Tag Archives: rural living

Cottonmouth

My girlfriend saw it first: against the railing
that runs along the length of the back porch,
a greyish shadow slipping from the steps,
behind the potted plants toward the light.

As it began to turn toward the back door
I brought the dull blade down upon its neck,
my body a safe hoe’s length stretched out from it;
it coiled to strike until its sense was dulled.

But even then, until its head was severed,
it seemed to flex in warning; and its jaws
had fixed themselves on a deck plank, and hung on
as if that anchor could prevent its death.

Tonight, as we drag on our smokes, the porch lights
are on full blast; our eyes keen on the rail
that separates the deck from yard and woodland,
the border of our cottonmouth patrol.

06 APR 2006

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Stretched at the Seams

I’m living in a small, rural town again. It may have a university campus smack dab in the middle of it, but face it: Natchitoches, Lousiana is not a center of urban sprawl.

I’ve lived in small rural towns before. Hell, I spent 2nd through 8th grade 15 miles outside of one with a population of less than 8,000 (and even had the audacity, at 36, to move back). I like living in the middle of nowhere, geography-wise, and privacy-wise. But I have to tell you, if I were using either John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town” and Jason Aldean’s “Hick Town” to describe my experience, I’d be a stone-cold liar — although there is a grain of truth in both of these paeans to Smallville. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is a lot closer to my truth. Closer even than Springsteen’s “Nebraska”. Maybe country living has changed, though. I said the other day that Aldean’s song seemed to be missing anything about putting M-80’s in mailboxes and tipping cows. And it certainly doesn’t speak to my experience with tractor training, 4H and FFA.

I guess the difference is living outside a small town, versus living in it. There was always a big difference between the country kids (like me) and the townies. Inside the city limits, any borough can seem confining, structured, staid, stilted, stuffy … a place where young people feel limited by the expectations placed on them by their elders and peers. On the farm, I never really had too much time for that kind of contemplation — there were chores, long bus rides, acres and barns to explore, fish to catch.

Of course, a lot of people I know who are from small towns have never set foot more than 50 miles from where they were born. And often, that natural insulation (and isolation) from the rest of the world is cemented and augmented by the institutions in which so many of us are indoctrinated from birth — churches, schools, social clubs. A lot of folks, in that kind of environment, do grow up to be on the outside just like their parents, just like their neighbors. Some of ’em are happy doing it. Many, though, it seems to me, are only happy on the outside. You can tell it in the way they talk about the government. Or foreigners. Or even just people from the next town over.

But I reckon it’s not just a small town thing. It’s a people thing. You either take responsibility for your own life, and get busy living it, or you are, quite bluntly, just killing time waiting to die. Most folks choose the former, and become wonderful parents, friends, spouses, lovers and business partners. But a few seem resigned to, and even rejoice in, their unhappiness — they say, “what this town (or country, or world) really needs is a …” and wonder why somebody else hasn’t done it. They’re starving for change, for growth, for individuality and a life outside the box, and simply don’t feel it’s their place to change, grow or step outside the establishment’s door. Granted, there are repercussions for those brave souls who do challenge the status quo, even in the smallest of ways. You do get talked about behind your back. You will get worse service at the grocery store. You may not get a decent table at restaurants. You may even have bricks thrown through your window, or crosses burnt on your lawn. You certainly will be going to Hell, one way or another — at least that will be the consensus of opinion, even among your own relatives.

Country or city, it seems like the most frequent thing you hear is “don’t get above the roots of your raisin’.” That’s like getting too big for your britches, I guess. But it seems to me that if all a plant ever has is roots, if it never breaks the soil and stretches out for the sun and makes, heaven forbid, a statement of its own potential — and that potential may be as a fruit, nut or vegetable (LOL) — then no matter how good the roots are, they haven’t done their job. They’re the foundation, and the source of nourishment and balance, but they are NOT the end product. Each vine and branch have their own path to follow, their own song to sing.

All that being said, I wouldn’t trade small rural town living for the metropolis. I’ve seen enough of big cities (on both coasts and in foreign countries) to know that urban existence is not natural. It leads to thinking that oranges come from trucks, and funds studies to prove that mother’s milk is the best food for infants, or that cheese is the best bait for a mousetrap. It creates country music that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the flyover land between the Holland Tunnel and the San Andreas fault. It’s proud that only 5% of its population has to actually touch dirt for a living.

The friends that I’ve made in small towns are closer friends than those I’ve made in the city. Sometimes I wonder about their ambitions to get out to the “big town”, though. I don’t fault them for that dream, but have to filter it through my own experience. It ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond, than a wee little minnow in the ocean that is big city living. Give me the limitations of small town reality over the lunatic fantasy of the big city any day. I know ya’ll ain’t gonna believe me, if ya haven’t lived it yourself, but life under the Hollywood sign ain’t all that and a bag of chips.

