The Aim is Joy


From GENE LOGSDON
Upper Sandusky, Ohio

July 22, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California

I’ve taken lovely vacations over the years, but the latest one, at an exclusive hideaway we were lucky enough to know about, had to be the best ever.

My idea of a good vacation is one that combines natural wonders with good food (the greatest natural wonder of all), hopefully convenient to exhibitions or programs of art or history not yet widely publicized, and so removed from the possibility of crowds and traffic jams. Places that offer such a rare combination are few and far between, and simply discovering this magical retreat was a keen pleasure.

I don’t know where to begin in telling you the delights of this vacation. We awoke on Saturday morning to a pervasive silence, broken only by the song of a wood thrush outside our window. We dined on an upper deck, where a flaming orange and black Baltimore oriole scolded us from a huge oak tree whose limbs reached out almost to our table.

At one point, the blue flash of an indigo bunting streaked across the orange flame of oriole, and I jumped in delight. That so startled the lovely lady vacationing with me that she lost the strawberry she was spooning from her saucer, and the fruit bounced into the cream pitcher. Giggle, giggle. The strawberries came directly from the establishment’s own garden. Yeasty homemade bread also originated in the kitchen, and the eggs were fresh from a nearby barn—we could actually hear the hens cackling. The thick strips of drug- and hormone-free, hickory-smoked bacon came from hogs raised in that barn, too.

We decided to go bird-watching that morning, encouraged by the variety of birds we saw just from the breakfast table. We did not see the bobolinks rumored to have returned to the fields behind the hideaway, but I did spot a stocky lestes (Lestes dryas), a species of damselfly, resting in the meadow grass. Though lestes is not exactly an uncommon species in these parts, I had never seen this striking insect before. Its clear lacy wings spread out about an inch and a half; its body was nearly as long. Its abdomen, a little thicker than a darning needle, glinted metallic green in segments marked off by tiny black and whitish bands. Its thorax was shiny green on top, yellowish on the sides shading into rusty brown underneath. Its bulbous eyes were blue, and between them on the back of the prothorax, a yellow and black design, resembling somehow a monkey face, seemed to stare menacingly up at me. In front of the eyes, precise yellow and green lines marked the real mouth parts. What a fearsome sight the damselfly must appear to a mosquito.

We spent the afternoon sunbathing beside the large garden pool on the premises, grateful just to loaf after a week spent sweating and grunting through hay-making. It would be wrong to say that my lovely and I had the pool entirely to ourselves, because we shared it with several species of bass and sunfish that we could see idling in the clear water, plus a green frog floating on a lily pad, four species of dragonflies that I could not name until I fetched my bug book, an Eastern tiger swallow tail butterfly, and several barn swallows skimming over and occasionally touching the water surface.

A Canada goose flew near, spotted us, squawked, and barreled away—upset, I suppose, to find what it considered to be its hideaway blasphemed by humans. I decided to take an inventory of all the animals and plants around and in the water, making up names whenever I didn’t know the proper one. One dragonfly I called the black and white bi-winger, because it reminded me of a biplane. My lovely laughed and shook her head.

Well, what does it mean to know the “right” name for something? Finding out that the black and white bi-winger was “really” called the white tail, or Plathemis lydia, meant only that I could communicate to other humans who knew that name (surely less than 1 percent of the population), and so knew which dragonfly I was talking about. Big deal. Knowing the label did not mean that I knew anything essential about the insect, yet if I could nod toward it and utter Plathemis lydia with sober studiousness, I would be considered well informed. That was the pretense in almost all schooling: that memorizing labels meant attaining knowledge.

My rather pompous declaration led to an argument in which my lovely maintained that all language was labeling, and labeling was necessary, because if we did not agree on which word stood for what, all communication would turn into chaotic babbling. I countered (having no way to win the argument, of course) by pointing out that all communication by way of labeling had turned into chaotic babbling anyway, and I could hear more truth in the vibrating hums of damselfly wings than in the electronic hums of television advertisements. As I exhorted on the subject, she fell asleep.

