My favorite part about walking around Blue Heron Farm is the houses. I see the way people have established roots, some of them deeper than others. There is a little twelve by twelve cabin inhabited by a man who spent only $1000 to build it. The house has all the basic needs, shelter, a stove, a toilet, a shower, and a bed. So few check marks on a short list of needs. And a lot of those needs are rough definitions: A toilet, meaning a hole in the ground, a shower, meaning a hose hanging on the back of the house, and a bed, meaning a mattress sitting on a wooden crate.
Turn away from the cabin, I see a house covered in tiled artwork. A mosaic of the sun rising over mountains and a blue heron flying through the sky. On the other side of the house is a mosaic of a moon in the night sky. To my right is a two story, light blue house shaped like an octagon. It has a deck protruding from one side. To my disappointment, I never had the chance to step inside the house, but I imagine the inside to be very open, all eight walls visible from any point in the house.
For the past six weeks, my only friends, besides Taylor, have been over the age of sixty. There is Jean and Murray, an older couple who once did a lot of chasing and running from each other. When they finally stuck together, somewhere in their forties, they went and traveled. They drove across the country twice, from North Carolina to California and back, spending a few years in Santa Rosa. Jean retrieved her gazetteer to show us the route they took. Crouched on her front porch, she pointed out Big Sur, her favorite place on earth, located on the California coast between San Simeon and Carmel, where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the Pacific ocean in a dramatic drop. I finger traced the roads on the map, like entwined roots of the country, imagining the ways I’d like to go. Interstate 40, 70, 80, 90 and 10, travel across the country. Interstate 40 takes you through Arizona, New Mexico, and California, where it hooks onto interstate 5 in Los Angeles, which shoots up to Canada. Interstate 5 connects to a detour, route 1, which winds along the California coast for gorgeous views.
Jean and Murrey’s house resembles pueblo homes in the American southwest, emblematic of their camping trips in New Mexico, made of orange adobe clay with turquoise door frames. Despite how much they loved it in sunny California, a place of progressive attitudes, it was too rigorous for them. As we sat drinking tea on their porch, they explained that life was too competitive when they just wanted to relax. So even though North Carolina is somewhat a conservative state, Jean, making wide hand gestures, said, “This is what relaxed looks like.”
When talking to Jean and Murrey, I got the slight sense of nostalgia for a time when their roots weren’t so deep. When they were young and could go anywhere they wanted. Murray said that our culture pressures us into thinking we have to do something with our life. It constantly asks, What do you want to do? What do you want to be? Like a persistent dog barking behind every college grad. Why do we have to do or be anything?
I struggle with these questions, still. I can’t help but put pressure on myself to pick a path. I have to know. Why don’t I know? Then I Googled pictures of Big Sur and suddenly thought, never mind, screw everything, I have to go there right now.
Across the farm from Jean and Murrey’s house, there is Barbara’s, with roots so deep, it’s got past lives. Once a slave house, it holds shelves and shelves of books about Martin Luther King, about race and feminism; Betty Friedman’s, The Feminine Mystique, an original 1963 copy, with brittle yellow pages and a mildewed cover; books on every social, environmental, and political movement since the 1960’s, by every major author, written and published during the height of their time. Barbara is ninety years old and has wrinkles that are like roots telling stories in her skin. She’s still political today; she gave me an article to read in The New Yorker about how the environment is going to shit. She says she’s too old to do anything about it now, so it’s up to me and my generation to save the earth. The other night, Taylor and I watched the Democratic Debate with her in her living room. The TV turned up so she could hear, she cheered, “yes!” to things that Bernie Sanders said. When it ended, she told us that wherever we are when elections come around, to call our mothers and ask them to send us an absentee ballot. We must vote.
Barbara was a radical woman for her time, especially right after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She was a literature teacher at the newly desegregated Chapel Hill High School. The entire country’s roots were being exposed, pulled from the ground of historical racism and shaking the dirt loose onto it’s citizens in unrest. It was the scariest time of her life, she said, everyone was afraid to go to school. A six-foot-five black boy cried to Barbara, said that he’s so scared he throws up every day. Everything was messed up and no one was talking about it.
Scared and tired of no one helping, Barbara tried to shed light on the matters of racial tension and violence through unconventional teaching methods. She had her students lie on the ground in a big circle with the lights off. She instructed them to hold hands. For the entire forty five minutes of class, her students laid in silence, in darkness, having no idea who’s hand they were holding. The point of the exercise is obvious now, that without color, we realize we are all the same. At the time of the mid 1960’s, it was profound.
Barbara’s radical teaching was not favored by everyone. She faced threats, dead animals thrown on her lawn, windows shot down, obscene phone calls. One day two white kids came to school with a gun and headed straight for Barbara’s classroom. A couple black kids knew about the gun and ran to her classroom to warn her. After hearing them, Barbara waited outside the door for the white boys. When they arrived, she said,
“All right, let me tell you something. I’m not looking at what you’re holding. I don’t know where you think you’re going, or what you think you’re going to do, but I do know that if you do anything, you’re going to get twenty years in prison. Just for being on school property with whatever you’re holding, which I’m not even looking at, okay? You’re going to get twenty years if they pick you up. So my advice to you guys is to turn around, and go back the way you came as fast as you can, and get off of school property.”
The white boys quickly walked away. Then Barbara turned to the black boys, standing nearby, and said, “Now let this be a lesson to you. We don’t need violence in this school. That’s not the answer to this problem. Now you guys go back to where you belong, go back to your classes, and forget that you ever saw anything today.”
Now this woman walks with a cane, lives in a quiet house with a garden and two cats, spending most of her time reading in her recliner.
I’d been thinking about roots, where mine exist if I am old enough to have any. I’ve spent most of my life in Rhode Island and Pittsburgh, but have few roots there anymore, at least not physical. The emotional roots remain inside me, curled around my heart like vines.
Taylor and I are moving out of Blue Heron to plant our roots somewhere else. Where that is, we don’t know yet. We are easy to pull from the ground, for it takes little time to pack our belongings and go. For right now, especially after reading a powerful explanation in The New Yorker for why the western coast will soon be demolished by an earthquake-tsunami, I’d like to keep my roots shallow. Whether it’s due to a sudden change of heart, a desire to travel the world, or to avoid the geological apocalypse, remaining unsettled is the only way to figure out who I am, who I want to be, and where I may one day decide to turn my life as a flower into an oak tree.