Peace, ya’ll.

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A Hillbilly Song

To you the distinction might sound a bit silly
But I’m not a redneck, I’m an old hillbilly:
Brought up on the green rolling range of the greater midwest.

On 4H work projects and chores in the morning,
long thunderstorms coming up without a warning;
the FFA and those blue ribbons pinned onto my chest.

Fried chicken and taters, homemade jam and bread;
enough sense to not let it go to my head;
an honest wage for a day’s work – woman, girl, boy or man.

Miles stretched out in corn, soybeans and winter wheat;
long underwear, overalls and bare feet;
for piano and guitar lessons, you pay what you can.

Blue collar hand-me-downs and hands always dirty;
work well past sundown and up at 5:30;
good dogs and good food and good times at the swimming hole.

Guitars tuned right, and strong voices together;
harmony tight, shoes of worn out old leather;
gospel and bluegrass and country and good rock and roll.

To you the distinction might sound a bit silly,
but I’m not a redneck, I’m a damn hillbilly;
not looking to fight, just be happy and do my own thing.

Hills, creekbeds and valleys, fishponds and stone lanes;
your word as your bond and expecting the same;
and sound from the ground at your feet when you start in to sing.

3 MAR 2006

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Hallows 1997

a remembrance

The flames lick against the side of a rusted drum;
Something rustles behind the apple trees,
And a dog runs barking into the lowering dark,
Joyously fierce as its sound echoes against
The walnut stand along the creek.
I flick a cigarette ash into the diesel stained air
And suppress a shiver from the night –
Another frost settling down on this October twilight.

A lamp inside the storm plastic window by the door
Glows incandescent warm and inviting;
I can hear the soft murmur of the evening news
As it rises and falls against the whisper of the furnace.
In the windbreak of the shed I watch the fire
Flash and caress the falling blackness,
Feel its heat flicker against my face in patterns
Of Hallowe’en orange and ebony.

The whine of the all-night combines reaches out
Across the half-barren land, exciting the young puppies
With its strange roar and threshing; while the Harvest moon
Bathes the rooftops with its slowing rising amber.
What dreams have found their way across this silent sky
To slip unnoticed into the great horizon of grain?
My shadow, cast against the peeled and graying barn
Rocks back and forth in quiet contemplation.

I lost my childhood on this spot, this faded hill of green,
And buried it among the weeds that grow unchecked
While my endless struggle wanes and wretches,
Shouting pleas to ancient timbers; when it wakes
Will I remember, once or twice more, the grasping cold
Ground and fight, desperate, its bitter memory?
Or will I turn, again, away, and looking back, forget
My lonely cries of summer tossed against this wind?

19 OCT 1997

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Town and Country

Town:

I would to some far-flung county go
except for the threat of winter snow
and loss of things to occupy
these tangent thoughts that fill my mind

for in some quiet, rural place
where you know every name, and face,
behind the greetings and the prayers
lurks something else, and it waits there

until you find some cause to fight
against the old, established right
and question how the world was made
and kept to just that shape and grade.

And then, the rugged space and wild
you need now more than when a child
right there in reach, or just outside
becomes a threatening divide

that separates you from what else
exists beyond your cupboard shelves,
and beckons, using memory’s tools,
demanding more from kings, and fools.

There in the vast expanse that rings
you in, one morning, a bird sings
a melancholy tune of woe
and in an instant, you must go.

Country:

I would to some great city fly,
save for the noise and lighted sky
and little time for the small things
that feed the soul with songs to sing,

for in some bustling, roaring throng,
the questions, whether right or wrong
get shuffled off behind the door
or left like scuff-marks on the floor

removed, in time, by faster dreams
ill-built, botched jobs split at the seams
constructed not with love, but greed
and satisfaction guaranteed.

And then, when you require a breath
the bar stools clear, a pall of death
descends, and you find you’re in trouble
having pierced some happy bubble.

Far too much this, too little that:
your hair is wrong, your car. Your hat
is last year’s fashion, out of style;
the line forms left, stay single file.

Safe in your homes, tucked warm and dry,
a murmured hum your lullaby,
Despite the drama, and the arts,
you’ve got to leave; a longing starts.

06 MAY 2004

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Homestead Elegy: a quintilla

A quarter mile back down the lane
paved with loose stone and bits of brick,
past three tall trees that still remain
after ten years almost the same,
though at their bases weeds grow thick,

a wood frame house, its paint in peel
and tin roof rusted rough and brown
still stands, though some would say it kneels
between the overgrown bean fields
and waits for time to knock it down.

