a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Here is a forest floor scraped clear. Here is land fault-line lifted and shuddered into folds. Here is an ocean bed ice-drained epochs ago. Here is a world gone and a world arising. In the air above me whales once breeched and dove, lobtailed and logged. This fall sun beating on soybeans and cotton and oaks once rayed and sparked and bent its way down through green seawater to reach the rise I’m climbing. Currents coursed through what became woods only to become the ghosts of woods around me. I am on a hill near the center of Gibson County in West Tennessee, a place a lot of people think is nowhere. But nowhere is somewhere, and somewhere is rare.
Our bodies are always and inevitably bound to a particular place by blood or work or habit, resignation, love, or obligation. But most of us move through one day into the next suspended in an everywhere of the mind – a pixilated, binary everywhere that could be anywhere. Rebellion is aligning and grounding the body and mind. That’s what I’m doing here.
Our age fashions more and varied ways to amplify our disembodiment, to undermine our sense of community and belonging, until it’s hard to know exactly what those words mean anymore. What does it mean to belong to a place? How does belonging feel? We say we “live” somewhere: in or near some town or city or state or country, in houses or apartments, on the street, with someone or alone. But our living is larger than that. And more immediate. We live wherever we are, wherever our breath fills us. But only if we are fully present to what is here, wherever here is, and to what has been here.
Where I’m living at the moment is mid-October. The sun is hot, near 90. Beneath my shirt, sweat trails along my ribs. Except for stray gusts, there is the whisper of a breeze so weak you know it’s blowing only because the tree leaves and grass blades are trembling. But the wind up high is strong. Sooty clouds rush across the sky. Starlings, jays, and crows beat their wings for purchase, reel, retreat, stagger, and some surrender and wheel themselves in the direction of the wind to be borne away like fallen leaves, like scraps of paper, lifted and fluttering.
I was born here, in this county, 120 hours before Jimi Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, but I am only living here the length of this afternoon. Already my shadow stretches long on the browning grass beside the road. This evening I’ll drive back to Memphis.
I’ve spent my conscious life exploring in one way or another what this place may mean, at least to me, and lately I’ve been trying to be more focused, more systematic in my noticing and my study. I’m working to understand it the best way I know: by translating my experiences of this place into words on a page, then rearranging those words, revising and often reversing and sometimes re-reversing what I think I think about things. Each time I read over the words I’ve written I gain a little more clarity … until I reach the point where confusion and uncertainty rises in me like groundwater rising through a cracked basement foundation and I scramble to save what seems most worth saving and leave the rest to the merciless waters of doubt and unknowing, and I know some things now about this place but so much seems unknowable, at least by the likes of me.
On the asphalt’s crumbling edge the grass is littered with the sediment of life here: flattened cigarette butts, bottles and cans half filled with stagnant water, flayed strips of plastic grocery bags, candy wrappers, a red oil-stained tee shirt, an insulin test strip. The tectonic plates of fall and summer press against each other. Beginnings and endings grind together, blur. In the late afternoon air a lone cicada’s rasping whir rattles against the steady pulse of tree frogs. Crickets, pitched high as tinnitus, chime in the tall grass beside the ditch. Two, maybe three weeks from now all of them will be silenced. The cicada dead, its offspring embarking on a long tunneling through dark hypogeal years. The crickets dead too, their dormant eggs waiting for spring. The tree frogs burrowed in soft, marshy, muddy ground, sleeping a sleep nearly sound as death.
When I was in high school I kept a sleeping bag in the trunk of my car and most weekends I slept on the ground. Sometimes in my aunt’s woods, most times in some stranger’s woods or field. I’d park just off the road and start walking, either along a fencerow or down the railroad tracks west of town, until I found a place to camp. “Practicing to be a hobo?” a friend once asked me when I told him this story. “Pretty much” was my reply. My childhood was both rooted and restless. Even when I was sleeping indoors, I was moving constantly. My parents divorced when I was six, and they interpreted joint custody, 50-50, literally. I spent Monday and Wednesday nights with my dad, Tuesday and Thursday nights with my mom. Fridays and Saturdays I stayed with my Grandmaw, my mother’s mother. Sundays were up for grabs. From the time I was six until I was eighteen, I never slept in the same bed for more than three nights in a row. Yet the whole time I was only traveling two or three streets over, maybe two or three towns over, because as my parents moved from re-marriage to re-marriage, they moved too. I’ve lived in five towns in this county. Restless and rooted.
Every now and then pickups blow past. In their wake a sonic boom rush of wind, dust, and pulverized gravel blasts against my legs, shudders the leaves and trash blown to the weedy edge of the road, sways the barb-headed goldenrod. No one slows for me. No one stops to ask me what I’m doing here or if I need help.
My first memory took place a few miles from here, at Eldad Baptist Church, when I was three years old. A photographer from town set up a temporary studio – a short bench in front of bluish-grayish backdrop – in one of the Sunday School classrooms and took portraits of church members. I remember my mother carrying me through the front doors and down the center aisle of the sanctuary, toward the altar. I don’t remember the photo session itself, just my chest against my mother’s shoulder and our movement through the unlit church, past the brown wooden pews. The air smelled chalky, a smell that still and will no doubt always trigger memories of Bibles. My memory cuts off before we reached the altar and turned left to the room where the photographer waited for us. My whole life before I passed through the church doors is lost to me, unknowable, beyond recall. After that brief moment, the darkness of forgetting descends again until three months later, when I saw a blue dragonfly light on our backyard gate. Years later, while still a child, I found the pictures taken at the church that day. My mother and I. I don’t know where my father was. I wore a white turtleneck and a green vest. My blonde hair cut in a hard straight line across my forehead. My mom’s hair sprayed into a beehive.
