Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cornfields and Kool-Aid

With all the rain we’ve gotten lately, from Beryl and various other low pressure systems, the corn may well be as high as an elephant’s eye. My memories of the Grant Park Zoo, formed when I was considerably shorter than I am now, leave me a little vague as to how high that is exactly, but it is, I think, safe to assume, higher than my head and the corn is definitely that.

When we were children, Keith, Aunt June, and I used to run through the cornfield chasing each other and playing "Bonanza" while Mama, Daddy, and Grannie broke the ears that would be cut and scraped and bagged and put into the freezer so that on every Sunday table for the coming year there would be a bowl of sweet creamy summer. We ran through rows that still held the warmth of late afternoon sun, tattooing our bare feet with stone bruises and tagging our arms and legs with the graffiti of bright red blood, tiny cuts sliced by the razor-edge of corn fronds.

Stray hairs decoupaged with sweat against our foreheads, we did not stop until dark, until our parents’ arms, buckets, car trunks were full of heavy green ears and we could rush inside, past the swarm of bugs dive-bombing the porch light, and fall on the floor in front of the window-unit air-conditioner. We stayed there, cotton shirts stuck to our backs, the salt in our sweat making tiny white clouds appear on the fabric as it dried, until Mama appeared with glasses of Kool-Aid, red like the jagged lines on our legs, in glasses dripping with condensation all the way across the kitchen floor.

Some afternoons Daddy would walk outside to the edge of the field and break three of four ears on his way in from work. He would shuck them, strip away the ribbed husks and silky tassels, crack off the hard stems on the end with a quick snap, and toss them under the broiler for a few minutes to roast. The kernels turned brown and chewy like caramel and we would sit on the front steps to eat them, hands grasping either end of the cobs, elbows propped on knees to eliminate all unnecessary motion as we gnawed our way from one end to the other of this first, blessed offering of the season.

There were no questions then. No uncertainties. No mistrust of anything in my world, the one that was triangulated by home and school and church. The one populated by people whose stories I knew, whose names were among the first words I learned, whose faces still materialize when I smell honeysuckle or stoop to pick verbena or taste homemade lemonade.

Wistfulness moves through my body like a sudden chill. I am sitting on the deck, staring across the yard – not 25 feet – at the cornfield that rises like a green curtain, glowing with the sheen of a full-detail wax job. Straight as a plumb line the stalks stand in endless rows that stretch from here to there. From here to beyond there. From here to somewhere else. The tassels are pale gold and bobbing like a jester’s cap, a windsock of sorts. The ears are jutting out at just the right angle, three to a stalk, medals pinned to the chests of soldiers at attention.

It could be the same field through which I ran wildly 45 years ago, slapping my thigh as though it were the flanks of a stallion, chasing Indians across the flat acres of the Ponderosa. But it is not the same field. I am not the freckled ten-year-old. My fatigue cannot be assuaged by a glass of Kool-Aid.

I realize that I am halfway listening for the voice of James Earl Jones to come rolling out of the branch, the stalks to part and Shoeless Joe Jackson to walk into the yard. I am looking for salvation from a world beyond this one because – having left undone those things which I ought to have done and done those things which I ought not to have done far too often lately – I am too tired, too spent, too frustrated to save myself.

There is, of course, no voice, no appearance, but I keep staring into the shimmering emerald shadows and, as I do, I feel my breath slowing, slowing to take in the sweet green scent of corn, which tickles me somehow. I laugh. At the memories, at my "Field of Dreams" imaginings, at the preposterous idea that I could, tired or frustrated or at my very best, ever save myself.

And, suddenly, I recognize where I am. Not just at the edge of a cornfield, but at Point A of a brand new triangulation, a re-bar set, a monument laid, an altar where I can offer up a prayer of gratitude for all the stories I don’t yet know.

Copyright 2012

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Basil and Invisible Topography

Basil, it is said, wards off dragons. I learned this long after having started growing basil in the big clay pot on the deck. Long after having mastered the technique the witty and beautiful people of the Food Network call "chiffonade" (the process of rolling the deep green leaves into tiny cigars and slicing them into slender ribbons of fragrance). Long after having decided that, when the time comes, I’d like my casket filled with fresh-cut basil so that I can leave this world surrounded by the scent of spring.

I learned it, in fact, only recently and cannot attest to the truth of the statement, but it does occur to me that whatever beasts of the dragon variety may live in the far reaches of the branch behind Sandhill have been held at bay to date.

I am a farmer’s daughter. I know a little something about sowing and reaping. Seeds or plants go into the ground with the eye toward reproduction, multiplication, harvest of more than that with which you started. In a world of insecticides and fungicides and herbicides and outside the realm of organic farming, there’s not a lot of planting for defensive purposes.

So the whole idea of this tiny little plant arresting the advance of a monster arouses my curiosity and the thought that what we plant, what we grow, what we tend and nurture does more than produce, but also prevent now has me wondering about the other green things I’ve stuck into the ground like stockade poles. I’m not necessarily concerned with whether the chinaberry tree, that source of my father’s constant wonderment, has some part in forestalling the advance of ogres or whether the thyme and sage guard against trolls. I’m not even thinking about whether the azaleas, the hydrangeas, the hostas are anything more than decoration, sort of like the Queen’s Guard outside Buckingham Palace – standing there and looking nice, but not much of a defense against the wildness that would overtake the yard in a matter of weeks left untended.

I’m thinking of other lands, more exploitable and vulnerable lands. Miles and miles of what the old westerns called the frontier, that which lies beyond a boundary, beyond what is known. The ground that is most susceptible to dragons and other hellish creatures is not that which creeps beneath my fingernails or blackens the bottoms of my bare feet. It is not surveyable, conveyable, devisable acreage. It is the interior real estate. The land of the heart, the soul.

There is a reason we call it a stream of thought. A field of study. A flood of emotions. The landscape within has its own topography. Rivers and creeks of memory and curiosity, pastures and deserts of interest and intellect, tides and currents of anger and sadness and love.

Often sight-seen and visited, occasionally occupied or squatted upon, frequently over-logged or strip-mined, but only rarely, I think, is the heart, the soul cleared for construction of a home, a place to stay. Too seldom do we, do I unroll the plat and walk the lines, dig under the fallen leaves to find the rebar set at the corner so we know what is ours.

It is not impossible, however. Too seldom doesn’t mean never. The terrain of one’s heart can be learned like the farmer, the hunter, the hiker learns a piece of land – with intention and attention. With slowness of pace and undistracted vision. With time, lots and lots of time.

I went walking in the woods the other day, scooting carefully down the hill from the path over the pond dam into a circus tent of bright green leaves. It had been a long time since I’d given myself over to purposeless roaming and it felt good to be surrounded by nothing but tall trunks and slender branches. I did not pay attention to where I was going. I didn’t have to. I have spent hours walking these woods. I know them. I know what grows there.

I believe I know the countryside of my heart and mind just that well. I believe I know what grows there. And, just in case there are dragons, I’ve planted basil.

Copyright 2012