By Mark Naida
Jesus, I say, is there a new world here?
Certainly, he says… there is a new earth where there is a sun and a moon, and all of the best things; but this one here is older.
—François Rabelais, Pantagruel
Fridays we ate rectangular pizzas baked in an oven made of earth and straw. As I sat on a picnic table whose joists were shimmed into poor but functional repair, I brushed persimmon seeds off of my shoulders. The Farmer said, “This one is the male, the female is out north of the rhubarb.” We tossed the beads at one another as they fell and adorned the pizza. We ate and fortified ourselves against tomorrow’s brutal sun in a shower of fertility, of plant life yearning its abundance.
From the herb garden, I could hear their conference. Thyme, sage, and lemon balm marked my palms as I stood and walked across the road to see one of the birds open its beak and sound its bugling roar. This was not the late autumn honking of geese, it was a glimpse into the Jurassic—a picture of what remains. These Sandhill Cranes rooted and laughed in the field corn until, startled by the coughing of a tractor, they took flight, living fossils, stirring reminders of the picture book pterosaurs that soar through my dreams. When they came back around, I was snapping and bundling sheaves of lacinato kale–or “dinosaur kale,” a colloquial name meant to excite children. The bubbled ridges of the kale prompted me to gaze up at the roaring cranes and wonder how much had ever changed.
The arid summer offered little, until the blistering height, when spit and moisture radiated from each mouth as the sweet corn rippled and blurred in the distance. When the soil had been sucked to sand by rotated plantings of arugula, spinach, lettuce, and basil, the rain came. All that had not fallen for two months dropped on the thin sand like an anvil. I sat on the covered patio of a café in Ann Arbor when the rain began, eating mussels from a steaming bowl. I never even thought. Back at the farm that evening, the rain had waned some but persisted through the night. Two days before I had clambered up the limbs of peach trees thinning unfit fruit. The limbs now laid dismembered on the soft ground. The bottom where the fawns had been grazing on carrot tops was washed out into the forest. Basil stalks were bent over like bunkered soldiers, scared to survey the damage. At first light, the Farmer walked toward his tractor and the mourning was stifled. We could only get onto our knees and bunch the thin, exposed carrots for market, rejoicing in the salvage.
Reflection in Fading Light
We were born into a world that does not understand itself. Unlike our the world of our grandparents, the world into which we were born is defined by function. Silicon has been held but never touched, copper is encased by plastic, food is transported in plastic bags without thought. I asked my brother what glass was made out of. He said that glass was a type of rock.
Older generations had a technological baseline grounded in rudimentary mechanisms such as wheelbarrows and wood stoves, the inner workings of which could be understood by children. An advertisement for a plow in 1902 reads, “Two Horse, 14-inch Walking Plow, Iron Beam.” This advertisement expresses a true equilibrium between material and function. It answers the question of the tool’s purpose while defining its constituent elements. People who grew old during the twentieth century began their lives with a sense of bareness. In those dusty times, a man made a porch out of wood from trees that were felled and milled on site; he carved clothespins out of the scrap wood at the kitchen table when the sun went down. There was no abstraction between material and function. It was a moment of intimate contact between man and his environment.
The people who saw the turn of the century saw a progression from an elemental, self-taught world to the cyber age. Aided by consumerism, new undefined materials arose from laboratories whose names defined a functional quality instead of a material quality. Polyester does not stain. Nylon has remarkable elasticity. Commercial outlets began to produce goods with plastic, a new substance made of “organic polymers” that defines contemporary material existence. This loss of material knowledge is a reality without historical precedent.
Those born in the early twentieth century preserved a marriage between material and function that provided a sense of a permanence: the earth remained constant as the functionality of its elements changed. This marriage should be reestablished in our minds and lifestyles. Our focus on functionality must be diminished in order for our awareness of physical reality to grow and inform our actions. Perhaps canvas bags would find a resurgence. Leather would be valued. We could walk the earth and know that any function we place upon its contents would represent only a human reality, rather than a fact of existence.
The Gardener carefully lifted a hop leaf to show me an embryonic, featherless sparrow in a teacup nest. It exhaled as it blinked its drowsy eyelids. A fat tomcat hid in a patch of sweetgrass, provoking the chipping sparrows from their nests in the hop vines. They chirped and flew circles in alarm. The cat stalked around the herb garden, lolling and crushing the dillweed as he waited. I remembered the little bird in the teacup nest days later. When I lifted the leafy curtain, the bird was gone. I glanced at the group of sparrows circling each other by the bean trellises amazed at how quickly the little sparrow grew and matured and left the nest, knowing all the while its true fate.
A calf is born and the Farmer says nothing. A whistlepig lunches on a small patch of purple cabbage and the patch is given to the thistles. The sour cherries grow and decay more quickly than they can be harvested. Basil flowers bloom and widen as the leaves shrivel. The deer eat the sweet corn. The Farmer shoots a deer and lets it run off and rot, leaving the buzzards their fill.
In late July I am in a field picking potatoes, barefoot with burnt soles, when I hear a cicada singing from a maple tree at the field margin. He has waited seventeen years underground to sing his love song. He will live a few weeks, calling into the night. The maple will become a chorus tree and the eggs will drop from the cicadas as they die. The silent entr’acte will begin. By October the eggs will hatch and the nymphs will crawl into the ground to wait for the moment when they too can sing their fated song.
Mark Naida is a junior studying French and English.