Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Place In The Middle

On one side is a field of cotton. The stems are blooming with pink and white flowers, soft and sweet like appliques on a gingham sundress. On the other side is a field of corn. The stalks are stiff, the fronds brittle, the ears hard as a brick bat. What was pulsing, quivering green is now lethargic tan, the color of a cup of coffee gone cold. In between, in the middle, is the road.

That is where I am. The middle. Looking from side to side. Comparing and contrasting. Noting that this is an odd season, one in which some crops are made, ready for harvest, and others are on the cusp of what they are yet to become.

I want to sit there a while, listen to the voices of the cotton and the corn approach from either side and mingle over my head. There is something in the middle that wants to be heard.

I drive on.

Occasionally Adam e-mails me a YouTube video. It is usually country music or a vituperative political commentator. Today it is a television interview of Erk (Interesting, isn’t it, how some people don’t need last names?) done during the 1987 playoffs. Vintage Erk – Beautiful Eagle Creek, Snooky’s, the rattlesnake story. I listen like I listen to hymns in church, with half an ear because I know them so well.

But then I hear the voice-over mention that Erk was 55 when he came to Statesboro. It startles me. That’s how old I am.

I write Adam back: "You were five years old. You grew up going to those games and watching him coach and you didn't even know what you were seeing. He was 55 when he came to Georgia Southern and the work for which we remember him most he did after that. Kinda makes me think I might have a little something left in me."

I hit "send," hoping he will laugh, hoping that maybe he will respond with something along the lines of, "Don’t be silly, Kap. There’s a lot left in you."

He does not.

I get back to work. I make telephone calls, answer telephone calls, draft petitions. And all the while the corn and the cotton are humming in the background.

On the way home I stop to visit with a friend. Conversation turns to a book she is reading, that I have already read. It is titled "Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis" and includes a chapter called "Middle Voice." There are a few languages, the author points out, including ancient Greek, that have, in addition to the active and passive voices, what is called the middle voice. It is used to indicate situations in which the subject of the sentence is changed by the action of the verb, but not just passively acted upon, when the subject is at least partially responsible for what has happened. "When you are somewhere," she writes, "between the agent and the one acted upon. When you have something done to you. I will have myself carried. I will have myself saved."

My friend, who is almost my age and asking herself a lot of questions these days, has just read this chapter. "I think," she says, "that maybe I am in the middle." There is something in her words that sounds exactly right, so I nod in agreement, but it is only later, that I realize they are also revolutionary.

Middle voice has little use in a society in which self-reliance is the religion of choice, in which pop culture deifies defiance, and in which daily doses of doomsday prophecy eviscerate even the hardiest of souls. And, yet, there is such a need for it. A need to deliberately choose to be less than deliberate, to purposefully yield to the current, to intentionally sail with rather than against the tide.

I will not be 55 much longer. Another birthday breaks the horizon. There are things that are finished. There are things that will not be done. But sitting in the road between the cotton and the corn I think that, perhaps, I may have finally come to the place where I will have myself carried. The season between the blooming and the dying will have itself lived.

Copyright 2012

Sunday, August 12, 2012

10,000 Acres and One New Word

In opening the back door, I flush a flock of birds at the edge of the branch, their wings fluttering fast and thick like shuffled cards. They rise and disappear too quickly for me to make out any markings and they make no sound from which I, were I a person who knew birdcalls, could identify them. The strip of field grass, broom sedge, and dandelions that separate the branch from the backyard is relatively narrow and, on this filmy, overcast morning, their small feathered bodies are little more than momentary smudges across my contact lenses.

Two or three times a year Daddy or Keith, swinging the rotary cutter around the edges of the adjacent fields, will turn wide to include my little strip, but most of the time it remains as it is now – knee-high in something, soft and crunchy underfoot.

A few weeks ago some friends and I visited Little St. Simons Island, one of those "I’ve always wanted to go there, can’t believe I’ve never been there" places. Accessible only by boat, it was formed from the sediment of the Altamaha River and has doubled in size since the first survey was made in the 1860s. In the last four years alone, it has gained 30 feet of shoreline.

Bouncing around in the bed of a white Chevy pick-up, we ducked to avoid the branches of live oaks and Southern red cedars, pines and palmettoes, a canopy of trees that has never been harvested. We saw a black-necked stilt, who has the longest legs per body length of any bird, and a roseate spoonbill, two of the 283 species of birds that live among the 10,000 acres, and a fallow deer, descendant of the first ones brought to the island from a zoo in New York in exchange for alligators.

The heat was bad, the gnats and mosquitoes worse, but I was so overwhelmed by all that I did not know, had never seen, wanted so desperately to remember that neither the heat nor the pests were much of a bother. And in the midst of all the sensory onslaught, I learned a new word: ecotone.
Words are playthings. They are tools. They are tastes and textures and smells. And a new one is a gift wrapped in tissue paper and tied up with wide satin ribbon.

