Saturday, October 29, 2011

Colorado Morning

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places
--Wendell Berry

I’m seated in a wood-slab patio recliner on the east deck of a huge cabin, the legacy of a cigar-chomping Chicago banker and big game hunter.

It’s a clear-blue early morning on the late side of mid-October in the San Juan Valley of Southern Colorado. Ten feet below the sturdy deck, a dew-sparkled gold meadow slopes ruggedly down to a dirt road that winds like a petrified stream through this thousand-acre working ranch. Two storm-toughened ponderosa pine stand guard to the left. Ochre groves of gambel oaks patch the ground nearby, their fall leaves reddish brown, except for a grove close to my right that appears to have been scorched to the bark. Death lurks everywhere, sometimes strikes by fire.

A quarter-mile away, across from the hill on which this cabin confidently sits, a ponderosa- and oak-clad ridge rises from south to north. At the top of the incline sits another house. The cabin I’m a guest in is of modern construction. The pine planks and logs gleam as if new; the grout that glues the shiny logs together is made of modern rubbery composites. Nevertheless, this grand comfortable space has the brief, pleasing illusion of having assembled itself out of the surrounding woods. The other house on the hill is boxy, squarely and green, like a Monopoly house, indifferently placed on the board, more a survivalist shelter than a home.

The strong newly-risen sun over the southeast hills forces me to look northeast. There the southern range of the San Juans rises, its walls a massive undulating murky indigo under a pillowy blue sky. Here distance shades all colors toward the sky’s. The first real clouds since we arrived Thursday night sail in from the northwest, making me realize how barren of drama the sky has been. I feel a little regret that whatever booming spectacle they brought to the north has long dissipated.

Banded Peak’s streaks of snow barely show in the morning shadows. Chama Peak, to the south, rises over bold swatches of dark green fir and bright blazing aspen, the contrasts banging my eyes. The aspens impress me as a giant living organism, which they are, knitted together by a single root system. One of these groves, which, I’ve read, lies somewhere in Colorado, has been called the largest living thing in the world. Big as they are though, eventually they all will give way as Douglas firs march over them toward their own climax. In this case, Death comes with the shade cast by the taller trees.

I also know, looking through binoculars, that there is the tiniest dot of bright red, like a lone maple tree or maybe a human structure, peeking out from somewhere in those forests. What it is I don’t know, but I’m content not to.

The ridge sinks away to the north. Then the ground rises again in another broad slope of sunny aspen and green pine. From my head-on perspective, it launches itself straight up to morph into the bare dusky walls of Navajo Peak and its close companion, Apache Peak. Both mountains seem to stand shoulder to shoulder, magnificent and reassuring in their near-permanence, fearsome in their stern indifference, time as marked by erosion their only worry. I imagine climbers have scaled both summits, but the scars will be scoured and forgotten, quicker then we know. Their massive faces darken pleasingly under the passing sheet of gray and white clouds and gleam when the sun returns.

A light buoyant breeze chills and dries my skin, aging me faster than it does the mountains. The clouds drag their shadows over the hills and mountains, painting pines, oaks and aspens with uncanny shadow.

A raven and a blue mountain jay squawk and dart by, nervous and competitive. The jay rasps, like a screw-top bottle cap being opened. The cleverly disguised artificial stream, dug next to the cabin with water pumped up from a stream two miles below, roils down into two separate silver braids, splashes peacefully, as mesmerizing and genuine as the real thing.

This world seems still with deceptive confidence, calmly exudes a grand power. It’s peaceful on its tricky surface, but strands of violence, of life intertwining with and growing from death, always weave underneath, all of it knit by an unknowable, barely discernible power.

My constant thrum of aches and pains matter less here than they do at the place I call home, my nagging loneliness nothing in the vastness. The only genuinely dark shadow is cast the dark drone of jets passing far overhead, invisible, but a warning that this is my last day.

I’m home, but still not home from that Colorado morning. I live in a fine neighborhood, and I’m grateful for it, but aches, pains and loneliness now crowd my attention. Death stills lurks ruthlessly under the crust we’ve built over Nature. This barrier between us and the Earth we emerged from makes our impermanence seem all the more callous, arbitrary, incomprehensible, absurd. Nature finds it way, pushes up, back and through, with claws and vicious hunger.

