Unearthed, replanted

I have been visiting the farm where I lived from 2004-2008. The old pecan farm commune is more than I could explain to those who haven’t been: complicated, layered, vexing, pivotal, beautiful, and loving. It has been a joy to hug old friends at every turn, tell the old stories and hear the new ones. The children are taller and the buildings a little more polished and tidy. The forest and the old trail through its deep green heart are gone, logged and plowed under. The gardens have filled with fruits and vegetables and the acres with pigs, turkeys, goats, rabbits, cows and bulls. Birth, death, change.

Feeling like a time traveler from the future, I walk land that I walked every day for four years, red clay and puddles and brambles and the fallen leaves of pin oaks. I’ve always felt compelled to walk it, to absorb and learn from it.

This was where I met my sweetheart and we muddied our way into a strong relationship. Where people pray for peace every day, where people strive for spiritual ideals, and where one constantly meets characters that a novelist of the absurd could scarcely imagine. And it’s where I burned out completely, wearing too many hats but with too little training or support to keep them on. I raged and cried often, though I was mostly happy. It turned out that I was a close but not a total fit. An almost-square peg facing a square hole. One day, not long before our commitment ceremony to each other, J. and I knew we would eventually have to leave.

Even after four years, the memories came back strong and fresh as I walked the paths again. Last night, I had a dream.

Two tame rats ran into my room. I held and cuddled them but was alarmed to recall that they were my pets who had died the summer before after long ailments and much suffering. Indeed, these rats were old and pained as mine had been near the end. They were soft and affectionate, but why were they back? And what would I do now? Where would I put them? They scuttled along the baseboards as my brain scuttled between anxiety and confusion.

I went out the back door and found the rusting cage lodged high in the fork of a tree. A questionable ladder leaned against the trunk. Halfway up, the legs rattled and swayed, and I stopped short of the cage. I sat in the dirt and continued my vexations. Had I buried my little ones before they were dead? Had I neglected them or mistreated them? No—surely not! I had buried them in the forest when the time was right. So who were these creatures in my apartment?

Just then, my in-laws walked past. And I said: “I buried them in the forest! But they are here. I don’t know what to do. Please help me.”

My father-in-law shrugged and said, “Hmm. Sounds psychological.”

Yes, it did. These were ghost rats. I coughed up a vile, bilious yellow pellet and spat it on the ground.

And woke up, relieved. The meaning of the dream was clear. The little rats were little souls in my care. The only other little soul in my care is my own. And the part of it that lived on the farm, beloved, loving, and suffering, unearthed by being revisited: would I cage it above again? Or would I let it lie below, even if covered only by stumps, and fertilize new life in its soil? Plant what is meant to grow, what fits, long as it may take to find the seed?

I spit out the plug of resentment and made my choice.

Pangaea

And then there’s Ty Tymon’s place, Pangaea Permaculture. In terms of disorganization and lack of structure (and structures), it’s all right. Ty himself looks pretty harmless, a sixties-ish guy six feet tall and thin with long dreds, dressed like a Rasta, always rolling or smoking or finishing smoking a giant spliff. But he’s a former Black Panther and told me a story once of how he went at a guy with nunchucks for crossing him. The first time, I went with Rambler and some other guy, down winding red back roads, turn after turn through the ropes of kudzu, for hours. I had no idea where we were. Time and space telescoped, we were driving the contours of a fractal. Finally there was a dented mailbox, painted red with yellow dots and the address: 202 Tomato Lane. We parked and piled into Ty’s little trailer. I soon realized, once Ty and Rambler got to smoking, that it might be forever before we left. I’m not into pot myself, so the conversation and the ambience bored me yet kept me on edge, much as I tried (as I always try, and always unsuccessfully) to chill. I was also the only female, and though none of these guys were remotely menacing, I was unforgettably conscious of how bepodunked I was. I browsed through the dusty bookshelves that lined the interior, floor to ceiling, and spread on the cushions near the incense. Most were paperbacks from the seventies, about revolutionary black politics, flora and fauna identification, the messed-up institutions of Amerikkka, manure and gardening and alternative building methods, and photo albums of Ty naked with a variety of young women.

I must have looked pretty out of my element, because after a couple hours, Ty handed me a small glass of blood red juice, slightly viscous, which he called elixir. “This stuff is rare,” he said. “My homemade elderberry wine, last bottle.”

“Oh Ann, don’t drink it,” yelled Rambler. “Elderberries are poison. It’ll kill you!” I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding. “It’s my gramma’s recipe,” Ty told me. “Trust me. You just have to make it right. Girl, c’mon. I swear, it’s OK.”

So I drank it. I’m not much of a drinker, and I was raised cautious as a cat, but this stuff was delicious. Deep, sweet, and subtle. I could taste centuries in there. I could taste the land that Ty’s grandmother knew, combed, tended, became. She had gotten it, she owned it, Ty told me, though I don’t remember how. How in hell does a black woman, a medicine woman, part Native American, living in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century, lay claim to land? She must have been as powerful and charmed as Ty himself. More so, even; the heir was probably a dilution. I saw her moving over the land, following game trails, bending to know and to use each plant, even the toxic ones. The rest of the evening was comfortable and warm.

