A Visit to the Farm on the Mattole River
by Christy Rodgers
O, teachers are my lessons done?
I cannot do another one.
They just smiled at me and said:
Well, child, are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
once or twice a year my husband and I visit the only people we know who live on a farm. The farm lies in California 's North Coast region, 250 miles north of San Francisco, our home.
The area we visit is another hundred miles north of the last tentacles of Bay Area urban and suburban sprawl, which now grasp at the Sonoma-Mendocino County border. Even woody Mendocino County has a couple of towns that are bulging in the middle round the axis of Highway 101, like municipal versions of middle-aged spread. But once you reach huge Humboldt, this mammoth state's largest county, you cross some border less visible than the signposted county line: I think of it as the beginning of the Northwest. As the vistas expand, the population shrinks: California is now home to one out of eight people in the whole country, but almost all of them live south of here.
And you have entered an incomparably beautiful land: of precipitous forested slopes plunging down to stony river beds, sluicing shining green water towards the sea, shreds of mist clinging to dark ravines, gently winding valleys of pasture land spangled with poppies, lupine and other vivid wildflowers. And of course, the sea, the Pacific, vast, moody, hidden behind the coastal mountains, the highest in the state--until you are actually upon it, and then it changes everything. This coast lies on the active rim of three tectonic plates; the land is thrusting up, the sea is trying to tear it down, storms, fires, earthquakes are frequent: this is young and wild earth.
And yet human settlement just since the 19th century has had the effect of many earthquakes on the whole area, reshaping the land and disturbing its “young” million year old patterns. In Totem Salmon, author and local resident Freeman House describes a community effort (which began in 1980 and continues to this day) to restore the Mattole River 's unique population of wild salmon from near-extinction because of rampant logging in the 1940s and ‘50s. Commercial salmon fishing is now defunct because of unsustainable practices, and logging and ranching are on the ropes, and yet these brief activities may have forever altered the character of hillsides, rivers and streams in the area so that, at best, even if there is no further reckless development, their once-stable ecosystems will be undergoing severe stress for the foreseeable future. They will likely never host the kind of natural abundance and variety they once did. House gives an admirable history of the interactions of people and place in this land, and shows how even apparently oppositional groups like conservative ranchers and hippie pot farmers can form alliances around their affinity for a sustaining home place. Along the way, you get a very clear picture of the exceptional Mattole River valley itself, really the main character of the story.
Humboldt County is the land of the Redwood Empire, where the timber wars have been raging since the early 1980s, fought now almost tree by tree in what seems to be a mostly losing battle to save the last great stands of the world's tallest living things. Talk about not being able to “see the forest for the--” not even all of its staunchest warriors may have realized that the only meaningful fight was to save the once-immense northern forests as living ecosystems, not sanitized, nature-free tree museums, and to preserve the watersheds that the local trees, fish and people all depended on. And at the same time, of course, many paper and wood consuming people living far from large stands of trees of any kind had trouble understanding why they should care. Beyond the tunnel vision of business boosters who said “Try wiping your ass with a spotted owl,” urban radicals I knew dismissed it as a privileged struggle: trees were beautiful things, but shouldn't we focus our attention on ensuring that people in our own neighborhoods weren't dying in a hale of police gunfire, or from toxic pollution or preventable diseases? What is a forest to us, who have never been granted even a park or a playground?
But this is not the story of that debate.
The family we visit has its history with the struggles to preserve the character and quality of the land that sustains them. But we do not visit Ilany and Mel because of their affiliation with conservation battles. Nor do we visit them to “learn” about homesteading; we have realized that they have neither the time nor the patience to explain to or show the two of us, who have little understanding or affinity for any manual or technical work, how a solar cell works, or a waterwheel generator, or drip irrigation, or how to mulch an organic garden. This time we drove up for a barn dance; it was a lot of fun. But no trip to this farm has been simple, or simply pleasurable, to me from the very first. Instead, while I am there, I constantly find myself questioning who and what I am, and how I got to be this way, and wondering if there is any point to my life at all. And yet I always want to go back.
