If Not On or In or From
F. A. Chambers
Being the solid surface of our experience. Being the floor of sound. Being the material at the bottom of things. The central aspect of the soul. The assumption upon which we base our argument. Where the fair takes place. That which is made up of soil and stone and gravel and contains nutrients for our seeds and energy for our computers and cars. The main surface of a painting. Dregs. Sediment. Where we place our hope and what we claim.
When I was young, the ground didn’t seem so important, and I thought my parents would always be close by. The ground was just an impediment to my dreams of walking a long tunnel to China, and it was also, being both the beginning and end of gravity, what stopped me from flying the quarter mile to Jackson Street Elementary School and home again with a heavy backpack. It kept me from seeing the tops of houses. I was weighted down on the sidewalk as Mom or Dad walked me to school. It felt hard and solid, although tree roots were breaking through.
The beginning of nationalism. What’s around. Residuum. Being the linoleum, in certain situations. What was leftover, once, after the use of wool or of meal. Godhead as the source of all that is. What’s done to a child when he’s been bad. The meshes upon which the pattern of lace is worked. The bottom. Being the home of the spirit and the place where you are. The plainsong or melody on which a descant is raised. The beginning of a race or a culture. Where our end is.
Later we notice more space. My parents drove me from Massachusetts to Michigan; I went to college; and, for the decade following, moved from state to state. I started to miss that old root-cracked sidewalk. I had planned to settle near it. I had thought that I, unlike my parents, would be an adult in the same town I had been a kid in. I would mold the geography and culture of the city whose streets and small rivers, small hills and parks were enchanted at first. The ground had been giant whirlpools, labyrinthine castles, mole-tunnels, and rodeos, or even just what it was—the base of a tree with a rope swing that swung us into the Mill River. But I don’t want to romanticize old stomping. The ground breathes threats around children too. Roots cracking up through the sidewalk made me fall off my bike, knocked the wind out of me, and stopped me from learning to ride for years, in spite of my father’s gentle suggestion that I get up and catch my breath and try again.
Ornamental fields surrounding an estate. The bass-line giving a center, or harmonic weight, to the melody. Recreational fields on a campus. What some people take and others unwittingly give. What some refuse to give and others unwittingly take. A subject of study we will cover and so, therefore, also a cultural field. Where farms are and houses and streets. That upon which the towers stood tall. Property and where you take a stand and something surprisingly terrestrial, like the flightless bird or the baseball the few times you managed to hit it in gym class in middle school around all those guys who already had muscles and knew, at the time, where to put their feet. Also, a place to do our work.
Sitting in Alabama, about to move to Indiana, thinking about Massachusetts, I wonder how much it matters to know the ground. It does, if you want to know where you come from. Coal, wood, plastic, bread come from the ground. Adam was formed of dust from the ground. The ground is a womb. It shapes water, wind, narrative. It gives us computers and New York City. The one human thing that is not, somehow, connected to the ground is abstraction.
The ground is the definition of the local. It is nothing if not specific. Generalization defies it. It is the realization of every map, which is to say, if you could see all the layers, if you knew how to read it, you would know every detail there was to know. Each one of us, though, can only read so many languages: we read the geological, the biological, the epic, semiotic, patriotic. My linguistic limitations are bound up in the narratives derived from the grounds I’ve walked.
And so this would not be enough either, to say: sitting on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, about to move to the Norman Upland, remembering the Connecticut River Valley, I wonder how to know.
The root that knocked me off my bike is 800 feet down Prospect Ave. from Prospect St., before Calvin Terrace and the bike path. My mother was less anxious for me to learn to read or ride a bike.
Hyphenation would produce a similar list, including words like ground-sparrow, ground-swell, ground-muffin—what I call my wife to end an argument. There’s ground-ivy, which trails along, never getting tall; ground-cloth, which acts as a membrane to keep the floor of your tent dry; and groundwater, which is contained within the space between rocks, some of which, having been introduced by magmatic processes, has never once been in the atmosphere.
Somehow the ground is generalized anyway. I say Northampton, and I mean certain things about a happy childhood. Somehow the ground is turned into coal, hotel, soy, profit. Ideas attach themselves to some places and bury others, how the ground is the source of all beginnings. In the beginning was the word, and the word was ground.
Phrases, too. To stand your. Our hopes have yet to be dashed to the. To be run into the, as when someone convinces us to work too many hours. To smell the, as when you’ve been on a cruise for three weeks and are hankering for greenery. To break new. To take the. To cover a lot of. To give and to lose and also to make up.
Groundskeepers know where to stand. A bass player maintains the harmony that grew out of a church in Mississippi. A couple of bakers learn what kind of wheat to grow in western New England. A young family in southern Indiana, refusing to generalize onto large, profitable acreage, keeps three acres productive. Picture those three acres, generating for generations.
I imagine my mother growing old in Massachusetts while I dig in in Indiana. It doesn’t seem fair. I want to keep her.
Also, maybe, related to grain.
Also, maybe, groin.
Not too long ago, F. A. Chambers moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his wife and daughter grow and sell vegetables and he bakes bread in an earth oven. As he writes this, it’s raining, and the garlic is ripe but still in the ground. Some of his recent essays and poems have been published, or will appear, in Shampoo, Puerto del Sol, Gulf Coast, and Paper Darts.