HOW I BECAME THE OPPRESSOR

5 06 2013

As I said, I’ve been having a bit of a time adjusting to life with a decentralized kitchen and  without a hot shower.  The internet, on the other hand, I have hardly missed at all–with so much needing my attention right here at hand, it was actually been a relief to have access to the virtual world simply out of the question, and, now that it is available, it just doesn’t seem as all-fired important as it did when I had a roof over my head.  Most of what needs my attention is right in front of my face.  On the other hand, with most of our reference books burned up, there’s been questions that were hard to answer, like, “Are the boils on Cindy’s leg from a brown recluse spider?”  We took that to the “doc in a box” at a local drug store, and, for about $70, were assured that they were not.  Likewise, a couple of worrisome birth marks on my neck and arm required a visit to a dermatologist to determine that they were just what happens when you get old, but that another, much less conspicuous little white dot on my forehead was precancerous, and needed to be removed while it was still simple.  These are the kind of services that will be harder to come by in a more general collapse/disaster.  Our fire was just a one-family version.

It’s strange.  Here we are, hauling cooking and drinking water from a tap in our basement and living mostly outdoors, while within sight of us, our neighbors’ lives are completely normal.

While I bore the fire, and the loss of my books, clothes,family mementos, and CD collection with a fair amount of equanimity, I panicked one night last week as a thunderstorm bore down on us.  Just when I thought I had a clear shot at finishing my other building project and doing a lot of music and other writing, this landed in my lap–or more like on my head–instead.  I had been venting my discontent over this to Cindy, and now I became convinced that the storm would topple a large, slowly dying maple tree uphill from the trailer, crushing me in my bed.  Pursued by my demons, Cindy and I ran up to Hill House in a rain so dense and driving that it was hard to tell where we were, getting soaking wet in spite of raincoats and umbrellas.  After an hour or so of hanging out and talking, my venting transmuted into understanding and acceptance, the rain subsided and I went back down to the trailer, which was not crushed.  The maple had not fallen, although several other trees further up the hill were broken or toppled by the storm.

Just as an aside, we don’t sleep separately because we’re on the outs–it’s a combination of maintaining polarity, enjoying the frisson of  “my place or yours?,” and radically .different sleeping habits–she is a light sleeper who likes to wake up in the middle of the night to read and write, while I like to sleep through the night.  Oh yeah, and I snore and toss around a good bit, and that disturbs her just as much as her turning on a light would disturb me.  So, better sleep, and being in bed together is about quality time, not something we take for granted.  A win/win situation.

A couple of days later, on the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, I was sitting on our porch eating brunch, listening to the sounds of a rowdy party at our next door neighbors’ place.

Our next door neighbors are, or were, genuine, old-fashioned Tennesseans.  We often think of such people as “hillbillies,” “rednecks,” or “good ol’ boys,” but those terms are slurs just as surely as the n-word.  Let’s understand them as “ethnic Tennesseans.”  Mrs. M. had moved there with her family when she was a girl of ten, back around 1930, when her parents, who had been hardscrabble sharecroppers, scraped up enough money to buy a few acres in the back woods of Davidson County.  She lived there the rest of her life, joined around 1940 by her then-young husband, who, at least by the time I met him about ten years ago, had a way with lawn mower engines.  Even though it is technically illegal to have a home business in Davidson County, we put up with the noise and traffic, which was rumored to include loads of lawnmowers that his grandson had lifted from careless Nashville home owners and brought to Mr. M for some reason before being taken elsewhere for resale.

The hapless grandson was fortyish by the time I met him, and rumored to be a crackhead.  Everybody in the neighborhood had a story about how they had caught him and his friends snooping around, looking for nice things to steal, or a story about somebody’s jewelry, lawn mower, or, in my case, chain saws, disappearing when left unattended.  I’m not just being accusatory here–the only way into our property that anyone could have taken to get those chain saws was from right behind Mr. M’s house.  He had a loud dog, and nobody the dog didn’t know could have gone sneaking around the M’s yard without the dog raising a ruckus.  That was what they had him for.  He would roam the hills at night, baying, chasing deer, and probably doing his part, along with our cat, to exterminate the local population of whippoorwills.  That’s the dog that roamed the hills, not the aged Mr. M or his crackhead grandson.

Oh, and they also burned their plastic trash in a barrel, and the prevailing wind carried the aroma, and the cancer-causing airborne pollutants, right over to our place.  The good news was, they went to bed early and didn’t have a “security light,” which allowed our hollow to sink into deep darkness when the sun went down.  Now our neighbors to the east have one, which burns into our eyes whenever we’re in front of the house after dark.  Why does the city get after you for not mowing your lawn, but allow flagrant light pollution with no legal recourse?  But, as with the tale of the crackhead grandson, I digress.

I have been speaking of the M’s in the past tense, and that is because they no longer live next door to us.  Mrs. M died last summer.  Nobody told us, or anybody else in the neighborhood; one day there was a big gathering of their family, and a backhoe came on their property briefly, and after a while the news gradually spread through our neighborhood grapevine that Mrs. M. had died, and been buried in the family cemetery that lies up behind the house.  Shortly after that, Mr. M was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable prostate cancer, and went to live with his daughter.

