Monday, April 8, 2013

All The Mountains Are Underground Here

Sunset over the Yellowstone River
Perpetual Motion

As the sun sets it sends its last rays shooting up from below the horizon to illuminate the undersides of contrails, the warp and weft of high-altitude aircraft that have crushed the air before them and left a trail of disturbance behind to mark their racing progress.

I myself am a frequent traveler.  My far-flung family and my work as an educator, writer, and lecturer mean I am often in airports.  At those times, I am mostly concerned with making my next flight.  But when I gaze at the evening sky from my kitchen window and see the silver lines glowing over the setting sun, I wonder: where are we going?  And why are we in such a hurry to get there?

Mise En Place

I recently read an interview with Scott Russell Sanders in the Englewood Review of Books.  In it Sanders talks about the virtue of living in one place for a long time, of "Staying Put."

We Americans seem to be constantly on the move.  We began as a nation of movers, and we have filled a continent by our frenetic motion.

When I took the job I currently have, my wife and I were moving to a part of the world we'd never even visited, the prairies of the upper midwest.  We knew nobody here, had no roots here.  We left our home and friends and family to find work, and we thought it would be a temporary assignment, a sojourn from which we would return to the place where we, like seeds from a tree, first fell to earth.

Little by little I am coming to think I am not on a sojourn here but am a transplant.


I long for the mountains and clear streams of my youth.  But when I think of myself as a temporary resident, I find it harder to put down taproots that can drink deeply from the waters that flow far underground.

The danger?  Plants with shallow roots cannot weather droughts as well as those with deep roots.  By analogy, as we commit ourselves to the place we live in, the more strength we can draw from that place.

And plants with taproots are good for the soil, too.  They break the hard clay and bore holes into which the rain can sink deeply.  Behold the lowly dandelion, the maker of topsoil.  If I sink roots here, I'll make it more likely that my community will benefit from my presence. 

This sinking of roots is hard to do. It can be hard because the culture may be different, for instance.  Eight years into this gig, I still struggle with midwestern indirect communication, and with the very, very slow process of getting to know native midwesterners.

Weaving Our Hearts

Of course, being surrounded by others who are also on the move makes it hard, too.  When I was in grad school one of our neighbors, Lisa, told us she could not be our friend because she knew we were only there for five years.  We shared a backyard, and our children played together, but Lisa knew that too many times she had allowed her roots to grow into the lives of other mobile academics, and when they were uprooted, so was her heart.  It hurt to hear her tell us that, but who could blame her? 

And it is hard for me not to be near mountains. Sometimes, gazing out that kitchen window in the summertime I see great thunderheads low on the western horizon, gathering strength as they roll across the prairie towards Sioux Falls.  My heart so longs for the mountains that nearly every time I see those thunderclouds I let myself believe for an instant that they are solid mountains, not ephemeral, gauzy clouds.  I would sooner believe in a cataclysmic upheaval of the earth than believe I am without mountains forever.

Sometimes people here try to comfort me by telling me that here, in this same state, we have the Black Hills.  I know they mean well, and I know it's a point of pride for them, but those mountains are over three hundred and fifty miles away.  I cannot see them from here, and for some reason, that matters. It's like telling a hungry person to take heart, because somewhere else, somewhere not here, there is a banquet.  It only makes the pangs sharper.

The Mountains Underground

My heart leans towards the mountains, but for today - the only day I have any control over, and a limited control, at that - I am trying to turn my feet into roots.
A picture of my heart: my boys, and mountains beneath them.

Years ago, when I was working in Poland, a friend brought me to a place called Tarnowska Góra.  There's a silver mine under fairly flat ground there.  Knowing that góra means "mountain," I asked her "Gdzie jest góra? Where is the mountain?"  She smiled, and pointed down at her feet.  "Underground," she said.

This is the image I am trying to cultivate: here there are mountains, too, but like the hidden thoughts of coy midwesterners, they are concealed by the superficial appearances.

These mountains under the prairie are not the Adirondacks of New York, or the bold Catskills fringing the Hudson River, whose heights cannot be avoided.  They are not the Sangre de Cristo mountains or the Green Mountains or the Alleghenies, each of which have been my home, places where my children were born and raised.  These subterranean mountains wait quietly beneath, supporting all things evenly, deeply rooted, immovable.  I cannot gauge their height with my eye; I must measure it patiently, with my feet, by walking the slow prairie, by standing still.  And, perhaps, though my heart is not yet ready to accept it, by letting my body one day be buried here, adding my small mass to these mountains, raising them incrementally by the simple height of my dormant bones.

But that is for another day.  Today, I will walk, and let my feet learn to feel the mountains below.