Are we really living longer or are we really only drawing out Death’s work, making our dying longer, stretching the agony by days, months, years? We may survive longer but live with less feeling, little wisdom and only a crumbling fig leaf of faith.

I’m told this is a good thing, but I’m still waiting for that paradise I’ve been promised to sprout through the plains of concrete around me. I understand that the Earth’s population will reach 7 billion this Halloween. I’d like to be wrong, but it’s impossible for me to believe that Nature’s not about to ruthlessly burst out of the closet door or reach up from under the bed on which we doze and drag us toward extinction. Seven billion people and an increasingly stressed environment tell me that we’ve sinned greatly and it may be too late for either atonement or forgiveness.

Our skies may eventually clear and that valley will almost certainly be there . . . but we may not be; to wonder at it, to bow to the sacred power of its hidden face.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Photos by author)

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Butchertown Chronicles: Pleasures and Perils of Research

Before I started my bullet-packed crime novel, Butchertown, my knowledge of Prohibition revolved around its gangsters. (Tales of copious gunfire tend to focus a man.) I've read several biographies of Al Capone, plus crime histories such as The Bootleggers and Their Era. I am also well-acquainted with the story of New York’s Five Families, whose seed was planted by a gambler named Arnold Rothstein. My failed try at a Mafia novel (a Westlakean-Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight farce) in the late 1990s, gave me an excuse to read two shelves of books on American organized crime, though most of those covered the post-Prohibition era.

To fill in Butchertown’s dark picture, I need more. The setting alone—Northern California in 1922 —demands that I drill both deep into the past and fly high over it to see its broader scope.

Prohibition was more than gangsters and gun battles, flappers and hip flasks, tommy guns and one-way rides, jazz and Fitzgerald. A whole huge world surrounded and infused it, to American shores and beyond: There's “Context” as wonks say. As Prohibition made the world, the world also made Prohibition.

The first book I stopped at was, amazingly, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Heyday) with original art and text by Laura Cunningham, an exhilarating fusion of science, soul, and an artist’s imagination. State of Change tells the epic environmental history of California, with exquisite paintings and drawings by Cunningham that take you back to the epoch before European and Russian settlers arrived, when grizzly bears roamed the oak-studded Oakland hills. It’s one of those books that transform non-fiction into art and literature.

But why would stray so far afield? Mostly because I want to expose a little of the roots of Butchertown’s setting, a highly fictionalized East Bay city, in order to illuminate the Now of the Story.

But then, I had to put State of Change aside and move on, because, beautiful object that it is, I gleaned enough knowledge for my specific task. I hope I can  finish it someday. That’s the way this writer researches—get what you need, leave the rest for later. For now, I’ll call it one of the greatest gift books you could ever give.

The next tome I took off the stack was One Eye Closed, the Other Red: The California Bootlegging Years by Clifford James Walker (Back Door Publishing 2001). This one should have gone off like dynamite, but instead turned out be a damp firecracker.

One Eye Closed presented me with a good news/bad news dilemma. The good news is that it’s stuffed to its boards with information on Prohibition in California, much of told by those enterprising desperate characters who lived through it. From time to time, it pops with wonderful anecdotes of life on the edge in Prohibition California.

The bad news is that One Eye Closed is an unreadable ram shack. Information-wise, it’s a labor of love, that, sadly, seems to have been finished and rushed to market with both eyes closed—poorly organized with, according to my professional editor’s eye, no editing and proofreading at all. It’s often a painful armchair experience.

I stuck with it to the end, but skimmed like a flat stone over a pond in large sections and sighed a loud “too bad” as I finished. Someday, someone should buy the publishing rights, tear it down, and rebuild it. Then it’ll pop and crackle with the spirits within.  For now, One Eye Closed is for real history geeks only and, for the rest, serves as a lesson about the real perils of self-publishing.

