None shall be less familiar than the rest

If I am being intellectually honest, this scene in Amelie shapes me and my work as much as any book I've ever read.[1] The sense of synchronicity, of connectedness, of the life of a place, are all things I try to do in what work I've done as a historian. I am in love with vignette and with connection, and as I look back at the chapters of my dissertation, I see how I tend towards it even without thinking.

I've been thinking lately about my love of America, and what that love means. I've never loved the flag, or the songs, or any of the mandatory dross of the Fourth of July. No, I love it for what it is, which is an incredible range of places and peoples, and a vision of all these places and people as one nation.

Current events have not been kind to this vision of Us, even before we saw children be separated from their mothers because of where they were born. The day after the election, stunned, I took to the woods outside of my town, past the pastures and the neighborhoods to the creeks, woods, and high trestles along the path. I played a podcast that had come out before the election, and it was exactly the balm I needed: A calm voice reading Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself."[2] It was a reminder that even in the 19th century, we could conceive of this near-continental nation as what it was: a teeming, expanding, vivacious, varied whole. Whitman's self expands out to encompass the nation, and with it, the unobserved moment, the adobe house, the landscape, the animal and plant. It is omnivorous in its appetites and omnipotent in its point of view; narratively bisexual, sensuous, and open-minded. I keep it on my phone, as a bulwark against the anxieties I feel, and the disgust at the news I see. It came before the election, but it is the walking companion I need after it.

[2]: If you are into this sort of thing, run, don't walk, to read Kris Lane's Quito, 1599

[1]: From the feed of the best, most unplanned-tears-inducing history podcast out there, The Memory Palace

In this long winter, as I shovel snow, I think about the sea wall in Campeche, walking along the sea coast looking at the fort in the distance. The same warm, placid Gulf I had seen since I was a child. Over my illness, money in my pocket, and nowhere to be for the night. As the snow begins to melt, I remember that in Florida it is Spring, and that someday I will be warm again, and have all the time in the world. It isn’t now. It can’t be now. But it will be

Plasencia

I’ve never been to Plasencia, not really. I passed through it on a bus. I remember it though. Below us, the river and the green pastures of the high mountians, livid against the dun memories of Andalucia. Above, the old walled city with its sand-colored cathedral and walls, watchful from its hill. Storks had built their nests in the fastnesses of the cathedral towers and walls, and small sprays of flowers sprung from the masonry. Between the swift, green countryside and the khaki butresses of the old city were the brick apartment blocks from the last century, ugly in the way only totalitarianism could make them.

I haven’t been to Plasencia. But it looked like its best days were behind it. Like all the dusty towns you pass through driving through Extremadura, Castile and Leon. If my impression is true, it is a shame. That part of the world has been in decline since the waning years of Philip II. This town, imporatant enough to merit two cathedrals, in its idyllic setting, was the place where people toiled for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Hints of Arabic stonework, the faint outline of a long-gone mill dappling the surface of the river, the gutters and lamp posts and sycamore trees.

Plasencia won’t die. Too much work has been plowed into her soil for that to happen. Farmers will still need a place to buy nails and sell wool, even as the world passes Plasencia by. Plasencia will never suffer the indignity of the mining town or appear like the bleached carcasses of Plains farmhouses. It will never be the gaping retail memento mori that is an abandoned mall. Still, it is sad to see something so regal and proud brought low. Our Plasencias deserve better, but we have so little to give. We need jobs and lovers and opportunity, and so we leave our Plasencias, shaking the dust from our feet.

Florida

“ Jeez. I feel like you could write a novel about that.”

My parent’s farm, to the extent you can call it that, was a strange place. That was the reaction my description of it got as I talked about growing up in Florida.

It was a magical realist place, all extremes and portents. It moaned in the wind. It shone with moonlight, even in summer.

It never seemed very Floridian, to be honest. It was baked by sun and infested with vermin of various stripes, but that was about it.

Florida is a small place. I don’t mean geographically. But the biggest hill is a modest lump of orangish dirt. It towers above the landscape like a city on a hill, but compared even to the hills within the city limits of this town, it is a modest sight.

For most of us, Florida was a succession of subdivisions, most of which had modest bungalos less than 30 years old. It was mediocrity and bahia grass. St. Augustine grass if you had certain airs of class.

What made that house so anomalous was not just the one-legged crane calling in the window, or the black widows that filled every conceivable outdoor object. The land around it was Big. It was an uninterrupted stretch of grass and the low bonsais of cow-pasture oaks that was entirely too big to comfortably sit in Florida. The house sat alone on the plain, like a house in a Morricone western. It felt isolated in a way I have never felt in a home. It felt like it belonged to nature and that our gray stucco house was an irritant, a bit of debris that would be wiped out at any moment.

Big open spaces are not rare in Florida. Anyone who has taken 75 down from Gainesville has seen Big Florida. At one point, I would imagine, Big Florida just was Florida, full of cows and small towns with little white houses.

Big Florida is beautiful. When I was in high school I moved the Davis’ pasture. It was green grass that grew with absurd fecundity. There was a great big oak on the modest rise behind the creek, and stands of cypress trees sat in the low depressions like paisley printed across the landscape. In the summer, cool, wet wind would announce the coming rain. On a warm winter day, the wind would ripple the grass, and as night fell you could build a fire and see the stars.

This Big Florida was harsh enough, but it was beautiful. With a director’s eye it could even be made dramatic.

I don’t know why Big Florida curdled around our house.

Still, when I hear the sigh of wind, I think about it.