Well then, who am I? I am an urbanite descended from at least six generations of middlemen—traders, brokers, bureaucrats-- who had little affinity for the land except as real estate, and made nothing with their hands, except possibly as a pastime. This is not an excuse for anything. Ilany and Mel both come from urban backgrounds in the Bay Area; no one took them by the hand from childhood, and taught them how to farm, as they are now teaching their son. Nor is it an explanation—or an apology: I note with curiosity when I am in the area how few of the new homesteaders' children, especially the teenagers, for all their early exposure to this magnificent land, seem to have any interest in continuing to live on it, and I wonder if the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s—with which our friends coincided, even if they did not really consider themselves a part of it-- will be another of those one-generational experiments so common in the history of alternative social movements, here and elsewhere.
The whole question of attachment to the land is complicated by the fact that Ilany and Mel are probably among the few homesteaders in this infamous Emerald Triangle who do not use their land for marijuana growing. I, who since adulthood have found myself living in all sorts of situations not pointed to by my sheltered middle class beginnings, from a Brooklyn ghetto brownstone to a Moroccan souk to a war zone in Central America, like to imagine I am pretty worldly by now. But I had to chuckle at my pretensions, when it belatedly began to dawn on me why I had gotten so many circumspect answers as I tried small-talking to folks at the dance about what they did for a living. “Well, we own land, so of course we don't have the same expenses as you do in the city,” was my favorite. When I had looked into purchasing land in that area I realized that my lifestyle of surviving on about $10,000 a year in a rent-controlled apartment without a car would be completely impossible up there—the taxes and interest payments on the land alone would have forced me to find a much larger source of income than the activist support work I had been eking by on for years. There is only one crop in Humboldt County now that provides the necessary financial security to live comfortably on the land.
So maybe one day the homesteaders' kids will come back to the “farm,” after a little messing around in the city, trying to live on taxable wages and do that dreary commute to the financial district or the office park. Much depends on the status of the war on drugs in the next ten or twenty years, and on a lot of other imponderables, but that is not really the story I'm about telling here either.
What challenges me continually to examine my own choices when I am on Ilany and Mel's farm is not just spending time with people who work very hard and very skillfully (though they would demur at this), all day, with their hands, and finally sit down to rest about nine o'clock at night, while my husband and I wake late, scrounge coffee (they don't drink it), opportunistically partake of the wholesome, organic breakfast our hostess always prepares for her husband and son, and then spend the day lazily lying on the river bank below their property, or taking winding drives along the picturesque back roads through the surrounding farm and forest land. It has more to do with the particular character of these people, which is very pronounced. They are not what I would describe as easy people. While they are always glad to see us, they don't go out of their way, for example, to make us feel that we are special to them—they don't give us any of the usual cues, like asking us leading questions about our life, or our thoughts on a given subject, or praising any accomplishments that we may venture to express our own pride in —they love to tell stories of their exploits, and somehow these are always more dramatic, more important-seeming--even when they are being funny and self-deprecating, or grim and unromantic, which they often are--than our tales, and I think this has to do with the fact that they long ago became convinced that the only really admirable thing anyone can do is to live as they have lived, to find a piece of land and honor it above all else, to create a family and protect and nurture it above all else.
And you see, I think perhaps they are right; that is why I find myself so troubled by the life I have led, I, who have no child and don't know how to fix a single machine or grow a single crop.
When we drive away from the farm, I often find myself defensively reviewing the things I have done in my life, the things I am proud of, or at least, the things I did that make the best stories, though many (most) remain untold. Why didn't I tell these rural folks about working on the goat farm in southern France, I think, or picking tomatoes and olives in the Greek islands?—Well, those experiences would seem dilettantish to them, I suppose. They have no interest in travel, one of the main passions in my life; it takes them away from their land. And besides, what's funny about those stories is how bad I was at farm work; much happened to me in my travels, but my acquiring any useful technical skill was not part of it.
