Weller House by Brett Busang
Essay by Brett Busang
It’s All There and Then Some
I love North Dakota. Its grain elevators pierce the sky as nothing else quite can. Its long, straight roads are darkly mesmerizing. Its people do not laugh easily because they know it can get bad out there and they’re always waiting.
My ex-girlfriend grew up in a small town there. And eventually went somewhere else. (If you don’t get away by the age of twenty, you won’t at all.) Traversing more landmasses than was absolutely necessary, she headed for Indonesia where she taught ESL – which you can do anywhere on the planet. ESL is a hangover from the Colonial Era, when it was desirable to speak The Mother Tongue, which was English and not whatever the heathen were chattering between the bridges they were riveting together and the tunnels they were being forced to dig. (According to all the English, people gladly shed their own languages in order to squeak out a “By Jove!” now and then.) In any case, her strategy worked. She hasn’t gone back except to sit in on weddings, interact with new nieces and nephews, and puzzle over family relationships that would have dissolved elsewhere in a trice.
I fell in love with the place not because the people are liberal or the streams run clear (though many still do) or it’s a nice place to sit and do nothing. I fell in love with it because of what it does to my sense of mortality, which is as highly developed as one might expect from a neurotically inclined, environmentally conscious doomsayer. When in North Dakota, you are strangely exempt from it as you rotate your head on a long stretch of highway and realize that your mortality is of no concern where people feel death easily and continuously; feel it on their skin, in their bones, and in a third place nobody can describe, but know very well nonetheless. They feel it in the deadly white texture of a billowing snow-drift. And on roofs that fall in on a family that has just sat down to watch American Idol. In North Dakota, they know death so well that they’re bloody well over it.
I am a landscape painter whose connection with the earth has been compromised by mass entertainment, social media, and the ready availability of plastic forks and spoons. It has been tampered with by Madison Avenue. And it has been re-assigned, during bouts of casual narcissism, to the lower reaches of our consciousness. When I was very young, I learned about my own corruptibility, which could be seasoned, like a new baseball glove, with emollients and extracts that also made it tougher. After I had spun a thousand records on a small turntable; rejected nature books for the autobiographical outpourings of rock stars; decided that it wasn’t “cool” to sit quietly before a cattail bloom and listen for the splat of a pickerel frog. . .yes, after these experiences had seeped - with my spirited connivance – into me, I realized, between lubricious thoughts and electronic expectations, that I was dead inside. That I’d been stuffed with the parboiled essences of a culture that thrived on testosterone and loved to ram its head against a wall. That I’d been brainwashed with the insanely kinetic possibilities of an ethos that never ran out of steam – a quantity that has always been in the air when people are restless. That I’d been taken out of my soul and come to a crossroads. One side ran free and clear. On the other, there was delectable chaos and head-banging noise.
I finally chose the tougher of the two paths and came out a sort of teenaged monk who aspired to see life as a child would – in spite of the testosteronish urges that made the child run amok now and then. I went back into nature and wallowed in it. I learned the names of plants and flowers; studied the heavens; took walks that would have taken Thoreau to the cleaners. After a while, I discovered a palatable middle-ground through which I could travel without discomfort, but the schism had occurred and I couldn’t go back to being the heedless fellow I thought I’d been. Nor, on the other hand, could I regain the purity of spirit I was certain I had lost.
Some years later, I started to paint and liked it. It answered my need for immersion in something greater than myself. It was technically challenging. And it had a curious autonomy about it; you belonged to it for a time, but had to pass it along when you were done. It was like nature itself: a place to escape into when hiding was no longer possible. In the thirty-plus years I’ve been doing it, I’ve been caught up in a kind of journey for which my paintings stand as evidence. But they are just things; the experience itself is as elusive now as it was when I first began with a prayer that has been occasionally answered. I am satisfied with that; when you deal with the unquantifiable, you should take what you can get.
As I was saying, death in North Dakota has been thoroughly assimilated. It was ready and waiting when the settlers came, with their tarnished pots and pans, to farm and spread out. The first winters roared in from a weather system such as these hard-fisted Norwegians had never seen. Their sod houses fairly whistled when it pushed like some steam-driven force-field against them. Babies lived just long enough for their names to be incised into plank or stone. The ones who survived got quiet after a number of hard winters and pretty much stayed that way. They couldn’t raise their voices above the native din. When the grasshoppers swooped down, they cried out, but nobody heard them. Besides, what could they have done? Yet the whoosh these ravening creatures made could raise the hair on their necks at fifty. They couldn’t demur when friends and brothers went into a wheeling vacuum for a missing child. Death was not only their companion; it was their missing kin, their social advisor. This kind of intimate relationship makes a person very quiet, as if the Other Shoe might drop at any minute. Because it will.
