. As for open carry and conceal carry, these things are for white racist cowards who believe that Negroes are going to hurt them.

Destiny? There is no such thing as destiny. Meaning? We have no idea of the meaning of life. We know completely, the meaning of death. The mass slaughter kind: We love it. We’re the Neo Romans. We love Bread and Circuses—fast forward to the bloodletting—only, we watch it on our smart phones.


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“My mother used to bake bread in the hard times. She would put the warm loaves in a short barrel with a tight lid—to keep the ants away. So this one time, barrel or no barrel, them ants was on that bread in the barrel—looked like little sesame seeds. My dad, he said throw it out.

“Mom, she wasn’t going to be defeated. She put them loaves on a flat baking thingy, fired up the oven. And us kids watched them ants come running out that bread to save their lives, all baked and crispy. And we ate that dang bread. And maybe a few baked ants.”

This was Farmer Orville holding court on the southwest corner of his wraparound porch where the breeze was. We were watching ants crawl out of my bowl filled with a pound of blackberries, fresh picked, my fingers stained with juice.

One paying customer (Orville won’t take money from me), an immense fat old man wearing a straw hat, was on his second full bucket of berries. He walked from bush to bush, his shoulders rocking up and down like an oil pumper. His wife was waiting at home for the start of jam season.

A doe and her fawn stood below in the old dry lake bed and grazed. Ruby Puppy was sound asleep in her pen in the sun. She can’t come out and play when customers are around—she’s too aggressive and could knock an old person down. The north field was filled with giant rolls of hay.

“The wife and daughter are goin’ shopping today,” Orville said. “So my wallet will be losing weight.” Quilt Queen loves to shop. She never has enough earrings, sweaters or gewgaws. Her slogan regarding her husband is, “What’s his is mine, what’s mine is mine.”

It was hot at nine am. Eighty-five degrees, eighty-five percent humidity. You either take a long walk just after sunrise or you hole up in the air conditioning. I go through two tee shirts and pairs of socks and underwear on days like this, which means I have to do laundry once a week. I’m pretty sure Quilt Queen does laundry every day.

But rejoice. My friend Cartney gave me a bunch of first heirloom tomatoes. I’ve been looking at them reverently as if I were in Chicago’s Art Institute. I’ve photographed them with a table of Indian artifacts. Now I’ll have to eat them. The good news is Orville now has tomatoes for sale.

Blackberries, local blueberries, Calhoun peaches, melons, kale and spinach, green beans, melons, radishes and carrots, lettuce: all of it is available locally, all fresh, all desired, all coveted. Orville gave up on strawberries, damn it.

A blackberry (not those abominable plastic clamshell mushy berries at the supermarket) is a metaphor for life. Unless you toss it into your maw and tongue mash and swallow without tasting. Most people live their lives without seeing, without tasting, without savoring. A blackberry is a perfect thing. A tomato is an edible jewel. A Calhoun peach reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings, female and lush and gushing nectar.

Orville on tomatoes: “I grow ’em, I don’t eat ’em.”

His joy is in the planting, the nurturing, the cage building—even the weeding. His last breath will be inhaled while weeding, on his knees, secure in his Missouri Synod Lutheran way that God and the angels are nearby.

As for me, existentialist, I am thankful for this wrinkled farmer who will never be warm enough on the hottest day. He is a man among boys. He is open and loves to laugh and look at ladies picking blackberries and eat bacon. He is gruff to cats and dogs even as they nuzzle and cuddle with him. He is conservative in the old fashion sense. He wonders why people just don’t get along.

“Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.”

That is a segment of a poem by the Kentucky poet Wendell Barry And that is Orville.

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When I walk, in my memory I hear Bach’s “Anna Magdalena.” I vary the temps, the instrumentation, piano to organ to harp to full orchestral arrangement ala Rimsky-Korsakov’s bible of orchestration. I walk into the music, so immersed in beauty that I often step off the trail into the weeds, like a distracted driver.

When I walk, I feel I am in a parallel wood to reality. Passersby bring me out of it and just as quickly I am back in my mind. This morning Anna M. morphed into Samuel Barber’s frantic “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” which sent my legs pumping to six miles an hour—until it ended and I climbed three bluff hills, hearing “his truth is marching on.” Not bad for an atheist.

I possess what archaeologists call “the eye,” wherein I see everything, every camouflaged creature, every arrowhead buried in gravel beds, every movement of the forest. I see the unseen: ancient Indians walking the very field I’m in which I am standing, the dead lying in graveyards. I suspect Thornton Wilder and Langston Hughes had the same gift. They did not need eyes.

Handel, of course, has me all beat. He saw God and ran for his apartment and emerged a short time later with the entire “Messiah” in hand.

There is a barred owl living in the forest where I walk. I have seen her with baby owls several times and many times heard her call. She lives in a hole in a sycamore tree, launching herself down to the path at snakes and squirrels who don’t see her. I hear her sing: “Who-cooks-for-you.” And we do counterpoint. I duel with Carolina wrens and cardinals, but I can’t do the rapid trills of finches.

Now I’m one with the orb spiders, an LSD dream of arachnids, preeminent spinners. Seemingly overnight they are weaving masterpieces between low branches, under porch eaves, four-foot-wide webs, trawlers and fly fishermen, somehow looking bookish, motherly, their handiwork cozy haunts under which to read “The Wind in the Willows.” And their prey, caught in the web, mutter, “We are proud to die for you.”

The breeze, the chattering water, the rustling of leaves, the slight friction of parachuting cottonwood seeds, the agony of the baking earthworm, choruses and formal choirs and fiddlers and drummers and thrummers: Whitman: “Give me solitude, give me nature.”

Tobias Picker, whose masterpiece, “Old and New Rivers,” plays in my mind, the only music perfectly capturing the scream and secret and hush and serenity and trumpeting and howl and the “who” and ripple of the teaming universe. This is the music I will die to.

These are my companions, like Leopold Bloom’s companions in “Ulysses,” the passing loved ones, bawdy ones, drunk ones, troubadours, angels. This is how each day begins.





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