Fall2017Non-Fiction

3 Essays – Matthew Vollmer

Land of Enchantment

Four years have now passed—incidentally, the same amount of time it takes for light from Alpha Centauri, the nearest known star to the sun, to reach Earth—since I visited a New Mexican shaman. I chose New Mexico because I wanted to journey to someplace far away and magical and because New Mexico, which lives nearly two thousand miles from me, on the other side of the country, is known as the Land of Enchantment. I chose the shaman because she had a decent website and I liked the way she used her “About Me” page to tell the story of how, decades earlier, she had journeyed to Morocco to study with Paul Bowles and to Spain to receive the blessing of an older shaman, an old woman who recognized the younger as someone to whom she could pass on the lineage of her teachings. I also liked the fact that she didn’t look like a shaman—assuming it’s safe to say that American shamans can be said to have a “look”—but instead appeared simply to be the kind of vibrant, radiantly happy middle-aged woman who could rock braids without it seeming like a superficial way to appear girlish. I rented a car from Virginia Tech’s Fleet Services—a Prius whose license plate frame announced that the vehicle was “FOR OFFICAL USE ONLY”—and drove the 1600 plus miles to Santa Fe. In a room decorated with intricately woven rugs and Buddha statues and an ottoman where a plate of sage was smoldering, the shaman took a drum the size of a manhole and beat it while singing what sounded to me like an ancient, droning hymn. And when she entered the spirit realm or whatever—I know I’m messing this part up—she said she found my wisdom soul, an entity in the shape of a boy who, according to the shaman, abandoned me when I was six years old; he now lived on a dude ranch in Wyoming, because the sky was so big out there and he loved the stars. Even so, this wisdom soul told the shaman that he wanted to come home and would I let him and if so would it be okay if he brought the stars too. I said yes and the shaman blew on the top of my head and then against my chest, as if she were blowing right into my heart; her breath smelled faintly—and not unpleasantly—of garlic. My job then, the shaman said, was to welcome the wisdom soul, to speak to it, to get to know it, and also to take a packet of tobacco she’d given me and sprinkle it around the base of a tree, as a thank you to ancestral spirits, or something, the latter of which eventually I did, but I have to admit that I never talked to the wisdom soul, didn’t know how, really, or what I would say, never really believed that there ever even was an actual wisdom soul, though I wonder now if that was even the point—that instead I was supposed to learn to talk to a metaphorical part of myself I’d failed to nurture or even know. The day before I’d visited the shaman, I’d left the town of Marfa, Texas—where I’d spent the night in a vintage Airstream, and eaten chili poured into a bag of Fritos, and drank a margarita with jalapenos floating around inside—and driven north, to visit Prada Marfa. You may have heard of this place—a building that looks like a Prada store, in the middle of the desert. Even though the signs on the store say, “Prada,” and the letters exhibit the company’s familiar font, and even though there are windows through which you can view various bags and shoes that appear to have been arranged on shelves in a manner that suggests that they might be for sale, they are not, because store is not an actual store. The door, for instance, is not a door than can be opened. The point of this thing, according to Elmgreen and Dragset, the pair of artists who designed it, was to build a monument to capitalism and then let nature take its ruinous course—and if somebody shot out a window or desert animals began to use it as a home, so be it—but days after it was finished, a thief broke in and stole everything. So the designers replaced the broken windows with fortified glass, cut the bottoms out of the bags, displayed only right-footed shoes, and tagged everything with GPS trackers. As much as I like to think about this fake little Prada store in the middle of the desert—the closest town, Valentine, has a population of 230—I think I would’ve liked it better if the creators had stayed true to their word. I like to imagine the building gradually falling apart, and that if somebody time lapsed this decay, it might resemble something eaten by quicksand. As terrifying as the idea of falling into quicksand is, there is something pleasurable—to me, anyway—about watching something get sucked into the ground and out of sight. I hadn’t ever given this phenomenon much thought, and I certainly wasn’t aware that anyone would consider the sight of another person struggle and cry as they sank slowly into a bog or any kind of mushy earth to be arousing, but apparently this is a thing and there are filmmakers whose entire oeuvre consists of other humans—usually women, in various stages of undress, but not, necessarily, naked—sinking slowly out of sight. I know, from reading several books on the subject, that if a person—a shaman, say, or someone under a shaman’s direction—wants to travel from ordinary reality—that is, our everyday reality, with its limitations—to non-ordinary reality—that is, a spirit realm where anything is possible, where animals talk and people fly and our dead ancestors roam freely—that the traveler lies down on the floor, eyes closed, listens to the beat of a drum, and imagines climbing into a hole in the earth, and tunnels through the dark until light appears, and that this is one way to gain entrance to this so-called spirit realm, where, with one’s power animal, one might seek the kind of wisdom that can make life in ordinary reality more bearable. I wonder, now, if quicksand could be seen as a kind of hole—a hole in disguise, like the booby traps I used to make by scooping out hollows at the edge of our yard and then laying twigs and leaves over top—and that maybe a person could use quicksand as another way to journey to non-ordinary reality. I suppose it could be argued that quicksand isn’t a hole, but I seem to remember that the important thing was that one should imagine an entrance into the earth, and that this was an important part of exiting everyday reality. So who’s to say in the end that I can’t lie down, eyes closed, with the others who are listening to the beat of an ancient drum, visit the jungle of my mind, where I shimmy myself into a patch of quicksand and—fighting its pull to ensure I sink faster—until the sopping muck suctions me under, and I’ve left the world—and its rules—behind. 

