In a characteristically compelling essay called “Grub: A Man in the Market,”1 Garret Keizer briefly muses on his distaste for upper New England farmers’ markets. He concedes that those institutions appeal to what his wife Kathy calls “our tribe.” That’s the tribe, I suppose, one might equally associate with me and my own wife, yet on reading Garret’s essay, my inner Marianne Moore announced, right out loud, “I too dislike it,” by which I seem to have meant tribe and market at once.
The spontaneity of my response surprised me; and it occasioned the following reflections on things and people I have historically liked. I’ll get back to the farmers’ market scene in due course, but for a spell I mean to remember some chapters of my life and the persons I most fondly associate with them.
My father’s people, from Wiltshire, England, came to this country before it was a country. There were two Lea brothers; one set about farming in eastern Pennsylvania, the other in what became Tennessee. My mother’s Mennonite ancestors, so called Pennsylvania Dutch, arrived more than a century later, and put down roots in Berks County.
As time went by, the Leas, while none gained true distinction (unless you count Annabelle, the wife whom Sam Houston abandoned when he lit out for Texas), attained a degree of gentility. This sank back to a shabbier sort as they approached the generation of my father’s father. The Klines, my mother’s forebears, fared markedly better: her bachelor uncle took his father’s drugstore and in due course turned it into one of the most profitable prescription pharmaceutical companies in the nation. That uncle was the soul of the German Reform version of Protestant ethic, minus the religion, to which in fact he was unabashedly hostile.
- “Grub: A Man in the Market,” Raritan, v. xxxvii, no. 3, winter 2018
My mother may have coveted some of the accrued plumminess of the Lea name, however lapsed to lesser luster, so as to ballast what she perhaps regarded as bumpkin’s heritage on the Berks County side. I say this with some compunction, because after all her husband was a bright, handsome, and famously thoughtful man; so her choice must have surely been far from just venal. Whatever the case, in marriage she followed her mother, who’d married a WASP herself, moved closer to the metropolis, converted to Episcopalianism, and baptized her three children into that elastic denomination.
At all events, I’d have no grounds whatsoever on which to stake a proletarian claim. So it’s curious, even to me, that from earliest memory I’ve chosen some of my most significant friendships from working class people. I’m not clear whether I’ve ever reflected at any length on why this should be, at least on the page. It has been clear to me for ages that I find certain characteristics of the economic and/or intellectual elites abrasive, so that even in my life as an “academic,” at least technically, I’ve largely avoided prolonged association with such folk (with a couple of cherished exceptions, who know who they are).
I don’t dismiss rags-to-riches or subliteracy-to-Ph.D. stories, of course, though in plain truth these are rarer than our sentimentalism insists, and are becoming more so in the opening decades of our century. In the majority of cases, whether or not financially rich, our elites inherited a good deal of social capital: at the very least, say, parents who were literate and decently educated. As for our alleged financial whizzes, many, perhaps most, inherited another sort of capital, as admittedly I did too, though whether I’m a leader I’ll leave to others. It’s not a theme that intrigues me.
What I’m getting at is an inexcusable inclination among elites of all stripes. Although, as former Texas Governor Ann Richards said of George W. Bush, so many were born on third base, they seem to think they hit triples. If these fortunate sons (and in fewer cases daughters) fill the uppermost niches of American society, why, isn’t that just the natural order of things?
I know a young woman in our part of Vermont whose background, to put it genteelly, is dysfunctional. She found herself pregnant quite early and soon fell into the lethal opioid epidemic that, as I write, enslaves so many. But she put herself into recovery, and went on to get her G.E.D. She’s raising a toddler son now, all the while cleaning houses to meet expenses. She’s also attending community college, holding a 4.0 GPA, with an eye to a B.A. in short order. Perhaps it’s too easy to compare her lot, say, to Donald Trump’s, but it doesn’t take me any time at all to decide whom I regard as the more admirable.
