Archive for December 9th, 2008

Far Past Our Father's Land: Stories from the Greater Depression

Sharon December 9th, 2008

The Horses
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. -Edwin Muir

Many of you will remember this poem from the Post-Apocalyptic Novel discussion in September.  I wanted to run it again for another reason - although it deserves to be run simply because it is such a lovely narrative. 

Aaron and I have been talking since last year about the need to do concerted, documentary work about the crisis that we’re presently facing.  As we think ahead to the days when current events are part of a narrative account, we have to face the fact that the stories of governments and policy setters are likely to overwhelm the most immediate and urgent experiences of the Long Emergency - we are likely to hear stories through official voices, while the quietest voices, the ones that hurt the most, and those who do the hardest ground work response, go unaccounted.  Oh, some of those stories will make it into the narrative as well, and someday our grandkids will come around and take histories of those days.  But the truest stories are the most immediate ones, as they happen.

In the first Great Depression, the WPA set writers and photographers to work capturing ordinary experiences, and writers and thinkers told the stories of the hard days behind them.  The results are the astounding photographs of Dorthea Lange, works like _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ by James Agee and Walker Evans, the collected accounts of thousands of writers.  And perhaps we will see an effort like that today.  But one of the consequences of relocalization, of a narrowing of our spaces and a reconnecting with localities mean that so many crises occur in distant places and so many solutions are being made in disparate locations, at the local level that it would be easy to miss both the stories of hardship and the ways people are trying to address this crisis.  More importantly, I think that most people do not yet view our present situation as of a piece, one unified crisis, drawing together the intertwined chains of our energy, ecological and economic situation.  Only those who see the whole can begin to document the whole.

Aaron and I conceived the idea of documenting our present disaster - economic, ecological, energy.  We wanted to tell stories from our neighborhoods and around the world.  But we can’t afford to travel around the world, can’t afford to go and see every tragedy, or every person struggling to hold back the tide.  So we need help.  We need your stories, and the stories of people you know.  We’re working on a website where people can post tales, photographs, suggestions for people we might actually travel to meet - places where times are particularly hard or places where there are particularly remarkable answers.  And if we can’t go, maybe some of you live near there - maybe you can snap pictures or talk to people or tell the story through your own eyes.  The wonder of the internet is that we may well be able to tell this story mostly from our own places.

We’re interested in everything from what it is like at your food pantry to how your neighbors are handling the threat of job losses.  We want to know what things look like i your world, what you are doing, and what those around you are doing to get by, or to improve things.

We hope to make a book out of it eventually, and perhaps some documentary videos as well.  We’re calling the book and project “Far Past Our Father’s Land” both because we believe that the land and our agricultural practices lie at the heart of the world’s present crisis, and because we believe that wherever this journey takes us, it will be far away from the things we know, the places that are as familiar as our world, our parents’ world.  We are headed both forward and back, into territory partly known and partly unknown.  It will be easier territory to navigate, or if not easier, more truthful, if we have each other’s stories as a guide.

I don’t want to wait to hear what you’ve seen until the website is ready.  So tell us your stories - what are you seeing in your daily life?  Are you struggling?  Do you know people who are?  What about solutions, support networks, acts of resistance and courage?  Tell us what you know that we should know!

In the introduction to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” James Agee tells us that he doesn’t want to soothe us, that he expects the experience of reading to be like the experience of cranking up crashing music, and ramming your body against a speaker.   Doing so, he writes,

“You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.”

I’m no Agee, and my goals aren’t quite the same.  But I fear the loss of the truth as events turn to history.  And while it does hurt to know what is real, getting at the shape and substance of the present is work worth doing. 

Please, tell us what you see.