“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II
“I have the not altogether unsatisfying impression that civilization is collapsing around me.
Is it my age, I wonder, or the age we live in? I am not sure. Civilizations do collapse, after all, but on the other hand people grow old with rather greater frequency.”
― Theodore Dalrymple
Over the weekend we drove out to some garage sales centered around the tiny towns of Ladonia and Pecan Gap, Texas. We didn’t buy anything other than some State-Fair-Ribbon-Winning jam. It was interesting to be out in the country for a while – you don’t have to drive too many miles out of the big evil megalopolis of Dallas until you are in another world – one not altogether unfamiliar to me. Old building crumbling to brick, an old cast-iron bath tub rusting in a vacant lot, the cotton harvest. Time moves differently, like cold molasses.
- Bois D’Arc
- Bow Wood
- Wild Orange
- Mock Orange
- Southern Buckhorn
- Shittim Wood
When I was riding the DART train Friday night, I saw a poem up on the wall at the Lover’s Lane train station. I couldn’t see if clearly through the windows but it was a sort of list of synonyms for Osage Orange trees (in Texas, they are usually called Bois D’ Arc). There are ubiquitous trees across the middle of the country – they were planted by the millions in hedgerows after the horror of the dustbowl in the thirties to act as a barrier to the wind.
The land used to be divided into neat square mile parcels by these rows of trees. Now, a lot of the hedges are being torn out to get the last square inch of production out of the land.
These trees are fast-growing and scraggly, but thick and strong. They have these weird inedible green fruit that is covered in brain-like convolutions. I thought about the hedges and the trees and their relationship to the land and the people that live there and came up with this little snippet – maybe a story first draft, maybe not.
Sam spent a lot of time over the summer with his friend Jim. Even though Jim’s father worked at the same advertising firm as Sam’s dad – he lived out in the country in a farmhouse he was leasing. Sam figured out that Jim’s father fancied himself a man of the earth and would wear denim overalls, dirty workboots, and an old weather faded straw hat on the weekends, though he would trade that for an Italian wool suit on workdays and Sam had never seen him do any actual farmwork.
Jim had a big family, with four sisters that were always out and around riding their horses and trying to drive Jim and Sam crazy. Sam was an only child and Jim’s mother would always ask him how his parents could stand being alone. Sam replied with a shrug, but he always thought his parents seemed glad to get rid of him for a week or two out at the farm. They acted like they were about to go on vacation.
Back then, people only had one television per family. Sam’s house had a plastic black and white in the kitchen with silver squares of foil folded around the rabbit ears. At Jim’s farm, they had to put up a big antenna on a pole to get reception out there, but they had a big new color set in a glossy wooden cabinet right in the middle of the living room.
Sam loved Saturday Night at the Movies at Jim’s house. The whole brood would pack into the living room and watch the movie of the week together. Somewhere in the middle of the show a Coca-Cola commercial would come on and Jim’s mother would heave herself up from the couch and waddle into the kitchen to fetch a cold bottle from the refrigerator. She would always do this when a Coca-Cola commercial would come on and had no idea why she was suddenly thirsty.
Jim and Sam would laugh and she would give them a perplexed stare but they never told her what was so funny.
Though Jim’s father only rented the farm house and the outbuildings, the kids pretty much had the run of the farmland in that whole corner of the county. Jim’s sisters would wander with their horses while Sam and Jim would hike. Over a steep ridge to the south of the farm was a big farm tank – a pond larger than most which dotted the country. The water was an opaque green and always contaminated by the cattle that strolled over to drink, but after a short time they spent getting used to the idea, Sam and Jim would swim in the pond, especially on the hot summer afternoons when the water was a welcome respite from the sun and various biting bugs. The bottom was soft mud and would bubble and stink when they walked through it but the water was surprisingly deep and kept cool even on the hottest stretches of summer.
Exploring further they crossed another, even higher and steeper ridge and discovered a construction crew digging out a hedge row of Osage Orange trees.
“They’re going to put in a subdevelopment here. My dad told me,” Jim said.
“No it’s not, my dad says the whole city will grow out this far and swallow up all the farms and land and we’ll have to move farther out.”
Sam thought that would take a long time, but he kept his opinions to himself.
