Skip to content →

A hill of my own

At night, as the neighborhood shuts down and goes to sleep, the sound of movement sweeps in over this small backyard. It is the reverberation of exchange, the relentless force of society and commerce, and of evolution.

But during the day, when most people work and most goods move, the unending mobiles of sound that hang in this aural radiation obscure the neighborhood’s presence. Only when the mobiles slow and stop does the setting become apparent. Traffic turtles into driveways and along curbs. Dogs cease barking, basketballs stop bouncing in the schoolyard, and yells and squeals trip home behind the children. Only then does one begin to notice the frequency with which small jets, and prop and turboprop planes buzz and saw and hum in low over the trees into Kansas City’s downtown airport, just on the other side of this bluff. Beneath, locomotives bustle along the tracks in the valley, and their rumbles blend with wind and the whine of tires and engines on the interstate. On the buildings in the West Bottoms, cooling towers drone in a thousands variations, some smooth and simple, others jagged and perverse. Metallic thunder starts near the creek and cracks the length of the valley north as the locomotives set off, pulling against the couplers of three-quarters of a mile or more of stationary freight or coal cars, setting tons of steel and hundreds of wheels in motion. These sounds define this place and have joined and, in some instances, replaced the sounds physical nature made before and continue to make now.

In the midst of this activity, this yard gives shelter from the unending motion. The space creates creates a moment, a sort of catch-your-breath feeling. Just around the corner of the house, it’s a world that seems only gently brushed by the airplanes, the tumult of interstate and railroad. Here, hums, whistles, horns, sirens, and engine-and-tire whine are distant, indistinct, like memory. On a late-spring night, breeze sighs in the treess. Sycamores leaves rattle in the swale between the house and the steep hill that climbs up just a short distance away. The house casts its shadow over the yard and its hill, leaving the little piece of ground free of sodium streetlights’ acidity. Above, stars bright enough poke through the light bubble radiating from downtown.

In this shadow from light and sound, the irreducibly natural, the something distinct from culture and society, shows itself. Here are plants absorbing urban clatter and bustle. Darkness marks the day and gives presence to the luminescent fog of modern (industrialized) humanity. Stars prick this billowy night. Wind, a product of sun, gives trees and grass voice. Beneath all of this lies dirt, rock, generations, movements, evolution, pulse, the sound of a heartbeat and a breath.

The yard and I are as much products of human manipulation as rail, factory, street, and electric light. The winds of war and conquest, class struggle and immigration, Indian removal and white settlement, and urban expansion, decline, and renewal have brought me here. These constellations of forces and many others have worked on this piece of land, and it has worked on them—physical nature shaped and reshaped what was moved, removed, and filled and eroded. These relationships, in turn, have determined who I am, the meanings and forms of this land, the human decisions that create and devolve neighborhoods and displace and replace people, and even the ways in which I call this place home.[1]

Tonight, in relation to the houses and people around us, we seem stationary, fixed, as if the glacial loess and Pennsylvanian limestone on which we stand has shielded us from change. But from the beginning of this thought to this comma, we have become something else. And while I’ll only ever see or participate in a fraction of the yard’s human and ecological history, be one player in a cast of many millions, already it’s started to re-form me, even as I think and write of re-forming it.

In short, the yard determines what I do with it. This is not to say it has a human-like conscious.[2] But to deny its status as actor is to deny the natural world includes humans, that somehow humans are beyond nature, above it, in control of it. And while the god of Genesis instructs humans:

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Gen. 1: 28

Genesis also says that

The Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. Gen. 2:23

Since the god of Genesis made humans from the soil of the Garden, when it sent us forth from the Garden to till the ground whence we were taken, god merely turned Paradise from leisure to toil. The dichotomy in this story is not one of humans controlling and serving nature. Rather, the two passages represent, to me, Genesis’ authors’ way of telling a story in which humans are bound to physical nature, and it to them.

I believe we live in the Garden. We have always been Here. Humans have the intelligence and skill (whether by god or by natural selection—which, I believe, may be by God) we need to figure out how to bring forth fruit from the lands from which we had sprung. But in figuring things out—in bringing forth abundance—we have come to the natural world serves us. It is not a part of us, nor we a part of it. We are mistaken, however, on several counts, not the least of which that God is human-like or that our ancestors were human like us. Environmental historian and philosopher Max Oeschlaeger writes in The Idea of Wilderness

With the appearance of life, there is a tendency to rush by the longueurs of space and time to what, in biological terms, happened an instant ago: The appearance of our species. Such Anthropomorphic intoxication make human consciousness drunk with itself and forgetful of the bits and pieces that makes Homo sapiens possible, like flowering plants, grains, soil, and microorganisms—that is, the ongoing processes of Creation.[3]

That god, whatever that may be, is finished with Creation is a human idea. That we think we know what god is or that it acts or thinks in human ways is also very human. The result is an arrogance about our world and our species that, coupled with the cycles of physical nature, tends to bring about famine and let people starve in a world brimming with food.[4]

