The Pull of the Earth
Set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
If you have to choose, choose Truth. For that is closest to Earth. Keep close to the Earth…:in that lies strength.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
I took nothing of home or my mother. That was my intention, anyway, but it turned out to be impossible. I wanted the car I drove halfway across the country to be merely a survival kit, because I sensed only a stripped-down version of my life could be manageable now, or understandable, or whatever it was I needed it to be to keep going.
But I had to continue to work, and work was inextricably tied to Brigitte. The best of the glazier’s tools in the back had been hers—and her mother’s, and grandmother’s. The ones that that fit our hands just right so gaffes were rare and glass breakage minimal. Maybe that had built up a giant I.O.U. somewhere, though, so that when we did slip up, it was big, huge, catastrophic…deadly. When I slipped up, that was.
On the second day of driving, I hit rain that started at the Illinois border and continued. Two hours later, I entered the fields and forests of west central Wisconsin. Passed though tiny towns which consisted of a few aging buildings, half with hand-stenciled signs for farm supplies or auto repair, and half, abandoned. It felt as if I’d gone back in time, and in season, too, since in New York the trees were in bloom, while here, they were still naked.
I had somehow imagined the important formal event scheduled for this evening at my destination as a Spring garden party. Had even felt the first prick of pleasure in eight weeks as I’d put on a sleeveless party dress this morning at the hotel where I stopped overnight. But the day had not warmed up like I expected, and even with my wrap on, I had the heat blasting in the car, from the lower vents because my feet especially were freezing in heeled sandals. Footwear that I now realized would sink straight into the soggy ground if I took one step off of paved ground, and pavement appeared to be in short supply around here.
In a nervous habit, my fingers traced the fresh scar beneath my chin, a line straight and deep. Glass cuts were clean and instantaneous. If you weren’t constantly proactive with all safety measures, accidents would happen–and with zero time to react. Any failure and you would likely face a lifetime of regret, and possibly, litigation. I was trying to keep the latter thought, at least, at bay as long as I could.
At the emergency room, they’d said that later, I should fix it with plastic surgery. But it marked the last connection with Brigitte, alive. It divided the before and after of believing myself reasonably good and capable.
I would be spending the next six months here, at the old Frank Lloyd Wright estate and school, preparing his Tree of Life window to be the centerpiece of an exhibit. I was to set up a mini glass workshop, where prospective donors and tour groups could get excited by seeing the beautiful work-in-progress and support restoration efforts, make donations. The idea of working in the studio only, with no forays into the field or climbing scaffolding carrying weighty panels of glass, sounded like the best I could hope for, for now.
On the call I received from the archivist, Vera Frees, she’d explained the exhibit was a critical means for reviving interest in Wright’s work, when some of his most important buildings had failing foundations and rotting roofs that required tens of millions of dollars to save.
She’d sounded excited and confident that this effort could garner international publicity and inspire billionaire donors, to turn things around. But remembering it now, I heard a brittleness in her voice, a desperation in her undertone—maybe triggered by the struggle I was seeing along these country roads.
I also thought Wright’s estate and its school could be faltering because he was old news in architecture and had been endlessly hashed over, hadn’t he? I’d told an engineer acquaintance of my plans before I left, and he said, “Oh, Wright’s utopian farming community. Now, why did that never catch on? Have a great time.” And he laughed.
Podcasts were my companions as I drove, keeping my brain tuned to the safe static between high and low frequencies of grief. Like the pills from the doctor, they helped me feel almost nothing—until suddenly the rain made iridescent threads on the windshield, an impossible combination of water, movement and light. Seeing it, my body quickened, and I almost felt the very thing I deserved least of all: the ache of beauty. A glass even came to mind. Kokomo Clear Vertigo.
I reached to change the podcast, where someone was saying, “There’s a housing crisis in America and a resources crisis. Can we make homes differently? Can we make them better?”
Then the car dipped into a valley swirled with fog. I looked up to see a flash of life, an animal in the road, its gray fur making it blend with the precipitation. I yanked the wheel, barely avoided it, and pulled over.
The dog, for that’s what it was, stood like a statue, but when I spoke, he turned his head and came to me, materializing into a Weimeraner. He looked up with unearthly blue eyes and held my gaze, being to being. This was no stray dog, but I didn’t see any homes nearby.
