~This story previously appeared in Puerto del Sol (1994).
The bird of prey had been left hanging on the wire fence, its wings pulled to their fullest length along the barbs. The wind kicked up dust, the tips of the feathers twisted in the breeze, and for a moment I imagined the bird in flight.
Dad saw it, too, and he pulled the station wagon over to the side of the road. I was tired and didn't feel like working, but I unbuckled my seat belt, took a breath of air-conditioned air, and opened the door to the searing California heat.
Dad was already sweating before he got out of the car, and he wiped his face with the white towel that he wore around his neck before crossing the road to get a closer look at the bird. As he took light meter readings, I studied him. I watched the methodical way he prepared the photograph—checking and rechecking tiny numbers, twisting his moustache while standing at the exact spot, changing his mind, finding a better angle and twisting his moustache some more. If someone had told me six months earlier that I would be helping my father take pictures in the San Joaquin Valley during his sabbatical, I would have said "impossible." It wasn't that I disliked my dad; it was just that I was eighteen. I had found a great summer job helping young kids write stories at the YMCA. I was dreaming about an apartment, all-night parties—I was even humming the Star Spangled Banner. Then my mother told me that Dad needed my help. For six hundred dollars, I was hired out to my father. It was as simple as that.
I began to unload cameras from the back of the car. Except for a small space at the rear window, the car was full of traveling supplies and photo equipment. There were five cameras of various sizes, two tripods, and twenty boxes of film—tightly wrapped in tin foil to keep out the light. Dad had been working mostly with a panoramic format, so I automatically pulled out the cumbersome field camera. The forty-pound carrying case bumped against my legs, adding new bruises to my knees. As I struggled with the load, I wondered how the early American photographers managed trips across mountain passes, carrying equipment like ours, without killing the mules.
I put the case down on the asphalt with a thud. "Some of the mules must have died," I muttered under my breath.
"Hey, watch what you're doing."
Dad had returned from across the road and begun releasing the legs of the tripod. His face had become hard and intense, as if he were an instrument, which absorbed energy from the atmosphere around him. As he chewed his lip, I knew he was worrying. He always did. He was afraid that the clouds would break, washing out the exposure, or that the wind would suddenly shake the camera and blur the image. Or worse yet, that a passing car would slow down to observe—maybe even honk.
He worked fast. Moving back and forth across the road, he retrieved items that he had forgotten: a cable cord, his darkcloth, the light meter again. I tried to keep pace, but unpacking the wooden film holders was slow work. The equipment was old and if I was careless, the film would slip from the holder into blackening light. I could feel his impatience, but the holder was stuck. Finally, I wrestled it from the duffel bag, but I could feel the film shift, momentarily slipping from the holder.
"Hurry, the light is changing," Dad said.
I could see him standing on the edge of the road—waiting—the darkcloth draped over his shoulders like a super hero's cape.
As soon as I reached him, I wanted to tell him about the film holder—about the possibility—the small chance that I had ruined the film, but he was already impatient—agitated. He took the film from me, propped it against a tripod leg, then disappeared beneath the large drape, which covered the camera.
In that dark world, reality appeared upside down and backwards. I knew the bird would be a small white spot on a field of black. And through the confusion, Dad would pull together an image he would later print on paper, so durable that it would not fade for a hundred years. As I stood by and watched, I crossed my fingers behind my back.
"Okay, okay. It's going to be okay,” I repeated under my breath. After all, there was always a back up, always at least two pictures taken.
"Here, hold this." He stood up and tossed the darkcloth to my shoulder. The material trailed to the dust and made me feel small. I shifted under the weight and tried to think of something else. I thought about the other trips I had taken with him—short trips. He had been photographing across the Mississippi River, around the cane breaks, when we ran into a yard full of eight-year-olds. They were obsessed with the white man and his cape—almost as much as with the camera he carried.
"He look like a reporter,” said the bravest of the boys as he approached the equipment. "Hey, take our picture." His request brought the others closer.
"All right, you boys stand in a line. But be still." I watched as he set up another picture. They were squirming, pushing each other.
"Are we gonna be on T.V.? Are you gonna make us famous?" asked the smallest of the boys as he stared wide-eyed into my father's world.
Dad laughed. "No, no one will be made famous today."
