39. “Stoney Reality.”

               “The meadow of dream has little to do with stoney reality and its harrows and reapers.”

                   Quotation by Samuel Pickering, Jr., from May Days © The University of Iowa Press, 1988, p. 3. 

                                                   Used with permission.

Margie Keith gave me a copy of May Days from her former used book store. Although the writer was sympathizing with farmers, his observation pertained to Randall, who dreamed of eliminating rocks from a quarter-acre of yard to make way for clover and thus for bees.

My story began with an exhortation. Jane Cundiff urged readers of the Floyd Press (April 11, 2013) to mow less grass, and instead plant clover and wildflowers to help feed bees and butterflies, insects that seem threatened on several fronts. Half a year earlier I had saved one honeybee (Apis mellifera) in Paris by plucking its scrambling cul from a cup of expresso with a spoon, so why not make a wholesale rescue?

The Wellses agreed to an environmental compromise. Marge would once again plant wildflowers in the uninviting hillside of weeds, blackberry bushes, and volunteer trees. Across Annie Lane to the west I would plant clover in bare clay spots that spread erratically over a semi-grassy field. Our friend Bill Conk—of accent Brooklyn, Buddhist of outlook—had scraped it flat with tractor and blade. Yet only partly level, because it slopes to both north and west toward the invisible arc of Highway 221. In local fashion, Bill accepted a token amount of money but all the hemlock from our dismantled deck, planks that he would repurpose as a shed. Afterward we had planted the area in grass—a “monoculture” to Jane–in order to make a rough yard for grandchildren and to accentuate a space between house and up-growing forest.

Everyone who plants in this area must deal with remnants of what might be called the White Peak Mountains. Icy and heaven-threatening, they had cashed in over the aeons, leaving change scattered all around, coins big and small, drab and colorful. Obstructions to blades, seeds, and roots, these stones had at least fed rock-crushers during the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, as Jean Thomas Schaeffer remembers. “My grandma was paid a total of $100 for fifty dump-truck loads of rocks–all from her cornfield, just after harvest. She said it was the only time she ever ‘got something for nothing.'” (Raised on Songs and Stories, p. 81.).

Bill’s scraper had shoved thousands of our rocks into lateral moraines. Over the next couple of years, the largest ones had been plucked and hauled from the field to a line on the downhill side of the driveway as a marker and barrier for vehicles negotiating snow. This job once caused me to enlist two strong members of Young Life, who helped pay for summer camp with rocky currency.

My tools were a (1) a level-head rake with twelve sturdy tines, (2) a spade, (3) a flexible rubber tub, and (4) a faded red wheelbarrow. Kneeling in my dirt-stained work-pants, I would rotate the head of the rake to the left and jab its left corner into the clay. My right hand would grasp the handle toward the front and from underneath, while my left, toward the tapered back, would grasp it from above. To protect my generous scalp from cold, wind, or sun, I wore the cloth hat given to me by friend Tom—broad-rimmed, chin-strapped. To protect my knees I wore long trousers that seemed patched by brown dirt. I also sported yellow-orange leather gloves with reinforced palms, frequently taking off the right one so as to pluck stones more easily.

Author vs. reality.

                   Author vs. reality.

Besides the sense of touch, no fewer than three others helped me do the job.

Hearing allowed me to perceive a scrape or clink that meant “fragment.” Several times it also registered the duller sound of a root left when the area had been clear-cut and bulldozed. My ears also confirmed that a tossed stone had plunked into the tub, banged into the wheelbarrow, or silently disappeared into the grass.

As for sight, I easily noticed many pebbles and rocks lay on the surface. These I would rake or pluck up. Others stuck partway out, and others revealed themselves only while being pried from hacked clay, rescued from the grave. Sometimes the tilling process required me to distinguish between a clod that pretended to be a rock and vice versa, no doubt morphodite. I could tell a rock by its edges and sometimes by its color—not the usual brown but white or gray. A few times I was surprised to spot an inorganic shape that lay right there in the grass as if trusting in shaded immobility. My prospecting eyes would find small areas where moss hinted at a potential non-roller that took up space for soil and water. Once or twice I turned up a cherry pit, and two or three times a black rock that resolved into a hickory shell, evidence of the clear-cut forest.

