The Least Thing Precisely

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The following is excerpted from Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin
off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream, recently released by New World Library.  

 

Jackie squatted
behind two heirloom tea bushes, covered with golden honeybees. They explored
her skin, her hair, the folds of her white cotton pants and blouse. I could see
her stroking the wings of one of them. She was so absorbed in it that she
didn't even hear me pull up.

The drive out to
her permaculture farm was a collision of the Old and New South. The Research
Triangle — which includes the cities of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham — and
its McMansions, pharmaceutical plants, and research universities, like Duke and
the University of North Carolina, disappeared as I crossed into Adams County,
where Jackie lived. The wide highway narrowed to a single lane with occasional
potholes, and the rolling green landscape evoked the Civil War setting of
Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Plantation houses collapsed into themselves,
and the old tobacco fields around them lay fallow. Jackie had moved into one of
these abandoned, to-be-defined spaces.           

She was partly
obscured by the tea bushes. At a distance, all I could see was part of her face
and a ponytail of salt-and-pepper hair. I got out of the car and, still
unnoticed, walked in her direction. Though it was early April, barely past the
last frost, under Jackie's hand two hundred varieties of plants sprang from the
ground in manic glory. Later, I'd learn their names by heart: Jack grape and
Juneberries; hearty kiwi and Egyptian walking onions. Lettuce sprang up in a
neat rectangular bed, and the winter wheat rose skyward. All of Jackie's flora
was in motion under a slight breeze, smeared together as if in an impressionist
painting, with the muted purples, oranges, and reds against a background of
green and brown.

This area was a
clear-cut when she moved in, Jackie had told me over the phone. Over the four
years of living here, she'd been helping nature heal. Now you could barely make
out the gleam of No Name Creek through the thickening vegetation. But I could
hear it. It gurgled and bubbled through her two acres. There were some
whippoorwills calling out, but otherwise I was drawn by the sound of the creek.
It seemed to whisper secrets.

I was so absorbed
by the setting, I didn't hear Jackie approach, but suddenly there she was,
standing not six feet from me, regarding me with a kind of Mona Lisa half
smile. She didn't say anything for a long moment; neither did I. She wore a
lined navy blue windbreaker, too big for her, and white cotton drawstring
pants. I knew she'd just turned sixty, but she gave the impression of fifty.
Health and agility sprang from her whole body and shot from her blue eyes. She
wasn't bold or assertive, far from it. She looked at me almost timidly, her
eyes downcast.

I noticed several
bees still clinging to her jacket, one in her hair, and another on her wrist.
As we shook hands, the bee on her wrist made the short jump to my forearm. I
stared at it without moving. With a little pull on my hand, Jackie led me over
to some rainwater pooled by the tea bushes. We crouched there, and the bee flew
off my arm and landed beside the pool. Above us sat a bee box. Jackie told me
her Italian bees produced forty pounds of honey a year, enough to give to
friends. "Listen to how quiet the bees are," she said. "In a month they'll be
swarming, and it'll sound like a freight train." We stayed crouched there for a
while, the air around us fragrant with raw honey. A slight buzz mingled with
the murmur of the creek. We were surrounded by Juneberries, figs, hazelnuts,
and sourwood. The bee that had been on my forearm was now sipping from the
pool. Jackie reached down and stroked its wings as it drank. "Sometimes I wake
up in the morning out here in the silence, and I get tears of joy."

During the next
hour, she led me through her permaculture farm. She pointedly described
permaculture as "the things your grandparents knew and your parents forgot,"
adding that the word is a conjunction of both permanent agriculture and
permanent culture. She said permaculture can be defined as a holistic approach
to sustainable landscape, agricultural, and home design. Our conversation
consisted of my gawking in amazement and she gently, intelligently explaining
the science and poetry of it all. She'd laid out the land in zones.

Zone 2 lay just
beyond the fence and, along with her bees, held the crops that were inherently
deer and rabbit proof and did not need to be enclosed in fencing: a profusion
of native and wild elderberries and blackberries; several pawpaws, the largest
edible fruit native to America, which is as plump as a mango; five Southern
heirloom apple trees ("Four from Lee Calhoun," Jackie told me, "the dean of
Southern heirloom apple lore."); three pecan trees from the yard in Alabama
where she grew up; and two medlars, which produce apple-like fruits. "I got
them because I was so enchanted by the shape of the plants," Jackie said. "They
were cultivated in medieval walled gardens, and eaten at feasts in those days.
I use them today for medlar jam." Zone 3 was her forest, which she used for
collecting wood, edible mushrooms, and edible plants like pokeweed, and for
bathing and meditating by the creek. I asked her about Zone 1, and she said
we'd get to it later.

As she told me
about the teas she grew, about her homemade jams and boysenberry wines, about
the shiitakes she'd planted on a pile of logs, about the rainwater she
harvested, I thought of something from Nietzsche: "How little suffices for
happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing,
a lizard's rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance — the least thing makes up
the best happiness." All of these tiny things — a bee, a creek, a tea bush —
were causing me to loosen up, relax, and feel joy rush through me, the asphalt
inside me beginning to crack.

