The Least Thing Precisely
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.