Into such a mixture of doughty cheerfulness and textbook fatalism I came to visit. And live. And do a little painting. The people seemed to like me well enough, but I was a lightweight to them. I wasn’t in The Zone and never would be. I’d never seen mangled bodies on the road, as every ambulance volunteer had. I’d not waited out the incomprehensible. I’d just read things and asked questions.
The most disturbing question of all stemmed from a paradoxical situation I still don’t understand. Here in the heartland, which is the sum of all good things, it is dreadfully toxic. Fields of beet, corn, and soybeans are so disastrously large that the only way to achieve perfect pest control – according to the agri-model in use today - is to spray the hell out of them. Tragically, my ex-girlfriend’s family is caught up in a deadly triangle: between the necessity to live, the imperatives of nature, and the “solutions” that are imposed to control and manage them.
Her brother is a kind of mechanical genius who works on the airplanes that do the spraying. I went up in one and it was quite lovely over the silos, the tiny cars - the suddenly insignificant world men and women occupy for a time and are, like so much chaff, trimmed unexceptionally away. I could see why people wanted to be up there all the time. For those who believe in a Christian God, it is a place for communion. It is also a place to look upon Creation, as it were, from The Creator’s vantage point. (This is the sky-god of which Gore Vidal spoke with little awe, and no feeling for epiphanies great or small. I would pronounce him an earth-roving brother.) The colors are rich, the air banks along the side of the plane, and it’s exhilarating to the senses. The guy who took me up was ravaged by a cancer that possibly stemmed from those dust-clouds that supplied him and his family with winter vacations, but played havoc with his cells. He liked to cradle a small dog as he watched the instrument panel. Though be believed in the wrong solutions, he wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, it was he who suggested I go up with him in the first place. He wanted to share his domain. That was pretty nice of him, I thought.
The matter has come to a head in my ex-girlfriend’s mind. She fears, quite rightly, for her brother’s safety. But she knows that, to throw light on the “problem” of his livelihood, she’s biting into a sacred apple, which will spew sour mash back at her. She knows that she can’t challenge the brightly tarnished source of his family’s well-being; its hard-won serenity; its hierarchical homeland. She understands that her brother’s sense of accomplishment is dependent on him repairing those planes. And, while such a thing is lost on me, a community’s reputation is more than peripherally touched by a man who can get up in the morning, work all day at something he’s good at, and go home a presumably honest man. North Dakotans not only have a strict work ethic, they believe in the stripped down morality of me-to-you. If you can’t look somebody in the eye and tell him what you believe in, you don’t cut the mustard. You lack character. You should be ashamed. In this place where people boast of unlocked doors and community automobiles anybody might use, the land that is the livelihood of so many is horribly tainted. It’s killing people. And they just don’t want to know.
When I first got there, I was seduced, not only by the searing geometry of the place, but by its smell. It drifted into town from the prairie with which it had fused in settler days, when the Indians were never far away. The grasses were gone, there were no sod houses anymore, but there was a timeless something in that smell. Wafting from field to town, it seemed to gather momentum once it passed the porous boundaries of street and yard. In Washington, where I presently live, smell is fairly neutral – a soupy mixture of engine rot, tailpipe emissions, and, occasionally, something sweetly organic. A dead something. Or the plumes of smoky flavor that make the rounds of one’s senses - and, like all theoretical pleasures, are preposterously seductive. Sometimes I’ll be walking about and am seized with an aching desire for spare-ribs. Not that I ever eat them. Nor have I thought about them until a flue or funnel releases them. For that moment, I am the born-again carnivore my implacable morality has rejected. But when the smell dissipates, I regain my balance and don’t think of it again. Or until the next time such an expected pleasure – fraught and forbidden though it may be – brings my helpless imagination to its knees.
Yet here smell comes and goes. On the prairie, it is continuous – a sort of marmalade that spreads itself out on the tongue. It is a compendium of red earth, minuscule bits of harvest, and toxic chemicals that have bonded with it and may never be taken away. One day I went out to paint the farmhouse where the maternal side of the family grew up. As I crouched in the tall grass, I took the measure of clapboards, got the lean of a telephone pole, and contemplated the phenomenon of a shake roof – which suggested Cape Cod and not the Red River Valley. The wind was pulling great hanks of cloud from the Southwest and letting them go in a scramble. To paint that sky, I would needed a shaman’s grasp of the before and after – or a mathematician’s brooding memory. I contented myself with a lower species, which didn’t move around as much. As I painted, the smell was rich, but unstable. As I drew it in, it kept changing, not with the easy tempo of my breath, but with the same mad celerity as the clouds. One moment it would be ripe with straw. Then it would lose that and come back warm and beety. I could almost see the hectic color in it. After a while it would turn up inside my nostrils as a kind of paste I wanted to spit out, but could not.