I look at the backyard everyday from my bedroom window. These conceits—house, topography, neighborhood, order and disorder, among others—are my home, and my home has time and history. And when I consider this ground with the steep incline, I must think of the people who lived here, who shaped and used the ground, and who may very well have felt about it the way I do now, as well as the ways in which the natural forces continually changed what the people left behind when they went for a drink, stopped to eat, or left for other places.[5]

This tiny square of soil and rock and the relationships it has to the rest of its world formed the home-ground of families long before I gazed on it, planted my feet in the newly planted sod, and smelled the organic fug rising from the rain-wetted mat of sycamore leaves. The Kanza and Osage roamed this pass between two large hills along on this bluff above the Kansas River, bending trees to mark paths, and water, food, and medicine resources.[6] Both peoples hunted bison in the river valleys and prairies to the west in the spring when the grasses responded to the seasonal rains, but spent much of the year beyond the reach of flooding here in what used to be wooded uplands. To insure the forest yielded the greatest share of bounty, they often burned underbrush beneath stands of paw-paw, hickory, and oak before they left for the hunt. This insured space to plant beans, maize, pumpkins, and other squash upon their return, ready access to persimmon and paw-paw fruit, and to a steady supply of the grapes that still grow in such abundance here (riverbank grape, vitus riparia; muscadine, vitus rotundifolia; and fox grape, vitus labrusca).[7] These burnings also produced fresh, tender foliage, including grape, grasses, and ivy berries (poison ivy, in particular) that attracted deer, elk, and turkey for hunting the following winter.[8]

I’ve often laid awake at night, wondering what this ground would have looked like in the context of Kanza and Osage seasonal outmigration—the remains of Osage lodges, frames of saplings without pelt and leather coverings; Kanza wickiups in tight clusters, firerings, flint chips, bones left for wolves and badgers. A cathedral forest, clean, growing bright, soft green mats of silver maple and elm rising from the scorch of a burn (soon grazed away by deer), the second year maturation that brings the return of ginseng, ginger, and mayapple. The fingers of grapevines crawling up trees over the spaces where beans and maize fields in clearings have been left after a few years.[9]

More than this, however, I also lay there imagining what the ground will become, not just when I am though manipulating it, after the rains and winds have softened the rough edges and the seeds have germinated and the elms have stubbornly made their up under the blueberries I want to plant. Not just that. But after, sometimes long after, when the walls have fallen, the house is gone, and the street has crumbled and weeded over.

It is then I am faced with who I was, where I came from, how I got here, and who I am now—never a settled and fixed thing. The life of land and people, to borrow from Raymond Williams, “is moving and present; moving in time, through the history of a family and a people; moving in feeling and ideas, through a network of relationships and decisions.”[10] I am not a person who’s always known home. I had to find it.

When I stand in this house, this yard, this neighborhood, I know I’ve discovered a place where I know I’m moving through my own history and the history of the land and the people it formed and that formed it. This is a place that lives, breathes, sleeps, and evolves through a network of relationships more resembling a web-like sphere of connections, with or without me. It is a place I’m tied to and it to me. It is where I belong.

[1] For an excellent discussion of environmental philosophy and its impact on ethics, see Nash, Roderick Frazier. “Chapter 5, The Greening of Philosophy.” The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1989), 121-160.

[2] I would be hard pressed to say I came up with this sequence of words myself. Though they have often been close to my thoughts, this idea was not completely formed until I read Richard White’s, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. For this particular idea about physical nature, see White, Richard. The Organic Machine. (Hill and Wang, New York, 1995), p. x.

[3] Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (Yale University Press, New Have and London, 1991), 330.

[4] Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, London, 1982), 3-8, 238-243.

[5] For a discussion of the ways in which land use and social change affects environment and its inheritors, see White, Richard. Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1980), 3-34.

[6] For an explanation of thong trees, their identification, use, and manipulation, see Maddux, Teresa. “Timber Talk.” Bittersweet. Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978.

[7] Grape is typically an edge-habitat vine, needing a great deal of sun and open area to keep free of fungus and pest, but support upon which to grow. It is often found in this area on the forest canopy or along forest edges and in clearings.

[8] Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Adminstration. Missouri: A Guide to the “Show-Me” State (Works Projects Adminstration, Washington, D.C., 1941.), 33-34; For similar native practices and how these practices changed the landscape, see also, William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill & Wang, New Tork, 1983), 37-51.

[9] For a concise list of Missouri flora and habitat, see WPA Writers’ Program, Missouri: A Guide to the “Show-Me” State. 20-25, and for purposes of this essay in particular, 24-25.

[10] Raymond Williams, The Country and The City (Oxford University Press, 1973), 7-8.

Published in Uncategorized


We all want to hear what you think.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.