The myth of upward mobility, then, is not all mythic. So-called American conservatives will point to prominent examples, avoiding evidence that these are increasingly uncommon. Though his is not a real Horatio Alger tale, since he did have significantly greater advantages, for example, than the woman I just lauded, I might point to my own great uncle. By the middle fifties, he had sufficiently enriched himself that he could lavish funds on his sister, my grandmother, in whose exurban Philadelphia house my parents also lived, and where they raised us five children. He was also generous to his niece, my mother, for whom he had served as a paternal surrogate, her own dad having died before she turned five. She deserved such reward, devoted and useful as she was to him from a very early age.
Uncle (as we tersely called him) was a daunting presence, and not only to me. He could be frighteningly judgmental, even volatile, and one longed to be elsewhere once his fuse got lit. He never had a romantic relation with any woman, and my siblings and I, picking up on some other clues as well, have since supposed him gay. Thus, given his historical epoch, private challenges may well explain much of that famous impatience and clamorous temper. It’s a cliché of behavioral psychology, after all, that frustration engenders aggression.
With his considerable wealth, Uncle bought a gentleman’s property in the country. He was a skilled equestrian, and his high-bred horses were his heart’s only darlings. But he owned beef and dairy cattle, too, along with hens and sheep. To manage these animals, and the crops that sustained them, he hired a certain Charles Grant. Mr. Grant and his wife Esther, Irish Protestant immigrants, had two children, Charlie, Jr. and Edmund.
Young Charlie was enough older than I that he figured primarily as an object of awe in my eyes, though not for long enough: at regular army basic training, very shortly after his marriage at nineteen, he died, absurdly, of the flu. This was 1955, the year I became a teenager, and that death introduced me to the concept of pure ruin. I recall how I, his idolater, felt an earthquake in my very soul, not to mention my pure wonder to behold his tough-as-nails, bull-necked father weep at the funeral, and the utter blankness on Esther’s face, and the solemnity among contract workers, black and white, whom I’d always associated with hilarity and ribaldry (such as I understood it). All of this remains as stark in my mind as it was on the day that poor boy got buried.
But tragedy played no part in my feelings, on which a bit more directly, for his younger brother Edmund, or Eddie, who became my dearest friend from the first day I spent at what our family called, quite simply, The Farm. That is, from about the dawn of memory.
The Farm was my refuge for years, crucially important years at that. I had no way of properly knowing why I needed such sanctuary, as I suspect she didn’t either, but family life was vexed in no small part by my mother’s inchoate alcoholism. I can see this very clearly in hindsight, as in fairly short compass I became expert myself on the curse of addiction, though by the grace of God (and I mean that literally), unlike Mom I was blessed by recovery quite some time ago.
I harbored resentment toward my mother for too much of my life, and, to a lesser degree toward my sweet-tempered father simply for so often taking her part. Yes, he was an enabler, but he always treated me gently, and he died far too young at 55, a shock, needless to say, that rattled me far more than Charlie, Jr.’s sudden vanishing. It still does. But at length I recognized how unfair it was to curse anyone for sharing the same disease that afflicted me, the more so because that curse followed her to the grave. I could as fairly blame my father for the heart attack I had at 74, as if he had somehow willed his own on me, even if mine did not prove fatal like his. I couldn’t change mother when she lived. Why try after she died?
In the cases of both parents, rather than anger, I now feel sorrow about their fates. This is especially true of my mother, who had the longer, but undeniably the more painful life. As a young woman, she’d not only been beautiful but also endowed with sufficient academic ability to be admitted to the highly selective Radcliffe College. This accounts for part of my mother’s attitude that especially galled me: her insistence that I never adequately applied myself at school. A-minuses were a disgrace, not to mention C-minuses (at best) for my performance in math, especially of the post-arithmetical kind, which no amount of application could remedy. I now recognize that, as the oldest of her children, I had become her academic vicar, and by her standards, less than valedictorian results amounted to crass squandering of opportunities from which she had been so unfairly barred.
Why such an assessment from her? Well, it seems that when she announced her Radcliffe news to her uncle, his response was concise– and surely devastating.
“Women don’t go to college.”
Anyone who knew the old man would also know there’d be no appeal.
Again, perhaps, because she wanted me to redeem her frustrated intellectual aspirations, Mom felt disinclined, whether she knew it or not, to let me be a kid. Along with “Apply yourself,” then, “Grow up” was a too familiar directive. The Farm was the place where my nose needed be to no grindstone. I could remain a boy, could ride my pony, camp in the woods, fish in the pond, plink cottontails with my minuscule .22, and indeed all of these, often enough, in the course of one outing.