Another vital sense was proprioception, or self-perception (often synonymous with kinesthesis). This power is overshadowed by the traditional and incomplete Five. It monitors balance, spatial orientation, and movement as the body adapts to gravity. One aspect of this sense is the vestibular system (inner ear), which helps to maintain balance. It does so partly with tiny crystals called otoliths—i.e., ear-rocks, so appropriate as I tried to stay upright on knees or feet, lean forward, or twist in a quest for mineral clumps. (Angel in Goggles offers a chapter on proprioception as the most terrestrial of senses.)

Working along with sight and balance was an array of sensors in the muscles, tissues, and joints helped me monitor the extension of my arms and the degree of resistance they met. Specialized cells sent telegrams to my brain: Poke harder; Quit jabbing & prying and start probing around the edge; Give up, stand up, pick up (the shovel). They would also wire the amount of force my arms and legs needed to exert while carrying a trophy to the wheelbarrow. They also helped me calibrate the amount of wrist-flick needed to get rocks of various weights into the tub, and when this vessel became too gravity-grudging as I slid it along: Lift handles and dump into barrow.

So this union of hearing, sight, and proprioception helped me feel physically whole even as I continued the dismantlement of Mt. Phantom.

If I had to get the shovel, I lay the end of the rake-handle on the ground to point at the invisible rock that had thwarted the rake. A couple of times the spade clinked short as I probed around a hidden slab that grew larger and larger, so I reluctantly abandoned hopes of extraction. I had to remind myself that the bees wouldn’t care about a tiny patch of missing clover. Once I consoled myself: “This one might serve as home plate.” Another time I had to sole-and-shovel deeply around an iceberg-like remnant that, luckily, had broken in half underground so I could carry it to the rock garden in two trips. Sometimes a find crumbled as I worked it, potential slurry that would make its way down to the stream crossed at the bottom of Annie Lane, then to Dodd Creek, Little River, and the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes I felt as if I were discovering clams with that tell-tale “clink.” Or noodling—reaching bare-handed into a catfish hole. Or paddling a canoe as I stretched the long handle this way and that, sometimes changing arms.

When the wheelbarrow got full enough with pebbles, gravel-sized, and palm-weighing rocks, I pushed it to the crest of our narrowing ridge, then tried to manage its roll down the steep side onto a former logging-trail. There was no runaway-ramp like those on Interstate 77 down the Blue Ridge Rampart, so I halted partway on a small ledge of what else but flat slate, no doubt tiles from the roof of the ex-mountain. (Once as I continued downward in a slight diagonal line, I scraped my head on a Virginia pine branch, my revenge accomplished by a bow-saw.) Trundling down to the path, I tipped the load into one of the declivities. Then I pushed the barrow back up the side, making one zigzag and one stop, then halted near the top to catch my breath and bend over long enough for blood pressure to override medicine. After two such loads, and about two hours, I thought it wise to quit. In the carport I pulled the yellow-gold leather gloves onto the handles of the wheelbarrow, fingers sticking out backwards to welcome the pusher like a whimsical installation.

Bees’ Best Friend undertook about two dozen of these sessions.

I‘m in the field again, this time with blisters, which evoke the memory of my first job. Would my neighbor “Grandma” Allen want me to sweep her sidewalk? She gave the eight-year-old a surprised “I guess,” so down the long series of cement panels I waved the broom, carefully scouring the interstices every five feet, and at last meeting the shorter leg of slabs at the corner. But before turning south, what was this little white rise on my palm? After another half-hour and another rise, they grasped a 25-cent piece.

“Timeless topography,” I kept thinking, “but somehow you can’t feel at one with it.” Over and over I chopped with a range of force from delicate to violent, reminding myself to think about what I was accomplishing rather than what I wasn’t. More whacking and tossing, more knee-walking in this direction or that.