The only people who saw that print were crowded together at the faculty art show. For an hour and a half, the picture of the boys hung on the wall under the bright lights while people shuffled by—stopping now and then, leaning forward—squinting—commenting in whispers. I could hear praise being exchanged and the hushed gossip about department politics. I don't think anyone really cared about the work, and I couldn't imagine how he could stand it. As the shrimp andouillé and the cheese crackers diminished, I looked for my friends and found them at the wine table.
"Hey, Lynn, we're gonna have a show of our own at the Bayou. That is, if the bar don't mind. Will you read?"
Three weeks later, I read two poems to a crowd of six, and my father received another rejection letter. The State's Art Council turned down his grant proposal. Dad had wanted to photograph industrial landscapes, but they awarded the five thousand to a guy who photographed beauty pageants and wrote philosophical poems on his prints. I didn't think the idea was that bad, but Dad hated it. He sulked in the kitchen, absorbing his frustration by eating. Then he began snapping at Mom, or at me if I was around. That lasted for a couple of days—until Mom slammed the teakettle on the stove and told him she couldn't take any more stress. The fighting didn't bother me though. I was still happy about my first reading, and I worked harder at my typewriter.
Dad moved from behind the camera and startled me out of my daydream. His thin hair was flattened with sweat, and he stopped a moment to wipe his face. He was watching the bird's massive black body sway on the barbed wire, and his stare was so intense that I thought he was wishing for something beyond his power. Despite the heat, I felt a chill.
"It seems so senseless," he finally said. "Who would want to kill something so beautiful? Something so naturally magnificent."
I moved closer to the fence. The golden grass cracked under my feet causing a couple of grasshoppers to fly off. Dead things usually don't bother me but this was different. It was a young bird, the head not yet red, but with adult wings that stretched four feet from tip to tip. The beak was cracked and hung loosely on its breast. Wire was pulled tight over the body, and the legs were wrapped to the splintering gate post, claws curled up. I wanted suddenly to set it free, to bury it in the grass, but I didn't. The thing was decaying, and I was afraid that something would rub off on me—some kind of pain.
"Don't get too close."
I didn't have to be told twice. As I returned to the road, he clicked the shutter. He pulled the sheet of film from the camera, turned it over, and took another picture at a different exposure. Good, there would be a backup.
A grasshopper began buzzing, and I realized how quiet it was—how alone we seemed to be. Dad was lost now in his private world of artistic vision, or wherever he went. I could understand that; after all, I was trying to find the same place. I thought that teaching at the Y would bring me closer to language—closer to understanding myself. I closed my eyes, squeezing tight, and tried to fight off my frustration. I turned my face to the white heat of the sun and looked into the red glow of my eyelids. The sun was too bright, even with my eyes tight, and I had to open them and look away. I watched Dad working and wondered what it was like after thirty years. He had been at it for so long, I wasn't sure if he had fun anymore. Somehow, he always seemed sad.
"See these fingers. Do you know why they're yellow? Chemicals. God, I might be blind before I'm seventy," I remember him telling me that one day. He was studying his hands in the light. It wasn't a question—more like a realization that what he did would have to end. I didn't know what to tell him, so I quietly left the kitchen. He was only fifty, and twenty years seemed a long time off.
My father's thumb rested on the cable release, and I thought about twenty years. In twenty years, I would be forty. What things would I tell my kids. See these fingers. Do you know why they're bent? Because of the typewriter. In fifteen years, I will probably be crippled.
"What are you laughing at?" Dad looked over at me.
I shrugged. It wasn't something he would find funny, so I kept quiet as he rolled in the squeaking bellows and began to fold up the camera. We re-packed the car, and I took a last look at the dead bird.
"Do you think we should bury it? Or, maybe just take it down?"
He sighed. "No, I don't want to disturb it."
I had the feeling that Dad was a little afraid of the bird himself.
"At least, it's on film—it won't be forgotten," I said as I closed the door.
"That's a nice thought." He smiled as he started the car.
The cold air was on full blast, and for a moment I forgot about the heat outside. Dad's shirt was wet, almost dark, and his face was flushed. I stared out the window and watched the landscape go by. I thought I could see the cloudy blue outline of the Sierra Madre Mountains. They rimmed the valley, separating the farms from L.A. Instead of parking lots, there were rows of orange trees in tight lines, and vines of dusty tomatoes waiting to turn red. Anything green was protected by arcs of irrigation water, while the hills burned golden under the sun.
"So, have you thought about the fall?"
