The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Symposium on Plot (Road)
I discovered them mewling, nestled in one of the bales we’d loaded on the cart the day before. Newborn, blind, tiny like a toddler’s fingers, squirming.
“Mice?” Gerri responded, and climbed aboard the cart. She jammed her boot heel into their tender bodies and scuffed them out, as if they were a small fire. As if they were dog shit, “Can’t have any more.”
We’d been haying on Gerri’s hilltop farm, her zenith of green in Johnson, Vermont, for a solid month; this is my discrete way of saying there had been no rain for a long time, none. I’d been helping this grey-haired lady, or more truthfully, she’d been helping me—providing me another source of income, modeling a female sole proprietor, and offering a grueling occupation to outwork the ache of a new heartbreak.
Day after day we cut and baled hay. Gerri believes, You have not, because you ask not.
Next she held out her hand and tugged me up onto the cart. She continued squeezing my palm, even after I was standing beside her, and by the mash of baby mice. Upon the destroyed, leaning back to speak to the sky, she said, Whenever two or more are gathered in his name, Lord?
Clenching my hand, maybe as much for balance as for faith, she asked, Dear Heavenly Father and Creator we ask you to give us the rain. Amen.
Plot is a place; it’s a grave, and it’s the book word for fate. It’s the story of what happens here. But I think there’s more to it. For if the earth’s crust hadn’t bulged and broken like a child cutting its lower incisors, and if the 3,000-mile rise of teeth named the Appalachians were not begotten, and if the waters had not frozen and formed a nice river of ice that scuffed out bits of life and then rotted to slush, booting a whole new set of valleys, well then, I suppose I’d be telling you another story entirely.
Sure is something.
That’s Gerri’s response to their paintings—a little wistful? A little dismissive?
Artists have been setting up easels on this hilltop, her hilltop, making very impressive pictures of the pretty nibbled mountains, silt-fed valleys, and pastures for decades.
When she’s on the tractor, Gerri will fling a hand up, hallo, and some of them might lift their chin and brush.
And do you know they charge important prices for these pictures? To whit they get a clap on the shoulder, You did this?
All for dabbing and stroking their paintings, something out of nothing, magicians with bristled wands.
You know, Gerri cleared this piece of land herself. Well not all of it, but five acres of it, down a-ways, beyond the house, in that little lowland in the painting.
She walks me over through the fields, the fields we’ve just mowed, tedded, raked and baled, and stored in the barn. This other five-acre piece, the piece we’ll hay next, this is the place she smoothed out of the wilderness, woods and rocks. Just like a colonist.
She was in her twenties, about my age at the time, a new divorcee on her own making something out of nothing. You see a nice rink of grasslands now, but you should have seen it before, enough wood for ten winters here, and after she felled the trees and burned the slag, there were boulders and stumps to get out and she was busting one loose with the tractor that day, just finished getting the chain around the stump when she heard, no, more like felt it right behind her, Judas Priest— a mother bear and two cubs.
Maybe, writers are just stymied geomorphologists, or maybe they’re rock’s stenographers. In any given paragraph they’re apt to deploy two of plot’s the three definitions—place and story. In a novel about a meadow, James Galvin evokes both at once:
The way people watch television while they eat—looking up to the TV and down to take a bite and back up—that’s how Lyle watches the meadow out the south window while he eats his breakfast. He’s hooked on the plot, doesn’t want to miss anything. He looks out over the rim of his cup as he sips.
Other writers aren’t so ready to give up the idea of Author, like for example, George Merrill, who wrote about whacking a field out of a forest. An admittedly, [i]mpulsive thing…I knocked down three trees an evening. It became obsession…The reason will come out when it has a mind to.
I hardly knew. But this clearing had to be! said the protagonist of his plot.
And Willa Cather taught me a thing or two with a passage written over 100 years ago.
In O Pioneers she shows the land’s authority, describing the newly settled Nebraska as a living thing with consciousness and will:
…he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness…the land was still a wild thing.
And in My Antonia, Cather writes, …the grass was the country…there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
Then I discovered another author who listened to those who’d lived on the land the longest and used them to amplify the plot. I mean, the plots.
Home from haying, my welted hands held a book by Hayden Carruth, who also worked this piece of turf, describing his neighbors in Johnson, Vermont.
