News, Early 2013 Edition

Recently received word that I’ve been named the 2013 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence and will spend a few weeks this spring living and working here, at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.

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Though Sandburg is often associated with Chicago and the midwest, he acquired a property in western NC (called Connemara) in the 1940s.  He lived there with his wife Lilian Steichen Sandburg until his death in 1967, when the house became a unit of the National Park Service.  The park’s historical and cultural resources include 264 acres of pastures, ponds, small mountains, and hiking trails as well as a total of 50 structures, including the Sandburg’s residence and goat barn.

Interestingly, I mentioned the Sandburg Home National Historic Site in passing back in 2008 or 09, long before I knew about the writer-in-residence program there:

… Carl Sandburg’s House, where I was most impressed by the fact that they raised goats, which seems in many ways a more sensible (and lucrative) profession than writing)…

There are still goats, descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s champion herd!  I’ll be living within sight of the barn.

The Sandburg Home website mentions that  he and his wife dreamed of having a “shack in the woods with a roof, four walls, three chairs (one for company), a hat rack, a bread box, and a bowl for wild flowers and a coffeepot.”

I like it that their dreams specified a bowl for wild flowers along with a roof, four walls, and three chairs. I also like this photograph of the two of them very much.

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“It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’…If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time-the stuff of life”

– Carl Sandburg

What We Did With Our Spring Break

The Crescent, Train Number 20, arcs through the east Alabama countryside as perfectly composed as Art, curved across the window like some giant rod and wheel cast it out.

The car we’re sitting in is positioned behind Dining Car and Lounge Car and wrapper-filled Coach Car bearing drowsy long-haul human freight from New Orleans to New York, but no matter where you sit, there’s the constant melancholy of the whistle in the background like greek chorus… an atavistic sound as unnecessary to the life we usually lead as some urban warrior’s fear of snakes.

America is burning, burning, and this is what is left.

The sound of the wheels against rails is a rhythmic brush-brush, hypnotic as aces slapped on a table by old men whiling away, hours, days, their lives, by playing cards.

Up two seats and on the left, two mopes are staring at a movie on a portable dvd player without headphones, genre: shoot ‘em up. Above the sway and hum of travel, the soundtrack between Birmingham and Atlanta is gunfire and grunts.

America is burning, burning, and this is what is left.

Behind: four elderly women, Virginia-bound, who’d be in a sleeper except for the busted pipe and federally-subsidized inefficency that closed the car down. Their accents are — dunno… rich and leisurely as gumbo, chocolate, corn-studded Birmingham cheese grits? — and they point out things outside the window in a drawl almost extinct, one I recognize, with knowledge born of my childhood and almost as atavistic as any love of train whistles, as belonging to four white upper middle class matrons, carefully coiffed, genteel, whose husbands, all passed on, were doctors, lawyers, professional men, who had business at the courthouse of whatever town they’re from.

If you want to see into a nation’s heart, then ride the train.

Some pundits grieve that as a people we are unconnected to each other. Who knows the cause? The internet, the square of lawn around each suburban tract-mansion, the television you sit back and watch, and watch, and watch, (same size as the windows of the Crescent, formerly called the Southern Crescent) in spaces where no stranger ever walks with graceful train gait down an aisle to sit in the vacant seat beside you?

America is burning, is burning, and this is what is left.

The heart of our country, as seen from the Crescent windows, is strewn with garbage: a child’s football shoulder pads, plastic bottles bobbing in the liquid mud of each crossed river, metal drums clad with rust, trailers missing siding… burned tin sheds, including one where among the wreckage of the fallen beams hunkers the cab of an abandoned semi.

We have everything we need; we use up what will work for us and discard the rest, and it’s extraordinary that passenger trains still exist in this country because they are, in terms of time and cost efficiency, basically useless.

But I would tell a visitor to this country, or anyone native born who doesn’t need their vacation sugar-coated, to take the train.