"Some." I tried to sound vague, hoping he would take the hint. He wanted me to decide on a major before my first semester at L.S.U. I felt angry every time he brought it up. I knew I had time before I had to decide.
"Your poetry's coming along. There's always writing."
"Sure, it's there." I felt a little uncomfortable talking to him. The truth was, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. But, I wasn't going to tell him that.
"Besides it pays more."
"More than what?"
He grinned at me and we laughed. It was true; if it hadn't been for my mother's accounting job, there would have been some hungry nights.
"Scrambled eggs and hamburger for dinner again?" I had whined years ago. I think that was the first year my father started teaching, and I was wearing high-water bell bottoms to fifth grade.
"Well, it would've paid more if I had worked at the Y."
If I could have, I would have stopped my words from hitting air. Dad stopped laughing and I could see his jaw tense up. He didn't say a word.
For half an hour, our conversation was replaced with the sounds of humming road. Every time I thought I could tell him I was sorry, my heart raced, so I kept my mouth shut.
"I'm sorry you were forced on this trip,” Dad finally said. "I really did need help—someone to talk to. And, I thought you would learn from the experience."
I blushed with guilt, and tried to find a way to defend myself. "It's all right. I'm having a good time, and I am learning."
"Okay, if you think so."
"I know so." My nerves were burning. I felt combative, but I let it go.
It took a few minutes, but the quietness in the car became softer—less hostile. When we began to slow down, I realized that we were in another town.
"Where are we?"
Porterville, I repeated in my mind. There were so many towns; I had a hard time remembering where I had been.
As we passed through, I saw the usual small-town things. There were palm trees planted next to the courthouse, farmers checking their mail at the post office, and at least one pink low-rider parked near the edge of town. We had been circling these towns for several weeks, and as far as I knew, we had already been through Porterville.
"You ready to eat?" Dad asked.
He pulled into the El Toro parking lot. The neon bull was a silent blue outline in the late afternoon light. Heat radiated from the asphalt, and I geared myself for another night of salsa and beans.
It was still early when we finished eating, but we were both tired. We could see a Best Western across the street, so we decided to stay in town. Unloading the car took time, but it always seemed longer at the end of the day. When all of the equipment was scattered around the green-carpeted floor of our room, I went to the pool. There was an empty lounge chair by the gate, so I put my towel over the peeling plastic and lay down. When I closed my eyes, I could hear water splashing—extinguishing heat from the concrete. There was a little girl learning to swim, and her shrieking laughter pierced the silence. Peeking from my half-closed eyes, I watched the mother try to coax her away from the plastic duck float. The girl let go, kicked twice, and sank.
"Stop your crying. You didn't swallow much."
The girl answered with long wails. Her mother looked over at me, a little embarrassed.
Finally, the wailing became soft hiccups, and the girl went back to her duck—tears mixing with chlorine. There was something about the scene that was interesting to me, but I didn't know why. I made a mental note to write about it in my journal.
That night, I helped Dad tape garbage bags to the bathroom window. The room had to be black for him to change film, and night-time light was not black enough. While he was locked away in the bathroom, I turned on the T.V., flipping through the channels—HBO, music videos, "Gunsmoke."
"Can't you find something better to do than watch the boob tube?" Dad came out of the bathroom, film holders reloaded for the morning.
"Give me a break, I'm trying to relax."
"I thought you brought a journal. Why don't you write?"
"I'm tired, I'll do it in the morning."
I sighed in frustration, turned off the T.V., and tossed the remote on the nightstand.
"Don't act that way," he said.
I turned out the light over my bed.
"Okay, fine. Just remember, I'm trying to help—to teach you discipline." It was silent for a moment, and in a voice I could barely hear, he said, "You've got to be prepared if you are going to . . . ."
The 5:30 wake-up call came early. Dad was already loading the car. I took a quick shower, ripping the bags from the window when I had finished. We ate breakfast at Denny's. Two Southern Slams—eggs, pancakes, sausage, and juice. Dad called it the five-hundred-mile meal. A breakfast that would make us one with the road. By the time we got rolling, the sun was again hot on my face.
"Wake up, you aren't paying attention."
I tried to shake off my fuzzy feeling. I hadn't realized how tired I was, and I figured the heat was to blame. "What am I supposed to pay attention to?" I asked as I stretched my legs in the cramped space.
"You can start by practicing observation."
