"Theyíre doomed," said Albert one afternoon as we sat on the big flat stone by the river birch at the edge of Karenís Pool. "Trout," he said, his voice low and sullen. "Bring civilization within a mile of them and they turn belly-up. Itís wildness for them or nothing. No compromises. They believe in the simple life. Cold water, plenty of food, and clean oxygen. Wildness. (They) donít know any better, I guess. Doomed ... doomed, and me along with them, thank whatever gods there are."Albert McClain in "The Earth is Enough" by Harry Middleton.
One night this week, feeling lonely, I went sit on the roots of my fallen oak tree, mourning it. A sort of wake, I guess. I watched the leaves begin to brown, wilt. Unlike at any other point in my life, touching it, there was just a whisper of fading magic, a distant cry, a shallow gasp.
It was hot out there but I stayed. I get intolerant of civilization Ė suffocated by it Ėwhen itís this hot. Makes me moody and irritable and depressed. The heat of the sun radiates back from all the concrete, reflects off all those glass windshields and windows, from metal car hoods and I canít help but think: Global warming is true, but it isnít caused by carbon dioxide, itís caused by all this silly stuff we make and clutter around us that collects and emanates heat.
Even here, where the humidity is the real killer, itís cooler in the woods. Away from cement and steel and glass. Away from civilization. This week Iíve been thinking thatís why my tree split lengthwise and most of it fell over: Even the Rez had grown too much, too many metal roofs and paved driveways, too many noisy tugs passing in the bayou, too many airplanes overhead. Oak trees, like trout I suppose, donít fare well with civilization. Maybe water oaks do, with their shallow, spreading roots and thin bark. But not live oaks. No, live oaks are too noble for it. Too deeply immersed in places away from concrete and metal.
My old house used to be cooler, when it was surrounded by trees. But Hurricane Andrew swept all those on the sunny side of the house away. I havenít planted more since I moved in, knowing itíll be a decade before I even begin to enjoy their shade. Fearing, as it were, theyíll go belly-up before they mature, from too much civilization.
I scarcely get to the water, to the woods, anymore. Iím going belly-up, Iím afraid, sickened by too much civilization. Poisoned.
Think about it: Weíre living in furnaces, we really are. Weíre living atop all this artificial stone, but at least real stone and rock and boulders donít get as hot as concrete and asphalt; weíve got window glass reflecting heat everywhere, back and forth, heat rays ricocheting like bullets in a gunfight; our air-conditioners expel the heat of their compressors into the air, our cars spew hot exhaust from blistering hot engines, and the sheet metal on their bodies, the shells and roofs of buildings are like elements in an oven.
Soil and trees and water donít pull heat in and throw it back all around at us. Wild places donít do that. Please, I donít mean itís not hot out in the middle of the forest Ö but at least itís not magnified by our addiction to concrete and steel.
Our little community here is not so bad as a city. I think Iíd go stark raving mad in a city. Belly-up for sure. But thereís still too much concrete and steel here. Too many exhausts and too much reflecting heat.
I light a cigar as I sit with my old fallen tree. Thereís been much tobacco around it. There has to be. Tobacco helps open the doors between worlds. As the smoke wafts around me, I look back over my life, the things I might have done differently if I had the chance. Remarkably, and true to my nature as a dubious no-account, none of them involve career or bank accounts. Like author John Gierach, Iíve been walking away from good money all my life, why stop now? No, when my headís on the pillow at night and the air conditioner has stopped running so I can hear the crickets singing by the thousands outside the window, the changes I would make, the do-overs and roads-less-traveled, have everything to do with wildness and nothing with civilization.
But I fell for the slick advertising. I was wooed by the sirenís call of civilization. I think the lengthwise split in my own heart began when I stepped away from my fatherís wooden bateau and to the door of that first car I owned, headed for where I thought there was something better. Turns out, I couldnít see the forest for the concrete and steel.
Sometimes I catch myself kicking my own behind for things: not starting a retirement plan early in life, letting go some financial what-not or another when I shouldnít have, taking on a debt, whatever.
But at other times I just wish I could be one or the other, civilized or wild, and not this mutated hybrid of the two, this feeble interpretation of both. They donít mix. The one side goes belly-up in the presence of the other. Splits lengthwise and collapses. Civilization always conquers wildness. Itís too powerful, hard and poisonous.
The split in me began a long time ago, and collected not water, like my oak tree, but longings for things that now, at the other end of the split, donít seem to matter anymore. Yet they decayed my heart and most of me fell away somewhere along the line. Like my old oak tree, Iím only half here now. Half real. If my grandparents were here, they might know the magic to restore me, but itís lost to me. Unreachable. Vanished.
Belly-up. Itís inevitable. Guess itís too late for me. Iíve fallen for the slick advertising. You can only "get away from it all" when youíre young and donít have anything or need anything. Once youíre older, you have to have money to "get away from it all" or they come throw you in jail for not meeting your obligations. Thereís a lesson there, I think, that should be taught to children in grade school, but that of course would never happen. Grade schoolers in wooden school houses with gabled roofs and clapboard siding might have understood it, but students in concrete and steel schools, encased by gypsum and fluorescent light, wonít even hear it.
So I go and sit on the broken roots of my old oak tree and think about Albert and Emerson, literary figures from another manís autobiography. Harry Middleton regretted his choices, too. He died of a heart attack at age 43. Some say he died of a heart broken by civilization. But he was still pursuing trout when he could, still going to that bright country of his boyhood shared with his grandfather and great uncle, when he could afford to. When civilization loosened its grip just enough for him to slip free.
Doomed, and me along with them, thank whatever gods there are, Albert told young Harry.
I know the feeling. Wouldnít want to live in a world without them anyway. My cousin in Ft. Worth and I discuss it sometimes, and we sense the eventide. An era is ending. The old line of the Family is ending with he and I, we suspect and fear. Civilization has claimed the rest, moved them out of the Circle. Old trees toppling are like omens, like foreboding. An end of an era. Going belly-up.