A few evenings ago I was driving back from visiting my friends, Matt and Laurel from the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, when I saw something moving in the road. I thought it was a rabbit hopping along the road until I got closer and saw it was a baby fox. Wow, a fox! A baby fox. I slowed down. The baby fox scurried to the left and to the right as if he was unsure of where to go. I stopped about ten feet from him, got out, watched him. He turned to me and froze. His pointy ears and wide eyes were very large for his little head. He kept his eyes on me as he moved about, uncertainly. He had none of the swift, smoky movements like a fox.
I gazed over the still-green potato fields on either side of the road. I didn’t see a mamma fox around. The only things out there other than potatoes were the irrigation sprinklers going phft, phft, phft, phft…and maybe the hum of a tractor, maybe not. I turned back to the fox. Hey there little fella, where ya tryin’to go? Tryin’ to go BACK somewhere? To go TO somewhere? Or did you lose your momma and you’re just scared? He skidded back from me a bit. It’s alright, little guy, I’m a friendly…gee, it’s good I have Matt and Laurel and the rest of the folks at the museum to visit out because after a few days alone out here I’m talking to myself and to the animals and trees and everything else as my thoughts swirl to a thick cream that I have to crawl through but ultimately get lost in and am I speaking out loud or am I thinking this?
The fox finally skidded into the ditch on the right side of the road. I watched his bushy tail bounce in the high grass until it disappeared. BACK? TO? Or just running? I scratched my head, pondering those possibilities. Such a poor little young fox…I scratched it again…lost out there…I scratched my head yet again…alone…then I scratched my arm, slapped my leg. The mosquito’s had found me, so I got back in the car and resumed my drive to the farm-house in McCanna – 35 miles west of Grand Forks – where Laurel and Matt and all the great folks at the NDMoA have set me up for my artist residency.
“The house was built in 1920,” Matt had told me, when I first came through North Dakota. Matt is the director of the Rural Arts Initiative at the museum. “Margery McCanna parent’s built it. Then she inherited and spent the summers out here until she died. She was a good friend of Laurel’s, and bequeathed the house and 10 of the surrounding acres to the museum.”
“The McCanna’s were one of the first bonanza farmers to come out here,” said Laurel, curator of the museum and Matt’s aunt, “in 1881 on the Homestead Act. In those days, a bonanza farmer would come out here, throw all his money into farming several thousand acres and they either made a huge profit and began a farming empire, or making a huge bust and heading back East a loser. A bonanza either way.”
I spend my days out here like this: wake up around 7:30, load up on coffee, have breakfast, meditate, have a little more coffee, spend the morning and early afternoon shaping up a novel I wrote about the time I traveled all over America on a Greyhound Bus…
*** It’s called It’s A Long Ride, Man and is due out late 2014, early 2015!!! Stay tuned for details!!! ***
This is my second residency with the NDMoA, second stay out at the farm. This time I’ve also hired me to fix the windows in the old house. Some of the windows have jammed in their frames, having been painted shut for decades, because the window frames have shifted as the house has settled, or for other reasons. I spend the afternoons and early evening working on the windows. The labor offers a welcomed shift of psyche after having my head in the book all day. I sand, scrape, chisel, oil, paint, moving from one window to the other. After I make a pass by all the windows, I start again, one room to the other, seeing which ones swing open, which ones are still sticking. After I make a few passes in a room, I clean up the windows and frames and touch them up with paint.
The other day I was working on a window in the master bedroom, upstairs. Through the window, I saw the wind whipping the tops of the trees around the house. Their trunks were still but the high leafy branches swayed drastically to the left and right like pom-pom’s shaken by giant petrified cheerleaders. The tree nearest to the window was a birch, the leaves of which are dark green on one side and light green on the other. The leaves fluttered fast from light green to dark green, making my view out the window look static-y as if the world’s rabbit ears needed to be turned slightly to catch The Great Frequency. I grew dizzy as I watched the leaves sway and change color, I turned away, rubbed my eyes. When I looked out the window again I noticed just how much the old tree was leaning.
“Pretty much every tree you see in every direction was man-planted, “Matt had told me, “The birch were planted out here when the house was built. So, almost 100 years ago. They planted them around the house to keep from going crazy from the wind.”
“Oh yeah,” said Laurel, the wind was maddening for the settlers. It was brutal, the wind and the cold and the storms without any shielding. Alcoholism was rampant. The men would disappear. The wives would be left alone out here, or left with a family to try to keep together. There were many suicides. My great-aunt came down with my grandpa from Saskatchewan in 1906. She killed herself out here.”
Very little of the wind makes it through the trees, at ground level. Many times a day I’ll walk about the grounds and let the sun hit me. The still warmth calms me and I am far from madness. But all I have to do is look up to see the tops of those trees, blown so hard like they’re about snap sometimes reminding me of the madness that’s just above my head.
After finishing up the windows for the day, I cook supper. Matt’s parents had butchered a steer and hog over the spring and he gave me several cuts of both. I’ll throw a little salt and pepper on the meat, throw it on the grill. Matt also maintains a garden on the farm, and in the evenings I’ll pull up some spinach, onions or swiss chard, clean it, cook it. Cooking’s always been a hassle for me, in the cities, when eating’s simply something to get out of the way. But out here, it is part of my day, part of my life.
Prepare, eat, clean. I like the process. I take my time with it, and do it whenever I’m hungry. It’s nice to eat when I’m hungry, not when I have to. It’s nice to be writing and get an idea for the windows and leave the laptop and pick up the wood chisel, as nice as it is to be working on a window when I get an idea on the book, and I head to the lap top. Or, stop it all to pick up the guitar. At all times of the day song lyrics and poetry flow into me and I immediately and I run to the note pad and pen in the kitchen. About 70% is just scribble, but the other 30% I will read or sing in front of anybody. I’ve got a strong connection to The Big IS out here. No, those rabbit ears don’t need to be adjusted, leaves are supposed to flutter in the wind, and the dizziness is just clarity. The shifting leaves is the clear view. And when it’s time to eat at 5pm…6pm…10pm or whenever, I look over my plate and feel truly grateful for the abundance. I give a thank you to The Big IS. Then I look at he clock on the stove and laugh. Ha, ha, silly idea, ‘time’.
Last night after supper, I built a fire, like most nights. Like most nights, I brought a book and my guitar out with me. But I ended up just staring into the fire for hours, like most nights. The chaos of my mind rages through the flames like a storm. I grow calmer. Sure, memories surface, but they tend to burn up quick. There’s nothing about the future – those thoughts, fortunately, are much too flammable and burn to nothing in an instant. Calmer. It’s just my infinite mind and the flames and strong, pure feeling of existing. I follow the thin plume of smoke straight up into the old leaning birch tree. The plume of smoke rises through the branches and the dark green then light green leaves, into the dark blue where that maddening wind ushers it into the indigo sky and it disappears. Hmm, the first stars are out. Calmer still…
I look down from the night and follow the smoke plume down through the branches and leaves, straight down into the fire that is smelting with my mind wherein the little fox appears. Hey little guy. Did you know in Old English, ‘Todd’ means…oh, you did? Hmm…so tell me, are you going BACK? TO? Or just running? The little fox answers. I laugh. Good answer little fox, good answer.