"What do you mean? I observe plenty of things."
He laughed at me. "Why don't you help me look for pictures?"
As we moved down the road, I began to point out places. "Did you see that old barn back there? That would make a nice photo."
He kept driving, slowing down once in a while.
"There. Over there, did you see those migrant workers? Now that would make a great photograph," I said as I smudged the window with my finger.
"Describe to me what you saw."
"There were a bunch of workers in a field."
"Where was the sun?"
"In the sky?"
Dad shook his head. "The sun is behind the workers. If I took that picture, they would look flat and dark. Besides, there were only two planes of composition—the workers in the foreground, and the mountains in the back. No interesting dynamics."
"Okay, already. If you didn't want my opinion, then why ask for it?"
"You just don't get it," he said. "Maybe you would be better off in a business-related field. Have you thought about doing something like your mother?"
I could feel my face get red, but I pinched my hand until the pain stung my tears away. Mom had a good job. In fact, she was one of the four payroll managers for the state. I knew that Dad was proud of her, but it hurt to think that he excluded me from the creative world. As we drove on in silence, I couldn't understand why he was picking on me. It had started soon after I told him I might be working on a Liberal Arts degree. His pride in my choice of subjects seemed to slip into control of my life. Damn, I should never have told him. Now that I was trapped in the car, things were worse—I couldn't escape. This was my last summer of freedom before school started, and I didn't want it ruined by arguments.
He finally pulled off the road, black dust covering the window like powder.
"Time to get to work."
His voice set me on edge, and at that moment I hated my father. I hated being in the middle of a vegetation desert, endless dead trees, with the sun burning freckles into my skin. I slammed the door a little harder than I intended, but he was already too far away to hear. I yanked the banquet camera from the car—too much force. It swung down hard on my knees, making my eyes water. "Damn it!" I swore under my breath.
"I need the 8x10." Dad came over, out of breath with excitement.
I stood very still—trying to be calm. I pushed the huge camera back into the car, and removed the smaller one. By the time I had most of the equipment out, he was ready to set up. I was extra careful removing the film. I didn't want to make a mistake out of anger and cause more problems. I moved slow and stayed calm, so when I handed him the holder, I knew it was in good condition.
I looked past the camera and tried to understand the picture he was about to make. We were in front of a dead almond grove. Piles of grey trees were stacked a story high on oil-blackened ground. The earth seemed to move, and I realized that it was squirrels. Hundreds of ground squirrels dodged from pile to pile, flipping their tails with agitation. Overhead, massive power lines crossed—buzzing with electrical energy—and I could feel the hair on my arms tingle. The cables hooked together giant metal structures which dotted the landscape like silver windmills. As the sun burned the back of my neck, I watched the lacy structures sparkle with light, and heard the rustling of life on the ground. There was tension here. At that moment, I thought I understood what the picture was about. I saw the power of light and dark—life and death. I knew that those trees were ready to be burned—regardless of the darting animals. For a moment, I felt that I understood my father and the complexity of his work. This would be more than a visual documentation; it was a recording of emotion.
As the shutter snapped closed, I thought I could see the shadow of wings circling—spiraling down, looking for meat so it could live. I began to hurt for the dead bird again, but I forced it from my memory.
As the afternoon wore on, we managed to carve up another two hundred miles of territory, stopping five more times. I was still angry. Not steaming mad, I was too busy for that, but angry enough to be snappy. Dad finally gave up trying to talk with me, so there was plenty of time to think. Knowing that he had been wrong about me, that I was capable of observation, made me feel better, but my emotions were still bruised. I began to make small notes in my journal.
"I see that you're writing."
"That's right," I said without looking up.
"Give up on looking for photographs?"
"Nope. I can do both."
He laughed, and shook his head.
I glared. "Hey, I'm just trying to be disciplined," I said, mimicking his advice. He looked at me puzzled—like he couldn't understand my anger.
I was miserable. I couldn't write very well because the movement of the car made my pen jerk. I couldn't stop though. If I did, it would look like I was giving up, so I continued to scratch out words. I wrote about the mother and the little girl in the pool. I described the dead bird in great detail. I took on the complexity of the piled almond trees. Nothing worked. Everything I tried to write looked ugly and awkward. I finally threw my journal down.
"Hey, what's wrong with you?" Dad looked over. He was frowning.
"I'm okay. I'm just hot. It's too hot out."
