Walking on Lava: Prospecting for Equanimity

This week we’re excited to announce the official launch of Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. A one-volume introduction to Dark Mountain containing forty pieces selected from our first ten issues, Walking on Lava is published by Chelsea Green and available through bookshops or through our online shop.

To give you a taste of what’s inside, we’re running a series of excerpts from the book. Today we bring you the first part of Jason Benton’s story of home in rustbelt Appalachia from Dark Mountain: Issue 7, accompanied by Ron Hagg’s ‘Abode Farmhouse’ image from the same book. We hope you enjoy…

1 Adobe Farmhouse.(b&w) jpg

Ron Hagg, ‘Adobe Farmhouse’, New Mexico, USA

The stakes are in the meadow … the fields are overgrown
The winds of change are blowin’ through the place I’ve called home
They’re digging at the edges to build the power line
Same old story … but now the story’s mine […]
It all began 300 years before
What story is beginning
If this one is no more?

– Railroad Earth, ‘Lone Croft Farewell’

This story is nothing special, nothing new. It is a story of time, my home, my family, and how this story continues to consume our time and space to be human, creating existential crises in individuals (myself). Environmental writers write about childhood because, it seems, this is the only place where, if lucky, we are now afforded the habitat to be human for a short while before we’re forced into the fold. This is not one of those articles. It is a recounting, in my words and my grandparents’, of how things have changed and of the unfolding discontentment across generations. Out of this arises a patient hope – for what, I still cannot say – but it is not for what we have now.

This place, Western Pennsylvania, the western foothills of Appalachia, has produced a lot of coal, gas and steel (and a lot of broken backs, broken families and cancer) but also Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson, though most of us around here have never heard of them. What abides are strong family ties and proud gardeners, a connection to the land (what is left of it), and a stubborn independence, although for how long I do not know. It is a place I will continue to call home until I die or it is taken from me.

I left here as an eager teenager and returned a decade later married with kids and a mortgage on a four-acre plot. A curious thing happens after spending time away. Aesthetics and idiosyncrasies of time and space – a workday commute, a weed or ambient sound – become more pronounced, as the difference between the present and memories of the past reveals the quality of relationships, change and often injustice. Discontent and love arise hand in hand as objects and experiences resurrect these memories, revealing something new and something old and a living story which lies in between.

Some of these objects and experiences are products of civilised life. Civilisation goes about its business condensing the raw elements of life (including people) into capital and products, and in the process condenses the experience of time and space into things like gasoline, trucks, p-values, and phones – potent mediators to the experience of life and reality. This business permeates even my thoughts, behaviours and sometimes desires. In the process, stories fragment and memories fade. It’s the ‘same old story’ once again.

But there is always room to rewrite, re-create, and be reborn. I’m still just as eager for something different, something new – perhaps because I was born of this place which has been in constant flux since my farmer ancestors immigrated here from Germany, Ireland, Scotland and Denmark over 200 years ago.

This eagerness is not for what most would think. I’ve travelled enough of the world to find that the best things in life come from my garden, kitchen and bed. And an adventure away from it all, a solitary place to get lost and lose myself, I can often find within my garden or the local woods. I spent most of my time away living in Boston. I do miss its diverse and witty people, the White Mountains nearby, and a walk to the Atlantic for a dip. But I wouldn’t call it home. This will be – probably until I die. This will be the place where I’ll always return after getting lost, after losing myself. After many generations of being pushed aside, something within me has decided that it is time to remain still and quiet, at least for now.

Much of this place has changed. The fields are now dotted with giant houses and gas wells. Gas lines vein and artery the land, ever-vascularising new territory and depths, varicosing to the surface for stations, valves and utilities. Churches have water ministries (not to be confused with baptism) helping families with contaminated or lost water. People seem richer and poorer, which is nothing new to this business. Once non-existent or seldom-seen, smartphones, stink bugs and drugs are now ubiquitous – luxury and its victims reinvented.¹

The woods are posted. When I was little I used to be able walk miles in most directions from home without bothering anybody except Mom who would, having exhausted her voice, wail on her hefty iron triangle bell to call us in after we were gone too long. Impossible now without breaking some law, namely trespassing, as the countryside is increasingly owned by businesses or individuals who live far away. I remember her heaving the antique from its nail on the wall, a symbol of a time when kin worked within earshot – although in her case she slept alone every night; still does, with Dad working night shift at the plant.