This most recent visit to the farm on the Mattole vividly brought back another rural adventure I barely acquitted myself of: one summer while I was at college in Portland, Oregon, I took a job at a fishermen's resort up in British Columbia (illegally, as it turned out; we had a bit of a nervous time at the Canadian border, but that too is another story). It was in a completely roadless area, a hundred miles from any town: they flew us in to the long, lovely lake in the pine forest in the small pontoon planes that brought the mail. I thought I was to work as a cook's helper, and I loved to cook, but once there I found out the fat, scowling, gossipy owner of the place needed a factotum, not a cook, as she did all the cooking herself (and a good deal of the eating too). So I spent most of my work days running the washing machine, hauling bed sheets off the line, sweeping pine needles out of the dining room, and feeling very much like Cinderella. Once I begged her to let me bake some whole wheat bread for the guests, which I used to do quite well, I thought, and she grudgingly allowed me to, but it turned out dry as dust and hard as a brick. “I can't serve that,” she snapped. We had to throw it away.
Later I became friends with a family of homesteaders who lived up in a high, windy meadow over the lake. My boss, Bonnie, had nothing but contempt for them: she thought they were shiftless; they never had steady work, and their claim to the land they lived on was rumored to be in dispute. But they were far more kindly and friendly and hospitable with me than anyone at Bonnie's place, and once when I spent a day off up there, I made bread for them, exactly the same as I always had, and this time it turned out fine. They smiled knowingly; Bonnie had gossiped to the wife about my breadmaking fiasco, and to them it was just another confirmation of her tendency to bad-mouth, which of course, they'd been victims of as well.
The reason this story came to mind, I think, was that while I have often thought of cooking something for Ilany and Mel, this being the only practical skill I can offer, I see the competence and gusto with which Ilany always makes the meals, the happy possession she takes of her kitchen even at the end of a day of exhausting labor, and at the same time hear her talk disparagingly of foods she doesn't like, or thinks are bad for kids, or cause cancer, and I lose any desire to cook for them. In my mind's eye I can see my favorite recipes being pushed away in stony silence; I can see myself tasting whatever I've made, and feeling the same disbelieving shame I did when I pulled that collapsed bread out of Bonnie's oven. Better not.
Another reason that whole ego-battering summer came to mind at the farm is that one of the expert pilots who flew customers in to the lodge was a 19 year old girl, blonde and doe-eyed and pretty as a Hollywood starlet. And I was 21, plain, and I didn't even drive a car. Then as now, if someone asked me—what can you do? I would be hard put to tell them.
But wait—since then I've done other things that not only make good stories, but that I'm actually proud of. What about my volunteer work in Central America? Once we risked our lives hiding revolutionaries from the police during the civil war. My friends on the farm are quite radical in their political beliefs and have supported many causes apart from defending the land around them--but they are devout pacifists, and we could have been charged with aiding an armed insurgency. So I suppose that wouldn't really make them appreciate me more. They would probably have been more interested if I had lived in a rural village helping farmers, but in the rural villages I always felt the same way I feel at their farm, which is as helpless as baby, and a burden on my skilled, hard-working hosts. The Central American campesinos, differently from Ilany and Mel, always treated us like visiting royalty, but for all the wrong reasons: because we were foreigners, because we were white, because we were educated. So there was nothing I could feel very proud of about that.
At some point I realized I could go on all night and into the morning trying to vindicate my life to these friends—a foolish endeavor. They liked us enough to keep inviting us to visit, so perhaps it wasn't particularly important to them whether we lived according to their standards or not. This justifying was really something I was doing for myself, not them.
And then, on our road home, my husband and I stopped in at Cloverdale, a Sonoma County municipality intent on reinventing itself in an inimitable—and scary—California fashion: an old agricultural and logging town on the skids which is now banking on retirement colonies and bedroom subdivisions for Santa Rosa commuters (at least they haven't decided to host a new prison…yet…) to visit my husband's mother and stepfather. It dawned on me as we ate an expensive and mediocre dinner with them in one of the new restaurants, that their subjective attitude towards their lives was very similar to Ilany and Mel's, that is, “though we have made errors, our every decision has turned out to be a decided improvement over anyone else's in the family, as well as most of our neighbors, who haven't had the exciting and challenging past that we've had (my stepfather-in-law worked as a doctor in the Asian tropics for many years). Really no one we know has chosen as wisely as we have.” Their self-satisfaction even included moving to this grim town and living in an expensive, highly regulated, sepia-toned retirement colony full of identically ugly houses. I began to understand what we mean when we say, hypocritically (because there is no American who really believes this, I think) that “it's all relative.”
