I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.

Prodigal’s Return: A Poem

The little pond

back in the woods

was my Walden

before I’d ever

heard of Thoreau.

I’d wander there

to skip a rock

sit ponder

let its shimmer me.

Back home now

things are rotten. 

The old feed store

the depot the cannery

even the yellow

caboose Old Man White

pulled off the track

its roof agape

to the sky.

Leaving daffodils

for Mama and Grandma

walked the cemetery

where all my old Sunday

School teachers lie

beside my brother

my childhood best friend

Steve, Daddy, Uncle Jack

and the rest.

The tombstones

like books on a shelf

each one a story only

those still walking

can tell. Each a volume

of local lore in a

graveyard collection

gone to seed.

I left there in tears

then found myself

walking the overgrown

path that once was the

railroad bed

back down to what

I hoped was still

my pond.

Jumped a fence

fought through

brush to a clearing

where it lay

exactly as always

chatoyant

in its ragged collar

of pines.

A tree down

in a circle of sawdust

chips very recently

gnawed by beavers

And the dam

look how the creek

had worked its way

around

begun to empty out

until the beavers came

in the pond’s abandonment

to make the necessary

repairs,

their lodge a patch

that saved it all.

So I sat again

for as long as it took

for all my tears to dry

left with a rock

in my pocket

and a lesson I think

that some things can last

yet to plug home

and hearth into water

requires a beaver’s

attention

the hard work of

teeth and heart

and yes you pick

your battles

but now’s the time

to start.