 

Tiger Moth

I wanted to write about the psychological effects of a recent drought but didn’t want to begin with either the idea of rain or the lack of it; I wanted to start with the fact that the vast majority of woolly bear caterpillars I’d seen recently were orange. Not mostly orange, with two black ends, as I had learned as a child to recognize them, but completely and totally orange, from head to toe, that is, if a woolly bear caterpillar—the larva of the pyrrharctia isabella, or Isabella Tiger Moth—could be said to have either heads or toes, which, perhaps, they cannot. I couldn’t remember having seen a woolly bear caterpillar that was completely orange, and figured the one that had appeared before me, as I was racing along on my bicycle, was an anomaly, some variety of larval mutant, but then I spotted a second and third and fourth completely orange woolly bear, each one dutifully traversing the expanse of asphalt before them like a tiny sock that had come to life. Once I returned home, I typed “woolly worm” into an Internet search engine and learned how some observers of the species had surmised that worms who had a higher orange to black ratio indicated that the coming winter would be mild, and though scientists claimed that there was little to no evidence to support the idea that a woolly worm could function as a predictor of any weather or non-weather related event, neither was there evidence to the contrary. Still, the sight of these orange caterpillars, and the mild winter they might or might not portend, troubled me. I should say that I have come, over the years, to relish excessive amounts of snowfall, and thus the necessary conditions for cross country skiing, an outdoor activity enjoyed by those who have enough disposable income to purchase poles and boots and skis, as well as the gumption, as my ninth grade Algebra teacher might have put it, to transform what might otherwise be thought of as an inhospitable environment it into a veritable wonderland: imagine shushing past evergreens laden with snow and generating enough energy that you end up de-gloving and admiring how falling snow crash melts on your bare hands like ice on a hot stove. I should point out here that thinking about snow after having considered the woolly bear caterpillar was especially delicious because it happened to be late September, and almost no rain had fallen in three weeks, and this lack of rain had me worried, because as much as I dislike the idea of a mild winter, I dislike droughts even more. I don’t like metaphorical droughts—reports about once-hot basketball players entering shooting slumps, or stories about writers who seem to have exhausted their figurative wells—and I don’t like literal ones. For some reason, the first thing I think of when anyone utters the word “drought” is Mountain Lake, on Salt Pond mountain, which dried up in 2009, a fact I know to be absolutely true, because I paid this so-called lake a visit when it shrank to its lowest point, and traversed its cracked bottom, which was strewn with antique beer cans that boaters of yore had tossed from their rowboats, and I observed firsthand the puddle of dead fish that represented the last of the lake’s pathetic content. I don’t like how dead grass crunches during a drought, or how soil turns to powder, or how the forest, as my father says, becomes “tinder dry,” a phrase that always makes me imagine the hot coal of a discarded cigarette turning crispy undergrowth into a raging inferno. Every dry creek bed makes me remember Volume 3 of My Bible Friends, a book I read as a boy that told, using painted illustrations that were as real to me as photographs, the story of the prophet Elijah, and how, after he spoke against King Ahab, he retreated to the Brook Cherith, which dried up; I can still see that dry creek bed in my mind, and the gray sky above, and the leafless trees, and the gray rocks which, only a page before, had been flooded with water, just as I can see Elijah himself, portrayed as an older Caucasian man receiving food from the crows that were sent by the Lord to deliver food. I find myself thinking during droughts about trees and how many gallons of water each one requires, and how they become stressed and how, to survive, they shed their leaves, and how much more water than average must be required by the enormous oak in the yard across the street from where we live, a tree that was purchased, 75 years ago, as a sapling at Sears Roebuck and Co., or at least that’s what Doris, my 93-year-old neighbor has told me. As it turns out, however, despite all my worry about the drought, it did finally rain, quite a bit over the course of several days, so much in fact that the ground below our house became saturated with water, which began to seep through the concrete in our basement. Though I was distraught to learn that The Red Book—an expensive tome the size of my torso that my wife had purchased for me one Christmas, and which contained a facsimile of Carl Jung’s visions and imaginings from the early 20th century—had been damaged by this seepage, I didn’t mind using a wet vac to suck up the puddle in our storage room, since it meant that, in no uncertain terms, the drought was over; for days, we couldn’t cross the lawn without leaving prints in the ground, which was so saturated it sucked at our shoes. But that was over a month ago now, and very little rain has fallen since, and so my mind turns again to the prophet Elijah, fed by crows at the edge of the Brook Cherith, during the time of no-rain, hoping to survive. I think now about the tiger moth larvae, which, during periods of intense cold, produces a cryoprotectant, an antifreeze protein that protects its cells so that it can safely freeze. And although droughts and frozen tundra might be seen as vastly different, it seems they might have more than one thing in common, and perhaps the next time I find myself cocooned in worry, I will remember this little worm in the snow, with its frozen guts and heart of ice, waiting, without a thought in its head, for the next thaw to come.