And I could do everything along with Eddie, with whom I played Tonto and Lone Ranger, Cisco and Pancho, Batman and Robin, or any other commander-subordinate dyad we could imagine. We took turns being leader and sidekick, there being remarkably little competition between us, something unusual, for certain, among males of any age.
In short, until I got old enough to drive, which is to say to be intrigued by the opposite sex, and in fact for some years after, I spent every possible minute at Uncle’s: winter and spring vacations, weekends, and those long, muggy, delicious summers. Eddie and I were inseparable companions there. My relations with Uncle reflected a mutual understanding: he was not a type to be much entertained by kids, and I was there not for him anyhow, but for the physical actuality of the Farm and for Eddie’s company. My dealings with Uncle were therefore pretty much limited to peremptory morning and evening greetings. I was tolerated, or rather ignored, which suited me just fine.
So Eddie and I built hay forts and woods forts. We invented games, like the one in which we tried to land the flimsy boomerangs from the Johnson and Smith’s novelty catalog in an outdoor watering trough. Once we got adept at doing so from one angle, we’d resort to a harder, and then a harder. Those were the cross-shaped boomerangs; when we graduated to the open V-shaped ones, we started to pretend that Esther’s scarecrow, say, was a bad guy, and we’d try to take his hat off with our throws. Later, after Esther shooed us from the effigy in her truck garden, we tried to sneak up on woodchucks and cottontails, though all we ever did was scare them back into brush or burrow.
We were neither of an age to swap emotional secrets nor to philosophize. Indeed, if it had occurred to either of us to try, the other would likely have been mystified beyond response. It was what we did together that cemented our love; to this day, the way my heart leapt up on seeing Eddie after even a brief absence epitomizes what friendship can be. In some measure, that notion of common enterprise, whether it be shared enthusiasms as diverse as the reading or writing of poem or novel or (a touchy matter I’ll glance at later along) the hunting of wild game– that sense of common enterprise is the basis of many a human bond to this day.
Not to hyperbolize nor fall into sentimentality, for us two this was an idyll– looking back on which, however, I sometimes marvel that we survived. We would smoke stolen cigarettes, for example, in our hayloft hideouts; having learned to drive the Farm’s 1949 Army-surplus Jeep, we rolled it into a brook one evening without getting hurt; on another day, we took our axes to a sizeable maple, which fell upon us in a sudden gust of wind, the thick branches somehow coming down everywhere around us without touching either. In short, our adventures were ones that, had I known they involved my own kids (who doubtless had their perilous adventures too, however different the venues), would have frozen my blood.
But, as the famous epistle insists, there comes a time to put aside childish things. This meant acquiring some skills that were not designed merely to amuse or entertain.
You could say that as poet and professor, I’ve more or less lived a life of the mind, but I have always considered it a misprision to assume that such a life is the only indicator of intelligence. If that were so, the nation’s intellectuals would have non-functioning cars, toasters, faucets, airplanes –that list is infinitely protractable, of course– and they’d soon starve to death for want of food.
On which latter note, I can say from experience, even if or perhaps because my learning preceded the mechanized age of dairy– which now includes robotics!– that there’s a right way to milk a cow by hand; indeed, try the wrong way and get no result. There is a proper technique to mowing and tedding hay, even to tying off burlap wheat sacks while the combine is moving full speed ahead. I suspect this may be why, in order to have value in my own eyes, whatever I may offer of so-called creative writing must be grounded in the palpable world.
I can reflect on these matters with some authority, however slight, because, as I reached early adolescence, I actually went to work summers on Uncle’s farm, and on some others. Eddie was expected, nay required to do so by his parents. And what Eddie did, I did.
A local man named Roberts made a handsome living as a contract farmer; that is, he had the machinery and the crew for large-scale harvesting of crops. Landowners need not invest in expensive combines, bailers, what have you. Instead, they hired Mr. Roberts and crew as needed.