When The Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosniski (Palgrave MacMillan), published the old-fashioned way, was much more coherent and pleasurable. Ms. Sosniski's book shines valuable light on a little-known corner of Prohibition in California —Napa and Sonoma counties, the capitals of American winemaking. It’s a colorful and pleasurable read, both sad and inspiring. 

Prohibition was not only a law-enforcement disaster, but it brought economic and personal ruin to thousands of vintners and related industries all over, ripping up an entire culture by its roots. Thanks to Prohibition, California wine, highly regarded back then even in Europe, suffered a blow to its reputation that lasted decades as the skills it took to make it were lost. (I remember, back in the 1960s, how my father, the French wine connoisseur, proudly scoffed away the very idea of California wine splashing over his tender, delicate tongue.)

Both these books also make it clear that the vast majority of California bootleggers, while technically law breakers, weren’t true criminals. And even the thugs weren’t especially plagued by the fungus that causes itchy trigger finger syndrome. The real crooks worked so deeply in the dark—they weren’t exhibitionists like Capone—that very little is known about them, nor where or how many bodies were buried--certainly, nowhere as many as in Chicago, New York, and, the bloodiest territory of all, Detroit.

Prohibition wine may have turned California’s rivers red, but Prohibition blood, not so much.

[To be continued]

(Re-edited 10/10/11; 10/11/11)

A NOTE: I’ll be gone from this tiny space next week on a soul-stirring journey to the wilds of Southern Colorado. I will return with fine photos, my spirit infused by the Greater Reality, and maybe even an account of my first attempt at fly-fishing (if I don't rip my eye from its socket). Until then, get the hell out from behind that computer and Live the Life that You’ve Been Given.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Eye to the Keyhole

[Once again, the folks at Red Room have pitched another challenge to its members and I've responded with the following piece.]

Our precious eyes frame the world. Light enters, infused with information about objects and the space they occupy. The information is narrowed down, focused by the lens, which then beams the light onto photoreceptive cells glued together in the retina at the back of the eye, where the light is then transformed into neuronal signals, which turn them into neural impulses that flash in microseconds through the gloriously tangled byways of our brains, all the way back to the cerebral cortex at the rear.

So, we see all the way from the back of our skulls, as though from the rear upper balcony of a movie house. (Though miraculous, the complexity is said to be an argument, against God, who didn't get His degree in engineering from MIT).

The exact edges in which our eyes frame the world are elusive. The eye sockets mark the boundaries poorly. There’s no definite proscenium, sill, sharp edge, or corner around the mouths of those shining caves. The world beyond simply fades, drifts away, indistinct, indefinable, a home to sly ghosts or thuggish demons, leaping, lunging, slipping, sliding.
If I put my finger at the back of my head and move it around to the front, I can't even pinpoint the spot where it enters my visual frame. It’s simply more and more "there" as I pull it around to the front and my eyes can focus on it. Hold that for too long and I look like a cross-eyed moron: “Gosh! Look! I have a finger!”

The focus is never definite enough. Most of what we see fades to be forgotten only to return, some say, in those final moments when we race toward death, crossing out of our little band of light into darkness.

So it is that we make pictures and, nowadays, photos, film and video to fix those moments. We frame a section of the world and corral it for as long as Life permits, to stop time, freeze it, box it up. We make pictures to confirm memories, as evidence of the actuality of people and events, though, they're by no means entirely reliable (in part because of the framing itself). Mostly, I believe, we create pictures to enhance life.

Pictures convey a fixed, but only virtual, immortality. When I look at photos from my past--or even motion pictures--I may playfully and vainly imagine that the human figures (including myself) within still retain some glimmer of awareness, though I also know--or think I know--they don't. Cary Grant will never let go of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday; William Holden and his gang will never see wisdom and walk away from the final bloodbath in The Wild Bunch; nor will Laurel and Hardy ever--thank God--grow brains. Humans in photos, both still and moving, never look about and cry "I'm alive!" in wonder and then wander out of their prison. There they are, butterflies laid in flat, papery (or plastic) amber, mirror images in silver nitrate.

Now look at this blurry black-and-white photo, a sharp, definite frame within an indefinite frame. We’re actually peering through a kind of keyhole, made by the camera lens, then the picture frames, wood, then paper.