He names her “Lady” in his poem, and he makes her say:
Lady they calls me, Lady, and they always has
my whole life long. And I hated it—God how I
I should have guessed sooner, my suspicion didn’t kick in until I hit this bit of ventriloquism—
Well, what I’ve got
is this nice old house now, big barn and the shed,
a first rate meadow, some fair hill pasture,
and a woodlot that’s good enough for what I need”
And my horses, Arabians, everyone bred
by my own stallion.
By the time I knew her, Gerri, who tells you straight away she hates her name, had only the stallion left—and who could forget how once, about the time the peonies were drooping, their blooms so profuse, Hershel, her stallion got loose and off he went: magnificent.
I stood there aghast, Oh no!, watching his burnished body bounding, tail arching and hooves snapping across the lawn, with Gerri clamped to her four-wheeler bearing down on him, in a cartoonish chase—he was everywhere she was not, so swift, so released, his hinge turn meant he was galloping back past her pursuit.
I despaired this would continue indefinitely, that it had no end, but this was their annual dance, their spring fling, notice her maniacal grin?
She must have got him in because I remember, later, turning down her invitation to watch him breed the trucked-over mare. She wanted to know why. At that time I wasn’t interested in intimacies of any kind—how to say that?
Hayden didn’t mention in the poem how Gerri turned away the suitors who came after her after her divorce. They all wanted, ultimately, to go bouncing on the bed. She looked at me. I understood.
About the time she was clearing stumps from the field, her eldest brother, the one who’d violated her childhood, paid a visit. Why’d she let him? Sure enough, he entered her bedroom, just as he had when she was young, but that night she greeted him with her loaded shotgun, Don’t you ever, Ever.
And goddamn it, he backed out, and stayed out, and no, he never visited again.
And she told me the story about the bear, another frightful scene, but not the way Hayden writes it. Hayden conflates events, he says she was out there, not clearing boulders, but spreading manure, yet he gets the gist of it:
…I was just climbing
off of the tractor with a dung fork in one hand
when this old she bear come out of the trees. Popped
right out of there, coming right at me, big
as a spruce-oil kiln, she looked, and black as my stove.
I whooped, let me tell you, and threw my fork
And climm back on the tractor in a kind of a hurry,
Breathing a mite hard. And when I got back to the barn
I found I had more manure that I started out with.
The summer I worked for Gerri was the summer before I set out to work my own land.
I was practicing to become both the woman and the man, in one person, as Gerri was, a yeo-woman—running after her stallion, stuffing her meadows in the barn, tying up her peonies, putting in her wood for the winter.
One day, before driving her overloaded Ford pickup to a horse farm to deliver hay, we were dawdling in the yard, and on impulse I dashed to the car and fetched out Hayden’s book. We sat down on her front stoop and I opened his National Book Award-winning Collected Shorter Poems to read the poem about her neighbor, Marshall Washer, for starters. Marshall was Johnson’s postman and a dairy farmer, the one Hayden helped—listen to this:
Coming home with the last load I ride standing
On the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
In hot exhaust, lank with sweat,
My arms strung
Awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.
Almost 500 bales we’ve put up
This afternoon, Marshall and I.
That’s pretty good, she said, I didn’t know he got out that much.
And then I read her the one he wrote about her other neighbor, the owner of the Woolen Mill, Del Barrows, only here, Hayden calls him, “Mel Barstow.”
“…Mel had everything
he thought he wanted—a home like a two page spread
in House and Garden, for instance and a wife,
that was anyone’s envy, and a pair of binoculars
with which he liked to watch the gulls flying
over the river
Why that dog, she squealed of Hayden’s gossiping ways.
And then, though I was only months away from a move to the next town over, where I would sweat on my own plot, and dig up stories about my neighbors, I sat on Gerri’s haycart and read her the poem called “Lady,” the whole way through, even the part about telling the neighbor, who owns the gone-to-Boston-looking place.
I says, “I was plain scart—scart of that old she bear.
I shit my britches.” Jas he looked straight and soft–like
“Lady” he says, I don’t blame you none. ‘Twas me
I believe I’d have shatten too.”
Still holding the book open to the pages where she’d been remade in Hayden’s words, I looked at her sideways, wondering how that struck her. That’s you, Gerri isn’t it?