It may well be that this contractor hired me by way of staying on my uncle’s good side; as a somewhat roly-poly and still quite short kid, I surely didn’t make a very effective laborer. I couldn’t pitch hay, for example, even like Eddie, two years my senior and quicker to mature. And of course I was truly feckless compared to seasoned adult co-workers. How painfully I recall struggling with heavy bales, chaff sticking to my neck in the dankness of mid-Atlantic summer, as I used every ounce of strength I had to heft my load onto a flatbed in motion. How red I must have turned when Willie, a migrant African-American laborer, a veritable Adonis, once chided me as he waited for a bale to reach him on the platform: “Boy, you’d ought to been born tall ‘stead of fat.”
Fact is, that labor was miserable in almost every respect, enough so that I check myself, as I would many a privileged professor, broker, or banker if I get to complaining about the work load I have to contend with. I do know what hard work feels like.
Yes, that farm labor was exhausting and meagerly remunerated, but if anyone had asked me, I’d have claimed to love it. I now see that this was, again, a matter of shared enterprise, one which, again like poetry itself for my money, has a definite bodily component. There’s no doubt the field work toughened me up, and it showed me a whole dimension of life of which most of my suburban peers were entirely unaware. It inculcated in me a vivid appreciation of the physical fact, which, as Robert Frost somewhat mysteriously puts it in “Mowing,” is “the sweetest dream that labor knows.”
And speaking of the poet, I now believe early “literary” influences came upon me during our break times from field work, during which Mr. Roberts’s crew (not the man himself, who stayed clear, being almost prudishly religious), blacks, whites, Irish, whatever, would banter with one another. The conversation often had to do with the sexual appeal of women, though race track results and prospects, musical tastes, ball teams, automotive preferences, and so on figured in too.
I was struck not only by subject matter still more or less exotic to me (though, lying through my teeth, I sometimes let on otherwise) but also by the rich potpourri of idioms I sampled. One evening, for example, as we were finishing up an oat field, the neighbor’s adolescent daughter, on whom I had one of my innumerable and impossible crushes, took a short cut across the fields to get to the paved road. The top was down on her dad’s Ford, and her blond ponytail streamed in the breeze. Jim Campbell, a white man from somewhere in the south, commented that the sight was “enough to make a horse eat his own beddin’.” I played at swagger, saying I’d like to ask that girl on a date. A normally laconic giant named Bill countered, “Like the man say, I axed for water and she give me gasoline.” Everyone laughed, even the white laborers who, like me, probably didn’t know this was a quotation from the great Delta bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.
In short, what I came to see some time since is that nothing I write is other than a collaborative effort; what goes on the page inevitably carries the freight of myriad voices, and not just ones from the so-called canon or from academia but also from field and woods and alley.
One of the things that bonded me to Eddie was our shared enthusiasm for all that colorful palaver. We tried to import it into our own talk as often as possible. If we wanted to catch a grasshopper to fish for bass, we called it, like the so-called colored men we knew, a hopper-grass. I remember vividly walking out one morning to meet my friend: mist cloaked the pond, the farm animals were smudges out in the browning fields, and as we came together, we heard the single tock! of a woodpecker, a nostalgic sound for me to this day. “Peckerwood,” we said in chorus, again echoing one of the black field hands from whom we’d heard it, though whether with reference to the bird or to a racist landlord, maybe, we could not have considered back then.
When asked where I am from, I often cite the name of the little town near The Farm. This is not quite a lie, in the sense that my uncle’s spread became the home place of my imagination and in many ways persists as such, even if the neighborhood is no longer a pastorale but rather the domain of Staples, Domino’s Pizza, Costco and the like. In those days for me, the area was simply rife with actuality and variety, unlike my all-white, well-fed hometown. I can get almost swoony now if I smell the interior of a cow barn, for example. The clamor of crows flocking to roost has a similar effect, as does fog lifting off water, or a certain timbre in a random black man’s laughter. So on.
