What remains in place: memory and truth in a broken land

O N C E   A N   E M P I R E  / C. O’B R I E N  2010
 . 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.
                                                                                                        Cabin coor
           L O C A T E D /  C L A I R E  O’B R I E N  2010

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.

Kenton, Oklahoma Merc-280

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.



 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.




33 thoughts on “What remains in place: memory and truth in a broken land

  1. Beautiful, Claire. Far too many of us have lost our connection to the land, to Mother Earth. How soon we’ve forgotten the lessons learned of pushing the land to its limits.

    “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.”

    Our abuse has now gone global.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are right. But before capitalism/imperialism, this didn’t happen. God, thinkingh of Indonesia alone breaks my heart. Dutch companies are are STILL harvesting palm oil! 450 years later, just ravaging the land….
      Thanks for writing, sister.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your portrait of this part of forgotten America is thoughtful and incisive. As a Canadian we don’t see (yet) this level of rural neglect, but we can see the leading edge of it as our governments become more and more urban-centric. Worse, we have a Prime Minister who is like George Bush on steroids. I live in a tiny rural mountain community and we’re starting to see the effects of two decades of tax cuts and government service cuts. Somehow people manage to scrape together a living—barely—but it’s the thin edge of the wedge. As I try to remind people: “This is what breakdown looks like.”


  3. I can taste the grit, smell the sweat and feel the despair; I don’t know whether to categorize your words as an essay, editorial piece – I think I will settle on a fine piece of literature. Each of your words brings forth an image that gets into the heart and strips it of its exterior while, at the same time, wrings tears. I honor you for this, Claire Marie. This world needs you.


    1. Oh, my goodness. Even though I’ll admit to a somewhat high opinion of my own writing, I’m never prepared for this kind of response. I don’t know why I’m so moved and surprised when people express themselves like you do – I just never expect it. I think it’s because when I was a working staff reporter I gave the best of myself to the world and I DID think that a small, voiceless part of the world needed me. When I was called a liar and discredited on a national level, the world remained silent and I haven’t trusted my own voice since.
      I want you to know that I’ve discovered that a single other voice can and does make a profound difference for me – and I think that is true for everyone who has been silenced. I hope we can all continue to reach out to one another across what seem to be vast distances, because each single voice helps us to hold one another up. Each voice IS heard.
      Thank-you for yours, Theresa.
      And thanks to the other bloggers whose voices have inspired and sustained me.


    1. Thanks so much! It’s amazing how difficult it is to find a comfortable position in which to write – it’s not sitting up,it’s not on my side, as one arm soon goes to sleep….and my wretched cat won’t keep me company because I don’t restrain my complaining “Ouch!” when I have to change positions and/or get up for anything. He stares at me, greatly annoyed, and departs to sleep in the closet. Hopefully, this will end soon – I’m counting on rest!


  4. Please forgive my insensitivity, a spinal injury must be painful. I certainly don’t expect you to write anything new. If there is a post you would like to share, just let me know, I try not to dictate what stories or whose voices are heard from and leave it up to my fellow bloggers what they want to share. The contributions so far have been outstanding. Here is the post I was referring to: http://deconstructingmyths.com/2013/07/26/mic-check/

    I hope you have a safe and speedy recovery, Claire. Take care of yourself.


  5. I’ve just read this aloud to my husband – not far from tears – and he thought it was a piece of unpublished Steinbeck.
    As a writer himself, he exclaimed, absolutely amazing!
    I’ve read it three times now and am so awed by its truth and beauty, the glorious imagery, the vivid descriptions.. the poignancy, and life of the land…


  6. This is a magnificent piece of writing… I love its truth, its courage, the understanding of the land and of its history, the connection with the past and the people..
    It moves me, and it inspires me, and fills me with awe.
    I shall keep it to read again and again when I want to be moved and inspired and understand deeply both the wounds of the land, and the indomitable courage of people including you.


  7. Hi Claire,

    I loved your descriptions and transcendent connections to this seemingly forsaken part of America. I drove from FL to the Southwest with my family this summer and we went through OK on I-40 into New Mexico. The history of OK gives lie to the myth of the American dream, of prosperity for many when in fact it’s only for the few and the mere illusion of it for the rest of us. To my outsider’s eyes, OK is a land of resilience where many trails ended and some dreams went to die but the strength of communities are the rule rather than the exception.

    On a tangent, I have started a guest blogger series called “Mic check” and invited my fellow bloggers to share their voices and stories in whatever form they choose. I would love to share your voice with readers but no pressure if you can’t or won’t. When you have the time, check out the “Mic check” post at my blog to see what the heck I’m talking about.

    Peace to you always.


    1. Jeff, you also give me strength and hope – more than you know. I’ve been thinking of you, just glad of your presence on the planet. I have really injured my spine and have to rest it now, but I really promise to write soon. In the meantime, do you need something new for Open Mic? Because if it doesn’t have to be new, you can pick any post of mine you want for it – I am honored, If you want me to pick it, or prefer something new, let me know.
      Peace back’


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