Unfolding the Map
We take a little bit of a dark turn in this post, with reflections on death and life. It's the landscape the William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is traveling through, and his thoughts are influencing our thoughts and reflections. To see where we are physically on that landscape, click on the map thumbnail. If you want to leave a comment or reflection of your own, be sure to click on the "Post a Comment" link at the bottom of this post.
"Highway 421 dropped out of the Piedmont hills onto the broad coastal plain where the pines were taller, the soil tan rather than orange, and black men rode tractors around and around square fields of tobacco and cotton as they plowed wavelets into the earth. At the center of many fields were small, fenced cemeteries under a big pine. All day farmers circled the acres, the white tombstones an axis for their planters, while tree roots reached into eye sockets and ribcages in the old boxes below.
"Near Dunn, North Carolina, I pulled up at a cemetery to eat lunch in the warm air. Last names on the markers were Smith and Barefoot and Bumpass. All around, the buds, no more than tiny fists, were beginning to break the tight bindings and unclench. A woman of age and size, her white legs blue-veined like Italian marble columns, stooped to trowel a circle of sprouts growing in the hollow center of a large oak dead from heart rot."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 5
Dunn, North Carolina
Cemeteries and death seem to be a focus of LHM's thoughts as he drives Ghost Dancing through North Carolina. He looked for the grave of his ancestor and found the memorial next to a reservoir near Franklinville. Now he's left with reflective thoughts as he travels through rural farming areas. When one travels through the countryside, as LHM is doing, it is easy to contemplate death and life and its endless circle. "Do not go gently into that good night," wrote Dylan Thomas, but the somnabulance of death quietly biding its time among the tobacco fields (themselves eventual purveyors of death) and cotton fields in the midst of winter quiet or summer malaise lies enshrouded in the gentle peacefulness of the rural landscape. The dead sleep, and we erect memorials to remind us of their endless slumber. I love the image of the farmers, coaxing new life out of the soil, even amidst the buried remains of men and women who have gone before.
As a young budding poet, I contemplated life and death in one of my first stabs at a sonnet. I don't promise a work of Shakespearean elegance here, but I am proud that it won me a poetry prize at my university (and $250, a kingly sum in 1986). I share it with you now not because I think that it will establish me among the great poets (it certainly won't!) and not because I am looking for your accolades, but because LHM's musings remind me of my own.
Gravestones and Grass
by Michael L. Hess
Some grass grows through the cracks in marble stones,
And reaches toward the setting winter sun,
Against the shafts of tombstones, pale and dun,
That guard the finest men, reduced to bones.
These lonely blades that missed the reaper's eye,
Blaze forth, in midst of death, with marvelous life,
And over the remains of man and wife,
Defy the gloom, and reach out for the sky.
How did such wondrous seed invade this plot
That men established as their monument
To coldness, darkness and mortality?
Perhaps these plants will remain in permanance,
To root in mankind's past, which lies in rot,
And drown all thoughts of grief in greenery.
Other poets and writers have mused more eloquently than I about death and life. As living beings that have the capacity to reflect and to look ahead, death is omnipresent in our lives. We die, our friends and loved ones die. I think that perhaps every day of my life, I am given some reminder of death. It could be as small as my accidental crushing of a snail on a walk with my dog, to a story in the newspaper, to my mom telling me about an old classmate who has passed on.
But if most of us acknowledge death, we also try very hard to live in spite of it. Certainly our lives have pain and loss that remind of death, but we live, laugh, love and create joy. We come together in community around the world, we care enough to participate in politics and help those those who need our help, we gather in nice little towns and communities like Dunn, North Carolina and do our business and raise families. We do this despite the fact that we will die, our sons and daughters will die, and that our time alive is just a brief flash, like the spark of a lighter in the darkness, in the eons of the existence of the universe. We accept death as a natural part of the cycle of life, but we get what we can out of living. "Death is terrifying because it is so ordinary. It happens all the time," wrote author Susan Cheever. But Native American flautist Robert Cody answers "Have the courage to live. Anyone can die."
If you want to know more about Dunn
Next up: Greenville, North Carolina