I baited a fishing line and casually cast into the pool. Wham! A largemouth bass struck almost before the hook hit the water. As my rod bent, I wondered why I had ever journeyed into faraway fastnesses of northern Minnesota and Canada in search of fishing thrills, when I could have the same pleasure here with a lot less road time. Only “here” was even better: fewer mosquitoes. I caught a second bass just as fast, and reluctantly obeyed the management’s request that we limit ourselves to only two—enough for a meal that the house would prepare.

We had not eaten lunch (we would eat the fish next day) so as to do justice to a large evening meal: generous slices of drug- and hormone-free standing rib roast, which had been marinating in the chef’s secret formula of spices all day; Bibb lettuce and baby onions, again fresh from the establishment’s kitchen garden; finger-sized zucchini squash, roasted lightly over an open grill; more homemade bread, with plenty of butter; and strawberry shortcake, soaked in cream. The finger-sized zucchini were delicious, something I can seldom say about big ones. Thisvwas the secret of what to do with “all those zucchini.” You are supposed to eat them when they are tiny, and then “all those zucchini” aren’t so many after all.

After dinner, we attended a performance of the Nutcracker Suite. I really wanted to see a movie (there was a new Western showing), so I tried hard to doze off to make my lovely feel guilty. It didn’t work: neither the dozing off, nor the feeling guilty.

Next morning, the Hideaway (I shall call it that) offered a really unique experience: a sort of layman’s archeological expedition. Or, more accurately, a treasure hunt. The area was noted for its Stone Age artifacts. Almost anywhere the soil was reasonably clear of vegetation—as in creek beds, along shorelines and river banks, around construction sites, in plowed fields, and between rows in corn fields—flint spear points and arrowheads were sometimes found, along with polished slate and granite hammerheads and hatchets.

Our “expedition” began with a trek up a creek bed, going upstream so the current would sweep the mud stirred by our feet behind us. A carved human head of black granite had reportedly been found in this creek, an extremely unusual artifact for this area, so our expectations were high. Too high. But we did find an old Coca Cola bottle of some small value, which lured us into a ravine running down to the creek where a farm family had dumped its cans and bottles and old fence-wire and other detritus for who knows how many years. This dump was really old, because most of the metal containers had rusted away, leaving only glass objects intact. My lovely found what appeared to be a handblown bottle and we began to paw delightfully and almost savagely through the junk. Treasure hunting in a dump. Have you any idea how exciting that can be? Ask any bottle collector.

Exhausting the possibilities there without a shovel to dig deeper, we moved on up the brow of a hill overlooking the creek. The land there appeared to have been plowed and then abandoned, or perhaps put in one of those insane farm programs where farmers are paid not to farm. There was not yet much vegetation covering the field. In a bare spot, I found a tiny flint arrowhead shaped like the silhouette of a bird in flight. Although so delicate that it appeared to be as fragile as an egg shell, it had survived the centuries unbroken and ready for use. What do we moderns know about progress? What do we make with this kind of durability? How could any hand have possessed the skill to shape such a delicate thing out of hard, unyielding flint in the first place? What were the odds against my finding it? What was its maker like? Surely this arrowhead was not made to kill anything, but to please someone. And hundreds of years later, it will now find its way into a pendant around my lovely’s neck to please yet another.

Caught up in excitement and expectation, we did not realize that morning has passed. We cut a straight line back to the Hideaway, noting and trying to identify the many kinds of wildflowers blooming. Passing through a patch of woodland we spied one of the most unusual, if not rarest, species in this region: Indian pipe or (studiously) Monotropa uniflora. It resembles a smoking pipe in shape, with the bowl end up. Its striking quality is a complete lack of chlorophyll, so that it appears to be a fungus rather than a wildflower. Grayish white in the absence of color, it is also known as ice plant and ghost flower, both names much more appropriate, in my estimation, and much more universally known than Monotropa uniflora. Ghost flower is saprophytic, that is, it lives on dead plant life. Part of the folklore that goes with the wildflower is an old belief that it grows where aboriginal Native Americans were buried. With my little arrowhead clenched in my fist, I had no problem with that notion.