An ecotone is a transition area between two different patches of landscape, a habitat particularly significant for mobile animals because it allows them to exploit more than one set of habitats. The barrier islands of Georgia are an ecotone – anteroom for entering the mainland from the ocean, foyer to the ocean from the mainland. Marsh and reed bed and wetlands, all forming a bridge between worlds. So is, I realized as the unidentified birds flitted away from my noisiness into the dimness of the branch, my narrow isthmus of land, my band of untamed, unmown grass and bush and weed.

It seems fairly obvious that the concept of ecotone doesn’t need to be limited to topography. Landscape exists within a personality or a lifespan. It can be found within a relationship or a conversation or a performance. It is that place or moment when movement becomes obvious, when change has to be acknowledged, when the next thing is no longer frightening or strenuous or disagreeable, but simply the next thing.

And it is equally apparent that the ecotone, at least in the non-topographical sense, is a temporary locale. It is not a place for abiding, but sojourning. A place for catching one’s breath, perhaps. For taking a last look in either direction before setting out for good.

I see that now. I realize that it is time to move. Time to explore another habitat. Time to see more of those "always wanted to go there, can’t believe I’ve never been there" places in the world and in my heart.

All is silent. The evaporation of the birds into the mist has left the morning gray and green and still. I untie the ribbon, unfold the paper, and toss the brand new word into the warm summer air.

Copyright 2012

Friday, August 03, 2012

Peanuts and Progress

For a long time I have wanted to build a labyrinth at Sandhill, a spiraling path for intentional walking. I’ve imagined it in the side yard, deliberately visible from the road and open to the sky. I’ve imagined in the backyard, a few yards from the pond and a bit more secluded. For years I have collected stones from various places I’ve visited (including one protected seashore whose status I didn’t know until after I’d pilfered the stone), written the locations and dates on them with permanent marker, and dropped them in flower beds to await their ultimate destiny as part of my construction project.

Tonight about eight o’clock I went outside to get a closer look at a fawn that was nibbling away at Daddy’s peanuts in the field on the west side of the house. He’d been there earlier in the day when a couple of friends were visiting, but he’d been spooked by a passing car. In the late afternoon sun he’d ventured back out for another meal of the smooth green leaves and tiny yellow blooms folded flat like cut-out paper Valentines. I moved slowly down the field road with my camera in hopes that when he noticed me and took off running for cover I would be able to get a video for my friends.

He did eventually notice me and I did get a little footage of his tiny white tail bouncing across the field. When he disappeared from view I realized that I had tracked him into the middle of the field, that there were long straight lines stretching out on either side of me, and that the sandy white paths running between the rows reminded me of a labyrinth. Kind of.

I walked down the full length of one row, counted over ten rows – a random number that seemed just the right width –, and turned back into the field in the opposite direction. At the end of that row, I counted over another ten rows and began again. Up, over, down, over. Up, over, down, over.

No one can be sure, but it is thought that the first labyrinths, built thousands of years ago, were meant to symbolize the paths to be followed in life, in daily and seasonal cycles, from birth to death to rebirth and to mimic the path of the sun in its circuit across the sky. Later, they were adopted by Christians as a substitute for long pilgrimages and symbolized the long and difficult path that the Christian followed toward redemption.

A true labyrinth contains no tricks or deceptions, no dead ends. It is a single wandering path that leads from an entrance to the center and back again.

At first I strolled slowly, hands clasped behind me, and I could almost see myself in a loose brown robe, barefoot, hair springing out in all directions, the reverential abbess of The Abbey of Sandhill. The venerable vision didn’t last long, however. My natural stride, long and quick and purposeful, took over and it was just me moving up and down, back and forth.

I didn’t move so quickly, though, that I missed the signs of life at my feet – the divots of dirt left by the deep treads of marauding deer, the patches of grass sprouting up through the peanut vines, the wide tractor tire tracks. Across the way the sun was setting, warming the horizon with a low flame. The heat of the day was lifting and drawing with it into the fading sky the distant sounds of dogs barking, four-wheelers revving, my own thoughts almost audible.

I figure I’d walked about a mile, weaving back and forth, by the time the flame went out over the treetops. And, just as with a real labyrinth, I came out where I started. So what, then, is the point? Isn’t a pilgrimage about getting somewhere? About making progress?

In Greek mythology Theseus went to the center of the labyrinth in order to slay the Minotaur, the monster inside. There is, of course, a monster inside each of us. The monster of selfishness, of insensitivity, of pride and greed and envy. The monster will not slay itself and it will not come out on its own. We, each of us, must walk the narrow path to the center of our selves, face down and destroy the monster, and find our way back out. Out to the place of beginning.

In a few weeks the peanut vines will be lapped over, the rows hard to distinguish, the field one broad swath of dark green. Beneath it will be footprints finding their way to the center and back.   Copyright 2012