Once I tried to focus on ambient sounds. This was an idea commended by a speaker on Listening—in a TED talk during a conference sponsored by Floyd’s Blue Mountain School. I did study a rooster’s mindless crogito ergo sum, but the tweets and chirps, the breeze swooshing through the grove of white pines planted as a windbreak, the occasional faraway moo, and the hum of traffic distracted me from telltale clicks of steel against rock.

I remembered talking with Gannon, who sees the world differently with his one beautiful eye. He had bid me to “Enjoy the process”—context forgotten, meaning unclear, probably something Zen. I tried to follow his advice but found that impatience alloyed satisfaction. Indeed, I started to have mixed thoughts about Jane and her honey-buzzers. Yet sometimes I reproached myself with the thought of people who would gladly return to earth to do manual labor.

Each day, windy or hot, cold or warm (or both), the soil moist or baked, the weather sunny or sprinkling, I would force myself to quit, remembering that earlier sessions had knocked me out. I tried for a one-hour limit, but when I looked around there was an adjoining series of dry rivulets. “If I can just get that one brown spot with its random stones….” Yet when I did slowly rise, I beheld clay tentacles everywhere. “If I can just get to that bareness around the maple tree….” I noticed that although the yard looked did look grassy from the side, from atop it, an inexcusably ill-maintained lawn. I despaired of having a lush yard—by now a second motive for all this work, I realized. You can take the boy out of the ‘burb….

No Southern Appalachian gems such as garnet, amazonite, amethyst, or unakite. No local soapstone, which may have turned to suds. Certainly no fairy stones—staurolyte crystals made by heat and pressure as the earth’s crust formed the Appalachians. No chance of turning up an ancient Roman game-piece carved from marble–like the one Jane and Ken spotted in a newly-tilled Tunisian field of Carthage and gave me for my seventieth birthday. And only faux arrowheads were revealed as the sun inclined at different angles. A rainfall exposed previously hidden stones, a phenomenon that would have pestered Sisyphus. Did my blister itself not resemble a bit of quartz?

One day the expanse of gravel in the driveway, called “57” by the bearded quarry-man, gave me an uneasy start. Another time I just had to pick up one more stone as I rolled my gear toward the carport, and as I stuck it in my trousers, I remembered a man I’d interviewed in an oral history project. Working for a cannery, he had seined for mullet and stacked pile-shares of them on the beach: “Don’t put one in your pocket!”

Yet another day. As I poked and plucked, I tried not to think “I know you’re there” about some concealed stone. In a troubling development, a few clusters seemed to reappear! I discovered that the material I had used to fill spots here and there was the same rocky debris I had shoveled out of a hole to transplant our living Christmas tree.

Rarely did I have any consequential thoughts. Was I was becoming “The Man with a Rake?” (a variation of Man with the Hoe, both painting and poem). Perhaps I tried to remember the definition “fungible.” Perhaps I remembered the flat stone that my dad had flung sideways into a lake and that had magically reappeared to skip in and out of the water. Or the one that, as as boy, I had hurled all the way from our backyard toward the street to harass an interloper, a fellow walking back from high school. Or the Paradox of Rocks: although immobile, they had served mobility as ballast for railroad ties when Tom and I traveled by land most of the way from the English Channel to Singapore. I might have remembered that “scruple” originally meant a stone caught in a sandal. Or thought of the rock-sided churches constructed in the wilderness by Bob Childress, a Presbyterian Prometheus. (Richard S. Davids, The Man Who Moved a Mountain, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.)

Once as I surveyed a few random stones, the cruel practice of lapidation did cross my mind—community supported execution—and I did remember a frightening story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery.” But most of my brainwork was trashy or technical. “I must remind you again to keep the green tub on your right, so you won’t have to look for it.” “Good, keep your work area out of the shadow of the wheelbarrow.” I started to admire my rake, a Vigoro, and as always felt grateful to my homely and perennially-used Timberlands, lubricated only twice with neats-foot oil. I regretted that I had ever down-talked our cheap wheelbarrow, which required an adjustment to the front bracket every time it was dumped.

After an hour that always turned into two, I hung my long-sleeved shirt next to my pants in the tool-room, their knees stained umber and flaked with dirt. I regarded the blotches as badges. I appreciated them not like my dusty baseball uniform, sign of involvement as a catcher; but because they made me feel more–well, consubstantial with the material I worked. “Disgusting,” said Marge. A couple of times I stretched a raincoat out to dry, but I aways hung a sweaty t-shirt on the laundry basket and took a shower.

