This cold and rainy Sunday morning, I was in the hoop house watering tomato plants when I saw a wild turkey picking its way across our small field. The field, recently harrowed and seeded with peas, was mucky from a deluge the night before, so the turkey lifted its feet in the turkey’s funny variation of high-stepping. With its long neck and tail, it’s a lot of bird. After a few seeds, the bird, apparently alone, disappeared into the woods with its already lush fern undergrowth.
While the turkey was going about its meal gathering, I appeared to be doing an essentially crazy thing — watering in wet weather. And yet, I’ll continue to do so, for reasons that partly make sense to me. It’s that “partly make sense” aspect that often seems to jam up human life. On the one hand, I want the tomatoes, and this is my experience of how most effectively grow tomatoes in my patch of Vermont; on the other hand, watering in the rain is just plain nuts.
While I would never describe myself as a relativist, one of the greatest appeals of literature is the way writing explores that edge, that nether realm between the hard shores of certainty.
My ten-year-old recently determined, with the assistance of a teacher, that she is precisely the right height for her age. She informed me of this conclusion while brushing her teeth that night, in her practical and pragmatic way of looking at the world: here I am, exactly where I want to be. Her sister scoffs at this kind of knowledge — why would you believe numbers? you’ll either grow or not — but my younger child sees a validity in numbers her sister does not. My older daughter tends to view the world as wildly awry with the vagaries of fate, but to my younger daughter, the world is dictated by precision and certainty, and I could see the succor she justly took from that knowledge. Her fears that she will be very small (like me) were mitigated by this calculation. Each of my two children, blood sisters, has a radically different method of mapping and understanding the world. Neither of these would I at all disparage; they are both genuine ways of understanding, albeit diametrically opposed.
Yet — can I generalize? — by adulthood those shores of certainty are often shaken, if not downright abandoned. In what way will we know the world? What will serve as our compass in troubled weather? I see literature as precisely that compass, a complex and sometimes incomprehensible tool, a map, convoluted at times, to get us out of Tom Sawyer’s cave.
… the evening the kingfisher fell… I held
(it) in my hands,
I touched its blue power.
That may be the only time
I ever do so.
What I held was more precious
than handfuls of money.
If I could have restored it
to wind, I would have.
What to do
with the wild pain?
…Give it back,
all of it, and go home.
“Kingfisher” in A House of Branches, Janisse Ray