Saturday, September 20, 2008

When Something Dies

There is always an empty space, like the space left by a missing tooth. In the case of my own mouth, 3 years of orthodontia obliterated the spaces of 4 deliberately pulled teeth to the point where anyone who met me in the last 35 years (0ther than dentists) has no clue that I had more teeth at one time. But though I rarely think of it, I am aware of their invisible spaces, and aware of the state my entire mouth (with ripple effects throughout my body, since dental caries have been linked to other health problems) would be in if they were still there.

Sometimes the empty space left by a "death" is for a good cause, overall.

Sometimes it's not, like the hole in the budget when yet another lamb dies from side effects of internal parasites ("worms"). My dedicated apprentices buried our seventh dead lamb yesterday while I was driving the bus.

When something dies far away out of view, it may take awhile for the realization to soak in, even though one's mind knows it for a fact. And the ripple effects of any death--even a gradual and somewhat expected one, even one that is up-close, in-your-face and personal--may run far and wide, exceeding all expectations in the scope of their devastation. Only over time, sometimes, does one realize some of the crucial parts the dead being played in so many subtle ways.

Whenever there is a death, there is a sense of loss, change, disorientation, mourning: an experience of the long, uncontrollable, ragged process of grief. Some people may not be very aware of grief; others are acutely aware of at least the overt symptoms. Some deaths trigger a lot of grief, some surprisingly little.

The rest of life may seem to go on as normal, barely ruffled...but at some level, it doesn't.

The farm and I suffered (and continue to suffer) the loss of a truly one-of-a-kind friendship this summer, a gradual separation and distancing that I sensed was inevitable from a certain moment last winter. In this case, not a bodily death of a human being, but a this-time-complete dissolution of that person's connection with the farm and myself. Not something I sought, maybe not even something that they sought, but some unknown process that happened in their life to which I wasn't privy and over which I had no control, that had the inevitable consequence of this disconnection.

M___ is someone who has been an intimate part of the farm's life, and mine, for more than 5 years; someone who has shaped the farm far more than any other single person except myself. Someone who brought a dizzying, dazzling array practical skills--but more than that, a powerful inventive outside-the-box outlook for brainstorming and problem-solving; an incredible amount of determination and physical energy; a passion for organization and order, digging holes, throwing things away and hacking at weeds and generally "subduing the earth". Someone with a significantly different set of experiences, values, goals and perspectives than mine, who often didn't fully understand or respect my own values and goals (and I learned early on to respect this for who she was), but who in spite of (or because of?) our different points of view, was a priceless sounding board for me.

Even during her many extended absences from the farm, whether due to one of her many overseas adventures, or to the cyclical, changing seasons of our friendship, she was "there" as a virtual sounding board. I could look at a situation and think, "what would M___ do, or say, or think about this?" And I would know. And sometimes that was as good as a real conversation.

Even when I understood that other activities in her life had become dominant, even when our friendship ceased to be reciprocal and I was no longer encouraged or even allowed to lend my energies to her projects at home, she was still "there" as a distant, perhaps damaged, sounding board. But a sounding board none-the less.

I have an ugly, much-abused, ancient upright piano in the garage, "Gilbert". I love Gilbert for the quality of his tone, despite a cracked sounding board and layers of "antique" paint. Others agree: the cracked sounding board really doesn't make that much difference in how he sounds...or perhaps it even adds a certain unique dimension that strangely works. It's under the bass strings, and I like Gilbert's bass tones a lot better than most pianos.

We all know Gilbert is not and will never be a grand piano...but to my ear, he is a great one. He will never be a parlor piano...but he resonates perfectly with the garage, changing with the seasons but staying remarkably in tune. His resonance comes from the sounding board, cracked though it may be. And, at a remove, the garage itself becomes a sounding board, part of the instrument. Gilbert and the garage together are the instrument, just as M___'s impeccable white grand piano sounds in concert with the lovely stucco, brick and wood room where it resides. These instruments would not sound the same anywhere else.

The big sounding board of these rooms gives life to the smaller ones, which give life to the strings. In a concert hall, the room lends an even larger resonance. So, too, M___'s previous distances provided a more complex, but somehow more fundamental, resonance for the farm.

But strings struck in the utter absense of a sounding board make scarcely a noise. All efforts at sounding them fail to give any real sense of music, though the stark skeleton of the tune and rhythm may be heard.

