“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner had a big-time influence on me as an adolescent as did my father who never met a funeral he didn’t like, especially if it took him back to the hill country of Appalachian Ohio where he had been raised. Even now I remember as a boy following a group of men carrying the casket of a man my father had known when he was a boy. The memory is still clear of them slipping and sliding along the dry creek bed en route to a spot in the woods where an ancient family cemetery kept watch on those infrequent intruders who now were there to add another ancestor. Years later when I first read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, I was back in the woods where only dusty roads could take you.
Since I have now passed seventy, the past often seems so much bigger than it was perhaps as seen through the eyes of a boy. When my ancestors left the Shenandoah Valley about 1810 in search of a fresh start and new land, they also had dusty trails to follow as they wound their way into Kentucky and that other land north of the Ohio River. Records that I have are only jottings of birth dates, marriages, children, and the time when they also were lowered into what was to become new family cemeteries. It’s a hard scrabble country, that part of Ohio, then and now along the river from Portsmouth to Buena Vista, about fifty or so miles east of Cincinnati.
This is country where dusty remnants of my DNA have become part of the soil. I may never visit it again, since my ties are few now and stretched at best. It’s a different world from mine, as I suspect it is from what my great-great-great grandfather imagined, too, when he and his extended family set forth on their own journey of discovery. Education is not valued much today in this part of the country, employment is limited, and the ravages of drug use is evident even in the country. The only picture that doesn’t seem to change is what you see in those old cemeteries. My great grandmother is buried alongside many of my uncles and aunts in Sunshine Ridge near Churn Creek. Her only marker is a slab of slate with her barely decipherable and hand-scribed named along with “dide” and a date. Phonetic spelling has its place.
When I recently read Roger Cohen’s op-ed piece titled The Presence of the Past in The New York Times, I was drawn in immediately by his opening lines, “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility.” As he goes on to write, the past is all about memory and how it can play us for fools if we allow it or add to our understanding of who we are if we are attuned to its subtle melody.
Here it is already half way through May and I’m still living a bit in the future rather than the present and am still following the elusive butterfly that seems to urge me to tag along in expectation of something new or more fulfilling in a time to come that I do not know. As I labor away on my “bird nest” out in the meadow–I switched from a tree house project to a free-standing platform on a high spot looking into the woods in one direction and the field of walnuts in another–there is great satisfaction in watching and listening far enough away from any of the significant noise that assaults every moment of the urban day. Of course, there are the chicken houses about half a mile away that boom out a cacophony of alarm screams when the power is interrupted. But that intrusion is rare and better than hearing the sirens of police cars and general noise that my city friends seem to miss when they come out to the country for a “quiet” getaway.
As the big holes I dig for my posts grow larger to slowly release the boulders that have remained hidden in their own graves for who knows how long, I wonder why I am still digging holes and humping big and heavy pressure-treated lumber at my age up to a work site a football field or two away from where the delivery truck dumped them. One thing for sure is that my hands have regained their calluses which melted away a bit during the winter when I couldn’t wield my heavy digging iron. I’ve also slimmed down and shed that winter idleness that tightened my waist line.
As for being fit, a sleek and shiny black snake surprised me the other day as I paused in my digging, hammering, and plumbing and squaring. He lifted the first part of his body up to gaze at what transformation was happening in this spot which I suspect he thought was his own personal domain. We had a quiet interlude without words just checking one another out before what Emily Dickinson would call the “narrow Fellow in the Grass” lowered his upbraided head and parted the grass as he left my presence. I hope to see him again.
When you do physical labor like this, you have to concentrate and be constantly recalculating as you go, since transforming what you’ve drawn on graph paper is not exactly what appears in the field. Some stones turn out to be boulders that are content to stay in the ground and tell you quite bluntly that despite your efforts to dislodge them, they’re happy where they are and will not be budged. I have learned over the years to accept that which I cannot change or move so I modify my plan and work around the obstacles. It’s just a wonder why the largest and most intractable stone seems to lie in wait at the bottom of the last hole you plan to dig at the end of a hard day’s work. But during the scrambling about over and under the structure that is emerging on my hillside, I think other thoughts and how this budding summer will play out for me as well as for the rest of this troubled world.
In wondering how the big show of our individual lives will continue to unfold, Cohen conjured up a thought from Henry James, who reminds us that no one can ever forget the “distinguished thing” that awaits us all despite whatever accomplishments we can brag about or the misfortunes and disappointments that gnaw our bones. All this living is little more than co-mingling the past, present and future. As I walked on the James Madison University campus the other day en route to a class, I overtook my old friend Charlie who was also walking up the incline from the parking lot. When I asked how he was doing, he said, “Not bad for an 88-year old.” It was a good moment to stop and take inventory. He’s busy, committed, still likes to travel and see and learn new things and has a sense of humor. He fit right in with Cohen’s other remark about who would ever want to live to be ninety with all the infirmities and indignities of old age. The obvious answer is anyone who is eighty-nine.
And so, I’m about to pull my boots on and join Jody as we walk our dogs through the woods and then to tromp up to the “bird nest” and limber up my digging iron, fire up the generator, and start persuading stones and cutting wood. I wonder at times how much my father, long gone into his own “distinguished thing,” would enjoy being here in the meadow with me. These fields have their own bones that I find on occasion. They also have several niches where beloved dogs and cats are buried. These spots are special to us, as I see Hankie and Bertie and Sneezer and Tucker, Zoë, Pandora and Friskie each time I pass them. As each of them lay dying, I knew a part of me was dying, too.
But like Charlie, I still have a zest to keep on going to see what’s around the corner. I just don’t want to live too much in the future. I have to slow down and enjoy the here and now and hope that the “narrow Fellow in the Grass” comes to visit with me today. We have things to talk about.