What can we say for sure about it? A little girl, looking maybe like Shirley Temple, stands on the second step of a stoop of a house. A bow struggles to fly like a huge moth from her thick wavy hair. She’s being partially embraced by very tall man, his thatch of white, silver, or blond hair capped and parted on his head, his face a shadow, his spectacularly long legs branching almost intrusively at the lens. Both their faces are shadowed and blurry, but love seems as plain as daylight.

Are they posed on back steps or front steps? Can’t quite tell, though the railing behind indicates it may be a back porch. It's a sunny day; given the rich blur of foliage, maybe spring, or late summer. We know nothing about the building next door beyond its slatted slides. Probably a neighbor's.

To you, a stranger, the world beyond the frame is completely unknown. To me, the one with the photo on the bookcase, there are facts I know, but only vaguely, second hand. We can use our imaginations, make guesses, even engage in that writing exercise of making up a story.

But I’ll offer a few bare filtered facts that show how little you and I both see, facts filtered, and told years ago, meaning they’ve been filtered yet again.

The tall man with the long legs is my mother's father, dead for 75 years now. In fact, he apparently passed not long after the photo was taken, nearly 20 years before I was born. The little girl I'm not sure of, so I’ll change her name. In all the time I knew her, I addressed her as "Aunt Grace." She was much younger than my mother, younger than my "Aunt Sarah," "Aunt Gladys," and "Uncle Bob."

The photo was pulled from hiding sometime in the 1980s (I forget how). One afternoon, shortly after a copy was given to me, my mother said, "I've got something to tell you. Aunt Grace is not your aunt. Grace is Aunt Sarah's daughter. Grace is actually your cousin."

She went on to tell me that sometime in the late 1920s, Aunt Sarah was attending a teaching school somewhere in Illinois, when one night, she disappeared. A search ensued. A week later, Sarah showed up pregnant and weeping on the front stoop of a stranger's house (Another picture planted itself in my mind, of Sarah crouched on the steps in a long-ragged dress and weeping into her thin, folded arms, on a rainy night, but I don’t know at all if it was like that). Who the father was remains unknown, at least to me.

My mother and her siblings were born and raised in the small town of Gladstone, Upper Michigan in the early 1900s. Even by current Religious Right standards, it's hard to grasp how conformist and conservative that world was. My grandmother Ethel was a stern, perfectly abstemious Presbyterian, her husband Hugh, a towering, bull-tempered Scot, scornful of religion, a raving anti-Catholic, and employee of the Soo Line Railroad. (What is called a “character.” Meaning, as my mother said, that he was a very hard man to be married to and to have as a father.)

The news of formerly Aunt Grace's illegitimacy would have been a horrible scandal in a small Protestant U.P. town, a source of grim and eternal shame: averted eyes at church and store and all that comes with small town shame, a damp blanket that's only pulled away with the generations.

So, this is what my grandparents did. Ethel took a train all the way down to Illinois and reappeared with a brand-new baby bundled in her arms. She and Hugh told everyone that the brand new baby was theirs. Just like that, Ethel had given birth, like a miracle out of a manger.

On the surface, according to my mother, everyone in town accepted this. Facing powder-keg, six-foot-four Hugh, discretion was no doubt the better part of commentary. We can safely say the word "bastard" was secretly bandied about in some pious homes. It's nice to think more simply nodded and said "fine" thinking "That could have been me,"  "That was me," or "Let God make the call." Whether Cousin Grace ever knew the facts behind her parentage, I have no idea.

Even more than what lies beyond the picture frame, we know even less what's in the frame of the heart, especially the hearts of those outside the frame of the photo.

Ethel and Hugh raised Grace together, until one day in 1935 when Hugh, suffering from stomach cancer, got up from the lunch table, saying "I'm tired." Then he lay down on the living room couch and died.

And so, there's always more to the picture, another world beyond the frame. That’s more than a man sheltering a little girl, saying “She’s my daughter and I love her.” A whole world, though lost to us, somehow still teems around this photograph and strands of it run through it. What's outside the frame we can’t really know. But it seems we can never really say that there's "nothing.”

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.