Finally we made it
into the core of her farm, Zone 1, stepping inside a green plastic deer fence.
A membrane more than a frame, it unobtrusively circled a half acre or so of her
two acres and harbored dozens of gardens full of vegetables, herbs, and
flowers. There was Brugmansia, or angel trumpet, and Virginia bluebells, native
persimmon for wine and preserves, cornelian cherry, mint everywhere, spicebush
(for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly), and Dutchman's pipevine (for the
pipevine butterfly). But at the center of Zone 1 something stopped me. Was it a
house? The edifice was so slight that, viewed from a certain angle, it seemed
as if it might simply vanish, like looking down the sharp edge of a razor
blade. Wait a minute. Sure, I'd seen the structure several times already during
our tour (hadn't I?), but it hadn't really sunk in. It just seemed like a
little shed or something in the background. She actually lives in there, I
thought, suddenly feeling like I'd crossed a line by even coming here. I
wondered why she hadn't even mentioned the house yet. Was she embarrassed?

I was now looking
at a different person. Where I'd seen this remarkable physician with the
world's greenest thumb, I now saw a pauper. Something deeply ingrained in me
reacted violently to the situation. She has nowhere else to go. She continued
to talk about the joys of homesteading, but all I could do was nod, mutely, and
steal peeks at the horrifying sight of the 12 x 12, that one-room cabin.

"Would you like to
come in for tea?" she asked.

Part of me did
not. But she led me toward that terrible, tiny house. To choose to live in
anything that small was insane. As we neared it the place looked far smaller
than I'd imagined. I'm six feet tall, so it was exactly twice my height at the
base. As we approached the house it seemed to shrink, and I imagined the
awkward moment when we would both squeeze in and drink the tea standing up,
painfully forcing conversation. Four winters had weathered its brown walls. As
we stepped onto a minuscule porch, she asked me if I'd mind taking off my
shoes.

Why did something
paradoxical in me, at that moment, long for something grand? For something that
shouted the glory of human beings rather than being practically erased by the
thick woods around it? Freud noted that people subconsciously struggle with two
opposite but equal fears: being expelled by nature — cast out of Eden, as it
were — and being absorbed by nature. This was the latter fear. By scaling down
to only this speck of human space, Jackie had been enveloped by nature. No
electrical wires, no plumbing. The bubbling creek now sounded almost ominous. I
pulled off my shoes, heard the door creak open. I couldn't see inside, didn't
want to. I wanted to be back in the plush interior of the car, jazz on the
stereo, cruising on the highway back to Chapel Hill. But there was no turning
back. I stooped down and entered the box.

From the inside,
instead of feeling cramped, the place felt surprisingly roomy. While Jackie
brewed tea on her four-burner gas stove, I leaned back into her
great-grandmother's rocking chair and looked around. The space was so filled
with the richness of her life that its edges fell away. It seemed to expand.
Photos of her two grown daughters, of her ex-husband, even of her infamous
Klansman father. Jackie said something that sounded a little shocking to me,
but I'd later get where she was coming from: "Like a lot of Southern men of his
era," she said, "he was a damned racist but had a heart of gold." Everything
seemed forgiven. Excerpts from Buddhist and Taoist texts and snippets of poems and
spiritual quotes filled the gaps between the photos of her life, a half dozen
of them fastened to the ladder that rose up to a small loft, which contained a
single window over her mattress and a set of drawers. Books filled a shelf
covering one wall: a library of poetry, philosophy, spirituality, and —
Jackie's a scientist, after all — technical books on biology, physics,
astronomy, soils, and permaculture. I didn't see any on medicine other than a
copy of Where There Is No Doctor, a manual I had occasionally used as an aid
worker. The house had a faint scent of cedar from what she called her
"splurge": one of the walls was finished with pure, beautiful cedar from ground
to ceiling.

I now count the
next few hours as among the most sublime of my life. Later Jackie would say
that during our hours together the conversation would dive deep and surface
again and again, that we'd go from smiling over the tea, the setting sun, and
silence to talking about philosophy.

All the while the
12 x 12, tiny as it was, expanded outward. Outward to her neighbors. Outward to
her gardens. Outward to the forest. She talked about her dream: living not only
in harmony with nature ("having the carbon footprint of a Bangladeshi") but
among a variety of social classes and races. Her two acres were part of a
thirty-acre area. Of the thirty, twenty remained wild — through the intentional
plan of an ingenious local eco-developer I'd learn more about later — common
space she shared with four neighboring families: a Mexican furniture craftsman,
a Honduran fast-food worker, an African American secretary, and the fascinating
Thompsons across the road, who had moved to the country from a crack-infested
trailer park and now struggled to make it as organic farmers.

She talked about a
New American Dream that stretched beyond these ethnically diverse thirty acres.
Others in Adams County were resisting the Flat World, trying to imagine and
live something different. This was one of the only counties in the United
States adding small farms each year. Land in Adams was still inexpensive enough
for the average person to buy, yet there was a large and growing urban market
just up the road in Chapel Hill and Durham that increasingly demanded — and
would pay a premium price for — organic and local foods. Nationally, their
lives tied into the growing slow food, environmental, and antiwar movements,
part of a more durable future.

