Thursday, July 17, 2008

Imagined Realities

How much of this really happened? At readings and author events this question ranks right up there with the standard where do you get your ideas from? But I’ve been thinking about it recently since my family moved back to Minnesota where we are spending the summer on a small family farm. Last summer, I baled hay with my father-in-law at sundown. There was a rain-cooled wind, a storm on the horizon, and the swallows skimming insects just above the mown hay. We raced to beat the rain and it was a perfectly lovely time. The next day I wrote this idyllic passage about haying for my second book, Little Wolves, a redemptive scene that follows a dark moment in the book. There’s too much else happening in the novel to explain in a short blog entry. Little Wolves is based on a true story of murder and betrayal I heard in a small town we lived in. I’d like to show just a brief page-long passage here and then discuss whether or not it’s realistic. Did I really capture the truth of hard physical labor?

Late afternoon finds them in the hayfields once more, the old man driving a lumbering International tractor that is trailed by a baler and Bear standing on the hayrack. The tractor glints silver; the baler licks up lumps of hay from the green ground and spits out neatly-roped, twenty pound bales that Bear catches and stacks on the hayrack behind him. He has to keep a wide stance as the rack sways over the uneven ground and the bales come without ceasing. Each bale has to be wedged in tight, a mountain of hay that might all come tumbling down if Bear’s aim is not quick and true.

Hay sticks to sweat-streaked skin. Blades of it probe for tender places to make fresh wounds. He breathes in the tractor’s exhaust and dust and bugs kicked up from the fields.

And yet it is beautiful to be with the old man in the hot sundown. Swallows dip and dive around him, hunting insects the tractor stirs up from the soil. The fields shine emerald in the fading light. From this upper meadow, they have a view of the river valley and the old man is turning now to point toward the west where black clouds are flexing into thunderheads. They will have to hurry before rain comes. If the hay gets soaked, it will mold and rot and all their hard work will be for nothing. The wind already carries the sweet smell of wet. A shadow from a chicken hawk passes over the field and chases away the swallows. Bear takes the bales and forms neat square stacks while Seth kicks the tractor into a higher gear. They work in wordless rhythm, moving faster to beat the rain, the old man’s focus on maneuvering the tractor in tight turns, Bear yanking out bales and tossing and stacking.

Then the work is done and Bear rides down the hill standing atop his lurching hay mound, sapped but triumphant. From his perch, twenty feet above the mowed ground, he can see Aden’s Landing on the other side of the valley and the copper glitter of the river, and beyond it the rim of the world itself, turning black now with storm
.

There’s more to this scene as the storm unleashes itself and Bear fights wind and rain to get a tarp stretched over the rack in time to save the hay. Did I capture the truth of the moment, what it’s really like to bale hay? It’s easy to sentimentalize physical labor. Think about it. Writers spend all day in dark basement rooms fighting off carpal tunnel syndrome while working on stories, poems, and chapters and sometimes at the end of the day they throw all that work away! There’s something deeply satisfying about the outdoor life, about working with your hands. But since writing that scene I’ve baled many racks of hay and alfalfa. I’ve climbed into the loft of the barn where the temperature roasts well over a hundred degrees. I’ve been gashed and bled and drained and inhaled so much alfalfa chaff that even my teeth went green.

Is it true? Is it a realistic scene? Would I write it differently after coming to know the labor of haying so much better this summer?

No. I don’t think I could change that moment in the book. It has to happen. Our work shapes and changes us and sometimes, and if we are very lucky, even a hardship can make us into a better human being. Some moments in our life are transcendent and sometimes these moments happen even while doing ordinary jobs.

1 comment:

howl-eyes said...

It's interesting how the physical demand of the labor almost disappears in that passage. Of course, "he must keep a wide stance," etc., but you never imagine Bear "gashed and bled and drained and [having] inhaled so much alfalfa chaff that even [his] teeth went green."

So, when "hay sticks to sweat-streaked skin [and] blades of it probe for tender places to make fresh wounds," the focus is not on the experience of being sweaty, or of being wounded, but of the otherworldiness of the sight, the transcendence of it... And in that sense, I could see how it would be very appropriate for following a darker moment earlier in the book: the focus almost has to be set up like this, eyes trained on the things about our lives that are always there but which are only visible, or alive even, when looked at the right way.

And maybe that's exactly the truth of hard labor: hard labor is just hard labor -- its "meaning" and its feel are something of a matter of perspective.