"You smell like Girl Scout cookies." Those are the first words I wrote in the journal I kept while on the road writing Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness
. Despite how it sounds, it wasn't the "Dear Diary" kind of journal. (It wasn't a traveling lover who spoke those tender first words to me, but rather a saleswoman at the camera store in St. Paul.)
No, my journals are the sort of thing that appears to belong to a crazy person: bulging and tattered, filled with scribbles and scraps of paper. They contain drawings of highway signs for BIG TOP BINGO and WORLD'S LARGEST BUFFALO, and the spaces between are filled with more drawings: of the whole pound of deep-fried wild Georgia shrimp I ate at B&J's cafeteria, or the grasshoppers in the tall grass that morning. Across the middle of one page is a line of bottles commemorating the many beers drunk with two hunters from Shelby County, Tennessee. Beneath the bottles is a little square, into which I've copied what I can remember of the recipe they gave me for how to cook raccoon. (At the time, at least, it sounded delicious.)
As a writer, my goal in traveling is to gather as much information as I can, without filters. The journal is just one piece of that. After I finish scribbling in it at the coffee shop counter, I eavesdrop on the other customers. I buy and read any newspaper I can find ? the LaMoure Chronicle, the Muleshoe Journal, Country World. I read bulletin boards and buy postcards to keep for myself and photograph everything from grand landscapes to the view from motel windows. I talk to the ancient women running the local history center, and to the waitress serving my pimento cheese sandwich. I draw a picture of my pimento cheese sandwich. And if the receipt for that sandwich is particularly special in the way the waitress has written "thank you" across the top or "come again" across the bottom, I will hold onto that, too ? one more color to use in painting this place back to life after I've left it and gone home.
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Lately I'm thinking a lot about two words: traveler and witness. I heard them in a eulogy for John Updike, the speaker aiming to somehow sum up the venerable author. The two words caught my attention because they so perfectly encapsulate, as I see it, the two roles a nonfiction writer must play: the traveler and the witness.
The traveler is, of course, that person with the journal, the one availing herself of the world, almost greedy in her desire to collect information. For me, the process begins the moment I get into a rental car: as I spark the ignition, my senses dilate, and within minutes of leaving the airport I am a sea anemone at high tide, tentacles outstretched, taking in every bit of new information there is to be had.
The witness part is different. It is less about tentacles and more like being a cormorant on a rock, wings outstretched to absorb the sun. It's the more challenging part, I think, because being a witness requires a person to put herself on hold and let the world simply enter, like warmth passing into the bird's bloodstream. I am too restless for the practice of meditation, but, from what I hear, it sounds similar ? passivity as a path to receiving.
Writing about farmers has taught me a lot about how to be a witness. In simplistic terms, it's because not much actually happens on the farm. Most days in the lives of farmers I know are composed of unremarkable tasks repeated over and over: milking one cow after another, weeding up this row and then down the next. Any writer who expects to swoop in, get a hot story, and then swoop out, will likely come away empty-handed.
I've learned that, to write about farmers, one must instead slow down to that rhythm of repetition. The writer must sit in the combine as it chugs along in concentric circles, taking hours to close in on the center of the field, only to pick up, move to the next field, and do it all over again. Being witness means a willingness to pass the same barn or tree or fencepost two dozen times and continually try to learn something new about it.
In a sense, it is the same process by which the best farmers survive. Their success comes not from knowing all the answers already nor from demanding them of the land, but rather from simply being a witness to the world around them. They must resist the dulled vision that comes with familiarity, and instead see the world with enough depth to notice its smallest changes.
I think of David Podoll, a grain farmer in North Dakota. He and his family practice what I call the garden philosophy, in which the intimacy of their personal garden ? the digging around in the dirt with their hands, the getting onto their knees to see plants at eye level ? serves as a model for how they tend their more than 400 acres of cropland. Even as David rides through the fields on hulking machinery whose giant tires numb his feeling of the soil, he does his best to maintain contact with the land through his other senses ? smelling, hearing, soft eyes always watching. Not only does he notice when a pair of pheasants flushes from the field before him, he takes it in: lets his mind swell with their beauty; records their appearance in his memory; and over time observes the rise and fall of the birds' population on the farm. As data, it may or may not make a direct contribution to his business's bottom line. But as connection, it is surely critical ? one more thread that ties him to the life of his land. That is where his survival comes from.
And for a writer, or at least for me, that is where the story comes from: taking notice of the pheasants and the fenceposts; turning off the hungry furnace of my intellect and just letting myself fall backwards into wonder. Approaching it this way, chances are good that the story found will be subtle, perhaps consisting almost entirely of its details ? the tender tone in which the farmer speaks of his grandfather, or the way he turns a blind eye to the frogs that roll up in his machine's blades, knowing he cannot possibly save them all. But chances are also good that, if the writer is patient, the story will be much more than it appears at first ? a rock uncovered in the garden that, through digging, reveals itself to be a boulder.