The fish I had caught the day before became our meal, filleted, dusted in freshly ground cornmeal mixed into a beer batter, fried, and sautéed with lemon juice. I had so infrequently tasted truly fresh fish from unpolluted water that I was almost shocked at the mild, delicate deliciousness of these fillets. I ordered a second helping without batter, so that nothing competed with the pure taste of the fish.

The rest of the afternoon we spent bicycling through the countryside to a tiny village. It was amazing what awaited discovery along these most ordinary and humble byways. We came to a large sign that stated simply but mysteriously: Rosary. An arrow pointed to the farmhouse back off the road. Intrigued, we accepted the sign’s silent invitation and pedaled down the lane. There, stretched across the yard, hung on fence posts, was (as the owner soon explained) a two-ton rosary! Step aside, Lourdes; is this not an miraculous event worthy of a million tourists? The beads of the rosary were huge blocks of black-walnut wood, measuring about three feet square per side, linked together with strands of log chain. The crucifix at the beginning of the huge rosary had been carved with a chainsaw, also out of black walnut. This was as good an example of folk art as I have seen anywhere, and I have seen quite a bit.

No, the farmer said, he had not had any experience in carving or sculpting before, with or without a chainsaw. Inside his house, which he insisted on showing us, a splendid metal sculpture of a flowering vine out of copper, also without previous experience. He had laid up the fireplace stones himself, too, learning as he proceeded. In fact, he had built the whole house. He had learned how to do that by building barns, he said. Building barns was what he was good at, he told us matter of factly when we praised his artfulness. And fixing motors. About art, he said he didn’t know much. I understood then the meaning of the word “artlessly.”

He told us if we pedaled on a few more miles, we could find other “sights for sore eyes,” such as a large fieldstone grotto that a farmer had laid up in his barnyard, in memory of a son who had died at a young age. And we would come to a village hardware store that also doubled as a sort of local museum. And a pretty good restaurant that we could get to without ever confronting a traffic light or more than a half-dozen cars. The village itself, he said, was the kind of place where people going into the grocery store (before it closed for the night) and finding no one there to wait on them, would take what they needed and leave the money on the counter. “Once there were seven saloons in that village,” he said with a grin. “One for every seven people in town, if you didn’t count all the farmers who lived roundabout in those days and all the Methodists who came from other towns to do their drinking unseen by their neighbors. My father’s biggest cash crop was selling ice from his ponds to those saloons.”

Unfortunately, we did not have time for such delights, so we pedaled back to the Hideaway and to the end of a thoroughly relaxing and fulfilling weekend.

As you may have guessed, the Hideaway is our own home. All the adventures recounted really did happen as we “vacationed” right in our own neighborhood. We had to fix our own food, of course—where is there a restaurant that could have duplicated our homegrown, home-cooked fare? The Nutcracker Suite was on television. We do have unusually intriguing neighbors, but so does everyone if you just take the time to root down and become aware of them.

And that seems to me the way to aim for joy and genuine satisfaction in life. It is not just the idea that contrary gardeners can make of their homes little earthly paradises. Wealthy people build far grander places than most of us can afford, but they occupy their castles only rarely and seem to enjoy them only as marks of their success. Not satisfied, they are constantly in the process of going someplace else to build another castle.

What makes home a place we always leave regretfully and always return to joyfully is the deeper knowledge of Place that the homebody cultivates in the process of creating a little garden paradise. We could not have enjoyed the weekend just described without a very intimate knowledge of our surroundings.

