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Works and Days

Welcome to the California Outback

March 12th, 2012 - 7:39 am

It’s still quiet and not so bright out here. There are no spats between neighbors over drifting leaves, no glaring city lights, no screaming domestic arguments, no 3:00 a.m. party next door. I don’t know whether listening to birds rather than people is healthier or not, but I feel a lot better writing while watching a Cooper’s hawk build a nest in my redwood tree than listening to Stanford students during the week talk next to me at the campus coffee shops (“you know, like, uh, hello, whatever, cool, etc.”)

I can still monitor the day by the direction of the wind, the speed by which the clouds pass, the dew in the morning, the frost or absence of it in the early evening. I note spring by plum blossom time, gopher mounds popping up everywhere, doves breaking into the sheds to build nests, and the sprouting of weeds in the vineyard. All that might sound a bit artificial, given that my livelihood no longer rests, as it once did, on whether the frost takes the grape crop, but one does what one can in this age.

I like the human dinosaurs I still occasionally bump into. They are mostly gone from the scene, but every once in a while you cross paths with the caterpillar mechanic, the orchard topper, and the pipeline installer who never quite got on the modern bus and took a “different”path so to speak. They also talk differently and look at the world as if they expect it to run like it did in 1961. They are independent sorts, these in their late sixties and beyond. The only other time I see them is on visits to the cemetery when I walk among the graves and usually am startled into muttering to myself something like: “My god, I had no idea that old Clarence Anderson is in here,” as I see a familiar name from my childhood on the headstone at my feet.

Hiding out is not to be despised. Even when strangers drive in you can be out in the shed or barn or on an alleyway. It’s certainly not like being in the living room in a suburb when someone knocks on the front door. That safety valve eliminates all sorts of sales people, proselytizers, and strangers who just want “to talk.” (And rural salesmen in general are a weirder, more interesting sort, and their wares likewise occasionally odd, from snap-on tools to a year’s supply of frozen steaks.) Rural life is close enough to town for convenience and the avoidance of hermitage, but not so close as to be easily accessed.

I like dogs. And they are much more easily raised, fed, and their waste taken care of out in the country, and outside the house. Ditto cats. I think I have three, but don’t really know, since two, three, four or more turn up at feeding time in the morning. The dogs take care of themselves, and to the degree they chew on birds, cottontails, and gophers as relish to their dog food, I’m fine with it. I suppose the raw, uncooked meat, ears and all, is better for them than the processed dry and canned supplements.

Out here is also a refuge for a few hours per week from the nonsense of the modern age, the lectures to buy a Volt from the non-car owning Steven Chu, the calls for civility from “punish our enemies” Barack Obama, the warning about carbon footprints from private-jetting Al Gore, our “downright mean country” bookended with Costa del Sol, Aspen, and Vail, the “two Americas” paralleled with “John’s Room,” the New York Times editorials berating the 1% coupled with a $24 million payout to its own departing CEO. How pleasant to be far distant from that bunch, and their nonstop scolding, whining, and lecturing that serves as a pathetic projection of their own elite tastes and guilty desires.

One final thought. As we age (I’m 58), the conventional wisdom is to “downsize.” Sell the large house. Move into a condo. Travel more. Give up the lawn mower and chainsaw. Relax.

I prefer the opposite. Keep busier — more limbs to prune, add some more lawn, expect to spend three weeks hauling out leaves, and each spring to cut up a huge fallen oak or liquid amber limb. I saw that with my grandfather. At 80, his tasks multiplied while his ability to meet them diminished. If farming 120 acres was a challenge at 50 for him, mowing just a fifth of his lawn was even more so at 86. If the house I live in seemed from pictures in pristine condition at 60 (1930), when he was 40, it aged into the house on the hill in Psycho at 100 (1970) when he was 80. Still, he got up every day to do what he could, until he finally just ran out of gas, and one morning did not wake up. Living in the country ensures that the need to work keeps expanding as you diminish.

All this helps to adopt a similar outlook about America, not to tolerate the acceptance of a shrinking world commensurate with your own decline. I’d prefer America to take on ever more — pay down the debt, run surpluses in five — not fifty — years, build more dams and freeways, drill anywhere there is recoverable oil, beef up the military, require citizens to do more, not less for themselves, even as the bowing, apologizing, qualifying, sermonizing, editorializing, and nearly nonstop whining president seems to welcome our senility and wishes to retire the U.S. into a sort of permanent European condo with lounges on the tiny sixth-floor balcony.

Non hic porcus.

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