Driving to Tulare last week to buy things not available in Lindsay, I began to realize that I did not feel connected to the land I was traveling over. I was coming down with my normal fall dust-in-the-air flu, so it might have been that my senses were impaired. But I have loved that drive for 30 years: the spread of farmland and canals along the road, the dairies and farmhouses still pretty much the same as when I first began to notice them. The eucalyptus windbreaks, the lone oaks in the fields and strung along canal banks. Tractors out discing the ground for fall planting of silage crops, the last of the nuts being hauled away. The land getting a brief rest, going silent. The magnificent view of the eternal Sierra on the trip home.
The writer Kathleen Norris has a beautiful little essay called “Evidence of Failure.” It’s in her book “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” (1993) about her move to her grandparents’ home in rural South Dakota from New York City. The essay starts with the image of her grandmother’s rain barrel ruined because Kathleen let water freeze in it and the bottom buckled, the result of her ignorance, perhaps, or lack of habits from not living on the land all her life. But Kathleen is clear in her naming: it’s failure, pure and simple—failure to protect something she held as precious.
She goes on to list other ways she’s failed her grandmother’s legacy—her flower bed, her piano gathering dust. But then her scope widens to others’ failures—a farm auction, an abandoned homestead still very livable, graves of two boys who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, the notes and prayers in her grandmother’s broken-back well-used Bible. In this swirl outward, the word “failure” begins to take on a less personally judgmental meaning and begins to describe simply a state of brokenness, as when a rope fails. After rereading the essay again, I realized that another thing she was describing was loss. What I felt in reading her evidence of failures was what was lost when things broke.
Much of what was lost on the South Dakota plains was the hope of making an Eden there: small farms, homes for thousands if not millions, industrious little towns connected by railroad lines to the big cities of the east and west. They didn’t count on rain not following the plow. They believed the propaganda that sold them tickets west. But they also felt the lure of the land, which Kathleen also felt and describes so beautifully, that magnificent geography still there, not broken. She takes us to the heart of that place and says “Look.”
Loss is a hard thing to see. The evidence of it is absence, the disappearance of something. It’s mostly only felt. It’s the hole in your heart, the tears that begin to wet your face. The way your body turns away involuntarily, trying to get away.
Loss is what my geographer friend Bill Preston sees whenever he comes into our county. Born in Tulare, he did his dissertation on our historic geography, which was published by UC Press in 1981 as “Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin.” Bill saw loss coming in the way we have treated our land here as a piece of dirt, and hoped by generating knowledge about our magnificent landscape, he might help us learn to protect it better. When he looks around, what he sees is evidence of his failure.
I think that’s what I was seeing in my fever-clouded mind as I drove west to Tulare last week. Not Bill’s failure, but mine: my inability to divert the loss I see coming as the big boys take over more of the groundwater and surface supplies to hoard larger plots of land, the true golden egg if ever there was one. The loss of intimacy with this place that comes from living in it, working one particular plot of soil, knowing your neighbors and joining in the cooperative efforts that make it all work. I was seeing what’s disappearing—and feeling helpless
Trudy Wischemann is a writer hard at work in Lindsay. You can send her your thoughts on loss and failure c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.