One day, walking up on the construction, the boys found a large pile of wood from the felled threes. The work crew had cut up the hedge and arranged the wood so that it could be hauled off easily. The big trunks were piled in a giant heap next to the big balls of roots, but off to the side the large branches were separated and cut into lengths.
“Hey, Sam, look at this!” Jim said, excited, “We can haul these back to the pond and built a raft.”
“Isn’t that stealing?”
“Nope, they’re going to have to haul this off or burn it anyway, we can take what we want.”
The boys ran back to the farm and returned with rope, their hatchets, and a bow saw. They made rope harnesses and dragged the wood over the ridge and down to their pond. They picked straight pieces but took some big ones. The wood was very heavy, orange in color, and tough. These were the hottest days of summer, the sun beating down. The boys worked together to move their burden, roped in tandem to the logs. Shirtless, they sweated until the salt burned their eyes and with each load completed they would dive into the pond to rinse and cool off.
All day Saturday and Sunday they hauled wood. They wanted this done before the work crew came back on Monday. Jim didn’t think they were stealing anything, but he didn’t want to have to answer any questions.
The rest of the week they worked cutting the logs. The logs they hauled were at least twice as long as they needed so every one had to be cut in half. The Osage Orange hedgeapple wood was strong as steel and hard as fint. Their little Boy Scout Hatchets would skip off the wood and only flake off little splinters with each blow – no matter how sharp they honed the edges. Their bow saw worked a little better and the boys took turn sawing until their hands were covered in blisters.
“This is too much work,” Sam said. “We need a different kind of wood.”
“No, this stuff is like iron, think of how strong the raft will be. It will last forever.”
Sam thought then of the two of them poling back and forth across the pond in their raft, and the image made him smile and gave him the motivation to ignore the pain in his palm and go back to sawing with his blister-covered hands.
After three days of sawing they began lashing the logs together, using the ropes left over from the harnesses they had fashioned the week before. In the movies it had always looked easy to lash together a raft, but they struggled with it. They had to revise their design several times, until they realized the importance of diagonal bracing in keeping their raft from collapsing sideways.
Finally, on Saturday, a full week after they had started, they finished their raft. It wasn’t as beautiful as the one they had filled their minds with, but they were very proud of the amount of work they had put into their creation. The sun was already touching the horizon when they decided to launch the raft.
“Well get it into the water tonight, then come out tomorrow and sail it around,” Jim said.
The two of them took up their places on either side of the raft. They had saved two of the smallest and straightest logs to use as a skid to slide the raft down into the water. Still, it was amazingly heavey and hard to move. The boys reached down deep and summoned up their last drops of adrenaline, closed their eyes, and shoved as hard as they could, working together.
Finally, somehow, the raft slid, gaining speed as it moved down into the green mucky water. With a healthy splash it freed itself from the skid and launched out over the pond. In his young mind, Sam saw a mighty ship leaving the quays and floating out onto the sea. With their feet sinking into the mud in the shallow water at the shore the boys gave a last loud spontaneous simultaneous shout and pushed the raft out towards the center of the pond, already thinking of swimming out there and climbing aboard and enjoying their work as the sun set orange in the west.
The raft moved out and sank like a rock.
“Of course it did,” Jim’s father told the two dejected boys after they had trudged home, “Osage Orange is the hardest, heaviest wood there is, that’s why they use those trees for hedgerows. Especially when it’s fresh and wet, it’s heavier than water.”
He let out a grownup laugh, but the boys didn’t think it was very funny.
Sam was going to go home in two days. He had thought of calling his parents and asking to stay another week. He had wanted to spend it floating around the pond on the raft. Now, though he didn’t want to stay. The boys didn’t hike to the pond the next day like they always did. They even let Jim’s sisters ride them around on the back of their horses, which seemed to make them happy, though Sam had trouble concealing the fact that he was actually scared of the horses.
The next summer, Sam came out to the farm for a few days. Sitting in the back seat while his parents drove him out there, he saw the yellow pine two by fours they were using to build the new homes where the hedgerow used to be. They were in perfect rows and squares, all exactly the same. Jim and Sam talked about walking out there to explore the half built houses, they knew they would have to go by the pond on the way and they couldn’t do that.
Sam kept thinking about the raft slowly rotting into that foul mud at the bottom of the pond and called his parents to come get him two days early. Jim understood this was for the best, and his mother assumed wrongly that Sam for some reason finally missed his own family.