Underlying Conditions

Figure 1. Two-track easement rising to the upper plot south of Wonder Hollow.

The two-track easement I mentioned a couple of posts back angles on a more or less straight line from NNE to SSW, bending ever so slightly where the grade steepens from driveway to an off-road pitch of what I’d guess is at least 25 degrees. I asked the former owner how long the two-track carved a line up the easement, and he said it had been there as long as he could remember, which I’d guess goes back to maybe the 1950s when he was growing up in the then-newly-constructed bungalow (which dates to 1948). The easement links the end of Rosemary Road and the 10 acre plot just above the holler. The legal description includes the exact coordinates for the two-track, noting its 20-foot width, noting it persists only for as long as that upper plot is owned by the same family. And then there is a code in Virginia, 55.1-305. Enjoyment of Easement, which conserves the ways the easement can be used. No converting it to a raceway; not sure it could be paved or significantly upgraded. The code begins, “Unless otherwise provided for in the terms of an easement, the owner of a dominant estate [neighbors] shall not use an easement in a way that is not reasonably consistent with the uses contemplated by the grant of the easement, and the owner of the servient estate [us] shall not engage in an activity or cause to be present any objects either upon the burdened land or immediately adjacent to such land that unreasonably interferes with the enjoyment of the easement by the owner of the dominant estate.”

When it rains, the easement two-track gathers and delivers torrents like a dried up river bed subjected to a heavy downpour. At the bottom of the two-track is our front shed, and until last fall when we had an excavator operator dig below the shed’s foundation wall and then go over it with a sealcoat, laying drain tile, and backfilling with gravel, it didn’t take much rain to send puddling across the shed’s slab, soaking everything that touched the floor. The excavation work successfully redirected the intense runoffs, and now the shed floor stays dry, though the two-track still switches from dry to gushing every time it rains. Erosion spills snaking routes onto the driveway below and exposes a rocky subsurface all along the two-track. Can’t imagine driving a basic passenger vehicle up it all that often. You’d feel tossed-about, and you’d worry about the brakes. I haven’t tried it before, but my guess is it’d feel unsafe. It does fine with small tractor or rugged vehicles like four-wheelers , not that we have anything like that. With each subsequent rain, the ground gives to the water course silty bits of itself, clay particulate, organic material, dust. I couldn’t guess how many times the easement has had to be repaired since the 1950s, nor how many times it has washed out, nor how many small rinses it takes to render it impassable, nor how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop.

Just as the two-track divides Turkey Slope, erosion and deposition, the weather, and vegetative growth cycles participate in shaping the field, sometimes bringing to the surface reminders and remnants, those underlying conditions that through time form a crust that lasts for a while, enduring but changing, transforming while seeming to stand still. “Underlying conditions” come up briefly in Lorrie Moore’s 2023 novel I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home. There is much, much more to layer on about the book, but for now, let’s just say it is a living-dead travelog, with its protagonists, Finn, who is alive, and Lily, who is dead but talking and otherwise behaving as-though alive, making their way across the midwestern United States and, as they go, negotiating their old relationship, decaying flesh, and the real risks felt to occasionally blinker into the surreal plot. At one of the lodging stops along the way (a bed and breakfast, sort of), the novel hints at chronotopic laminations, “the dispersed, fluid chains of places, times, people, and artifacts that come to be tied together in trajectories of literate action along with the ways multiple activity footings are held and managed” (180). Moore’s novel characterizes the boarding house this way: “Memories from another time and other people in the form of humidity saturated the place. Any given time always had other times beneath it” (161). Could be the slow reveal of the rock bed underlying the two-track, could be the crumbling granite everywhere underfoot in these Blue Ridge mountains, could be that feeling of aging, at home, at work, everywhere you go. But that line has traction; it catches and holds: Any given time always had other times beneath it.

Any given time always had other times ahead, too. Witnessing this capacity, or recognizing these times beneath and times afore, is something close to temporal bandwidth, ΔT (in conceptual light more than a formulaic one). I don’t know what will become of the two-track. Can’t predict whether its run-offs will become more fitful until water and gravity prevail. Maybe it becomes a pristine road, as humans love to create roads and then to travel on them (notwithstanding that this occludes much of what is beyond the sensory margins of the road and its immediate surrounds!). To grant this path ephemerality itself as an underlying condition is, I suppose, similar to acknowledging the impermanence of everything. Gone-noting intersects with temporal bandwidth, and maybe even underwrites it.

I also don’t know what will become of the academic field where I have lingered for half of my life. It is changing, in some respects trending kinder and more humane, in some ways trending farther spun-out and dissolute. But trends, too, have a way of doubling back, so we have to keep checking, asking whether we are still becoming kinder and more humane, asking whether we are even listening to and reading one another any more. Yesterday, summer solstice, I saw online a social media post from a senior, now-retiring scholar in the field who was trying to rehome something like 500 books from a long and prosperous career. His conclusion, “no one wants them.”

For a couple of entries now, I’ve been hinting at Wendell Berry’s poem, “IX,” as a low-key motivator for these few meandering thoughts on fields. The poem is reprinted in full, with permission, at The Writer’s Almanac. I’ll share a small excerpt, but you can click over and read the rest, if you want to.


I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.

Excerpt from Wendell Berry, “IX”