And she said, Well, Judas Priest, how’d he know all that? I never so much as talked to him but once or twice.
The Plot Road
Gerri lives at the intersection of a lot of plots. As if to underscore this idea, by chance, the north boundary of her land is Plot Road, so named for the town of Johnson’s Plot Cemetery, the adjacent property.
In early May, the Johnson Plot is populated with violets, strawberry blossoms and pools of bluets.
Abigale, Byron, Clarissa, Horace, Saphronia Zachariah—
Their headstones seem like big books, with their pages glued shut, but you can read the titles, the jacket flap, as it were:
Soloman Balch Esq. 1855
Aged 81 years
Wife of Soloman Balch
died March 30, 1850
age 66 years
An infant Son
AE 2 mos.
Here lies the story of a husband who outlived his wife, until they all arrived beside their baby just out of the womb, interred.
Or, perhaps each grave is a page from a much larger book, one that tells the story of settlers settling.
Maybe the grave is every story’s finale. Wherever these life stories began, they finished here. Born elsewhere or born five miles from here, but committed to this place, their fate and plot, united.
The 2007 Valentine’s Day Blizzard was not enchanting; we all felt our purpose opposed by a giant white obstacle, a predicament, the world became crazy with snow, you couldn’t breathe without inhaling it, more water than air, you felt you might drown from it, and there was no scenery. Only particulate. And it was deadly cold, zero. By the time it finally let go of Vermont, six people had died.
But while it held us so long, too long…it kept filling up the world—hayfields, paddocks, graveyards, roads—who could tell anymore? It was all one veldt fused to the blurry atmosphere. And whoever you were, old-timer or new, you wondered if your structures could hold, could stand the weight of it. And then the roofs began to cave, crushing calves and pigs, and horses. These arks and their essential cargo splintered and sank into the rising swells of snow.
Gerri shoveled out of her house and went up on a ladder. She was whacking at the stuff with her roof rake when a stroke took hold. Her neighbor found her unconscious, somehow clamped to her ladder—halfway to the sky—which was everywhere, anyway.
I wished they’d have left me there to die, she hisses to me later at a corner table in the convalescent home, her spirits sagging in the atmosphere of stale cheer. I’m 70, and I figure I might live to 90 with this useless arm. She lifts it with her good arm to demonstrate, and lets it go. That’s twenty years in here! You could tell, as deep as her faith was, she felt forsaken. Compounded by the fact that I could leave the facility easily, and after our hour, I did.
The experts weigh in: According to George Polti writing in 1921, there are thirty-six dramatic situations from which all stories are formed.
Really? I think as I scan the numbered predicaments—this is it? This is absolutely all that can go wrong during a human experience?
His “situations” read like the headlines of the New York Post. Here are the first ten:
- Supplication (seeking pardon healing deliverance)
- Crime punished by vengeance
- Vengeance taken upon kindred
- Falling prey to cruelty or misfortune
- Daring enterprise
Conversely, prolific author Stephen King eschews taxonomy and subscribes to something more basic: he believes stories are found things, like fossils in the ground: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered preexisting world.”
That summer I helped Gerri heft her land’s yield, helped handle her plot’s development, from field to cart to barns throughout Lamoille County, I recall she was a character in almost all of Polti’s first ten plots: Supplication (we prayed for rain); Deliverance (yes, the hay—we delivered it); Pursuit (zooming after the damn stallion); Disaster (a stroke in the blizzard); Revolt (loading the shell, releasing the safety and come time, leveling it at her brother’s shirt pocket); Daring Enterprise (oh god, her old Ford sagging, stuttering under its towering load with just one ply of twine tying it down and me driving along behind in case anything toppled); Abduction (Her druthers: She’d have me spring her from the convalescent home so we could live like two peas—and old pea and a green pea, vining out the sod of her good homestead).
Chris Dombrowski: I recall Anton Chekov saying in a letter, I think to his brother, that if one is going to write about the natural world, he had better do it in such a way that the landscape becomes a character…
James Galvin: I think I started to use the natural world…as a character in and of itself early on, but in an innocent way. I just thought that beside love and death it was the biggest thing there is. Now I think it is bigger.
A poem by Galvin begins: My sister is a place.
A book by Alexandra Fuller begins: This is the story of Colton H. Bryant and the land that grew him.
