The Great Warpath
This summer it has been a softer, modern version of living in a cabin on the Great Warpath circa 1740 near Albany or Montreal (in this regard, take a look at Eliot Cohen’s new book Conquered into Liberty on the origins of the American way of war), readying oneself for the next break-in — so our inland “California Corridor” has become from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
More specifically, I have been on the lookout around my farm for a predatory, nearly new, grey/silver Toyota truck that drives in and then speeds out — always a day or so before the nocturnal theft. He’s clever, this caser — and audacious too, like a wily Sherman tank prowling through the hedgerows. (Why, if poor, is he not home growing a tomato garden or scouring the roadside for the ubiquitous tossed aluminum cans and plastic bottles?)
On three separate occasions from June to August, I have had copper wire stripped out of pumps, the barn ransacked, and the two locks pried off the shop and various things stolen. (Why did they steal buckets of 1900 antique bolts and square nails and leave alone a drill press and grinder? Ease of recycling? Ignorance?)
When Metal Grows Legs
One of the stranger things in the California Corridor is to periodically walk around a barnyard and notice: “Hmm, that set of rusted furrowers is gone? Hmmm, what happened to those sections of 2-inch pipe? Hmmm, didn’t I have an old compressor next to the shed? Have I got dementia, or wasn’t there once upon a time three metal ladders leaning against the shop?” It is as if they became animate, grew legs, and quietly walked off in the sunset.
Twice I ran into the barnyard to see the truck, with its two gangbanger youths, peel off in clouds of dust. (And, yes, as a CSU ex-professor, I know the party line: the dominant culture neglects/exploits/oppresses/fill in the blanks the “other” to such a degree that he sometimes must lash out, or, on occasion, to find validation, might just do something illegal like steal buckets of antique nails, or illogical, like in poverty buying a new truck, and thus so disturbs/finally wins the attention of those with privilege and their self-constructed norms. Been there and heard that for thirty years).
The Toyota is always around when theft occurs, and always speeding off when anyone spots it. Rural California is also like North Africa circa 420 AD: the few family farms left are mostly fenced or walled, the dogs large, the owners armed — trying to survive against organized Vandal attacks. All we need are mosaics in the courtyard portraying happier times as a testament to future archeologists. Maybe a “Cave Canem!” on the doorstep.
I know of no neighboring farm that has not been broken into or fought/scared off such intruders. (The urban counterpart in our town are a few municipal workers stealing their own city manhole covers; two ex-policemen, like rogue legionaries, now up on felony charges; or Gothic-like gangs, prying off all the bronze dedicatory plaques from the hallowed buildings. Perhaps they are similar to the bullet-hungry occupying Ottomans in 16th-century Greece, destroying classical temples and shrines to find and melt down the lead seals over metal block clamps — on the theory that someone 2,000 years earlier knew a lot more about making lead than did they, or maybe impoverished Greeks around 1850 finishing up the destruction of antiquity by fracting and melting down the scattered marble blocks for lime whitewash.)
Then and Now
So it is that in 1935 poor people scraped and saved to cast a bronze plaque for their Depression-era new city hall, and in 2011 rather more affluent people ripped it off to melt it down for a layaway payment on some chrome rims or another round of meth.
Civilization ends when the pampered beneficiaries of the hard work of the now dead have the luxury of ignoring how hard it was — and is — to build shelter from the elements, to erect public buildings from scrub, to grow food and sprout farms from sage. Our contemporary criminals are protected from the elemental struggle and so have the indulgence to gnaw away at civilization’s veneer — and we, in our conspiratorial silence about them, likewise forgot that to keep still about the destruction of the work of others is to be complicit in it.
Jaws on Wheels
Seven days ago, I left to teach here at Hillsdale for my month vacation. My son, back home on the farm — he often rushes out armed when trucks come into the driveway at night — called. He mentioned in passing that the Toyota was back, Jaws-like circling around the farm in short bursts of speed to see if anyone was there. (The modus operandi in the rural California hinterlands is to drive into a farm, check if anyone comes out, if so, either peel out or even stay put to “inquire” about a “rental” or “work.” If no one comes out, then break a window, grab a TV or computer and speed off. Also: Please do not suggest, “call the sheriff”; I have and even “filled out a report” over the phone, no less. Enough said. And yes, I probably should sell the 140-year-old farm and move away, but also probably won’t. Why leave and give in to barbarism? There are still far more good than lawless people in the valley.)