Bare branches make a stark skeleton against a summer sky. A tree dying withdraws its tiniest feeder roots, leaving imperceptible, far-reaching cavities in the ground. More and more, over a long slowness of time, the roots shrivel and rot, leaving a humus in which other things can grow, but leaving also a vast emptiness in the woods. And if a storm blows through, the hole in the forest canopy gives the wind a opening that lets it uproot nearby trees that were subtly held up and protected by the twigs of the missing tree interwoven with their own.

If there is no one present to hear it, does a falling tree make a noise? A tree falling in the forest may make a lot of noise, especially if it's in a mountain valley where the echoes reverberate again and again. The solitary tree that falls on the open, unpeopled plain--that is the one that barely makes a sound.

The hole left by the loss of this friendship is huge, though mainly invisible. For some years now, the connection has been tenuous at best, her presence at the farm as seasonal as spring peas and spinach. The dogs, the farm and I have learned to accept her coming and going just as we do the budding of leaves in spring--with delight, anticipation of what will come, excitement, and awe--and the falling of leaves in autumn--with delight, appreciation of what has gone before, contentment, and awe. Normal transitions.

In recent years, I made it a point to learn from her how to do many of the tasks she usually did around the farm--a lifetime gift to myself and the farm, and through us to hundreds of others as I train volunteers, apprentices, housemates. I would probably not have learned many of those skills but for her example, and her stubborn insistence on their benefits. Care and use of a power lawn mower, a chain saw, a garden tractor. A certain way of folding a tarp. A certain knot. A tendency to notice certain safety hazards. Even certain attitudes about various commonplace things around the farm, too numerous to mention. Through the repetition of her leavings, each one was more and more seamless as I became more adept at simply picking up where she left off.

I am used to the farm's seasonal shifts, as well as the shifts of our friendship. I accommodate them with barely a thought (through living with others and working with apprentices, I realize just how significant, far-reaching, and important these nearly automatic adjustments are...and how deeply they've become ingrained in me through 12 years on the farm). The heat is gone out of the season, and other things have shifted and changed. But this year I've been noticing that someting is very, very wrong. Can I not bear the heat as I did when I was younger? Am I ill? Am I depressed?

Sometimes the leaves of a tree begin to turn color just a little differently, and you know at a glance that something is very, very wrong...that an inexorable process has just become evident that nothing can reverse. The beauty of this gradual decline heralds death, not dormancy. And you know that you will always be stumbling over the emptiness of the invisible space left when that tree eventually dies; you will always follow a quirkily crooked path, like a sheep trail that will forever bend to go around a tree that isn't there any more.

I awoke this morning realizing that it isn't just the normal seasonal shifts, the typical exhaustion of late summer that are wearing at me, preventing me from accomplishing my normal amount of work on the farm. It mostly isn't even the relentless rearrangement of the house and household routines as housemates come and go, and I face moving my place of residence in the house for the 5th time in less than 2 years.

Rather it is a sense of all of the farm's and my daily life now being strings struck in the utter absense of a sounding board, the pitiful inadequacy of their tone only highlighting the empty silence. There is a technical purpose in continuing to strike them--practice, exercise, continuity, something--but the tone simply vanishes into the distance and is not returned to my ears, giving no reward, no impetus for the next tone, striking no harmonics. The strings themselves seem dead--old, rusted, overstretched--but I know they aren't. A new sounding board, a new resonance chamber will quickly bring them to life again. Within the ring of the rotting tree stump, a new tree will grow, like the saplings sheltered in the decaying stumps of "nurse trees" I loved to see in the woods in Washington when I visited there a few years ago.

But for now, the dull striking of strings is all that's possible. I am only the piano player (and a beginning one, at that!), not the builder or mender of sounding boards. I can only keep my fingers limber, and teach them new patterns of motion. I am the tree tender and pruner, not the one who can cause seeds to germinate or roots to re-sprout into a new tree. I can only oil and hone the garden tools.

For now, the dull striking of strings is all that's possible.

But it is possible, and so the empty space M___ leaves is for a good cause, overall.

1 comment:

Motno said...

I lost my best friend last summer, and then my other friend this summer (one died, the other did not). I know exactly what you mean, and it seems to just go on and on, relentless as the tides of the sea. I look for that praise, understanding, widom, ANYTHING...and it is just not there. Nothing is there. I can hear her voice (the one who passed), and it is all laughter and jokes, but it is the understanding, encouragement, and praise that I yearn for. I know that there will be another "sounding board" that will come along and I will be relieved, but it will never be the same.

And it really does make the seasons feel wrong, and the time of day sometimes, and the order I do my chores in, it is all so very affected by her absence. And her quick passing left a void that, like the sheep, I will always notice...and I will always walk that path around where the tree "used to be".