Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Habitat for Humanity

My father-in-law told me a story yesterday that had me seething. It seems he took a walk a few years ago, left the apartment in the retirement home where he lives, and wandered out toward town along the bike path around the golf course. Somebody was building a house down a road and into the trees, so he walked in, thought he'd check it out. He was, back then, just a kid--maybe 85.

He says a woman sauntered up to him and asked rather pointedly whether or not he was aware of the fact that the little road he was walking on a private road. He got the message: he wasn't supposed to be there. For heaven's sake, this is Orange City, Iowa, not Orange County, California. I would have liked to call in a squad of Lakota warriors, circa 1880s, to teach that woman a lesson about private property.

But then, he said, the house that was going up was something of a mansion, and he guessed that money had something to do with it--and sheer size. Apparently, if you're tossing a million dollars into your domicile, you've got a right to run off octogenarian riff-raff. In Orange City, Iowa, one never knows who might be a thug.

On Saturday morning I stumbled onto an abandoned farmstead again, out in the country along a gravel road in Plymouth County. Once upon a time, a house stood high above the road, but it was already long gone; here and there amid the long grass, sidewalks and concrete foundations still mapped the layout. The only structure still visible was what was left of the barn.

There's something haunting about abandoned farm places. I know a man who was embarrassed to show me the old barn on his place because it was in such decrepit shape, but when I asked him why it wasn't gone, he told me he just couldn't get rid of it--it was "the barn" when he was a boy, and it was, therefore, so much more than met the eye. It still haunted him, sweetly.

In Sioux County, one of the most prosperous counties in Iowa, there aren't all that many abandoned places because industrious farmers, energized by their reading of the cultural mandate, tend to raze old barns and houses to use the few additional acres for even more row-cropping. If you want to find abandoned places, you've got to go south or east, it seems, where people are either far more sinfully lazy or mindlessly nostalgic.

Anyway, this farm place had little to offer, at least in what met the eye, just a beautiful vista over thousands of acres east, into the sunrise. In addition to what was left of the barn, the only other visible structures were a half-dozen engineering marvels in the wet grass, spun there by noiseless patient spiders, a couple of whom were at work, as if the acreage were an open-air museum.

Just those marvelous spider webs and a single, abundantly fertile apple tree. There was something amazing about that tree, something almost triumphant, resplendent as it was, this late September, with apples. I'm serious. Even though everything else was gone, the farmer and his wife and kids history long ago already, that apple tree just keeps on trucking, growing tons of produce. Maybe I've read too much Thoreau.

Last week, my wife spent the better part of two working days making applesauce because her grandson loves it. We've got it stockpiled, as if the world were facing an apple crisis. We had no need of apples, therefore; we've got too many, so many I even dumped some. I could have picked the apples on that abandoned farmstead--it would have been somehow moral, somehow blessedly green, I guess, but I didn't.
I did pick a couple, ate one right there at the shrine; and I've got one now, right beside me as I type.

Nobody was there at that abandoned place to tell me it was private property. I was all by myself out there, with the spiders and one gloriously resplendent old apple tree, denying me nothing, full of offerings, full of life, full of sustenance.

I'm eating one now. Tastes almost sacramental.

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