State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
We were working cattle that day, the sun beating down as we moved as a unit, a family clear on its tasks: get the calves separated from their mothers, work them, one-by-one, into the chute. Uncle Dennis and Granpa flicked their whips onto the beasts, using calls and sharp gestures to move a beefy animal. Once inside the calf table, Dad would close the back and the front, then flip the table on its side where he’d make quick work of the testicles with a knife sharpened at the kitchen table the night before. Mom would pull a branding iron out of the fire and hand it to Dad. The afternoon sizzled with the smell of burnt hair when the metal burned the J/D brand into a calf’s hide. My sisters would stand close by, ready to hand the de-wormer and the KRS purple spray that would stop the bleeding after the ear was notched. This was a spectacular moment for my family because we moved focused on a singular purpose, we were on the land, being Americans in the West.
My job at age seven, eight, nine? Hang out with my younger brother, stay out of the way, not feel too badly for the calves. As I got older and the distances between my father and my grandfather increased, I joined my sisters, my mother, my father in the yearly act of taking care of the cattle.
On this particular afternoon, in a pause of the work, I remember talking with my Uncle Dennis, and he said something that has remained over thirty years: “Most people educate themselves out of their common sense.” At that young age, I don’t think I yet knew I wanted to go to college – I knew I loved books and I detested the violence of my father. I knew I loved watching him play music, knew that art was something that soothed a perpetual ache inside him. Sitting in the shade of a California Live Oak, I listened to my uncle and the calls of the “worked” calves trying to find their mothers, trying to move away from the ways they’d just been changed.
It’s taken me years to understand the layers of life: how my desire to leave the landscape I grew up on was more about the ways poverty breaks people down rather than a rejection of the people themselves; that education often asks its first-generation college goers to make a silent choice between the places and behaviors where they come from and the new “educated” way; that to gain a degree I had to move away from my family by degrees.
When I was home helping my father in 2002, he got so frustrated at one point that he said, “They didn’t teach you shit in college.” And my answer at the time was, “Nothing practical.” My father’s common sense came screaming through in this moment; I had been through seven years of higher education, branded with a Santa Rosa Junior College AA; a UC Santa Cruz BA, and a UC Davis MA, and yet I had no better knowledge than anyone else in helping him find a peaceful way to die. His spectacular insight, delivered in the vernacular, offered me an anchoring point for the rest of my life. While my father may have left his brand on those cattle, the institutions have left a different kind of brand on me.
On another visit home, I was helping my mother with household chores, and we attempted to fold laundry, the air full with the scent of line-dried clothes. I struggled to help bring together the corners of a fitted sheet and failed. In disgust, she grabbed the wadded material and said, “I don’t care if you have a college degree, it’s irresponsible not to know how to fold a fitted sheet.”
Too often, education makes people choose; or maybe, I felt uniquely pressed to make a choice. Like those calves, I was put through a process that disoriented me, and after a time of confused calling, I made my way back to my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters.
This blog, the spectacular vernacular, is about finding the wisdom in the everyday, the beauty of family, even those fractured and hurting; it’s about using writing and education as means to unify rather than separate. I’ve struggled with how to bring my various interests together: I care deeply about education, about story, about socio-economic class. Writing regularly here is attempt to make my way back to common sense, to find the corners so that I can a create a folded, fitted sheet, to someday make my mother proud. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity of study, of the ways doors can open when one has those degrees, but I’m trying to balance it all, with an appreciation for the practical.
If you feel that education forced you to make a similar choice, I’d love to hear about it and the ways you have moved toward balance. What anchoring points have you experienced?
When I was young, maybe eight or so, my father took the family to see one of the old-growth redwood trees felled. It was a big deal—we didn’t go many places together—and I remember riding in the back of the pickup with my sisters and brother into Southern Humboldt County, not too far from the land where we lived. In By Way of Water, I’ve fictionalized the scene and thought I’d share a bit. It was an outing full of sadness and awe, and I hope I’ve captured some essence of those feelings.
(Justy is the main character, her young brother is Micah, her older sister is Lacee. Dale is her mother, and Jake is her father)
They watched Mark cut for thirty more minutes, then he yelled “Timber” above the sound of the running chain saw. He and his sons ran from the tree and stopped about forty yards away. Dale made sure each of the children was in the bed of the truck. The top of the tree swayed a little. Mark killed the chain saw and the landing became still except for a faint breeze in the treetops. The wind stopped and Justy heard a cracking sound. She looked at the men gathered around the beer cooler and saw that they all stood with their mouths open and hats off. Mark yelled “Timber” again. The cracking sound grew. The tree was cut all the way through but wasn’t falling. Maybe habit or memory held it in place.
Mark watched the tree, the quiet chain saw in his hand. He and his sons kept their hard hats on. A pop, pop, pop came from the trunk and Mark yelled “Timber” once more, as if the sound of his voice could topple the tree. Time slowed, leaving the people and the tree in a void where things forgot to move forward. The redwood swayed and Justy heard its branches scratching other branches, other trees. Micah sneezed. A low, slow creak came from the trunk and then stopped. Jake looked at Mark, then back at the tree, yelled “Timber” a fourth time, the certainty in his voice diminished. The top of the old growth seemed like it was moving, but Justy wasn’t sure, just like she wasn’t sure if she really swam the Eel in her dreams. The creaking grew louder and the whole tree began to sway, barely moving, holding on to its severed trunk. Then it groaned again from deep within and began to drop toward the earth, a swath of red hovering in the sky. Then it picked up speed and fell fast, as if it had given up. It crashed its way downward, graceful even in its hugeness, taking and breaking the limbs of other trees with quick snaps of sound. Finally, it hit the bed Juan had made for it dead-on, and a powerful thud echoed when it landed. The Willys rocked with the impact, making Justy think of an earthquake. Two branches, the ones Jake had called widow makers, impaled the earth, and to Justy, it looked like God had thrown them there.
The afternoon felt split open, and a trancelike quiet filled the space the redwood had left behind. Dust filled the air, and occasional creaks of protest came from the tree as it settled into the earth. But for that noise, Justy could hear no other. Everyone remained still, as if frozen by what they’d seen. The forest itself seemed to be in shock, watching in inarticulate protest. She remembered this was a family day, and the sadness she’d felt earlier threatened to overtake her and shake her body with sobs. She placed Ochre’s stone on her tongue. The tree’s history seemed to press down on her, and she couldn’t look at the raw place in the sky where it had been. The image of the high-water sign in the middle of the other redwood grove came to her, and she was grateful that those trees were protected from these men and their machines, even though she knew that the fewer there were, the angrier Jake would become because he’d have no work. She wanted to know what would happen to the tree now that its grand stretch of time was over. The men looked confused, like maybe this power they’d been granted was both a blessing and a curse. Maybe she knew how they felt.