Well, really, you have to laugh, and in the end, that's what I do. And I wonder why it is some of us feel that our choices have brought us both joy and sorrow, and we are reconciled with our lives, happier, perhaps, than we ever dared imagine we might be, but wouldn't dare to assume that other lives are any less remarkable and worth discovering in all their detail—at least if they belong to friends, people with whom we feel some kinship. I am inclined to think--if there is any kind of a valid hierarchy-- that my friends on the farm are more right about their lives, than my in-laws about theirs. But I still wonder if I am strange in wishing that these people I admire so were more interested in listening sympathetically to the stories of others—not just mine--and in vividly imagining what another's life would be like, without judging it somehow lacking —or worse, threatening--because it is not like one's own.
But perhaps I also feel some affinity to gruff, self-reliant people who don't really listen to me, since I have at least one other long-time friend who fits that description. In my heart there is a frustrated longing to be of service to these persons, to find some crevice in their self-sufficiency that I can fill. Because Ilany (of the two of them, Mel is actually easygoing by comparison) and my friend Margaret—both of whom are good with their hands, politically conscious, and whose primary work is to care for others—often share with me their sense of exhaustion at the burdens they bear—they seem always on the verge of collapsing emotionally under the weight of their lives, and yet there is no way to lighten that burden for them, because they have always got there first when it comes to learning and mastering any of the tasks they have decided they must take up. Ilany does not respond kindly to polite offers of assistance from us. She tends to snort, and make it clear that you would be more of a hindrance than a help in any of her tasks. You almost feel she'd rather have a demanding and snotty guest than one who dared to offer a hand in the garden unless they had damn well spent more of their life growing food than she has.
I am reminded also of that fable of the ant and the grasshopper, when I think of how hard she and Mel, and their son Arun, work, and how little my husband and I work, how we must seem somehow irresponsible , because we visit, and play music, and sing, like grasshoppers, and do not labor, and are somehow provided for, and do not worry too much about the future, and do not put away for it. I have always thought that story was a bit unforgiving to the grasshopper, who if you recall, fritters away the summer singing in the fields, while the ant works ceaselessly, storing up his grain, and when the winter comes, the poor grasshopper starves and freezes, while the thrifty ant lives comfortably on his stores. It seemed to me to be a fable written by and for, persons with more appreciation for money than for music. I think if we look at the human world, the “ants” have not done it such a great service after all, while the poets, artists and musicians have kept us all from shrinking into the soul-dead automatons we might have become without their songs, words, images. Still, even when you love words, images and music, they do start to seem very tenuous things next to grains and vegetables and fruit and eggs and water. Perhaps if I had worked at writing and at communicating with the urgency and involvement Ilany and Mel have shown in taking care of their land—but I haven't. I have really dedicated myself only to trying to be happy, and interested in life.
Yes, I have labored for a number of causes, including that turbulent time in Central America, but the true story is that I always evaluated those situations in terms of my own happiness, and if my happiness and the cause were in conflict, eventually I dropped the cause. While I believed in social justice, and my belief has not wavered, there always came a point when the work I did for any specific cause became abstract to me. I was never fighting for my own survival, or against any injustice that was directed at me personally, or at my family, or any of my friends, or my neighbors, or my co-workers (except once, when I worked in a book store where the employees had joined a union)—and so regardless of the depths of my convictions, at some point, the work itself did not feel necessary, in the way that growing food feels necessary to Ilany, or writing has--intermittently--felt to me. And so it became nothing more than drudgery. On the contrary, any task that feels deeply essential to your wellbeing is not drudgery. No matter how many times you repeat it, if it feels essential to you, that feeling transcends the drudgery of its simplicity, or its physical strenuousness, or its repetition. If it does not, then no matter how valid the goal, the work itself does not fulfill.