We boys roamed the countryside, pretending to be trappers and homesteaders like Daniel Boone, but found someone had already beat us to it and then disappeared, leaving behind ploughs, animal traps and trash. Those relics became our rusty treasure, shifting our ambitions from rocks, plants and animals to more neurotic, civilised pursuits: archaeology, anthropology, and something else – for those rusty relics became something like Yorick’s skull, leading to various questions of existence:

‘Who were they? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Who am I? And if all the Daniel Boones are gone – their tools, land, and dreams absconded – where is this fantasy taking me?’

When I was 12 my brother, a year younger, wept when we learned that someone was planning to build in the woods behind our house where the old sawmill used to be – where we played like giants along the stream, shot, trapped and caught countless helpless critters. We booby-trapped the place with animal skulls and snakes to dissuade them – it worked, so we thought. That place was sacred to us. We still pause each time we pass there, now with our little ones, in awe of how tall the sycamores have grown, how little we now feel. We stand mouths-agape peering at the ivory heights, wondering if sycamore fruit is edible, eyeing a viable avenue to the top.

‘I wonder what those taste like … Hey, where are the kids?’

When I was a child, time was absent, but now everything is moving and accelerating, especially those little ones. My great-grandparents’ world was no less chaotic, but for several generations prior to theirs there was a relative homeostasis, a sameness from one time to the next (they would have disagreed). Change has been constant, bulldozing the past, yet still dictated by the same intensifying powers – powers that as I grow older I find all around me and even within my own conscience; and sometimes, to my annoyance, my unconsciousness.

I try to pluck such infiltrates from my soul just as I do the stink bugs (an Asian insect who stole away on Chinese imports during my decade away) from every nook and cranny of my home, or as I once plucked them from my toddler’s shoulder. As for my children, I just can’t say what time will be or bring for them. Will they stay? Will they return? How will the pressures of time and these powers form them?

The mining frenzy hasn’t changed, even since the first Drake oil well was drilled just north of here in 1859. We’re always moving and being moved by the energy industry, which powers what William Cobbett² called ‘The Thing’, and others have called progress, GDP, revenue, industrial warfare (‘the War effort’), democratic capitalism, The Machine, The Man, development, growth. Grandpap recently shook his head in disgust – shocked that they all-at-once strip-mined and fracked the vast rolling fields across from his childhood home:

‘That was still good land! Been farmed long before I was around – a lot of people took care of those fields.’

The Thing has given us much, though. Compared with my great-grandparents we live like royalty – more convenience and luxury; however, less freedom and less time. If they saw us now they would quietly nod and politely say, ‘That’s nice,’ then gratefully, skilfully return to their work. I romanticise, but these were folks who lived life abundantly, and without electricity or indoor plumbing. My brothers and I have careers now, and if you’ve got one around here you are likely tied to mining or the energy industry, and invariably tied (or perhaps noosed, knotted, lassoed or wedded) to The Thing.

One of us counts and recounts the surplus, one ensures it is safely acquired, and I manage the side effects – as a psychiatric nurse. I say manage, for true prevention would be anathema to growth, to luxury – to the noose. At work I see the double edge of our way of life: the rich man who feels alone and empty, and the poor single mother who is exhausted from working three jobs, neither of whom have time for their children. Cobbett protested against this onslaught, for fairness, longing for the nation of his childhood. But turning back the clock is futile, and with only three weeks of holiday a year, there’s no time left for dealing with ‘hucksters, governments, or favourable representatives.³ The soul needs daily restoration: at home I have my children’s youth and my wife’s love to enjoy, there are beans and berries to pick and preserve, someone needs help with a shovel, the winter wren offers a song and dance, there’s food to cook and share.