"I can't turn the air on any higher."
I began to think of accounting, public relations, even business administration. As I repeated the list in my head, I tried each of the titles out—trying to envision what those words meant.
The scenery hadn't changed much. We passed so many groves that I lost my sense of direction. I didn't know where we were going, or where we had been—and that was fine. There was a comfort in being lost because possibilities were always down the next road. As the sun moved lower in the sky, the oranges took on a purple hue in the soft shadows.
"God, look at this light. This is the golden hour."
"Why do you say that?"
"Look at how vibrant everything is. The light is so intense, I'm not sure I can even photograph it."
"Sure you can. It can't still be difficult for you."
Dad looked at me, raising his eyebrows. "Infinitely," he said.
Suddenly, I remembered watching my father rip up a dozen of his prints—one after another. They were all flawed, he said. I managed to save one from the garbage, which I mended with tape and hid under my bed. For a long time, trying to find all of the flaws was a private game. I imagined many but never found anything wrong with the print other than the fact that it was torn. It didn't seem fair that after thirty years my father still had fears. I never understood what those fears were until I looked back at my own work. There were other things I could do in school—other things I could study. I just didn't know how to tell him that.
Gravel splattered underneath the tires as we pulled off the road, and ignored the no trespassing sign. There were miles of tree trunks stretching into the distance—all painted white, like grave markers. It was a chilling sight, and I was depressed as I unloaded the car. While Dad was positioning the camera, a cloud of dust appeared further down the road. By the time he was ready to shoot, there was a pickup stopping to watch. The worst thing that could happen, I thought, would be getting kicked off the property. But the person inside the truck kept quiet as Dad's hands shook. As I watched my father's hands shake, I became overwhelmed with an urge to protect him. I wanted to tell the driver to leave—that he was making my dad nervous, but I didn't because imagination began to kick in. I thought about an angry farmer, taking care of trespassers in his own way. I imagined an AK-47 being pulled down from the shotgun mount, so I tried to act invisible.
"Howdy, where you folks from?"
I almost jumped. I had been so involved with my imagination that I didn't notice that the farmer had stepped down from the cab. He was brown from field dirt, and what began as dust on his cap became mud on his boots. He looked at us, squinting, trying to decide what we were doing.
"Hello." Dad stopped fiddling with the lens and walked over to the man. "We're from Louisiana."
"Is that right? Got a cousin living in Shreveport. You folks near Shreveport?"
"No, we live in Baton Rouge."
"That's quite a rig you got there." The farmer pointed to the camera. "Must get a good-sized picture."
"About an 8x20 negative." Dad described the size with his hands.
The farmer whistled. "I guess you can't take that to Eckerd's."
"No, don't think it would fit in the yellow envelope."
Both of them laughed and suddenly the tension was gone. Standing next to the farmer, Dad looked soft, city-like. The farmer's hands were cracked and looked like brown bread. He was wrinkled from the sun and stained with earthly color. Dad was pale, except for the sunburn on his nose. His hands looked more like dough—smooth and translucent. There was something similar though. I wasn't sure what it was, and then I realized—it was the intensity in their eyes. It was the way the farmer looked out over the land and smiled.
"So, what do you use a photograph that big for?"
"Show it to friends, I suppose. And, if I'm lucky, there might be a book someday."
The farmer nodded. "And, what do you do for work?"
"I teach photography."
I wanted to laugh. Dad was a full professor at the state university. It was something to be proud of. Why down play it?
"My son works at Fresno JRCO. Got a good deal, that boy does with all them summers off. Nothing better to do than read all the time."
What did he know about my father's job? What did he know about anything at all? It really wasn't that easy. I remembered him coming home from a meeting—yelling.
"A proposal. Another sabbatical proposal. They've rejected two already. It doesn't look good. It just doesn't look good."
I could hear Mom's soothing voice-—calming the hurt.
"The university is killing me," Dad said softer, in a voice of desperation. "If I don't get a break soon . . . ."
I watched the farmer move in between the tree stumps. He knelt to the ground as if in prayer and took out a knife. I watched him peel away the painted bark and carefully bring back a strip.
"See this here."
Dad and I both looked close at the tiny movement weaving in and out of the soft pulp.
"Got us some wood mites. Damn things will eat the heart out of a tree. We try to protect the groves by painting the bark with a copper and lime adhesive. I was just too slow." He scraped the bark with his thumb and squished the life.