As I have made clear, I treasure an old cast of characters, in every sense of that term, some of whom played only cameo parts. I’ll never forget the indescribable reek of someone banally named Paddy, goat-shouldered County Kildare farrier who’d show up in fall to re-shoe all the horses that had idled in pastures during weather too hot for riding. Nor will I forget his brogue-inflected whisper on encountering some setback: “Oh, for the want of the breath of life!” I still see his half-toothless, self-satisfied smile when, having plunged a perfectly fashioned shoe into a water pail, he stood from nailing it onto a hoof and pulled a little vial from his bib overalls. Before tipping it back, he’d whisper “Slainte” –whatever that meant; it didn’t matter.
There was Normie, too, the slightly hunch-backed man of mystery who showed up in spring with a long, orange ferret in a burlap sack. The hens having all been shooed into an adjoining pen, he would release the ferret under their house. You could hear the scuffling and squealing until the predator had dispatched every rat and mouse he could find, whereupon Normie rang an oddly elegant silver bell, the ferret emerged, and back into the rough sack he went with seeming alacrity. The fetor of the tiny corpses under the house took a week or so to disperse.
If I were to continue this litany of recollection, I’d go on without stop. Come to think of it, maybe I have, at least for as long as I’ve viewed myself as a writer. I cited one poetic hero a paragraph or so, so how about another here? “The greatest poverty is not to live/ in a physical world,” says Wallace Stevens.
Amen, say I.
I had some other first-hand knowledge of a more colorful world via school, though not in the classroom. My small private day institution had a demerit system: accumulate four demerits for misbehavior and you were sentenced to grounds work come Saturday. One year, I showed up at Saturday detention for 36 consecutive weeks, missing just one, I think, in the academic calendar. When I –I!– was invited to give a talk to students at my 50th high school reunion (the only one I’ve ever attended), I noticed the august enfilade of lofty firs and spruces at the building’s main entrance. Then it struck me: I planted those trees!
Or I helped a grown man to plant them. You see, I was a chronic weekend recidivist not merely because I couldn’t control my impulses. True, I could not; but there was also the attraction of hanging out with Lovell, night- and weekend watchman and detention overseer. His collective name for the all-white student body was “cornfeds,” but he called me “Stack o’ Dollars.” In turn, I called him “Money.” We got on famously. I have encountered few with equal narrative gifts: his stories were simply charged with imagery and crackling dialogue. He could evoke the sights and sounds of a honkytonk club like no one I’ve ever heard since. His accounts of street fights were vivid and scary, his tales of romance both funny and stirring. He was a bad-ass too, a rule-bender like me. Sometimes, when it was just us two, as it often seemed to be, we’d start a bonfire so that I could sit behind the smoke with him and share a cigarette or two, hidden from the respectable world.
Do you wonder that I racked up the demerits? Some of my friends, I suppose, were playing tennis at the local country club. I wouldn’t trade places to this day.
Money also introduced me to a sort of music that had never been heard in my household or those of my friends. Crucial stuff. I mean not only vernacular music like that of the aforementioned Howlin’ Wolf, or Bessie Smith or Jimmy Reed or Elmore James but also what multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk called Black Classical Music, as exemplified in those days by late bop artists like Monk, Davis, Rollins, Gillespie, Roach and so on. Some have noted the penumbrae of this music in my own writing, and the plain fact is that this literary influence likewise came from a source that I feel blessed to have tapped. God bless you, Lovell, of cherished memory.
Money was a city slicker, so in the end he may have had less effect on me than men and women who were exactly his opposites. I remember them from boyhood too, especially after my parents bought an island camp in Washington County, Maine six decades ago. If any of these men and women still lived, they’d be well into their centenary years. They’d lived in this part of the world well before the advent of electricity and power tools. The men were saw- and axe-wielding lumberjacks or river drivers who floated log booms down the Machias River to the ocean every spring; the women –whom it would be laughable to label “housewives”– literally kept the home fires burning, and much more: they made clothing, dressed and preserved game and fish, did carpentry, tilled soil, split kindling, raised kids, and managed whatever else was necessary under harsh conditions.
If I say so, I have a lot of outdoor skills, a lot of savvy about woods and wildlife, how to hunt and fish, how to ply a canoe in whitewater, how to corn venison, how to drop a tree where I want it to fall, how to coax a flame from a wet log, how to cook over an open fire. On and on. These gifts were handed to me in great part by mentors like George and Creston MacArthur, Earl Bonness, Annie Fitch, Ada Chambers, and a dozen others.