*


Dozers and trucks, symbolic and steel, can become deeply personal. Grandma had the noisy, dusty coal processing plant nearby, their dairy farm razed for progress, which is now Moraine State Park. My childhood home (the actual house) had been relocated from its hilltop farm to the edge of the woods in order to make way for strip mines. I have peered and peed into more than one open mine pit. Stepping from a wet vernal paradise teeming with life to a silent dusty pit the size of a small village, I found myself asking then, as I do now, ‘Is all this really necessary?’

My friend lived in the trailer park down the road – his father was a drag-line crane mechanic, always reeking of diesel, piss, tobacco and sweat from sleeping in a rig or his pickup. They would operate those draglines 24/7: one was a mile away, lighting the horizon and drumming the earth. You didn’t notice its constant racket until it suddenly broke down, sometimes with a thunderous echoing boom as the house-sized bucket fell to the ground. Right then, an etheric, proverbial breath was released: silence wind birds breath heart and mind quickly settled to the fore of consciousness. The land and I exhaled, and for a brief moment possibility opened her door.

Equanimity restored.

*

For as long as I can recall I have been awakened by the drone of early-morning coal trucks on nearby Routes 19, I 79 and 422. As a teen I spent the night at my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) parents’ house. The road lay parallel, just a few yards away, to a couch in the foyer where I slept – once. Jake-brakers! The noise of slowing trucks is loud enough to shake houses, make dogs bark, babies cry, throw china from cupboard shelves, and unhinge windows and your mind.

Today the morning drone is accompanied by cavalcades of frack water and rigging trucks. On my morning commute I share the highway with the trucks carrying coal, water, pipes and rigging, and also windmill wings hundreds of feet long on their way to the Appalachian mountaintops east of here. There are pillars of fire on every horizon, which always lend images of a biblical Israelite camp and tabernacle, like the posters on a Sunday school wall.

At work, many of my patients are coal miners, roughneckers, truck drivers and their wives and children – the children I worry for the most (and what of their children’s children, including my own?). Too many of those young people look at their exhausted, indebted, irritable, unhealthy, addicted and divorced forebears and ask me the question: ‘What’s the point?’ without a story to tell or fulfil. I have no answer that will satisfy their soul and I almost appreciate their protest: sitting idly, already disillusioned, without ambition or hope.

The miners come with bent backs and spirits, fearing they are no longer useful. The roughneckers always find a way to gaol: heroin, fights, more heroin. The truckers, anxious and paranoid: running against time, traffic and debt. There are also surveyors, land grabbers, rich well owners, poor pipe welders and an arrogant rookie accountant setting up some kind of hedge fund for the drilling companies. Many, though, are jobless, clinically poor, and by the time they see me are beyond their wits’ end with their struggle. People around here (myself included) aren’t apt to ask for help, particularly from a stranger, and more particularly from a shrink. During our lunch conversation my co-worker tearfully shares the news: ‘It’s a malignancy’. She’s the fourth in our office diagnosed with cancer this year. My boss complains that ‘They’re dumping in the stream again’ behind her house. She isn’t sure how to stop them or clean it up.

The daily 10am and 2pm trains rumble and screech outside my office window, a mile of coal, oil and chemicals in tow. I drive home with the trucks and need to use my windshield wipers when following the frack water salvage trucks as they leak an oily, briny residue onto my car (destined to be dumped in old wells in Ohio). On the car radio, I listen to a politician argue that in order to save the future existence of Pennsylvania farming we need more gas operations on farmland.

I arrive home and my daughters and I wander into the garden where dull bituminous and shiny anthracite lie on the ground, dropped from previous mining operations. We pick tomatoes, flicking off confident stink bugs, while the Haliburton pickup drives by and the Shell helicopter flies overhead – every day at 5.45pm.