The circle drive, worn deep with holes
from tractor wheels and rude snow plows,
runs from the lane to the light pole,
its path no longer clear and whole –
just where it leads, no one knows now.

Beyond the house, down the back hill
through waist-high weeds and long cat-tails.
a drainage culvert runs; it fills
to form a moat, brackish and chilled,
when the snow melts, and spring storms hail.

Before, this place was live and hale,
a stand against the world untamed –
its yards well-tended, hay grass baled;
was not the farm, but farmers failed,
and left the land to take the blame.

Now later, its old bones lay bare,
the marrow dried to dust and stain;
gone too, those who could point to where
among the wild weeds it sleeps there
a quarter mile back down the lane.

revised 26 APR 2004

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Ballad of the Undertown

Now, Councilman Zeb Davis says
that tourists are the way to save this town.
Never mind the unemployment
and the high school where the scores are going down.
And the factories that close?
That’s an element we just don’t need around,
’cause misfortune is attractive
when you pass her by, but don’t take in the sound.

Now, the Holy Rollin’ Baptist preacher
says the choice is Heaven or to Hell.
Never mind those that ignore the call,
they’re lost and so we’ll bid them fare thee well.
And the north side is place
where all the comfortable Christians care to dwell,
so don’t mind the local greasers
and the factory boys, and focus on the sell

Now, the cemetery’s full of conflict’s heroes
and the town’s claim to its pride.
Never mind that’s it’s still killing
and there’s never proof that God is on your side.
And the trick is not to have to walk
when you can find a bandwagon to ride,
’cause the further you are from the ground
the better off you’ll be when He decides.

Now, the local boys are drinking
and the local girls are plastering their hair.
Never mind the ozone layer
when you’re looking good and everyone will stare.
And the trick is to forget
there’s no one watching who can take you anywhere,
’cause the ride to love is free,
but the return trip’s where they charge you double fare.

Now, the smiling politician
says his mandate is new jobs for everyone.
Never mind that it takes three or four apiece
to take the place of one good one.
And the skills you need to get ahead
are never taught to any farmer’s son,
’cause the city boys have learned
a briefcase works a whole lot cleaner than a gun.

Now, the trains roll by the station
since there’s never anybody coming home.
Never mind the old folks dying
or the brother sitting waiting by the phone.
And the high school sweetheart pining
’cause you promised that she’d never be alone,
’cause the world outside is promising
to show you things you never have been shown.

Now, the board of education
puts its trust in the community of saints.
Never mind the harsh reminders
that the golden dream could use a coat of paint.
And the faded football heroes selling cars
without a murmur of complaint,
’cause there ought to be a better way,
but everyone believes that there just ain’t.

Now, when Councilman Zeb Davis
swears that tourists will revive our village square.
Never mind the unemployment in the ’70’s
that left the cupboards bare.
And the looks from all the local boys
that tell you there’s nobody living there,
’cause this kind of spirit only comes out
with a lot of fasting and some prayer.

1998
A few years back, when I was living out on 89 acres in middle-of-nowhere Ohio, I decided that I needed to write a series of songs that clung together in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. As is the case with any venture of that magnitude, some of ’em worked, and some of ’em didn’t. The point was to capture the essence of that population 8,900 small town that was 12 miles down the state route, where 20 years prior I’d gone to elementary and junior high schools, riding the school bus for over an hour each way through endless fields on concrete, then blacktop, then stone-tar, then gravel and finally dirt roads. My cousins still lived there; so did a lot of people I knew. Many had moved away, but much later in their development than I did. Most that moved away never came back, leaving their parents and grandparents (and their way of life, too) to die in that backwoods place (home of the National Coon Dog Field Trials, BTW). Some things had changed, but a lot was very much the same. When we moved from Ohio to California, that part of Ohio was dying. When I moved back, you could still feel that lingering death in the air, and like any long-time sufferer will tell you, there are parts of the daily pain that you just have to put up with, and others you block out entirely. I had traveled many miles before I returned back to the family farm; along the way, maybe I learned a few things. And maybe some of them were worth learning.

BTW, if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, you can sing along to this one, kinda. It has the same verse structure and rhyme pattern as (Just Like) Tom Thumb’s Blues from Highway 61 Revisited.

If you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time, too /
And your gravity fails and negativity won’t pull you through /
Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue /
They got some hungry women there that’ll sure make a mess out of you

There’s also a bit of Tom T. Hall’s The Ballad of Forty Dollars in there, too:

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die /
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes /
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs /
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

Or maybe Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul:

Almost busted in Laredo, but for reasons that I’d rather not disclose /
But if you’re staying in a motel there, and leave, don’t leave nothing in your clothes

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