|Oct/Nov 2005 Nonfiction|
I've been thinking all week about how hard some of the folks who were hit by Katrina fought—or are fighting—to stay on their land. In this case, come Hell or High Water. I think I can understand it. I come from a poor background where parts of my family have spent about four generations on the same ridge—not counting the ones who were already there when the white folks arrived. The only thing they had was the land. People would go to Columbus, Ohio and get jobs, buy a house or rent, and every weekend or holiday they'd load up the car and head for Home. If the jobs failed, you parked another trailer along the lane leading to Maw and Paw Weethee's house and moved back Home. It was the one security in an uncertain world for people who didn't have the education and resources to have much economic or political control of their own lives.
I was different; I fought like a lynx with her paw caught in a trap to get free of the land. You'd think that I never looked back once I got off of the ridge. Yet, I planted a stand of dill in a certain spot in my garden that I never harvest, I just let it seed itself and keep growing. The wind blows across it and right in my bedroom window most nights, and I can smell it. It's a familiar, comforting smell, but it's not "right." The earth scent underlying the green is the rich, almost sweet soil of Michigan. After twenty years that smell is "home" to most of me but. I can still close my eyes and smell the iron, dusty earth-smell of Redmund—Red Mud—ridge. Or farther in, Clio, where the scent of pines covered in an even layer of the red clay dust was everywhere in summer. I used to camp once a year in Southern Ohio, right across the river from Gallipolis in West Virginia, and I'd set my tent so that the wind came over the river to me if I could. Even though many of my memories of West Virginia aren't sweet, for some reason that scent always brought sweet, sad dreams to me.
This house and this land that I live in now, I love it passionately but with the knowledge born of over forty years of loss that my time here is temporary. I don't have children to pass it down to, although whoever gets this land after me is going to remember me forever unless they haul off every ounce of topsoil on the place. They'll be fighting chives, mint, sweetgrass and dill if they're into smooth lawns and if they aren't, they'll enjoy them as I did. The chives are actually from the Sheriff's stay here fifty years ago, according to the old woman who has lived in the house behind our lot for seventy years. The people who lived here just before us fought those chives grimly for thirty years, and they still popped up in strange places. I just dug them up when I found them and parked them in one spot. We get along.
What would I do if some disaster happened? It's not likely to happen here on the scale of Katrina, even earthquakes are a distant threat—the soil's sandy around here.
But, what if? The answer I get is: I'd leave. I could. If I had the opportunity, the things that I'd pack and haul if I had time would be the strangest mix of stuff: every lignum board I could stuff in the car, if we had one anyway. The rare files that I've shaped just so to get the right curve on a carving. My Navajo rug and blanket would go even if I had to wear them on my back. But I'm struck by the fact that as I think of this hypothetical disaster my first thought is always of the living creatures I'm responsible for and for things. Not the land. It was here before me and it will be here after me. We'll haunt each other as long as we exist. Wherever I would be after leaving here, I'd wake in the night, missing the special mixed scents of southernwood and dill coming in through the window and the damp, sweet woodsy scent of this particular ground. Here, the ground will always have strange herbs pop up in odd places. The lilacs will have an eerie air about them some nights. When you walk in certain spots you'll take in the smell of sweetgrass.