What did feel necessary to me, more necessary even than writing, was to establish balance and harmony in my life, and to stay engaged in it, not to let it become rote or abstract. It felt necessary to have friends, and to see or speak with them frequently; it felt necessary to experience many different cultures and ways of life within this culture, and to try to understand them and appreciate them. It felt necessary to have a great deal of time, and a relatively small number of things, compared to most of the people in my social class. To savor good food and wine, to experience and discuss ideas as expressed in the arts, books, the cinema—though not in any formal setting, such as a course of study. It felt necessary, at some level more internal than external, to be flexible and mobile rather than fixed and attached.
I am, once again, not excusing or advocating for my choices. In some way I do not feel they are defensible. I am only explaining what they were. The fact is, these are all choices I was able to make because nothing chose me. My background and my history did not circumscribe my life in either a positive or a negative sense. And as the years passed, nothing sprang forth from the array of possibilities life presented to say unequivocally to me “ I am for you. Leave your nets and follow me. ”
When you are chosen by something, rather than choosing it, your life is very different. You may still be open to chance and change in other aspects of your life, but you must do whatever the thing that has chosen you requires in order to do justice to it. The thing that has chosen you takes away your choice, where it is concerned.
Ilany and Mel almost never leave their land for more than a few days at a time. Their friendships, their financial relationships, their relationship to the world are all contingent on their involvement with this place, the farm, the Mattole River Valley, southern Humboldt County . At the same time, I feel certain that Ilany would without hesitation, change any aspect of her life, including giving up living on the land, if she felt it were necessary to her son's happiness. Observing her has produced another revelation, that while most parents, especially modern, industrialized-world parents, are involved in constant calculations regarding the amount and type of time that they spend on their lives, as apart from their children's, Ilany was incapable of making such calculations. They were meaningless to her. She had been chosen by motherhood, as opposed to choosing it. It was the most important thing she was doing, would ever do. All the people in her life, however dear, were, it seemed to me, several orders lower on her scale of priorities than her son. This was evident in the amount of time she spent facilitating his learning, as she called it. Arun had never had formal schooling, and she read to him, and took him down the long, winding road into town to activities like sports, or theater, or games, almost every day. She took him all over the state to camp with other kids being raised without school. She was uninterested in spending any significant amount of time apart from him.
Among people who have never met this couple, almost everyone to whom I have ever tried to describe their choices regarding parenthood is critical of them. And in Ilany's case, some have decided she is pathological. Most appear to be certain that she is doing her son a disservice in some way, if not actually harming him, by spending all that time with him. They are not convinced by my descriptions of how bright and well-balanced and engaged in life he seems. He was not spoiled, over-indulged, isolated, unsocialized, or any of the things these listeners assumed he might be; yet his mother is frightening to them—and highly curious, if not frightening, to me--in the inflexibility of her dedication.
I've come to believe that most people who are not chosen by a thing distrust those who are, and possibly feel somewhat threatened by them as well. Perhaps this accounts for my own discomfort when I visit the farm. The chosen people, who are marked by their rigidity, their lack of flexibility, in a certain sense, also seem to possess access to a fund of knowledge, a depth of understanding that is mysterious, that is off-limits to me. It is almost like the differences between the way indigenous and “modern” people act and operate in the world. Those of us who are modern have let our ability to adapt to changing conditions: to a mechanized world, to systems of thought that materialize everything and limit it to a very superficial set of characteristics, for example, be our tool for survival. We do this in order to feel that we are part of our surroundings, that we are at home in the shifting world into which we have been born, but have not made. But there are people who for reasons of culture or more obscure reasons of psychology, cannot adapt in this way. Instead, they must alter their context according to a vision of it that permeates their whole being, or else suffer physical or spiritual death.
I wonder if at some level the chosen ones feel that we, flexible ones, who are the vast majority now, by our very adaptability, by our ability to simply go on about our lives while around us an irreplaceable network of incontrovertible truths is hacked to bits or falls apart in decay, have betrayed our home and our future, and unleashed horrors that will inevitably engulf both them and us. I wonder if a submerged feeling of guilt that this might be so makes us distrust them and justify our own choices by relegating them to the level of eccentrics.