But my professional debt to them is much akin to the one I owe that old scamp Money, because like him, they had extraordinary narrative talents (and in some cases, light-poetic ones too). Lacking any extrinsic entertainment, even from radio, they made their own, and, although many could scarcely read or write, their relish for the precisely eloquent detail and its perfectly apt rendering still motivates me. I loved the way their stories, in the manner of oral tradition worldwide, became community property. Even at 76, I continue to hear their voices every day –and I mean every day. Indeed, when I decided, quite late in life, to be a poet, my first collection not seeing print till I was almost forty, it was the rhythms and cadences of their language that I wanted to capture. I hoped the properties of poetry would allow as much without demanding imitation, because I knew myself insufficiently skilled to offer dialect without implying exactly what I did not feel for these beloveds: condescension.
When Earl’s best friend Creston died, he looked out his shop window and into the dog-hair woods, full of waist-high snow: I’ll never forget his expression as he said to me, “We made lot of tracks together.” How could he have framed so much of a world in such short compass? My heart brims with a treasury of equally compelling turns of phrase. If I have ever written a poem with that sort of gravity, in every sense of the term, then I am blessed, and I know the ones who blessed me.
Another crucial service these men and women rendered was likewise akin to one from Money Crawford, who would catch me up if I showed what he considered too lofty an opinion of myself. So did the Italian rogue Tony Calvano, who kept the building where I parked my motorcycle in grad school, and who always called me by both names at once. “Sydlea,” he once asked, “just what happens in them classes of yours?” I did my best to describe a typical seminar, and he responded, more justly than he probably knew, “Sounds like bull crap in a three-piece suit to me.”
Or how about Ernie Vauxhall, the African-American room inspector at Yale, who had stopped in while I sat at one of his and my favorite New Haven bars? The place was quiet but for us two and Ernie’s pal, bartender Ike Dees, and, having forgotten my Friday duty call to my mother that afternoon, I asked if I could make a collect call from the bar itself. Ike assented, and when my mother answered, I claimed to be in the library doing research. At that point Ernie called out, “Hey, Ike, would you pass me the Midsummer Night’s Dream”?
I assured Mom that that had been the voice of someone passing by in the Sterling Library corridor. Whether she bought it, I’ll never know. I’d not likely have been able to explain that I was absorbing an important principle: to be too dead serious about oneself is to be alienated from what I can only and ineptly call things that matter.
That by happy accident I came into prolonged contact, from early on, with people whose financial and educational circumstances were so different from mine is, yes, a great blessing. I was about to say that as a result I’ve long known how to find cogent subject matter in unlikely places. In point of fact, however, if by now I truly thought them unlikely, it would mean I hadn’t learned how misguided such a rubric is.
Indeed, the kinds of people I have been recalling turn out to be my most likely sources of “inspiration,” to use a much abused word, in my life. When Earl Bonness told me that he and his closest friend had made a lot of tracks together, he resorted to metaphor, but his figuration was grounded in a sensory world, just it was when he described a day as cold as a frog’s mouth, or claimed that the night before had frozen an Eskimo in his cellar. His remarks were not freighted with grandiose self-consciousness, and they were full of brotherly love.
Most of the members of my tribe, as Kathy Keizer called it, are at best uncomfortable with one crucial aspect of my connection to those old-time Yankees and their scions, namely that they and I are lifelong hunters. When I first came to the upper Connecticut Valley to teach, I was blessed almost immediately to befriend a number of the famously standoffish locals. The first friendship was with the road commissioner, Allie Pike, who noticed I kept a rabbit hound. Very soon we started to hunt snowshoe hares together. I taught the son of the local mechanic (himself another great raconteur) to hunt upland birds, and in due course became best man in his wedding. By the time I left that town, in order to stay above what my pal Tom Curren calls The Volvo Line, hunting had introduced me to just about every local family thereabouts, a matter that mystified other professors who’d moved there themselves.