Along the fencerow, reddened sumac and blown cattails fat and fluffy as a scared cat’s tail. Spent, lanky thistle branch at their tops like gothic candelabras, their seed heads tufted with down. Except for the sumac, the only color change so far is a slight blushing of the oak trees, and the lower leaves of the sweet gums beginning to yellow, though that may be as much from the dry as it is from the shortening days. It’s been six weeks since the last decent rain. The weather forecasters remind us we’re still above average for the year’s rainfall, when you start with last January. Tell that to the crisp leaves that rattle against each other in the least October breeze. Tell it to the dry and weedy creek beds. Tell it to the dust devils that stray gusts send scurrying across the harvested fields. Tell it to the ragged, half-bare cottonwoods twisting their remaining leaves in the dry air.
When I was a child, maybe 3 or 4, I had a shirt that said “E is for Ecology.” I have no idea where it came from, if my parents bought it for me or if someone passed it down to me. It’s unimaginable to me now, how I came by that shirt. I wish I still had it. This was the early 1970s and in rural West Tennessee at that time, ecology was not a popular subject. It reeked of hippies and other outsiders – some considered misguided and ignorant, others malicious – hellbent on wrecking our values and way of life. The simple truth ecology teaches – that all living and non-living beings are utterly and inseverably interdependent with each other, bound in a life-sustaining and necessary knot of interbeing with each other – has been intellectually known and mostly ignored throughout much of human history. At least, that is, in the minds of people grown too distant from the land and the hard lessons taught by a reliance on the land.
Every inch of West Tennessee bears the mark of the human. Show me one foot of land that has not been logged and leveled, mowed or paved. In the places returning to something like wildness, the woods are young, like shattered villages in wartime where the adults were led out and slaughtered, leaving the young to raise themselves alone.
We showed up here, in an uncontrolled place, prime Chickasaw hunting grounds, and began to establish an artificial order the only way we knew how: we hacked down the forests, drained the swamps, channelized the river and locked it in place with levees. We killed everything wild and unyielding we met. A few did it to enrich themselves, but most were driven by a murky, inexplicable urge to dominate and destroy. Most of us had little materially and nothing spiritually to gain from the destruction we wrought. It was just what we did. Questioning it would be like questioning wearing shoes or stepping into the shade when the sun is hot. If we needed justification we said God gave us dominion over the earth in Genesis, but that’s not why we did it, that’s merely the film on the surface of the dark lake of our destructive impulses. We made this place ugly and now we neglect it because it’s ugly. It doesn’t match our dreams of beauty, of nature. No one will ever – not in my lifetime – produce a bestselling calendar devoted to the scenic pleasures of West Tennessee. But look closely, live deeply within any place, and that place becomes transformed, becomes somewhere. In an instant of noticing, beauty and joy and wonder emerge.
The river that crosses this county is called the Forked Deer, but the Chickasaws called it Okeena. Okeena is the name used by the muddy banks and the trees on the banks and the sand bars. Okeena is the name used by the beavers and the deer. Okeena is the name the river calls itself. When it needs to call itself a name at all. Which is most likely never.
My truck is parked near the bottom of the hill, backed into a two track field road. I feel the urge to look back at it, to see its glint in the sun and feel reassured it’s still there while I’m walking, exposed, on this mostly lonely highway. Turning again to keep climbing the hill, I spot a red-tailed hawk hunched on a telephone wire ahead of me.
She is glaring at a field of dried, unharvested soybean stalks, watching for movement, for mice. She must know I’m here. How could I escape a knowing keen as hers? She perches with a perfect, self-contained indifference to me, to all the world beyond the field in front of her.
If I keep walking toward her, I risk scaring her away from her next meal. What business do I have that warrants disturbing her? What work am I pursuing that usurps her work, which is nothing less than the work of survival itself?
The field behind her is littered with castoff corn stalks and scattered stubble. Young corn plants, sprung from seeds dropped during harvest, stand nearly two feet tall. Their flimsy blades flutter and stream in the breeze. They burn with a fierce inner, green fire, defying the first frost, which must come soon, in spite of this heat. A yellow butterfly meanders among them.
Midges hover over the field like puffs of smoke in a windless sky, like driftless afternoon clouds.
The hawk swivels her head suddenly to glare at me.
What am I doing here?
I’m here to reclaim, if only for myself, this place, and to see what it means to belong. My teachers are rain, dirt, grass, woods, winter, and summer. My teachers are the creatures living here and the creatures who have disappeared. Loss is my teacher and so is the river. So is this hawk.
Long before anyone breathed this air, climbed this rise, hawks have hunted here. Countless generations have lived rooted to this silty clay earth, drunk the waters of these creeks and river, gotten soaked in the rains that fall here, dried by the winds and sun here, eaten the flesh of birds and mice whose bodies arise from this place. There is no cell in her body that doesn’t belong here. She carries this place across the sky in her flights. Long after you and I are dead, long after that, her descendants will hunt here. In a world deranged by endless movement, pointless movement, in a world of ceaseless arising and disappearing, she is a steadiness. Glaring at me.
What are you doing here?
I turn and walk back down the hill, leaving her in peace.
Stephen Black’s essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Wilderness House, Number One, The Mindfulness Bell, The Magazine, O Tempora!, and the anthology A Cadence of Hooves, published by Yarroway Mountain Press. He lives in Memphis, where he teaches yoga and English, and is working on a bioregional memoir of West Tennessee.