But the homestead was not abandoned.  His daughter drives Mr. M out several times a week to putter around and feed their cat–the loud dog died a couple of years ago, reputedly bitten by a rattlesnake.  I’ve been here eight years and never seen a rattler, but the dog had more time to look for trouble than I do.  Days Mr. M doesn’t make it, one of his other kids or grandkids comes out to feed the cat and keep an eye on things, and, occasionally, to do target practice.

Here in rural Davidson County, it is perfectly legal for you or your neighbor to discharge a firearm in broad daylight, even if you are doing it repeatedly for hours at a time.  Cindy tells me that, back in the 80’s, several hours of target practice was a regular Sunday feature.  It’s nowhere near that frequent these days, maybe a monthly occurrence, but two or three hours of rifle fire is not an easy sound to get used to.

But the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend seemed different.  Somebody drove in to their compound.  It seemed to me that the din of voices grew more excited and agitated than usual, a quick round of shots echoed in the hollow, followed by agitated voices, followed by more shots, followed by–silence.  The SUV that had just driven in exited.  Omigawd, I thought, somebody came in and shot them all.   Family argument, or payback for crackhead’s indiscretions and bad debts. I called 911.

Long before the police arrived, three cars strong, the M’s normal conversation had resumed, and I realized I had been a bit hasty.  I had.  I had called the cops for no good reason.  Like Afghans, ethnic Tennesseans like to celebrate by firing weapons, which, as I said, they have every right to do here in the rural reaches of Davidson County.  It was the local, fortunately nonlethal, equivalent of a drone strike on an Afghan wedding party, and it was my judgement call.  I had become the oppressor.

At this point, I had to look at my meltdown about our living situation and the death of my plans for the summer and my panic over the thunderstorm and the shots, and realize that the problem was not them, it was me. I’m mostly a vegan, but I’m willing to eat crow when it’s appropriate. I have made it a point to apologize to every member of the M clan as they come to the gate.  Some have been resentful (“We have always shot off guns.  At least we weren’t smoking pot!” one woman fumed.)  Some have been understanding, and there’s a few I haven’t connected with yet.

But wait, there’s more.  Another neighbor told Cindy that, before Cindy and her first husband bought the land we live on, the M’s had been negotiating to purchase it, but hadn’t quite put a deal together before it went to my wife.  Their property and ours had been one larger piece, and the M’s had wanted to reunite the severed pieces and have a family homestead back up in this hollow, just as we had hoped to someday buy their property and move our friends and/or family in.

This explained a lot through the years–never before had we understood their longstanding resentment and occasional obvious hostility towards us.  (For instance, they never said anything sympathetic about the fire or offered to help in any way–including flat-out refusing to allow us to run an extension cord from their place to ours so we wouldn’t have to move our freezer.)  To them, we were the rich gringos who came in and ripped off a chunk of their homeland as if we had every right to it.  To them, or at least to some of them, the police visit was just further evidence of our contempt for them and their culture.

Well, now we know.  Along with collapse, another abstract, world-wide problem has taken tangible form and landed in our laps.  Some armed members of an ethnic group considers the land we live on to be part of their rightful heritage.  They don’t care whether we are good neighbors, they don’t care what cool technologies we could share with them, they don’t care about us at all.  We are just some people who have barged in on their turf and made ourselves at home.  I’ve long been critical of how the Israelis have treated the Palestinians under similar circumstances, and now we have our own long-standing, deeply rooted breach with our neighbors to heal.

We’re not the only newcomers running into problems with ethnic Tennesseans over their traditional hunting grounds.  I own land far from Nashville where I observed the same conflict arise as a group of aging hippies attempted to turn such an area into a community of rural homesteads.  Last I heard, my old friends were putting up surveillance cameras.  Can concertina wire be far behind?

Can we do better than the Israelis?  I hope so, although I don’t know how just yet. We are going to have to solve this some way or other, and meanwhile we are going to have to learn to live with it. Ethnic Tennesseans have as much right to be here as we do.

James McMurtry, “Storekeeper” (first link is to excellent live acoustic version, second to the album cut)

Charlie Daniels, “Long-Haired Country Boy”

Byrds, “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”

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2 responses

6 06 2013
brothermartin

Note: after posting this, the phrase “ethnic Tenneseans” came to me, and the essay has been revised to include that phrase and some of the reflections it engenders.

7 07 2013
Martha

As an ethnic Tennessean (multiple generations in a family graveyard in Dickson County with two spaces reserved in my name) I sympathize both with you and your neighbors. Part of what is now Cross Creeks NWR once was part of our place; a neighbor’s cousin used to live here, and as the neighbor put it, “The government took her bottom and she had to sell.” (48% of Stewart County is government owned, most of it taken under threat of condemnation; a lot of people’s bottoms got took.) So it’s easy to resent the fact that a viable farm that needed that bottom land had it taken to become what I sometimes call Cross Creeks National Mosquito Hatchery, complete with obnoxious “not from around here” hunters and way too many deer. An old coon hunter I once knew (now deceased) said he was hunting hereabouts once and his dog treed on the Refuge. He knew the dog was on the Refuge, he didn’t want the dog on the Refuge, but the dog couldn’t read. So he went to get the dog and encountered a Fed who said, “You’re on our land.” His reply: “I know I’m on OUR land.” Then after twenty years of telling everybody no hunting there, they opened it up to city slickers for a permit fee and here came all kinds of undesireables to this underpoliced area. Our human neighbors have been great folks; the feds haven’t. Now they’re letting sharecroppers on some of that same good bottom land grow GMO corn and soy.

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