Dad was looking out in the distance.
"Even the strongest of trees will shrivel up and die. But, what can you do? Can't protect every tree. That's why I cut 'em all down. Had to stop the mites from spreading to other groves."
Dad pointed to the wood. "I'm sorry."
"Reckon that won't help much now."
"Well, thanks for showing me anyway. I would never have seen the inside of a tree. Never would have thought to look." Dad nodded.
The farmer smiled at us. After a minute he said, "Well, I best be getting home." He nodded and got into his truck. We didn't say anything as his taillights disappeared.
Dad looked around. "It's too dark—I missed the picture. We'll come back in the morning."
The next morning, we returned to the grove. Dad made his photograph, although he was certain it wouldn't be as good, with the early morning light reflecting from the stumps. While he was still busy, I went through the dry sod, kicking up dirt. I found a tree seedling tucked in the shadow of the dead stump, and I wondered if the disease had gotten to it already, or would it have a chance to survive. I decided to take it as a good sign, and spent the rest of the day feeling pretty good.
After three weeks, we had taken a lot of pictures. I laughed when we passed the sign, God Loves Coalinga. Over fifty religious billboards dotted the hilly town. There had been an earthquake the year before, and so in the town God loved, there were still a lot of temporary buildings. I was working hard on my journal, and writing as many images as I could remember at the end of the day. Traveling outside of Bakersfield, I tried to describe the oil pumps which were painted like cartoon animals. There was a whole barnyard, from roosters to rabbits, bobbing up and down. I was writing about the people we saw at the truckstops, gift shops, and motels. I was thinking about their lives—imagining what their homes would look like, what kind of cars they drove, and what their personalities were like. Best of all, the more I wrote, the less I seemed to fight with Dad. I couldn't help thinking that the trip was getting better, but I was tired. We both were. As the days went on, the boxes of film began to dwindle, and we stopped fewer times to photograph.
When we had made a circle of the area, we hit Porterville again. The Best Western was blinking in the darkness when we pulled in. It almost felt like home.
"I'm running out of film, so maybe we should head back tomorrow." Dad was tracing interstate routes on the map.
Oh yes, I thought as I fluffed up the stiff pillow.
"What do you think?"
"I think I've had enough of traveling."
Imagining the two-thousand-mile trip home did not make the five-thirty ring any easier to answer. I couldn't remember what it felt like to sleep until eight, but I was happy that we were going home.
We had been on the road for about an hour when I realized that we still hadn't hit an interstate.
"Decide to stay longer?" I asked, afraid of the answer.
"No, just taking a detour." He didn't offer any other information. I tried prying for details, but he kept silent.
"Why won't you tell me where we are?"
"I hoped you'd recognize the area for yourself."
I looked out the window, but all I saw were fields of cows, softly grazing—nuzzling the dew. For the first time in days, I felt frustrated again. I watched the landscape unfold like an unending movie. There were soft rolling hills, golden fields of grass, trees, rocks—just like a hundred other places we had passed. I didn't want to feel lost anymore, so I stared hard until the land took on form. Suddenly, I knew. Dad was looking for the bird.
"Look, it's gone." Dad finally said as he pulled over.
There were still traces of wire on the fence, but no other signs. I looked up to the sky—I couldn't help it. I thought I might see it, or something flying overhead, but the sky was empty except for one low cloud that stretched into mist. In my imagination, I saw the bird, again, more real than the photograph would ever reveal. As I watched for the swooping shadow, I realized that I would be okay as long as I kept my eyes open. I finally looked over at my dad, who was twisting his moustache. He looked back and smiled.
"Have you seen enough?" he asked.
I nodded, and then he turned the car around.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Nineteen-eighty-six was the last of an agriculture golden age for California as many small farms there and around the nation were in decline. The medfly was on the attack and there was increased spraying, the kind of chemical warfare that would one day trigger my grandmother’s Parkinson’s. Los Angeles wanted the water. Farmers were bitter with this battle. My grandfather, disgusted by the fled urbanites, complained they should all go back to the city if plow dust disturbed them. It was a changing eco-system, and my father recognized that.
