The village of Green River is inhabited by two groups, insiders and outsiders. The insiders move. No matter which direction they travel, it is always away from reflection, away from thought. As a result, they live sane lives. They are deliberate. The boxes of their calendars are sketched with deadlines, whole weeks blocked off for travel, for the flight schedules of their visiting kin. They are charming, as if they had never thought to be afraid. Whatever despondency they have met with, they have either conquered and are too humble to be proud about it, or they have refused to acknowledge for so long that they are certain it no longer exists. I envy their blindness, their courage. I envy their children who fit neatly into society, smiles reaching over the crowd as if they were above it. At least they feel that way. Perhaps that is their consolation. If so, it is also their delusion.
The outsiders are still on the inside. Their exile is social rather than geographical. They own their margin. They are the filthy, drug-addicted rednecks. The trailer-bound white trash. They have dirty elbows and the rotting teeth. They wear grease-stained jeans and sleeveless shirts. These are people I come from, the people I love most on earth—and hate most. Who could not hate a people who always require a victim? Who could fail to love a people who protect their poverty as fiercely as they reject the culture that shaped them? They improvise like stoics, throwing nothing away that doesn’t burn in the garbage pile behind their house, keeping all dead machines in the backyard, and over the decades they pick them clean until all that’s left is a chassis, and from it they build a buggy and get drunk and go mudding. Their ingenuity is endless. They are moths to the flames of mischief. Among machines, they move like insects, with the stealth and knowledge of a tick, attaching themselves with precision to the point from which they can draw the most power.
As a community, they are united by their separation and disdain for all other communities. Their tribalism is as ancient as our species, and if it wasn’t for their aggressive and violent nature, which leads to an infighting that any survey of would read like a book of Renaissance revenge tragedies, they could come together, aggregate their powers, and perform an act that would outlast us all. I don’t know what this act would be. I only know it’s possible. Chances are it would be glorious. And terrible.
It is called Green River, a place not to be explained but explored. I grab its substance in handfuls, clench them like sand. Each grain, though the smallest amount—anything less would be nothing—is vital. Without each one there would be nothing here but prairie, the expanse of an unexperienced wonder. But there would still be the river. It has that quality about it, a dimensional persistence. It could—and perhaps does—exist in all possibilities. It runs through the center of the township, a backbone of water, a moving spine. At each bend, each deviation from a straight course, you see the vertebra, one stacked on the other, fused by mud. Knuckles of willows clench the shore. In their shade, barefooted in the cool mud beneath the bridge, farmkids fish for bluegill with kernels of sweetcorn.
The streets are ribs, and along them stand the oaks, the centaur of trees. The seeds of the maples descend, spinning like acrobats. Most of the elms are dead, and those that aren’t, are dying. Borers are feeding on the ash trees. Past their tabletop stumps the children skip. They are hunting for candy. One of them can’t stop hearing the click a Heath bar makes when it’s bitten. The old lady who watches them leave the gas station with their arms full is reminded of her son (an outsider) his face full of joy one evening after a tractor pull when she bought him his first vanilla milkshake. Not far down the road, a block beyond the Episcopal church, are the remnants of her son’s fate, the blister of his exploded meth-lab, a blackhead of disgust.
Across the street, the new metal roof of the mechanic’s shop gleams, a luminous slope bright enough to split your eye. It appears Llewelyn’s goose has escaped again. It stands between the marble pillars before the bank, its wings half-spread, threatening to strike, rocking back and forth on its webbed feet, honking at anyone who comes near, including the bank manager, who seems bewildered that his position has no currency in this situation. The goose, an outsider; the bank manager, an insider.
In the background, coming from the elevator on the other side of town, the unchanging drone of corn dryers. Warm grain is augered into ribbed bins. Their peaks are the highest points on the horizon. They rest on immense concrete coins. The air itself embraces them. They are sealed with tar, anchored by skids. When they are empty and the wind bangs them, the percussion is the beating of a magnificent drum.
The old men in the coffee shop know precisely how much these bins hold, to the exact bushel. They talk of it, their hands smoothing their styrofoam cups. They worry to each other about the rate of progress. The bubble of agriculture must burst. This can’t be sustained, can it? Government subsidies must end. There can be no more hog buildings; the aquifers are poisoned. A new combine costs a half-million, a new tractor a quarter. Soon all the land will be owned by two or three farmers, each backed by a company: Cargill, Monsanto. It doesn’t matter; they all share the same purpose, which makes them identical.