Entering through the basement door, I’m greeted by my radon detector beeping: the level is still above the EPA ‘safe’ level, even after the expensive mitigation system whose constant hum drives me mad. Some wondered if radon had contributed to my aunt’s early death since she lived in an underground house near gas wells and mining. We’ll never know.

The calm of the evening is periodically interrupted by the wobbly fan blades of my new electric ultra-efficient heat pump, my attempt to warm and cool my house ‘sustainably’. I listen with indignation and vengeful pleasure. I dare not fix it. The blade might one day let loose and destroy its innards, but that is fine. My beloved winter wren couple (and since, a host of other birds, chipmunks, squirrels, a wild kitten and a baby crow) recently nosed around inside looking for a place to build their nest when the fan kicked on. You can’t kill pure spirits like theirs without damage. Winter evenings are warmed by my pellet stove: an insane contraption, always needing fixing, and relying on wood for sawdust, volumes of natural gas to dry and press the pellets, oil to haul and package the pellets, and coal-fired electric to power the thing – all for a simple warm fire. We’re burning even the dust and selling it as an ‘ecological’ heat source, referring to sawdust as waste. Not even the dust is allowed to fall as an offering to future forests, fungi, termites and dirt.

But The Thing is there, so I use it. I’m as patient as a snake, but sooner than later, in a maniacal fit of rage and flurry of pellets, The Thing will be speeding to the scrap yard.

‘Mommy, where’d Daddy go?’

‘He’ll be back, babe. Let’s clean up these pellets.’

I later turn out the lights, burned at the local coal (soon to be gas) plant, just west of here, which I’m told may have contributed to the asthma that nearly killed me when I was three and now suffocates my toddler. I fall asleep to the drone of the trucks.

Notes

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson frequently explored the karmic idea that for every material excess, there is a double-sided, moral/material victim or ‘defect’, e.g. the modern guilt over our excess, and our pitiful attempts at finding ‘sustainable’ methods of having more of the same story. See RWE’s essay ‘Compensation’.
2. See Dark Mountain: Issue 2, ‘The Shuttle Exchanged for the Sword’ by Warren Draper. The Luddites’ ‘same old story’ is what drove Cobbett to stoop to his political endeavours and my ancestors to seek a place in America where they could farm unbothered. That Jeffersonian dream remained a dream for almost 150 years until the story quickly caught up with them.
3. From Robinson Jeffers’ ‘Soul’s Desert’.

Image

Ron Hagg, ‘Adobe Farmhouse’, New Mexico, USA
This is an abandoned adobe farmhouse in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. It is sad to see a family’s dream abandoned where once there was hope. Today in the United States we are run by a corporate state — small family farms are disappearing at an alarming rate., only to be taken over by huge factory farms. In this photograph I try to capture not only a devastating case of a single family no longer farming, but also a reflection of the state of affairs in our society. Before the arrival of the Europeans in 1700 this area was populated by members of the Taos Pueblo.

Jason Benton has been following a rabbit trail that began with woods and fields and creek-bottomed hills, then cities and oceans, airplanes and theology, mountains and jungles, horses and psychiatric nursing, and now goats and gardens. Presently, he is back home in Western Pennsylvania, with children and homeschooling, work, a very small farm and a large garden.

Ron Hagg is an exhibited photographer, based in Taos, New Mexico, and has worked in the field of education for most of his adult life. His first job was helping migrant farm labour families. When he worked at Hoopa Valley High School in Humboldt County, California, he initiated and coordinated the effort to teach the languages of three of the areas’s Native American tribes, Karuk, Yurok and Hupa. He has written four novels: Jesus of Kneeland, To Keep from Drowning, Dreams of a New Day and Escape in Time. The last of these was turned into a full-length motion picture. haggmedia.com

WalkingonLava_coverWalking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain. It’s available from all good bookshops, but if you want to support our work then we’d encourage you to order it direct from the Dark Mountain online shop.

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