|.||Most people don’t consider the Oklahoma Panhandle the scenic route. I guess it’s not exactly pretty, but I have found it to be very beautiful . The first time I had a full view of the horizon, I gasped, stopped my car, and practically fell out. Finally, the world was properly proportioned! It allowed human beings to be as small as we actually are, and the sky to be as far away as it’s supposed to be. Somehow, I already knew the trees, each bent by years of wind, small clusters of twisted black branches defining the landscape all the way to the edge of the earth. Wherever a solitary tree appeared, the landscape gathered around it in a gesture that made the tree more powerful than a forest.
I’m never lost within that distance; rather, I am precisely located.
|Almost every cluster of trees on the Panhandle was once known to some human beings, and many of them continue to be. The trees stand against the relentless wind, each cluster still sheltering the remains of a farmhouse and barn. But very few of those farms are actually abandoned. Unless growing conditions prevent it, someone is using at least part of the land for something – it’s rented out, planted by a neighbor in exchange for a portion of the crop or by a nephew living in Oklahoma City.|
You can pull over and park beside the two-lane blacktop that is the Panhandle’s major highway, taking pics of old grain bins for as long as two hours without seeing another person. Finally, a pick-up will drive by. (As soon as that happens, you’ll know they will be expecting you in the next town) Yet, I am never lonely. I am just inexplicably connected, aware of my authenticity and of my sure eye. The certainty that my own gaze reliably recognizes truth washes over me like a blessing. And I receive it as such. This is as close as I get to going to church.
The Panhandle isn’t that far from southern New Mexico. I make a weird, often crabby pilgram, driving an old Crown Vic past miles of weathered grain bins, drinking Dr. Pepper, and singing whatever seems handy: old Baptist hymns, Lou Reed, The Internacionale, the UCLA fight song, all loudly and off-key. In 2009, I made a small memorial to John Brown on the single front step of an abandoned farmhouse and stood before it to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. I poke around, take photos, write, look at the horizon, cry just because I feel like it, and ask people to tell me things.
I guess I’ve come to believe that this strip of land recognizes me. Not just me, of course, but plenty of other people, although not nearly as many as I’d thought : it recognizes whomever has held onto memory in the service of truth. I would perhaps have once hesitated to include myself in their number, but now I proclaim it – for one thing, it doesn’t take a saint or a rocket scientist to make the cut, and for another, I have discovered that the bar is set astonishingly low. Meeting that bar doesn’t turn anyone into a hero. Not meeting it turns people into shameful scoundrels, and journalists into crooks, and is by far the more remarkable act, as it requires little more than a basic instinct for human decency
Human beings have always known that land is a repository of memory. That this piece of land survived at all is a miraculous feat, achieved by holding a memory of its interactions with people. The land displays its wounds openly and their meaning is acknowledged by the farmers, who use it carefully and on its own terms in a way unheard of by their ancestors.
For a long time, a different label was slapped onto the land every other week, each contrived by various American interests as a means of seizing it from Mexico. Meanwhile, at least seven Indian nations were forcibly crammed into the rest of present-day Oklahoma, many of them far from home, and all of them suffering. While conflicts with slaveholders (the Republic of Texas), Spain, Mexico, and working-class land-hungry Yankees played out, a narrow strip was sliced off the top of the Texas Panhandle to serve as a buffer, and designated a neutral zone. Everyone called it No Man’s Land, and moved in anyway. Then it was added to the Oklahoma Territory, and finally it was part of that official state.
Eventually, the last myth seized the Panhandle. During the 1920s, farmers more or less lost their minds, in thrall to the Empire of Wheat. By the early 1930s, against all reason, judgement, and their own interests, they had destroyed the land they had come to love – just in time for the Great Depression. The farmers turned everything that gave the land life into dust and it blew away, blocking out the sun until darkness blanketed the sky from horizon to horizon. The dust piled in great drifts and penetrated every core of the world, lodging in lungs until young children choked to death. Men stood weeping in their fields, and people shot their animals, then themselves. Many fell to their knees, certain that the Last Judgement was upon them, and many more took whatever they could salvage and simply fled.
“So long, it’s been good to know you,” sang a young man named Woody Guthrie. ” I’ve got to be drifting along.”
Nevertheless, many people stayed. They had nothing at all except their land and their houses, nowhere to go, and no way to get there. They barely survived.
By the time the sun and rain finally returned and the dust no longer buried the earth, the farmers regarded the first little green shoots in their fields with something like reverence. Maybe they didn’t pass that reverence down to their children, but they passed down a memory that remains deep in the people’s bones, and they passed down the truth.
It was the first time that memory and truth were honored since the land had been seized from its rightful owners.
Ironically, the historical blink of an eye in which this massive destruction occurred is also what created a place where an essential truth prevails. For me, that represents a kind of home.
WHEAT DREAMS / O’BRIEN 2009
When I stand under that huge sky, I’m both as anonymous and as connected to others as every human being should be, simply because I am recognized and my voice is heard. Yeah, maybe that’s just another one of my whacky, nutty ideas. If so, just call it my religion and send in a tax-deductible donation. Every religion is whacky – but the point of them all is to tell the truth and to resist power that exploits and harms other human beings. The point is, to defend those who have become targets, not to stick up for your pals.
Somehow ( and I am actually beginning to wonder where ) I managed to get the crazy idea that we are bound to stand for justice and truth when it’s hard to do – not to talk about freedom when it’s easy to do, nor to adjust the truth to avoid any risk to our personal interests. If it’s that easy, and if you get to decide who deserves it, then it isn’t freedom – and whatever you are committed to, it isn’t social justice.