I did witness a single bumblebee, which circled established clover that was flowering another season amid the grass. O welcome omen! I stood to admire its unpredictable winding course and appreciated the way it shaved the air with a tiny electric razor. One Friday evening I crossed paths with Jane downtown and reported the unintended consequences of her easily-typed syllables. When I asked her to kiss my blister, she graciously did.

Now I had to get outside every day or I felt sluggish. In fact the ore that I had been mining seemed to have transmuted itself into my own person. I asked my wife if she’d mind calling me “Rocky.” Although my lower back hurt, it kept serving and strengthening; I remembered having to walk on my knees a few times, decades earlier, because of a back injury, and I felt gratitude toward the surgeons. But the arch of one foot hurt, probably from shoveling and maneuvering the barrow, and my left shoulder issued a twinge from rotating the tines and probing, no doubt a symptom of what Fred First had pronounced as a “crepitus” with more accuracy than diplomacy. At Marge’s encouragement, I forced myself to take a day off, so our house became a getaway.

Back at my lone calling. “Why can’t you be content with working little by little?” I counseled myself. “Randall, you don’t like the notion of a ‘purpose-driven life,’ so computer-sounding, so mechanical, no room for spontaneity, reflection, whimsy…. So what’s with this time-pressure? You don’t have to be Rumpelstiltskin and do the job overnight. And you’re not Ivan Denisovich with his gulag rocks.” Yet despite a streak of compulsiveness, I enjoyed working outside and taking a break from the pedals and metals of the Floyd Fitness Center.

I was grateful not to tangle with the fire ant (Solenopsis) of South Carolina. I did turn up the many-legged crescent of a grub, and once a scrawny worm wriggled over the clay, a hardscrabble specimen, good luck. And what’s this? The tines disturbed wings, and I stopped to let the moth it extricate itself from the scruff at the base of grass and weeds. Unsteadily it scrambled up a blade of grass, where it perched and regarded me with close-set black eye-dots. Its motion seemed a blessing after countless inert objects.

“I beseech you,” it seemed to ask, “to do me no harm. Am I not as pretty as I am delicate? These magical wings of starched silk” (out they stretched)—“I’m told that one waft can change the world. And my filaments above and below—eight of them, threads from the same air-catching fabric.” It dipped the left antenna ceremoniously. “You will find nothing more delicate in this patch of land, which you will agree is rather uncultivated. S’il vous plaît, laissez moi tranquille. Dangerously exposed on this verdancy, I risk being appreciated for the wrong reason.” 

One day I hauled four sacks of compost in the Subaru with the intention of covering areas that were especially torn up by missing rocks. Bought at Slaughters Nursery, the stuff had been aerated after growing-trays of mushrooms had been emptied. So the clover would receive a welcome of wheat straw, dolomite, fibrous peat, gypsum, crushed feathers, cottonseed meal, and peanut meal. All this would add a note of terroir to honey.

One day I stood up, looked around, and pronounced myself finished. The path below had become somewhat leveled by fill, the half-acre revealed only an occasional rock to the untrained observer, and my palm has a constellation of calluses above the heart-line.

Not long afterward a couple of gents, listening to Spanish lyrics, tossed shovel-loads of compost from a trailer to most of the spots I had prepared. I myself bought two fifty-pound sacks of tiny white pellets. Clover expensive enough that I had to do some fast talking to an indignant spouse. Did that startling outlay, I argued, not counterbalance all my hours of unpaid labor?

Now I scanned the heavens like any farmer. One auspiciously gray morning I pushed the rolling fountain of a spreader over the largest composted spots, then hand-sowed many others with the pellets. But after only minimal rain fell, I had to attach a line of hoses to the above-ground cistern and empty its modest collection of roof-water upon the crop. Even then, as I pulled end of the hoses all around and made a spray with my gloved hand, what should I spy sticking out here and there?

Now my job was to wait. Mineral, vegetable, animal.