 

Inferno

The mountains of my home state—whose legislators believe protecting straight people from transgender people is more important than raising teachers’ salaries—are on fire. The mountains where I live now certainly could be; we haven’t had any rain to speak of in over a month. I keep picturing the U. S. Drought Monitor website in my head, wondering how long it will be until our part of the state goes from yellow to red. It’s the 18th of November and pulsing swarms of gnats still appear in midafternoon. The maple trees downtown still look like they’re on fire. I passed a grove of oak trees today on my bike and the leaves hissed. On a nearby ridge, somebody discharged a shotgun, then discharged it again. A truck from the Sheriff’s office rolled behind two men in orange jumpsuits picking up refuse with trash grabber sticks. I wondered how long my consciousness would continue to unspool if I swerved in front of a school bus, whose chains clanked together ominously as it passed, as if it might be some kind of Dickensian ghost vehicle. I wondered about the signs I passed: a rusted square hanging from a pole in front of a barn that said “PET”; a flag advertising “fast internet”; a banner protesting the proposed gas line that announced I had entered what might someday be known as “the evacuation zone.” I thought about my students, many of whom would be spending Thanksgiving with family members responsible for electing our new president, for whom they could not bring themselves to vote, for reasons they dared not share with their parents. On The Diane Rheem Show, Diane asked John Grisham whether his extraordinary wealth qualified him as one of the 1% of the 1%; John Grisham said he didn’t know what that meant, and furthermore, could we just not talk about money or politics? Because, John Grisham said, he was so so sick of talking about politics. My neighbor texted me to let me know that the pig he’s buying will soon be ready for slaughter, and that my wife and I had been invited to their house for dinner and to watch Survivor, a show we don’t normally watch, but we agreed, under the circumstances, to give it a shot. At the end of my bike ride, I glided into the cemetery I always pass on my way home, but had never actually visited, and was surprised to learn that none of the names—“Savage,” “Mast,” “Shaver,” “Hunter”—meant anything to me. I called my father to check up on the fires, which were now threatening to burn the historic Trail of Tears, which the Cherokee had walked nearly 180 years before, at the bayonet points of U.S. soldiers. The air, he said, was smoky. The forecast for rain was slim. The fires, according to some, could burn throughout the winter—and beyond.

 


 

Author Bio: Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise (Persea, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009; Salt Publishing, 2010)—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012). His work has appeared widely, in such places as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New England Review, DIAGRAM, Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Normal School, Willow Springs, The Antioch Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, Carolina Quarterly, Oxford American, The Sun, Best American Essays, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. He teaches at Virginia Tech.

The author: zlis@iastate.edu