I went one other time to Pangaea, for Ty’s annual New Year’s Eve gathering. When we pulled up, he was making wild hog and venison burgers. He had shot the wild hog himself, as it was ravaging his farm, and his neighbor had bagged the deer, and they had shared. On an iron grate over a wood fire in the sand outside the trailer, he poked at the meat with a stick. The smell was intoxicating. And my admission here, just to show that I too have something at stake in the telling, is that I ate some of that meat. Just as I am fickle in my arts, wandering in my path, and wavering in my career, it should be no surprise that I am an imperfect vegetarian, though rarely. That evening I was in another world, and I took that world’s communion.

We sat around the fire as the dark flowed down, and people came and went: Ty’s neighbors and friends, communards, the bohemian fringe of small towns, and some folks who just knew that there’d be lots of Natty Light. I chatted for a while with a woman wearing pelts—a schoolteacher with a double life. Two locals, a couple unpredictably paired (she was a round ball, and he a long stick, both with strikingly asymmetrical features), groped drunkenly in the shadows. The embers calmed, and I left the circle before the drumming started, and definitely before the dancing. When midnight approached I walked out to the road and found the highest point, the better to be nearer the blazing stars. When hollering, singing, and cowbells rose from the distance, I knew the new year had begun.

I tested out my sleeping bag that night, in a tent I had pitched off the path in the afternoon. It wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped, but I was glad anyhow, as I learned the next day that all who had crashed in the house had slept very poorly. Apparently the stick-and-ball couple with the crooked faces had loudly fornicated all over the property for hours, including romping over beds already occupied by others. But the morning was fresh and in the new light I walked the narrow trails, exploring the hulls of half-finished bamboo yurt frames, pagan sacred circles, and the sparse rows of wintering vegetable patches, where Ty’s grandmother still moved.

The country runner

Nobody exercised there, except through manual labor. The nearest gym was ten miles away, and I did not own a car, nor wish to pay dues. So I ran. Nearly every day for nearly five years, I ran. In the stormy season, I’d greedily await the lifting of the clouds, pacing indoors impatiently. In winter, I’d savor the half hour between the end of the work day and the point when I couldn’t see my hand before me, much less the path ahead. After a hurricane’s four days of downpour, I’d gamble that a sodden, weakened pecan branch wouldn’t crack my head open.

I ran everywhere in a three to five-mile radius: fields, trails, woods, roads paved and dirt, neighborhoods. People I had never met would say, “I seen you running, you still running?” My first season, I marveled at the carelessness of some trucker who must have spilled a bale of napkins to unravel over miles of road, until I realized that I was an ignorant Yank who didn’t know cotton when it hit her on the soles of her shoes. So running was my way of entering a foreign land, divining its curves with footprints, learning, soaking in.

It was a sensory carnival. The taste of pesticide infected my spit as I trotted along the perimeter of freshly harvested cotton fields, the poison upturned by the blades of the giant harvesters. Next it was the heavy stink of smoke, when the fields were burned to release the nutrition of ash into the soil, and next, manure, spread over the whole mess. In lovelier seasons, jasmine filled my lungs, dogwood blossoms and azaleas, birdsong, new ferns. I leaped across rivulets and puddles, investigated familiar paths turned new again with the changing of seasons.

In May, when the trail through the woods became so overrun with banana spiders that I tired of waving a stick in front of my face to prevent my head from being shrink-wrapped in dense, three-dimensional webs, I ran instead on the shoulder of the state highway. I’d switch to the opposite side when a car, or a semi loaded with pine logs, barreled my way. A neighbor told me that my image, jogging on the side of this highway, is immortalized on the street view of Google Earth. Though I have never found myself, I enjoy the idea.

In the hottest months, chiggers ate their way into the backs of my knees, no-see-um bites dotted my ankles, mosquitoes pierced my nape where the sweat dripped down under sun-scorched hair. Kudzu crept clear across dirt roads, consumed all other foliage, emitted unmistakable, sinister aroma. The roads in the wet season were mud and my sneakers and cotton socks stained red from sinking in, sometimes up to the ankle. It would not wash out.

People warned me about crazy rednecks who might abduct me or beat me with chains, but I never met any. People warned me about snakes. I did jump over a few, and others I saw in advance—a few weeks every spring, the big snakes, three feet long, would get wanderlust and I would come upon one lying across the road in a fat squiggle. I would stop: “Snake, I’m right here, and you are there. You can be comfortable there, I don’t want to bother you. I am going to walk way over here through the woods and behind you now. I’ll be gone in a minute. Thank you.”

But running was good. Alone, alive, away from people and people’s information. Omissions, ideas, insights rose from the path. Salt water seeped out of me, knowledge seeped in: the moon phases, which plants bloomed, which faded. The names in the graveyard, the unmarked stones. The taste of wild grapes, of sarsaparilla root. Barbed wire fences fallen and entombed by trees, ruined barns absorbed by forest, abandoned mattresses, beehives, and the hood of a 1948 Ford. Sweaters, condoms, beer cans, abandoned trysts. Passionflowers. The two oaks whose trunks twisted in embrace.

I knew where cows stared, rabbits fled. A loner fox, a pair of bobcats. Countless dead birds, squirrels, mice. A dead coyote on the edge of the cornfield, whom I had heard howling the night before. And human animals as well: the two guys who parked their red Ranger on the red road daily, their spot to smoke weed and eat ice cream, then toss the evidence—cardboard pint, plastic spoon. They waved, told me to mind the snakes.

Now I have a gym membership, live in the city, run on paths smooth and wide and populous with other joggers. But humans are territorial, and I am solitary. I miss patrolling my own beat, tripping, finding burs in my socks. Finding a narrow way through a strange world, rather than being guided over it.