I learned one of the great lessons of my life from Andrew Wyeth, whose paintings have reveted me from the first time I saw one. Then I learned that he had painted all of his world-revered masterpieces within walking distance of where he lives. Talking to him and reading what he said about artistic creativity, I realized that only by a continuously deeper and deeper examination of the familiar could I find real meaning in life, as he did, and thereby gain some genuine satisfaction from it. I became so excited with this new (to me) realization that I thought my skin was going to rip open.

Then I happened upon Wendell Berry’s poetry which affected me the same way that Wyeth’s paintings had. Journeying to visit Berry, I found that he too centered almost his entire output of poems, essays, and novels in his little neighborhood farm community.

He had come back home from Europe and New York and all that promise of glitter to a secluded, ruined hillside overlooking the Kentucky River, and had turned it into his own little ecological paradise. From him came the same message: Only the deep familiarity of being rooted a long time in a Place could produce real art, and art—or artfulness—produced joy. In the title essay from his book The Long-Legged House, he put it this way: “Here as well as any place I can look out my window and see the world. There are lights that arrive here from deep in the universe. A man can be provincial only by being blind and deaf to his province.”

But he said it better perhaps in what become my favorite lines of poetry (from “On a Hill Late at Night,” in his Collected Poems) after I had my own hillside:

I am wholly willing to be here
between the bright silent thousands of stars
and the life of the grass pouring out of the ground.
The hill has grown to me like a foot.
Until I lift the earth I cannot move.

Too many of us have been so seduced by the impossible challenge of trying to think “globally” that we turn away from the possible challenge of thinking locally. We become restless and join the crowds of world roamers who never know, intimately and particularly, anything at all except the act of roaming. I saw this happening to myself, so I went home. I like what Grant Wood said after he came home from Europe, disillusioned, to become one of our greatest painters: “I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Me too.

I can’t explain, to those as yet unrooted, why it is possible for me to walk over our little farm every day and never cease to draw keen pleasure from it. I always see something new, or something old that has changed in a new light, or something old that has not changed, which is the greatest thrill of all. I have gazed in wonder at Grand Canyons along our creek banks and Niagara Falls in the plunge of the creek water over rocks. I have seen a tiny star-nosed shrew swim underwater in that creek; great blue herons wade through it, and surprisingly gorgeous wood-ducks floating on it. I have watched a boy all alone and happy, flying down the creek on skates, and a beauteous wood-nymph of a girl emerge from the water, glistening naked in the sunlight. In the wooded hills above the creek, I have been awestruck by tree trunks glowing orange in the setting sun and mushrooms glowing yellow in the moonlight.

If I extend the boundaries of my daily walk beyond our property, and retrace old pathways up the valley to my childhood home—less than two miles distant but sixty years away in time—every turn in that creek, every woodlot hovering above it, every roll of hill down to it, reminds me of some small adventure of my past. I walk along holding hands with all the people of this community, past and present.

The intimacy that brings joy to the contrary gardener feathers out into all spheres of communal activity. Walking down the streets of any one of five nearby villages, I am sure to see a friend, a family member, or at least someone I know well enough to stop and talk to. A village walk becomes a sort of circle dance. I once received a letter addressed to me “Somewhere in Wyandot Count, Ohio.” When a national newspaper wrote an article about one of our villages, it alluded to this fact by saying that Carey, Ohio, was so intimately small that a letter would get to the right place without a proper address. Some school kids in Georgia did not believe this, so they sent another letter addressed to me “Somewhere in Wyandot County 43316.” Once more, the letter found me, and 43316 is not my zip code! Let’s see e-mail do that.

This sort of communal intimacy and trust gives me the keenest pleasure. At a local restaurant (Woody’s at the edge of Upper Sandusky, where I can drive without confronting a single traffic light), a friend and I fell into such a deep conversation over lunch one day that we did not realize the passing time. Suddenly we were aware that all was dark and quiet around us. Everyone had left for the afternoon, including the waitresses, cooks, and manager. They had just turned the lights out and left us to blab away. They knew we’d make sure the door locked behind us when we left.