But there are many things going on at once here. The “inflexible” attitude I have just described could characterize the fierce reaction of evangelical fundamentalists of various religions, who have recently assumed such a prominent role in defining the political and social moment, or the passion of an artistic or scientific visionary, as well as the feelings of indigenous or land-based peoples. There are vast differences in the products of an attitude of unswerving dedication towards a perceived truth.
Ironically, thanks to post-modernism, there is even the idea now that because no one thing is unequivocally and eternally true for all people, there is no such thing as truth. Even more ironically, this idea has acquired the attributes of religious adherence in some limited sectors. The product of this attitude seems primarily to be obscure and tediously written scholarship, and some elements of globalized popular culture. It is not a product as destructive in its human or natural consequences as the social violence unleashed by religious fundamentalism, or as benign as the commitment to work in and love above all things a naturally defined place on the planet, but it could be said to come from the same source: the pursuit of a particular understanding of reality to its ultimate consequences.
Inflexibility towards a set of beliefs itself is therefore not something to be rejected or distrusted out of hand, but it needs to be seen clearly in terms of the type of understanding it serves. Does that understanding demand that it be imposed on others en masse, or does it seek merely to express itself, to survive? Whatever destructive capabilities it has will be much more circumscribed (like an artist who makes herself sick by forgetting to eat, or taking drugs to augment her vision) if it is only desirous of expression, not of militancy.
Evangelical understandings: religious fundamentalism, classical Marxism, corporate capitalism, scientific rationalism, are totalizing. The desire of their adherents is to absorb and neutralize all other sets of ideas. Interestingly, they are all (not just Marxism) showing signs of exhaustion, of having played out their logical sequences to the point where, judged pragmatically in terms of their ability to create net benefits for humanity and the natural world, they are all failing. Post-modernism's rejection of truth was an historical reaction to the failure of philosophical rationalism's culminating expression, Marxism, to produce justice and utopia on earth. It was a kind of giving up on rationalism as a totalizing system, and rationalism has not recovered yet. And perhaps it may not. And perhaps it should not…but those are deep and disputed waters.
We are getting away from the farm here. Let's try to get back there. During this last visit, I picked a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off the bookshelves. I hadn't read it in two decades, and I remembered it very imperfectly, but I did recall that the author, Robert Pirsig, wrote at great length about his attachment to a type of knowledge that comes only through physical engagement with concrete, material things, while all the time seeing them as the necessary conduit to something beyond the material, or even the rational. Interestingly enough, he also wrote about how his commitment to explore rationalism to its limits had driven him mad.
Ilany comes from, or really has fled from, a background of extreme violence, alcoholism, constant fighting—within the family, in school, and with the police. In her rigid adherence to a lifestyle of health and wholeness, whatever the cost in terms of her own physical effort, and to a pacifist value system, she is also in flight from this. Her dedication to physical work and her obsession with purifying her surroundings of toxins are an attempt to outrun a danger that always threatens to engulf her.
During our visit I came upon her reviewing some papers and asked her what they were. She was investigating something called kiliation, a therapy meant to remove toxic metals from the body. She had had all three of them tested for these metals and discovered that she and Arun both had high levels of a radioactive element, thallium, that is not naturally occurring. She had had lifesaving open heart surgery as a child, and was wondering if the hospital had been experimenting with the use of thallium to do radiological tracking, as barium is now used. She was worried that she was experiencing memory loss, and at risk of dementia, and that worst of all, her son might be permanently affected, all because of this early life whose consequences still dogged her. I couldn't help marveling at the extent to which deep happiness had evaded her, for all her adherence to a life-path which I felt should have produced it; I who had become adept at nothing else, probably, than dodging the bullets of unhappiness life fired at me by being able to step quickly, unencumbered by responsibilities or connections, out of the way of everything, including my own past.
