Fields Steeper 🧗‍♀️

Photo by Tyler Gooding on Unsplash

There were fields steeper than barn roofs ending in sheer cliffs, where a fall would be death. (Andean farmers do occasionally fall out of their fields.) And we continued to see herders with flocks of sheep and llamas. (23)

Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1979)

By now I have several checkmarks ✔️ and phis ɸ in the margins of Berry’s The Gift of Good Land, idiosyncratic but patterned marks distinguishing themselves over the years as the homing punctuation that give me a chance of returning and rereading. A checkmark or a phi is like a waving hand, a beckoning forefinger, and a glittering agate fieldstone combined. While reading the other morning, I was struck by these lines nodding to the sharp, impassable edges sometimes demarcating the small potato fields Berry observed and described during his visit to the northern Andes. Unto itself, it produces quite an image–to tumble, cruel gymnastikoi!, from one’s potato field. Considering my continuing strickenness with the doubling of “field” for parcel of land (field1) and semistable plane cohering shared academic inquiry (field2), the scenario of falling out got me thinking about the comparable tumble from the second type of field, the field more or less synonymous with a status quo academic discipline. Are there comparable fallings out, where someone decided, in effect, I’ve had enough of this small potatoes field!? Recent stories about leaving academia altogether cartwheel to mind, as do older examples of dismounting quietly (e.g., North, Vivion). I suppose that choosing an alt-ac path or choosing to switch fields from rhetoric-composition to English education (or whatever) is not quite the same as nose-diving over the cliff at an earthen field’s edge. And so maybe it is enough to pause with the definitional character of a field as a parcel with edges. And to think about how those edges are not necessarily on level with what is adjacent to them. Sometimes the adjacent field levels up, and sometimes down.

I’m in the third summer of living on these wonderful but rugged and moderately non-level (by Andes standards) six acres at the end of Rosemary Road. In two and a half years, I’ve only fallen twice. The first spill was two years ago, June 2022, when after transplanting a sugar maple and three or four tansies, I thought I would water them extra generously by carrying five gallon buckets of water to where I had set them in the ground. All of these new plants were plugged in along the bank running from the easement westward toward the upper shed. I’d climbed the steep slope easily enough and was five or six feet above grade, but when I started to pour the plant a long drink from the bucket, I slipped and fell on my right side, shoulder and collarbone especially screaming what the fuck is the matter with you. I was fine, but startled to be fine. The fall was teeth-clackingly jarring, all the more forceful for gravity’s hard pull not only on me but on me with a water-filled bucket in hand. The second fall was last winter break, so December 2023. Icy precipitation had glassed over the holler. When I went out in the morning to bring the chickens their food and water, I made the classic mistake of gaining my sure but shortlived footing on the grass, only to step onto the sidewalk slab near the door to the front shed where as though to a 1970s cartoon soundtrack I slipped and planted myself squarely on my back. This time, too, I was astonished not to be injured beyond having the wind knocked out of me. Doubly astonishing was that the chickens’ water didn’t spill. To imagine falling from one’s potato field is to rewind the tape on all the spills that have taken me down before, it turns out.

Longer ago, farther away, I was on what I may be misremembering as my first or second campus visit in January of my final year at Syracuse, walking along Putnam Street near the dumpster between Parking Structure 6 and Wayne State’s Maccabees Building, where the English Department is located, and unsuspecting but with slippy shoes, I caught a frozen-over puddle and whoop-whoop-whoop did an improvised Charleston move that included, miraculously, spilling my coffee into the air and, steadied by hands of winged angels, regained my balance in time to catch the floating river of scalding hot coffee back in the cup again. This goes down not as a slip and fall but as a damned close. I remember the rest of the day well because this slip sparked sharpened focus: the committee interview, the conversation with the grad director at the time, the job talk and especially the questions that followed, and then the lunch immediately after the job talk, which all of the attendees enjoyed eating as they watched Obama’s inaugural inauguration. It would have felt a bit more like opening act to the day’s headliner, except that I’d regained my balance and caught the coffee earlier that day. I don’t mean to imply that my job talk was on level with Obama’s inauguration; I only mean that at a private and personal scale, even though the after-talk questions were barbed and even though I didn’t end up getting a job offer, I was in the slip recovering and coffee catching sense having a great day.

And then there are a couple of falls on basketball courts. Courts are not fields, except when you consider Janice Lauer’s reframing of field as a kind of “epistemic court,” jurisprudentially negotiated through give and take, consensus building, etc. (granting of course that these days certain so-called high courts are not what they once were, that ‘supreme’ judgments of late have been skewing asshatted toward a politics bent on dissolving the republic). On basketball courts, I’ve fallen more times than I can count, yet two in particular are memorable because they are the only two times I have broken bones in my life. In 1990, a Highland Conference home game against the Leroy-Pine River Bucks, I intercepted an upcourt pass and lost balance, falling backward and using my left hand to break the fall and, as a consequence, fracturing my left wrist. Hurt, redness, swelling, but because it happened in the first half, and because I was the tallest player, and because Pine River had dominant bigs that year, I was encouraged to tough it out, play through the pain, be a man, and so on. I played on, suckily finishing the game even though I could hardly catch or rebound or squeeze with both hands the basketball. Many years later, older and presumably wiser, when on October 1, 2014, I similarly disrupted a long upcourt pass but landed with the tiniest of toe rolls followed by an audible pop, I hopped off the court and told my teammates I’d just broken my foot. They didn’t believe me! And sure enough, I heal-walked to the Honda Element, drove myself to the ER, and confirmed it: fractured fifth metatarsal on the right foot. Though they are not falls from fields, they are falls on courts that required eventual exits, interruptions, healing, transitions, and subsequent wayfinding.

Is the line connecting this back to the Peruvian potato fields unfollowably jaggy? Like potato fields, academic fields–as ritual, locative, material, social, and epistemic concentrations–share edges and bear out adjacencies that can be navigated, sometimes with ease and sometimes with crash or clamor. To grant fields topography opens them to a more careful review of leveling and traversals, or how cross-field movement has worked and might work differently. We can and perhaps should, every so often, run the thought experiment that asks how this field leveling has changed, how individual and collective standpoints have reshuffled. What can grow here? Who remains to carry the water, to pull weeds, to edit journals, to shepherd promotion cases? What elevations do we ascribe to the subfields in English Studies today? What elevations do we ascribe to the constitutive nominative jabberwocky ever reshuffling for rhetoric and composition/writing studies? What elevation differential are folks who tumble in or tumble out negotiating as they play chutes and ladders, this field to the next, or the next back to this? I am, for now, more interested in refreshing the old and possibly adequated (or dead) question an aid for checking up on first principles among the terms, rhetoric, composition, and writing studies, as these, too, have now become split and spliced almost as much as apple varieties and chicken breeds, to include technical writing, professional writing, scientific communication, business communication, and dozens more. Within the small potato field, it is as if each footfall has its own special, unique elevation, as if the field’s name(s) offer a stamp of dissensus so stubbornly fractal erosion, as gravity, has the final word and mountains, too, draw flat.

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