Monday, November 21, 2011

Breath and Engineering

November Sunday. Two words that, together, do not ordinarily conjure up images of bare feet and air-kiss breezes. And, yet, on this November Sabbath, the sun which is growing more visibly distant each day seems to have slipped back into the parlor with a wink and a flirtatious smile for one final curtsey to summer.

I am driving Daddy over to the Waters Place to move a tractor – not an ox-in-the-ditch kind of thing. More a good-reason-to-be-out-in-the-sunshine kind of thing. Cotton fields rimmed by maple trees in the height of fall flame remind me of candy canes, the Canadian flag, Santa’s suit. There should be a better word than vivid.

I am tempted to roll down the windows, but, temperature notwithstanding, it is still fall, there is still pollen, and Singulair ain’t cheap.

When we get to the field, Daddy asks me to wait until he gets the tractor cranked. Apparently there is some reason to believe it might not start. He hops into the cab, grabs an unusually long screwdriver and hops back down. The engine cover on the tractor opens like a coffin. The inside is a dark and oily conglomeration of cylinders and coils.

He thrusts the screwdriver into the belly of the beast like a dagger. The target appears to have been a cylinder wrapped in a coil.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Bleeding out the air. There’s a teeny little leak somewhere in the line. Haven’t had the time to fix it, so just have to bleed it out to crank it."

The absence of a subjective pronoun doesn’t bother me so much as the idea of bleeding air. It doesn’t sound right. Bleeding involves blood, not air. And bleeding is, as a general rule, involuntary. And not something one does deliberately.

The diesel engine coughs, catches, settles into the syncopated rhythm that is as soothing to me as a lullaby. The engine cover falls with a tinny clank and Daddy lifts his hand to release me from my post. He is back in the cab with one springing step and, by the time I reach the field gate, he’s right behind me headed home.

I watch him in my rear-view mirror for a couple hundred yards then turn onto the paved road, headed toward the recycling center where I will empty the back of the Escape of bins of magazines and newspapers and plastic bottles and aluminum cans in my small attempt at some kind of penance for my consumption. Even when he is out of view I am still thinking about bleeding air.

In the context of mechanical engineering it is, obviously, a positive thing, a remedy for an ill, but I can’t shake the feeling that in the context of living it is anything but.

In the Genesis story of creation it is the breath of God that introduces Adam’s soul into the clay sculpture that is his body and most other cultures and religions also invoke the breath as that which carries life. We acknowledge the power of an experience or the beauty of an object by saying that it takes our breath away. It is with breath, with air that we speak, that we sing, that we kiss. It is how each of us demonstrates our unique humanity. Surely there is no legitimate reason for its being deliberately bled away.

Except, of course, I realize with a suddenness that causes my eyes to widen, when you’ve been holding your breath. When you’ve been living in limbo. When you’ve been sitting on a fence so long that you’ve worn the wood smooth and can’t feel the splinters anymore. Because when that is where you are, it just may take a screwdriver jabbed into the coils of your chest to force out the stale air so the fresh can get in.

And at that point, the best you can do is pray that the farmer with the screwdriver is someone you can trust.
Copyright 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011


Two more ligustrum are gone, the two that guarded either side of the front steps. They were well over six feet tall, too tall for me to trim from the ground, too dangerous to try to trim leaning off the porch, so they constantly sported asymetrical spikes of bright yellow and neon green that made them look like herbaceous rock stars.

I’d struggled with the decision for a long while. These two, unlike the one I’d dispatched back in February, had not come to me from a nursery in a tub of thin black plastic, but from Tattnall County in a fertilizer bucket of thick white plastic. Skinny, but tough little cuttings from Grandmama’s yard, she’d sent them home with Mama one day, ever convinced that anybody, even I, could make things grow.

Other than the two ligustrum, which I did manage to keep alive and see turn into sturdy fat sentries defending the entry to Sandhill, the only thing I have that belonged to Grandmama is the iron bed in the guest room. But Grandmama was a pragmatist and had she known the misery that ligustrum pollen inflicts upon my respiratory system, she would have looked at me, arms folded across her cotton print shirtwaist, and said, with just a bit of incredulity that the thought had not occurred to her educated granddaughter, "Pull ‘em up."

So we did.

Well, actually, Daddy did. But before the extraction, we – like country people do – stood and stared for a few minutes. Stood with our hands on our hips and stared at the bushes, at the steps they’d begun crowding, at the rocking chairs they hid from view. And when we had stared long enough, we bounced our chins in nods of satisfaction and confirmation that, yes, pulling up these bushes was, in fact, a good thing.

"I’ll go get the tractor and the chain," Daddy said and in a few minutes he was back with a tractor three times as big as he needed because it was the only one without a plow or something else hitched to it at the moment and with the chain.

I couldn’t tell you where that chain came from or how long Daddy’s had it. There’s never been but the one, as we say, and, unlike so many things around the farm that tend to get misplaced or broken or used up, it just always is. Ferrol Sams wrote, "In the beginning was the land. Shortly thereafter was the father." And, in my mind, sometime no later than the second or third day was the chain, already rusted to a dark river red.

The chain has pulled fallen pine trees from across the road, vehicles of various sorts from whatever spot they had broken down, and, at least once, a corn combine from a grown-over ditch where Daddy inadvertently drove it while trying to turn for the next pass. Years ago when our horse Sonny suddenly died one day from a congenital heart defect, the chain pulled him to his grave.

On this day, Daddy looped the chain around the trunk of the ligustrum, clicked the hook into one of the links, and jumped back onto the tractor where a quick thrust of diesel power ripped the roots from their place in the soil. Quick. Easy. Satisfying.

The tractor moved away leaving a wide curving wake across the front yard where the branches of the bush scraped across the already browning grass and I saw the landscape open up, the view from the porch that had been obstructed like some of the seats in old Shea Stadium suddenly clear and wide and bright in the autumn sunshine.

I could see sitting down in the rocking chair and see the mailman pull up to my mailbox. I could see all the way across the field to the spot where the deer come out in the late evening to eat. I could see farther than I’d seen in years.

We don’t often think of chains as beneficial. They fasten. They hold down. They rattle loudly while the Jacob Marleys of our pasts haunt our days with endless replays of scenes that didn’t work and scripts that need rewriting. They bind us with the strength of alloy steel to people and places and jobs that restrict movement and leave us atrophied and pale.

But sometimes chains are just what we need. A chain can clear your path or pull you home when you're broken. A chain can turn you around and bury what needs burying. And, when you’re ready to let go, a chain can open up a whole new way of seeing.
Copyright 2011