An Aboriginal belief: the quickening, the fetus’ first kick—that’s a spirit jumping into the baby. No matter where conception took place, nor where the birth happens; wherever the mother is standing when the baby’s first startles in the womb, that’s where she’s from.
We are, I aver, hopelessly plot-bound, incessantly terrestrial.
I have not visited nor spoken to Gerri is seven years. I could claim that I’ve been busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger—that’s how she’d put it. I’ve been a yeo-woman, chasing not stallions, but heifers, steers, lambs, and turkeys, and I’ve been alternately praying for and shooing off men.
In Nordic language “VI” is the root for the word “viga” which means to marry or consecrate, a term harkening to the act of cutting turf, lifting it up for men to crawl under to seal brotherhood, a similar custom as the symbolic marriage of man to his purchased land. Viga, the nuptial word for “fate,” the matrimony of meaning and place.
Three years ago I met Howard. Recently, in a corner of this small parcel—where settlers once grew potatoes, and then grazed their Holsteins, and then horseback riders camped, and then a round bale I kicked off the truck rolled to a halt, and then more cattle grazed—here upon here upon here: where I discovered an old tow chain, where we buried the sheep, here—Howard and I married.
The Plot Road
Once upon a time Gerri was born on a farm, seventh of seven. Their barn burned down the day after rural electrification reached them. They finished just one evening’s milking by the light of bulbs, then the fire took it right to the ground. As a way to escape her brother she married the neighbor boy, Terry, her next chapter, her twist. They made for Colorado where Gerri worked as a bank teller putting Terry through college and grad school, but intimacy held no pleasure and she wondered couldn’t they just hug instead? Next they moved east so he could teach in the foothills of lesser mountains, which is how come they came to own the farm on the corner of Clay Hill and Plot Road, a crow’s flight from where Hayden had recently moved and was baling tales from his neighbors’ lives for poems. Then Terry took to a shine to a student and in the settlement Gerri got the farm where she raised Arabians and Herefords, making mortgage payments working the graveyard shift at the State Hospital, forty miles away. By the time I stumbled into her story she was the notorious old lady who drove the tractor wearing nothing above her dungarees but a jogbra, Well I don’t care, they’re just breasts, she’d say swatting at them. Her neck was rigid, a lingering injury from an inmate attack, and to meet your gaze she swing around like a weather vane asking, Whaaat? Or, Have you ever heard of anything so foolish in your life?!
The Mercedes she purchased to get her to work had long been demolished by the Cockshutt tractor she’d regretfully left in gear beside the garage. Even the garage had a story: built by two hippies who thought they were trading their labor for shared ownership of Gerri’s land which her lawyer talked her out of, and the hippies were mad, but too bad. I think the episode with the dump truck makes the best synopsis of her plot. She’d fetched a ton of gravel and now back on her land, she set the hydraulics to lift the bed and shed the load. But just as the bed hit its apex, the whole truck teetered oddly and then she remembered Blessed Jesus! she’d forgotten to open the tailgate, and so with the full weight of the load trapped at the back, the truck reared, and Bong—her pate crashed the ceiling of the cab. Undaunted she climbed out the back window and began shoveling, like rowing through pebbles, until the weight dispersed and the upright truck bobbed like a stem of timothy in heavy wind and she jumped off just as the Ford came smashing back to earth.
As we scattered palmfuls of Morton’s salt across the hay we stashed in the barn to keep the bales from igniting, she’d reassure me, her fundamental truth was Jesus loves you. But later after the stroke she told me, I don’t know why I’m still here. She sounded like a character beseeching the one with the pen, the one painting the scene of the land and the woman. It seemed Gerri was left dangling, still hanging on to the house in her story, trying to understand: what happens next? What was her plot, especially now that she was a physically apart from her place?
One night by the Plot Road, outside Hayden’s old house, a seed’s drift from Gerri’s hayfields, I first encountered the northern lights. For a moment I forgot about the revolving saga called Earth and watched the fire in the heavens burn without consumption, their newborn pinks winked and pulsed, fingers of light and I was dazzled, disembodied, fused with everywhere/nowhere, beyond narrative, beyond purpose and conflict, just effortlessly adrift. For a moment I, too, lost my page in the book of the world; I was beyond all the plots and my place in them.
Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 4. All photos licensed under Creative Commons.