These old men know that farming is actually a form of gambling, that success is built on a foundation of chance. This knowledge has killed their greed. Now, when they observe the world, it appears absurd. But they have no desire to be admired. Belonging to each other is enough. Time has given them this pleasure. They watched their parents make a living off forty acres. Now four hundred isn’t enough. Their possessions are inadequate to compete in this economy: tractors manufactured in the Sixties, a menagerie of parts purchased at auctions, rusted trucks. They don’t care. They are resigned to their fate, insiders and outsiders alike. They grasp the arc of history and their relation, and dis-relation, to it. They know. They listen to their wives. They circumambulate the work they have to do, considering its demands. A storm has ripped the sliding machine shed door from its rail. The loader tractor is leaking hydraulic oil. The cattle pen needs cleaning. There’s eighty acres of soybeans that may need replanting—they simply aren’t coming out of the ground. What they require is rain, and this means the dogwoods on the north edge of someone’s property need watering. Their leaves are scrunching in on themselves like burning baggies. It doesn’t help that the deer ate their bark all winter.
Many of the women who are married to these farmers must work. Many of them want to work. They want to leave the farm, but also to return. They enjoy having a place away from home where they can labor for respect and income. Where they can meet other women like themselves who were raised in the country but are unafraid of the city and its financial energy. They feel they are expected to be selfless in their careers, yet selfish in the way they spend the money they receive for having a career. So they see their own frugality as a resistance to social forces. They will not squander themselves. They are too frugal. But neither will they boast of their opposition. They are not inclined to stand out. Besides, they understand that most people would rather praise the speech of a millionaire actress than tout the quiet, economic rebellion of lower- and middle-class women. They know Mammon is America’s god, a glittering serpent who doesn’t have to speak, who only presents the apple in such a way that it not only holds our attention, but hypnotizes us until we don’t even know our attention is being held. I have known these nurses, accountants, managers, small business owners, janitors. I could scribe their faces into the dirt with my toe, but what they deserve is something more, something I am unable to articulate.
For their evening meditation, they mow the lawn. It gives them peace. Freedom from the office, a tranquility in the neat rows, the smell of cut grass. They water their petunias, peonies, and rose bushes. They are disappointed their apple trees have produced no fruit.
During harvest, they help their husbands, hauling grain until two a.m. on weeknights, caffeinating themselves through work the next day, and doing it again, and then again, until the fields are all picked and they sleep for sixteen hours like teenagers. They wake, balance the checkbook, and leave for work, seeing the same landscape they see every day, except now it’s stubble, stalks stiff as bristles.
The music they listen to on their drive helps them maneuver through their disappointments. One of their daughters is leaving messages again, asking for money. Their sons make it as far as the catheter factory. None of their offspring shares their belief in decency. They have given birth to a crude generation. Their lack of manners grates their mothers like cheese. They seem to be moving from the inside out.
Green River is a place we are all inside of. If its size, structure, location, and function define it as a small, Midwestern farming town, then it’s the people who determine it’s a village. They cooperate as fiercely as they quarrel. Their feuds are as bitter as their friendships are sweet. But unlike the city, there is no anonymous fog to enter and escape from your friend or enemy. Both must be faced with equal stoicism. You must not upset the balance. Even if, in private, one glowers against a fellow villager, when you’re in the post office, the anger must not be seen. The smile, the nod, the one-finger wave, the handshake—these are the peacemakers. Of course, from beneath this polite skin the flames sometimes burn through, violence belching its bright destruction, charring the flesh of society, scorching the tissue of social organization. But it heals. And people here avoid that by clinging to their affection and their judgment: from these they weave their social map.
They get along, even if they don’t. They have to. When the flood comes and the sandbags need to be filled, when the market for grain is down and the farmers need second jobs to make their payments on operating loans, when one of the two parents must attend rehab and the other parent must work and the children are toddlers, when someone must be buried, when help is needed to make hay, when certain tools are needed that are easier borrowed than bought, when the furnace dies at seven below: that is when the community is presented with a problem that only communion can solve, the argument must be laid aside, as must fondness, because in catastrophes, everyone is equal.
I believe in the muse, and that she inhabits this place. Call me old-fashioned. The muse is what moves me to speak of this place whose hayfield hair is trimmed by sickle mowers, whose manure pits boil their pitch in the summer haze, whose gravel roads cinch their belts against the earth, whose lonely Norwegian bachelors shuffle to the Legion for a beer and a patty melt, whose daughters peel back whatever values their parents impose on them only to create new layers in which to bind their own children.
By muse I mean a form of energy which seems distinct from the body in which it appears. Its power convinces one it has no criterion. It is a fundament of human existence, even in Green River, where I have seen farmers moved to sing by nothing more than the manner in which a robin hops to the garden and pecks a worm from the wet soil. By muse I mean this inner-impeller, this urge to tell of the people here, and of the wild chives in the ditch, the prairie onion, the oriole on the fence, the pyramid of stones in the corner of the field. Perhaps I ought to speak more simply. Perhaps I ought to have written only one word: Welcome.