My father, who built the Louisiana State University photo department, was on sabbatical. San Joaquin Valley in central California was his proposal, and we set off to capture a moment of time about to change forever. I was there to carry equipment and to gopher. No slight task as Dad worked with a large format camera, an 8 x 20 banquet camera, film holders as large as TV trays. Digital was in its infancy, and I was writing college papers on one of the first Macs as boxy as a microwave. My father had no idea that twentieth century photography was a dying craft shrouded in silver-gelatin. Great photographs were pure know-how and darkroom magic, but they were in decline as was the changing landscape we were documenting. My job was also to drive, pay attention, pour water, hand over driving snacks, and provide moral support. Trapped in a car with my dad, I became a listener—a skill I still use in my current life as a therapist.
Our base camp was Lindsay, California, where we stayed with my grandparents on their small “retirement” grove they’d named Last Chance Ranch. It was an abundant life, filled with the literal fruits of one’s labor. The kitchen table was laden with sun-ripened grapes and the bloodiest tomatoes I’d ever seen. The electric juicer was a whir every morning. Grandma picked low hanging fruit from the nearest tree. Almonds and chocolates stashed in every candy jar. My grandparents, who had grown through the depression, had the mentality: I’ll never go hungry again, and thought no one else visiting their home should either.
By eight o’clock, the car was packed, the breakfast dishes were rinsed, and we were on our adventure, headed up to Camp Nelson where the sequoias grew to the size of redwoods, and locals still found pleasure in jumping off rock cliffs into deep pools of mountain water. A lot of work went into my father’s craft, and he carried with him many concerns. What he looked for was in the language of light, but light was always fickle and to set up a photograph took time. There were other worries as well: heat, snakes, the sudden farm truck barreling past on the narrow road with no shoulder. The psychological concerns, however, were even heavier to bear. He carried the stigma that the art world did not care about any “back woods southern professor” and felt the pain of that obscurity. At that time, he was fond of the saying, no honor for a prophet in his own country. In my own lifetime, I’ve only seen this disparity become more divided as coveted New York shows are held for the children of wealthy patrons. Art programs have been cut from secondary education, not to mention anything labeled “liberal” arts is non-meritorious in the activity of making money. The academic jobs that supported my father have disappeared. Ask any adjunct professor (I myself was one for many years), who are the white-collar migrant workers? Professionals of all ilks have been marginalized. Human resources, natural resources—all gobbled up to feed the American way—manifest destiny to the brink of destruction. In 1986, we knew things were changing; we just didn’t know how soon nor how dramatic.
I first saw the bird left to rot on the barbed wire. It was carrion, a death eater. Still, no way to leave one of God’s creatures. I was disgusted, but that bird became a symbol, perhaps a portent of these things to come. “The Crucified Bird” was a way to describe the sacrifice of the natural world, the end of a way of life. We are all dying. All moving towards God. My grandparents are dead. The family farm is long gone, acres of olive tress plowed up. The water is going to Los Angeles. Parkinson’s is showing up in younger people, thirties and forties. My father is retired, taking naps in his chair. He’s dealing with the battle of a lifetime, a deteriorating body that will one day lead to his death. I work with the disfranchised, the desperate, and the broken. I hear the stories of lives sacrificed. All the while more mental health programs have been dismantled, and the cries of the people lift their voices. Why?
We learn to live—like all life—on the edge. To find our way to forgiveness for what is. “The Crucified Bird” has long been buried under the drought-dried grasses of California’s richest agricultural valley. In one-way or another, we are all crucified birds.
ABOUT PATRICIA L. MEEK
Patricia Meek is a Medical Integrative Therapist in Alamosa, Colorado. All Things That Matter Press recently published her novel, Noah A Supernatural Eco-Thriller. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, and an M.A. in Counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her short story, “The Crucified Bird”, was published in Puerto del Sol, and was a winner of AWP Intro for Fiction, American Writers Program for the introduction of emerging writers in fiction and poetry. She has attended workshops with many cotemporary luminaries; such as, Dorothy Allison, Albert Goldbarth, and the late Spalding Grey. Much of her professional career has been in academia, where she has taught English composition and creative writing in Kansas, California, Utah, Louisiana, and New Mexico. She returned to college to get her M.A. in Counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has studied transpersonal psychology and holistic healing practices, including Reikî and Noetic Field Therapy (NFT is a branch of energy work)—most recently, she was initiated in intensive Shamanic healing rites of the Q’uero Paqos in the high Andes studying with renowned indigenous healers. For more information: www.patricialmeek.com or www.facebook.com/patricia.meek.9
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