And as I write, my dearest friend on earth is one of those locals; I’ve known him since his early boyhood too. (He is 14 years younger than I.) The man grew up, built our house, then broke our hearts more than a decade ago by moving to Colorado. He’s among the smartest men I know, and hands-down the wittiest; but after a daylong jaunt in the woods with me, he confessed that he could barely read or write. He was in his late twenties then, and it was his admission that got me interested in adult literacy: soon after, I started as a tutor with Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, then joined its board for twenty years, for the last five of which I served as president.
Having outed himself, so to speak, my friend quickly corrected his problem, and has gone from being a hammer-swinger to a spectacularly successful contractor. We still get together for at least a week a year, and we stay in constant touch. I smile to myself each time I think, for example, of the clever nicknames he assigned to certain characters we both knew: “Woody Wide-Bite,” say, for a fellow with hyper-conspicuous dentures, or “Freddy Folktale” for one who tended greatly to exaggerate and romanticize his achievements afield.
How did we come to be friends? We bonded as hunting partners in deer and grouse and duck habitat. He learned about bird dog training from me, as I had learned them from New England elders. Once more, I revert to the notion of shared enterprise in a physical world. I’ll never explain to most salaried friends, let alone to PETA members, that the hunt for us is not simply a matter of slaughtering allegedly defenseless wildlife, but something sacramental. But I won’t go farther here, having written two full books that largely deal with such an issue.
One thing for sure: hunting wary game makes one conscious of how small a part one plays in the world’s grand design. Which leads me at last to some concluding thoughts on why I shy away from “our tribe.” The people I knew in my old town and their descendants– they are all gone now, as that part of the world turns into Fairfield County, Connecticut North. The new inhabitants believe they’re living in the country, and to survey the surrounding landscape one might concur. Yet as my friend Dennis Covington recently wrote, “Geography is both in us and outside of us. No tracking device can substitute for the human heart.” The heart of my old stomping grounds beats elsewhere now.
My instinctive predilection for working class companions has something to do with their straightforwardness. I don’t mean to sentimentalize, because, like us all, the best of them have their character defects, some pretty distasteful. But they’re aware of what they’re up to. My aversion from the self-congratulatory “tribe” involves what I regard as their un-awareness.
Back to those farmers’ markets. Like many of their patrons, my wife and I do all we can to stick with organic food; but I hope we continue to remember that such fare is out of reach for at least half the people we pass driving home from the market itself. Having woven their skirts of wool from the alpaca they bought, with inherited money, for $8000, or having hewn the wood –as natives have done for generations without expecting applause– that heated the sap for their maple syrup, too many tribespeople seem smugly assured that they model how to live now.
From time to time, my wife and I venture five towns south to an upscale grocery store, where we are often frustrated by two shoppers who meet in an aisle and simply block anyone from passing for as long as they share gossip. Many of these well-heeled consumers have signs in their yard saying, for instance, “I Love My Muslim Neighbor,” but how often they ignore the fact that other neighbors are being inconvenienced by their self-absorption, not to mention the harried stock boys and girls, who might as well live on another planet for all the conversationalists appear to care.
Of course, I am being unduly judgmental and am scandalously over-general, but there it is. Such lack of consideration is borne, I believe, of a sort of abstraction, which is the quality of dealing with ideas as opposed to events. It derives, etymologically and aptly, from the Latin for drawing away.
Drawing away from actuality, the one too easily imagines that the world of his or her private construal is the only world that exists. In certain odd ways, my shoppers resemble many professorial types I’ve known, but also, to be fair, many poets. They spend so much time in one another’s company–all the while preaching “diversity”– that they come to think their special concerns reflect the concerns of a broader society. Many are what Teddy Roosevelt described as “parlor radicals,” elitists who preach anti-elitism, and who, in the presence of those they claim to champion, are as awkward as subliterates in a bookstore. In their relentless effort to come up with new insights, they fly at such an altitude that the proverbial common man and woman can’t even see them. They’d have been well served to know Tony Calvano as I did, the one, you may remember, who said my Yale seminars sounded like “bull crap in a three-piece suit.” The clothes may have changed, but some things endure, especially at our so-called great institutions of learning.
That so many of my fellow self-styled progressives do fly at an exaggerated height suggests a lot about the coming into being of the lurid and fraught Trump phenomenon– which, God willing, we may survive.
But that is surely stuff of another, much longer story.