Not that I was happy, exactly; the absence of deep unhappiness did not produce its opposite. I had a persistent sense of floating, disconnection, exhaustion, isolation and hopelessness that no arrangement of my own life could rid me of more than intermittently. I suspected its cause, just as Ilany suspected her contaminated past: it was an inability to belong fully to any person, place, idea, work or group of people. It was the inability to be chosen by anything. Ilany and Mel had made themselves belong to a place, to their son, and to each other, but they were still, in a way, as isolated as I was: they couldn't belong to the imperial past that had placed them on this continent, or to the frantic, violent and sickly consumer society that now dominated it, or even to the little community of neighbors (the pot growers with the terminally bored teenage children) that surrounded them, or to their own personal pasts, or to a global future that because of the sins of all these, they could only imagine as catastrophe. And neither could I. You can run to the rock, but the rock ain't gonna hide you, no, on that day.
As I sat on the porch reading Pirsig's book again, with Mel's band saw in the background whining and growling from the barn, I could suddenly see how skilled manual work that one perceived as integrally related to one's quality of life created an antidote to anxiety and despair. For Pirsig, being able to fix his motorcycle was like Ilany's dedication to her garden's yield; it created connection on many levels at once: to his own rationality, to the primary processes that gave him life and sustained his life, and ultimately to a direct, non-rational understanding of wholeness. It was a way of thinking without abstraction. It was this level of connection, this mysterious knowledge of how things worked, and thus, what they were , that came only from working with them , that was missing for me as I had moved through the world, using my head and my heart to try to understand it, but almost never my hands.
Pirsig didn't seem interested in the social consequences of any set of beliefs, and this is where my primary interest lies. I have no faith that people can be truly fulfilled without being part of a sustaining social group. In fact, socially, whether Pirsig would have expressed it this way or not, he was probably closest to a form of libertarianism that is not at all alien to the dominant culture here in America, particular in the West, but that, for me offers no answer to the need I feel for connection on a social level. I think Pirsig was also trying to justify an engagement with technology specifically, not just any manual activity, as a way of vindicating the Western (rationalist) tradition of knowledge. The book was written almost 30 years ago, and we have gone so much further down the nightmarish chute towards a technological dystopia since then, that I have to wonder what Pirsig is thinking now.
But whether intentionally or not, he helped me understand why Ilany might have spent so much time, and be so intimately proud of, her garden, or why Mel could get up at six a.m. and go into the barn and not spend more than a half an hour back in the house until after it was full dark.
As my husband and I drove away from the farm, we were full as we always are of plans and ideas that somehow seem to evaporate as the trickle of traffic on the sun-spangled lanes of the northern road grows to a stream, then a flood, the closer we come to the sprawling Bay Area, where you can immediately see just how big and broad and totalizing the society that we cannot belong to has become, where the great irony of the thousands who come here each year because they cannot belong to that society and then find that they cannot belong to anything here either, takes your breath away. During the drive we were listening for awhile to the dark, ironic voice of the folk-poet Leonard Cohen. He sang about the failure of relationships, the betrayal of hopes and the mystical aspirations that lay beneath layers of habit and tedium in every life, however limited its possibilities seemed on the surface. And he sang about how, beyond exhaustion and hopelessness, there was the inescapable mandate to continue searching, learning, changing, yet seeking the things that persisted, the things that were true.
When we got home to San Francisco, to our little rented cave of life on a breezy hill surrounded by the well-kempt Victorians of our chilly, affluent, unknown neighbors, there was a message on the answering machine. After two years on a waiting list, I could take over a 6' by 6' plot in the community gardens a few blocks from my apartment. A few days later I had my hands in the soil for the first time since childhood. I had no idea of whether I could grow anything, and I was happy there was no Ilany to watch me in dismay as I discovered just how many variables are involved in the simple act of placing a plant or a seed in the ground. But as I worked the plot, having little sense of whether my choices were the right ones or whether they would simply mean a waste of money and produce neither beauty nor food, I realized I felt no anxiety, none of my usual agoraphobia, and my sense of floating and disconnection had disappeared. And without having any idea of where it might have come from, I felt that there was a kind of wisdom that had become available to me, that my hands knew without my mind knowing it knew, and that with practice and attention it could take shape in my life.
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