Ironically enough, the more one immerses oneself in the complexity of the familiar, the more one can attain simplicity of life. We contrary gardeners often refer to this simplicity as “the simple life,” even though we know that its manifestations are simple only by very complex design. Thus we cherish “simple” pleasures:

A sunset;
Rest after hard physical work;
Eating after sharp hunger;
Stripping away anxiety about what we should wear
Until we wear nothing at all;
Gentle rain on the roof after a long drought;
The sound of a violin wafting through the trees,
Of a parent or spouse singing at work,
Of children laughing at play,
Of a thrush at twilight;
The camaraderie of drinking beer after a ballgame;
The radiance of a woodstove after barn chores in winter;
The touch of a drying wind on bare skin after swimming;
The taste of a pullet egg, laid today,
Of a pork chop from a hog butchered and cooled outside
In fresh, crisp, wintry air,
Then grilled over smoldering hickory-bark chips,
Of sweet corn roasted in the late “pimply” stage,
When, if you push your fingernail against a kernel,
It spits corn milk in your eye,
Of boiled lima beans picked “too young,”
No bigger than a fingernail and not much thicker,
Of a new potato the size of a ping-pong ball,
Freshly dug and boiled,
Of beans, baked with a little mustard and brown sugar,
And a thick top layer of home-cured, home-smoked bacon,
Of a winesap apple pie with a lard crust.

Anyone can marvel with passing curiosity of a monarch butterfly. But what is that pleasure compared to the awe of contrary gardeners, familiar with the mystery of what they are looking at? Those fragile wings can carry the monarch from Canada to Mexico and back. The insect’s jewel-like egg hatches into a misty green, glistening caterpillar that seals itself in a jade-like chrysalis to emerge a year later as an explosion of orange.

But this is only the shallowest part of the mystery. The adult monarch so closely resembles the viceroy butterfly that only an expert can tell them apart. Yet the two insects bear absolutely no resemblance to each other in their other stages of life. The viceroy’s larva looks like a bird dropping and its chrysalis is a brown, almost greasy blob. It eats totally different food in a totally different habitat. As an adult, it does not migrate.

How did the two butterflies come to “evolve” into almost identical twins? The general assumption has been that monarchs, feeding exclusively on bitter milkweed, taste bad to birds, and so after trying to eat one or two, the birds avoid them. Therefore the viceroy, whose larva feeds on willow leaves and in all stages is apparently tasty to birds, has evolved to look like the monarch to protect itself.

But this reasoning begs a number of very huge questions. Mimicry is the standard form of protection against predators in nature, but it almost always involves blending a given species into its surroundings by camouflage. Bright orange against a blue sky or a green tree is hardly camouflage in the first place, but nowhere else in nature is there an example of an open-flying insect mimicking another open-flying insect, in an almost total disregard of camouflage. Viceroys do not merge into flocks of monarchs to hide themselves; monarchs are off migrating when viceroys need them most. Furthermore, the disparate taste preference of birds would have had to evolve along with the two disparate butterflies.

So what gives here? A great mystery, that’s what gives. No known process of evolution fits the case of the monarch and the viceroy. Consider: If a bird is to avoid a viceroy because it looks like a monarch, it must first eat a monarch and then decide it doesn’t like monarchs. This means, in evolutionary logic, that the monarch had to precede the viceroy not only in long-term evolutionary time, but in its yearly life cycle. Monarchs must be flying before viceroys emerge. For such timing and seasonal rhythm to have concurred between two insects with wholly different lifestyles is so remarkable as to defy both logic and evolutionary science. One can as reasonably assume that the twin butterflies are a colossal accident of nature. Or that a God is amusing himself by befuddling the arrogance of humans.

I catch a monarch with a torn wing
And stare at it in awe.
Or is it a viceroy I am beholding?
The insect trembles in my open hand.
Or is it my hand trembling?

~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land), The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.
~~

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