To stretch my legs, I walked to the edge of a gravel road, which went to the nearest town. Ten miles to the south was a grain elevator which towered over houses that had taken comfort in it and spread out in all directions. Occasionally a car whooshed by, raising dust-clouds that unbundled (it seemed to me) one noisy particle at a time. As I stood in their path like a movie fallout victim, I caught a whiff of something faintly ominous. Its sourish aftertaste made me cover my mouth and turn away. It had an attractive coloration, but it wasn’t something I cared to breathe. What to do about a place that ostensibly gives you and your family life, but will ultimately kill you?
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
The farmhouse is still there, lashed uneasily to the land, leaning into it. Nobody really wants it and there is no urge to re-claim the past it represents. “Why”, I wanted to know “don’t you want to go in there and sort through those boxes?” I’d gone up to the second floor, found them there, and looked through them. Old letters were tied together with kite-string. Photos of forgotten relatives frowned from the inside of yellowed envelopes. An ashtray that had come from “Our Nation’s Capitol” was – albeit in miniature - as kitschy as a pink Cadillac. I looked out the window, which reminded me of a movie still: cracked pane, distant landscape, inside and out. It was a picture with a death sentence riding over it.
“We’ll burn it at some point,” somebody said. “Shoulda done it a long time ago.”
Yet they all enjoyed my facsimile.
“Looks better here it does out there.”
“I still wouldn’t want to live there.”
“Nobody’s asking you.”
“Just stating my opinion.”
“And we don’t know what that is already?”
“It’s a free country. I can say what I want.”
When it came time to leave, I almost choked up, just as I’d done at the age of seven, when the transience of things slapped me upside the head and roiled around inside of me. There I was, amidst a posse of aunts and uncles, their disrupted lives about to be reclaimed. As I shook their hands, I tried not to blubber – though they probably knew I was fighting it. Why? Because I had studied mortality, North Dakota style, and I found it startling. I had been touched with a spirit that was as small as a single person’s life and as majestic as life’s pain and potential. I had stumbled upon some life-lesson and it was seeping in for the very first time.
We were back home in a matter of hours, tugging at our bags, wondering whether we should take a taxi or tough it out on the Metro. Frayed nerves and budding resentments crept into our observations of crowded places.
“We live like this?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically.
“We do,” I said. “All these people? They’re our brothers and sisters.”
“Shut up,” she said back to me, opening a book she hadn’t touched since she’d packed it.
Her people lived better than their ancestors, but they were physically present in the world these hard-scrabble folk had made. There were also making themselves into potential victims.
As we sat on the connector bus, I wondered not what would happen to these people, but when. I was having apocalyptic feelings right when I should have been enjoying elegiac ones. Shouldn’t I just be missing these people, the land that cradles them, the relative safety and security of their ways? Sure I should! But I thought about those smells, the false promise of being high up, and the dogged innocence that would not acknowledge the enormous elephant a passing question had dragged in. It was then that I re-discovered the child my aunts and uncles tried to humor. Mortality is a shocking thing, even if you are well-versed in its roosts and rituals. Its tumorous presence unmans you. Its unmediated strength gets you down. I got over it because I had to make sure that bodies and luggage got onto that train, which, when we took our places alongside of the track, pulled up in record time. Before the doors shut, I caught the smell of the place: tipped, as it were, with the deadly stuff that stays trapped in a tunnel. Yet it was strangely hopeful, as if it would dissipate once we got into the station, where the grandeur of our civilization wandered into my mind and stayed there.
Brett Busang bio:
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri - a place that appears, among people whom I expect to know something about me, to be one of my least memorable attributes. (In my defense, T. S. Eliot was born there too. In his: the hometown he would eventually adopt was so far away that St. Louis became an automatic footnote. As it has become with me as well. In all other regards, T. S. Eliot and I have as much in common as Westminster Abbey has with Sportsman's Park.)
Now that I've wasted so much time establishing my origins, I don't think there's room for anything else. Except that T. S. Eliot was a screwball pitcher; me, I alternated between a sinking fastball and a knuckle-ball that sailed. (When he wrote about a patient being etherized on a table, he was thinking about the pitch he threw at a minor poet, who couldn't get out of the way fast enough. While Eliot was able to re-invent himself, his victim could no longer write blank verse. And spent the rest of his career as a jingle-writer.)