Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Impermanence is something we’d get a clue about if we could see in geologic time, but mostly we can’t. I look at my mountains, these ancient Appalachians, and I know they were higher than any others, that maybe they’ve risen and been worn away several times, but what they mean to me is simply home.

I was driving home after working and riding the other day with my eyes peeled for any signs of purple in the blackberry fields. I saw no purple but an old, abandoned house stood out to me there in the middle of one potential berry field. Who built it? Who lived there? That house is not far after a new McMansion with a Hummer out front and, I kid you not, cattle and a cattle pond enclosed with cattle panels for a front yard. How long until that house is abandoned and in the middle of a blackberry field?

I thought of the Nearings, those homesteading icons, and their famous ten foot wall around their first garden in Maine. In their books they decry the impermanence of field fencing and tout the solidity of their stone wall. For something like 14 years they and many of their visitors worked to build this wall. Not long after it was finished, they built a new house with new gardens and sold the old . . . and the new owner promptly knocked holes in those ten foot high stone walls. Their “permanent” wall was effectively gone.

But I also remember a quote from Scott where he says the sum total of his accomplishment in life is to keep a little bit of soil from washing into Penobscot Bay. As I bring truck load after truck load of horse manure onto our farm, I think of that as a permanent improvement too. I mean, it isn’t strictly permanent but I daresay it is more permanent than anything we delude ourselves into believing is lasting.

When we bought this land we were entranced with it. We walked over it and memorized its features, including the ebb and flow of the creeks. And then we moved here and had kids and began major gardens and built a house and the seasons came and went and the creeks ebbed and flowed. And the creeks changed. At first I was flabbergasted. They were still beautiful but were they my creeks? Of course they were, but they were first of all themselves, and second mine only if I take the time to know them in that season.

I know where the foundation, really only a scattering of stones, is to the log house my grandfather was born in in 1898. What lasts is his love of horses and his wife’s frugality and cooking that lives on in me. We live on the side of a different mountain than he lived on, but we live much the same life.

So I suppose my question is, what is permanent and what isn’t?

My mom died last fall. Her body was impermanent, but her self? Her voice certainly lives in my head, and it would seem many other things, in me, my kids, her friends.

Speaking of impermanence, sadly today one of our cats was killed on the road . . . maybe a mile from where we live. He was a tom cat, obviously. Thinking of one cat as the favorite seems to me as immoral as thinking of one kid as a favorite, but this cat was born on Halloween and came to live with us on Christmas eve and was the one who broke his shoulder and if one of us was sick, he would come and lay with that one until they felt better and he was just special. We are thankful that we found him and that he didn’t just disappear and leave us wondering what in the world might have happened to him but oh gosh, we will miss him.

But the other side of that is that two weeks ago we had three kittens born.


Kitt said...

Oh, I'm sorry. It's hard to lose a friend, be it a creek, a house, a mother or a cat.

laura said...

poor kitty, poor you guys. it is sad to lose an animal. hugs.

this idea of permanence/impermanence is something that i think about an awful lot. i am forever amazed by permanence, i can't seem to grasp it. i always have this nagging feeling that nothing is permanent. then i am reminded of how many things are and it blows my mind.

like passing something on the road for years and years and years. just some thing. no matter what. but it's been there, and been there. or when someone lives in the same house their whole lives. my mind can't wrap around it. i am envious of it though.

Anonymous said...

That Nearing quote might be this one:

"I have many doubts, many doubts, a great deal of enthusiasm, and a lot of confidence about making some sort of contribution during this lifetime to the expansion of our expanding universe. Now, that contribution may only consist of turning this brush into topsoil and adding it to the topsoil already here, rather than standing this way and watching it wash down the Penobscot River."

CG said...

That's the quote Eleu. And as I get older I think that "only" is misplaced -- that and your children (their family's or their community's children for those who do not themselves have children) are the only real contributions possible.

Thanks La. Even those things beside the road, or living in the same house, are impermanent though. Even things like high wall mining (which I grew up around) are impermanent -- I can go to my old stomping grounds and I bet I can't travel the strip jobs I used to because the forest has taken them back. But there is something even in our temporary and illusional selves that IS permanent. Something of your creativity will always be within me because I've known you. Perhaps something of my oneryness will be in you. And perhaps something of that will get passed on down the generations too.

kitt, at some point I had some long thought about how, yes, it is sad but it is the way it is and on a farm you get to see that so clearly and that it isn't a tragedy. The thing I dislike the most about people is when they wallow in the mess of their own making. So the creek, the friend, the husband -- I think "losing" those is far more a matter of getting acquainted again (and the commitment to do that). The house, the mother, the cat . . . well, those are different but you can't ever had had those but you have to "lose" them at some point. So the sadness in the losing is like the thought in meditation -- acknowledge it and go back to breath.

Ren said...

I was talking about how in being a parent, you are always having to say goodbye. You have to let the baby go to greet the toddler. You have to let the toddler go to see the little kid. Constantly you are learning about a new person and letting go of who-they-were yesterday.

It's the same with ourselves, but it's so much more obvious with children.:)
I see pictures of them when they were little and it hits me like a brick that I will never have that version of them ever again.

Impermanence in it's finest form. It does help you to be Zen about it all. That and the bees and garden anyway....(for me)

Ren said...

And I have to add, that I see it as impermanence because I don't believe the human race will always inhabit the earth. So even those bits of me they carry forward will be gone someday. I don't feel to sad about it...that's just how it is.

jenny said...

Sorry to hear about the cat. The Lord giveth and taketh.

This is an interesting post, and as I walk around our property I can see the changes that happen so quickly in nature. What was once cleared is now overgrown with vines and small trees and shrubs. Small patches of blackberries are now double and triple in size (the way I like it!).

It's watching an old house slowly fall apart and seeing the wildlife take over and move in, then move out.

It's saying goodbye to grandmothers and hello to newborns.

Seeing a 100+ year old oak fall and acorns growing around it.

Thanks for writing this post.

Alecto said...

I'm very sorry about the cat. Three kittens are very nice but that cat is still the cat. I have trouble losing animals and I like it that way. I'd hate the alternative.

With regard to impermanence, I find that I'm drawn to things that are just about gone, or changed or mostly swallowed back up by the earth but in an obvious way. Two things come to mind. The first are the sharecroppers shacks along old route 13 down the Delmar peninsula. In the 70s when I was small they were in use and as ubiquitous as the mcmansions in my neighborhood today. They fascinated me then but more so now because I feel as if I can see the ghosts more clearly now then I could ever see the people then. If it wasn't for fear of being shot at or seriously trespassing I'd stop the car, wade though those overgrown fields and poke about in what's left of it all in hopes of finding something I can't even begin to explain. The other is old cemeteries. Specifically there is one in Old San Juan built below sea level (who knew?) which creates some interesting results. I don't recall seeing actual human bits sticking up above the ground but there were plenty of rising caskets and cracking sinking monuments. What struck me was that the cemetery is still in use and no one seems the least bit bothered by the 'unsterilized' (I'm not sure that's the word I want; I think I want, uncleaned, unhidden, revealed and truthful) environment.

In any case, in both of those places, I think because the physical is or was departing, the walls between what is temporal and what is not are very, very thin.