"You might say it
all centers around a question," she said as the sun was going down. "Where do
you grab the dragon's tail?"

Two deer bolted
through Zone 2, beyond the deer fence. I spotted them through the 12 x 12's
cedar-side window, slowly becoming aware of the natural activity around
Jackie's home. Meanwhile, she talked about her upcoming trip in the next weeks.
She had an eighty-dollar Greyhound ticket out west. With a small group, she'd
walk a pilgrimage across the desert to
the Nevada Atomic Test Site to hold up a sign saying not in our name. And then
she'd be "Grey-dogging," as she put it, further west to visit other activist
friends. After thirty years of doctoring she'd taken a year's sabbatical and
was on a sort of pilgrimage to figure out if she would continue in medicine or
strike out on a new path.

It was time for me
to go. But I wanted to absorb more. "Where do you grab the dragon's tail?" I
asked, feeling the Bolivian rainforest burning, the climate dangerously
warming.

She looked at me
and said: "I think you should grab it where the suffering grabs you the most."

As I drove away,
the sun was setting. I only made it fifty yards before slamming on the brakes.
I looked over my shoulder. Most Americans seem to have a recessive melodrama
gene, and I guess I'm among them; I couldn't resist the urge to look back.
Through a cloud of dust the 12 x 12 appeared hazy. Jackie's brook, swaying
winter wheat, "the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest
thing." I'm not sure how long I stared back at the tiny house, the seed that
becomes a redwood, the atom that turns into a bomb.

 

I told my sister
over the phone about my 12 x 12 visit, and she said: "Where do you put that?"

At first I put it
in one of those categories we all have: that time when that amazing thing
happened. A one-off wonder. Something pure and illuminating that becomes a kind
of touchstone. Frankly, I had no idea where to put it. I only knew that I felt
a stirring at the 12 x 12, partly because of the way Jackie looked at me. She
didn't see a baffled global nomad; she gazed through that and saw what I might
become.

In any case, I
reluctantly put the 12 x 12 away and prepared to head back to New York. My dad
was recovering, walking around, even planning to start jogging again. So my
sonly duties were done. That's when the letter arrived.

I found it at
midnight — I wasn't sleeping so well at the time — partly hidden in the pile of
mail by my parents' phone, addressed to me. I took a sip of red wine and
breathed in deeply. The letter was weighty, like a fat college acceptance
letter. I opened it.

A slip of paper
fell out; on it was a poem by Mary Oliver called "Mindfulness." The poem ran
down the page like a long, neat ribbon, each line containing just a few words.
As I read it I felt the expansiveness I often feel when reading Mary Oliver's
poetry. She talked about her teachers: the world's "untrimmable light" and
prayers "made out of grass." But one particular phrase really made me pause.
Oliver said her life's purpose, essentially, is to become fully absorbed
"inside this soft world."

My heart now
beating a little faster, I pulled the meatier pages out of the envelope,
several loose-leaf pages of handwriting folded to fit into the small envelope.
I unfolded them. "The sky is exquisite now. What a real joy to have you visit."
Jackie went on to lay out several pages of facts, calling it "info I forgot to
pass on," mostly the names of others in Adams County living in a way that
challenged corporate economic globalization — organic farmers,
permaculturalists, peak oil radicals, beekeepers, an "intentional community"
called Blue Heron Farm, the Silk Hope Catholic Worker, a couple of families
trying variations on her 12 x 12 experiment.

From this info she
forgot to pass on the fuzzy edges of a story emerged. On one level it sounded
like what Che Guevara used to call gusanos (worms) that slowly, bite by bite,
cause the whole apple to collapse from within. It was the story of two
competing visions of how to reshape the Old South and, indeed, the globalizing
world. But deeper than that was something more. An extraordinary physician,
activist, farmer, mother, wisdomkeeper, and visionary, taking the time that
night to notice the beauty of the sky and to handwrite me a long letter in
cursive, by candlelight.

As if guided by
instinct I flipped over the Oliver poem. In cursive, across the back
lengthwise, Jackie had drawn from the exact phrase that had practically jumped
out of the poem at me, a phrase that hinted about the shape of the world. She'd
written: "A soft world?"

My heart beat
increasingly faster as I noticed the letter had a postscript: "P.S. And I
really forgot the most obvious: I'll be away till summer, out West. You are
absolutely welcome to come and stay in the 12 x 12 for a day or a week or a
month or more, and any in and out combination. Just show up — I'll let the
neighbors know."

I put down the
letter and knew I had to go. I had to face this challenge to find a way out of
my despair; to learn to think, feel, and live in another way. The 12 x 12
seemed full of clues toward living lightly, artfully in the twenty-first
century. If beauty, as Ezra Pound said, loves the forgotten spaces, maybe so
too does wisdom. New York would have to wait. Unexpectedly, I was bound for No
Name Creek.

 


Copyright ©
2010 by William Powers. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato,
CA.
  

 

 

Photo by lcm1863, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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