I put a hand on the damp fur of his neck, and he let me read his tag. “Hugh? What kind of a name is that for a dog?”
I patted his smooth, silvery head and dialed the phone number. After several rings, it went to voice mail. A man’s voice pleasantly said I’d reached Elan Dubay and invited me to leave a message, which I did. Then I opened the car door, and Hugh stepped up into the front passenger seat. He smelled more of rain than of wet dog, which I appreciated.
But the car seemed stuffy, so I sat a moment working the controls for air and thinking how I had almost hit this lovely dog. I had endangered another being, again. I was certified by OSHA to a high level of safety training—and yet, somehow, was unsafe for others. Who was I kidding that it would be different in another place? I wouldn’t be different.
The navigator had lost its signal now, too. I remembered that I needed to turn right soon and did so at the next opportunity, while Hugh watched out the window, accepting of whatever I chose, wherever I went.
Evergreen trees towered on both sides of the road, a relief after all the bare deciduous trees. It soon became clear that I was not entering an estate, though, but a forest. I drove for what seemed a long time before finding a place I could turn around.
Instead, I stopped and parked, because the place of my accidental arrival was otherworldly. The trees, swathed in mist, rose tall and straight, almost in rows, it seemed. They were all the same species, which I guessed to be pine, and close to the same size, elegant in their uniformity. At the top, their branches spread wide, wanting sun, it seemed, or maybe that was a projection.
Hugh and I got out and stood a moment listening to rainwater drip loudly from leaves to percuss the stillness. I breathed deeply of the fresh air, arms and hands tingling. The heels of my sandals sunk into the ground, and I impatiently removed them. Hugh started down a path to the right and I followed, with the carpet of pine needles a cushion between my bare feet and the cold ground.
This was different from whenever the last time was that I had walked in the woods. The endless rosy trunks felt welcoming, and the movement of Hugh’s legs seem to echo the rhythm of the trees. I fell in step, and a small wave of relaxation washed over me. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.
As we moved deeper, the forest became more varied and wild, strung with vines, spotted with lichen. The trees were no longer the same or standing at attention. Some lay on the ground, bark gone, with rows of fungi sprouting in tiers along their sides, like lace, or fanciful steps for whatever tiny beings lived in the forest. Frogs, fireflies, fairies. My bark of laughter at that caused Hugh to turn and look.
We both stopped when we saw the tree along the side of the trail, with its huge trunk that bent over and extended horizontally for six feet before rising and branching like a normal tree. I stared at it a long time, trying to decide if it seemed deformed or delightful, before realizing that the bend was pointing. It was showing me where to go.
We went back and got in the car. Soon we were passing the stand of evergreens again, but now I saw through them to an unnatural emptiness beyond. The more I began to see what was beyond the curtain of trees, the less I wanted to, but Hugh went straight toward the massacre. Because what else could it have been, when what looked like a military tank was parked amid a sea of stumps bleeding pink sap, and had rosy limbs and boughs sticking out from beneath its treads. A round blade as big as I was bared its grinning teeth.
The suspended fog was the final exhalations of these trees. It swirled, rich, in my lungs—for the last time. I clambered through the carnage covering the forest floor, sawdust sticking to my feet. The wet bark of the stacked trunks was bright and beautiful, a whole a palette of coral tones. The overlapping scales of its skin held an intricacy and artistry so beyond human making that the sight caught in my throat.
Upon the cut surface of the nearest stump, I laid my worker hands, which had been trained to fix what often appeared irreparable. They looked small and helpless. Then they rose into the air and spread open in supplication, or blessing, or imaginary healing. I did not know. I was no longer religious, and Celtic blood notwithstanding, I was no druid. Clearly, it was beyond anyone’s capability to make, fix or heal this.
I lowered my hands and stared at the cross-section of what had been the veins of the tree. Within the pretty circle of its bark skin were a hundred concentric circles that contained…everything. A constant recording of the earth story, a century of sun, rain, drought, wet. They captured the late season of my great-great grandmother’s life, I realized—and every single year of Brigitte’s, from the year of her birth to this one, in which she and this tree were killed.
My palms dripped sap, because the severed stump was vital still and sending nourishment toward its lost limbs. The specter of untimely death was familiar and present, squeezing my already constricted heart. Witnessing it left the surrounding tissue forever changed, too, forever pained. Because there was absolutely no undoing it.