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Good Letters

20100705-fecundity-by-david-griffithFor the last four mornings in a row I have found myself walking the gravel road that runs past our house just as the sun is rising. I would like to brag that this is partly inspired by my recent re-reading of Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but that would be mostly a lie, because also with me at this time, strapped squirming to my chest is my son, Alex.

Alex has taken to waking up at five a.m., hungry, and, afterwards, he just sits there in the crook of my arm and stares up at me, wide-eyed, with a look that says, “what do we do now?” So walking has been a way to entertain him, because he’s not yet at the age where he can appreciate the play mat with all the jingly, mirrored and plush things hanging from it. Right now, at seven weeks old, he just wants movement. So, we walk.

We walk roughly northwest, following Dairy Road toward the old dairy barn, which sits there peeling, rotting full of pigeons whose cooing borders on obscene, more like a low moaning. There are many other songbirds awake and singing full-throated, complicated songs, but the cavernous barn amplifies the unsavory pigeon noise making it hard to ignore.

Once past the dairy barn you get a good view of the sun coming up over the pasture. Most mornings there are deer grazing here. Yesterday we saw a buck with budding, velvet antlers and a doe, but we have seen as many as ten deer on this hillside.

This is haymaking season and dozens of round bales dot the hillside, backlit by the fiery orange of the sun, which comes low and hard. Standing still for a moment you can actually see the sun rising, or at least tell that it is rising, as one moment it sits dead center in the crosshairs of a tree’s branches and the next it is slightly off.

Looking down at Alex in his sling, the back of his velvety head is brilliant orange and warm, as is part of his arm that’s sprung loose, as are my pant legs and shoe tops. Within ten seconds of noticing this, the air begins to warm, the light becomes too intense to look, and I’m reminded of how brutally hot it will be later.

Our habit is to next make a loop around the back of the barn where there is a rutted lane for farm vehicles and a couple old storage sheds. A visiting theater troupe is using this as the stage for an out-door performance of Hamlet. At night, standing on our porch, we can hear them rehearsing. The startled, incredulous voice of Hamlet himself rises above the low mumble of the other actors.

The desire to walk through their set is triggered by an odd impulse, one I don’t quite understand, but I think what I’m looking for are signs of transformation, some signs that the landscape is being altered by the troupe in preparation for the performance.

Each morning, as Alex and I walk through this narrow lane I am comparing what I see before me to the morning before. One morning I noticed a bench I hadn’t before. The next, noticing nothing different in the lane, I opened an old door rotting on its hinges to find a crutch and a medieval-looking wooden rake. Just yesterday I noticed several halogen lamps had been discretely installed under the eaves. Slowly, I am watching the stage being set.

Once we have passed through the lane, we loop back on to Dairy Road and toward the house. By this time Alex is usually asleep, the sun has cleared the hill and is now beginning to illuminate the gravel road, the red clay beneath glowing ethereally, Mars-like. If he’s asleep I take him in the house and put him in his cradle, but if awake I keep on walking past the house and uphill, around a sharp bend to the community garden. In a couple hours it will be too hot to water and like the narrow lane of the Hamlet set I want to see what has changed overnight.

Change has come more slowly to the garden this summer because it has been so hot. In this heat—90 plus everyday for the past two weeks—everything seems to have stopped. The tomatoes on the vine are still as hard and as green as last week. The peppers are still tiny ceramic replicas of what you can buy in the store.

The most noticeable daily changes in the garden are to the potato plants that are being defoliated by potato beetles, and the spreading plague of morning glory that insist on climbing the tomato cages and the stalks of the pepper plants. No matter how many beetles I squash or vines I uproot, the next morning there are more.

Done watering, Alex is asleep, lulled by the shush of the water. Now is when I keep a look out for the fox. I’ve spotted him twice now on the road to the garden. He looks like a house cat at first, but then you notice something is off about the tail, and the way his head hangs from the body. It’s only when he turns and you see the long snout and large pricked up ears that the illusion of cat is dispelled. But by this time—mere seconds—he has bounded off into the woods.

Back at the house, Alex sleeping in his cradle, I take up Dillard’s Tinker Creek. I’m on the chapter called “Fecundity”: “the fertility of an organism; its potential reproductive capacity.” As I read, I daydream about the fecundity of the pigeons in the dairy barn, which quickly turns into a fantasy that the fox and his family will take up residence and thin out the population.

And then the dream turns to the narrow lane behind the barn. It is evening. The crowd has gathered. A breeze slides in waves down from the distant Blue Ridge, each passing minute the sky is darkening by degrees, the shadow of the barn lengthens over us. Gradually, the edges of the world begin to soften and blur.

And though I’ve been preparing for this, every morning walking, noting the small changes in hopes that I will be able to isolate that moment when stubborn reality gives way, I look down for only a moment, and when I look up the barn has become a castle. I sit there, mouth hanging open, stunned by how easily my disbelief has melted away, how eagerly I want to believe.

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Written by: David Griffith

Dave Griffith is the author of Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The LA Review of Books, Killing the Buddha, Offline, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He lives in Michigan with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, where he directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He recently finished a book manuscript titled Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America.

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