Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Brief and Early Spring, North Lawrence, Kansas

It is usually around this time of year that I miss
New Mexico the most. Other than the topography
(I'll put Mr. Richardson's state above any other
place on the planet for beauty... and the character
of a New Mexican -- mind you, not a transplant,
a New Mexican -- is without parallel) there is also
the weather.

The Great Plains are generally harsh. An Uyghur
might feel right at home on any given day. I've
seen it go from nearly one hundred degrees to
less than forty in less than an hour. Factor in the
tornadoes which inevitably accompany this and
the bitter winters (which are worse in Nebraska
than Kansas) and one can easily find himself
pining for the Southwest, transplants and all.

This week has offered a respite. It was January
24th, 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and I was sitting
on my front porch with a Samuel Adams (which
was purchased at $11.00 a case! Couldn't turn
that down) and a cigar, Jeffers in hand.

I came across a poem which includes two of
the best lines written in English since Shakespeare,
"Hurt Hawks." The tenderness in Jeffers is contrasted
sharply by Mr. Edward Abbey's take on the
same sentiment: "I'd rather kill a man than a snake.
Not because I love snakes or hate men. It is
a question, rather, of proportion."

Two distinct ways of approaching the same
heroic impulse.

I've always been more an Abbey guy than a Jeffers
one. Mainly because of Ed's bombastic personality
and the landscape for which he sought to protect.
When we think of Jeffers, it is impossible not to
hear that green sea splashing against the rocks. (I
haven't been to Carmel, but I suppose it is akin
to Half Moon Bay, so that image is grafted onto
Jeffers for me.) Abbey, in contrast, is the creosote
and scrub brush; the saguaros on Arrowhead 15
just outside of Hermosillo; the movement of the
sidewinder and the pride of his cousin; having a
beer at the Railroad Blues in Alpine just before
making that drive, replete with mule deer sunning
themselves on the highway, into Big Bend.

After hiking the Santa Elena canyon, I encountered
a gregarious Chihuahuan raven. He walked alongside
me, speaking incessantly. The Bard of Baltimore never
entered my mind. Those sensibilities, with one
type of bird displaying a nobility while the other is
a harbinger, were lost... a product of the metropolis,
where people get to be so surrounded by people
they can only relate to that perspective.

He went on speaking, even until I had reached the
car just before leaving the park. What a Kalevala
he must have transmitted! Here I was, receiving
the gift of a lifetime and I found myself unable
to translate his language. (If I could have, FSG
would beat down my door!) I still wonder whether
or not he told me of The Point of Silence and
its iron ore. Would that mountain be a part of
his creation tale or the other way about?



Jeffers and Abbey are those rare representative
men. Each loved his landscape so much and wrote
so perfectly about it that it is impossible to think
about the California coast without the shadow of
Jeffers, likewise the subtler Sonoran without Abbey.
Their temperaments were ideal for their area, and
both men were lucky to have such an awareness.

Many writers no doubt desire to one day be ranked
amongst those Nature Mystics. The trouble is that
Abbey handled the Great Basin and Sonoran (he left
the Chihuahuan to another, though he wrote about
it quite a bit) and Jeffers has that coast. Try again.
Thoreau owns the Maine woods and New England
in general. (One could go north to Aroostook, but
be advised that no typewriter or computer can
survive the godawful cold of an Aroostook county
winter.)

Were my skills as a writer to evolve to the level
of any of the aforementioned, I suppose I would
want to "stick together" with the Nature Mystics.
New Mexico is first love, but the deed is in another
man's name. The Great Plains have their heroes.
One little enclave which I can claim largely to myself
is the hamlet of North Lawrence, Kansas.

North Lawrence (not to be confused with that other
town across the Kaw) has its own mythology. It is
a marriage of man and environment. The river bed
soil is the most fertile for miles. The inhabitants
almost invariably keep a nice garden (sometimes
to the level of farms, in the case of my neighbor Roy)
and one can spot the occasional barn on Eighth Street.
We are susceptible to floods from that river that
gives us sustenance just as we may find 1,000
starlings feeding on the lawn. Those floods may well
prevent any further development, which suits me
fine.

It is just about impossible to maintain that Nature
Mystic fire of an Abbey, Thoreau or Jeffers in this
environment. There is more of a Hamsun vibe,
to be sure. One might experience the gentler
Saint Francis on the bank or while working the
tiller.

The problem with an agrarian landscape is that
romance is a game of inches. If one goes out to
the Flint Hills and encounters a bison herd
grazing on the tallgrass, that expansive romance
enters; but, when the flora and fauna inhabit
square plots it is more a matter of relationships.
Beyond that, these things are under the purview
of an oral tradition. A subdued one at that.

So, rather than seeking out the tragicomedy men
have created in our country and others, the virtue
of North Lawrence, Kansas is one of active
participation with the caprice of the winds. And today,
towards the end of January, it will reach sixty degrees
Fahrenheit. My neighbors will fight the temptation
to dig and lay seed. I'll celebrate the weather and
the solitude with a Bahia, a Bitburger and Burns.
Not incredibly passionate; but, as Randy Newman
once said: "It's alright."

Lamentably, not all of the children are above
average.

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