Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Blue bells and cockle shells

I’m a smart person.

I really have nothing to do with it, though. I’ve always been smart. 99th percentile smart according to the Iowa Basic Tests. I do know that there are other people muchmuch smarter than me. I’ve even been friends with 3 or 4 of them and had conversations and read interviews with scads more of them. However, I don’t often encounter people that are leagues smarter than me on a regular basis. Usually, the topic areas in which we have knowledge balance each other out.

Although I know I have nothing to do with being smart, other than following up on some pretty primal urges to listen and read, my sense of self rests pretty soundly in the concept that people are often fairly impressed because I know stuff. If an Aristotelian tragedy were being written with me as the protagonist, you better believe that would be the tragic flaw that brought me down in the end. When people don’t really care that I know stuff and start basing their opinions of me on my personality, that’s when the line that represents the journey of the hero takes a great big plunge.

Yesterday, though, I might have redeemed myself a little by actually realizing for myself that the things I know aren’t as important as I think they are (as opposed to someone else pointing it out to me, which always hurts).

I went over to the house of my workout buddy, Mindy. Her friend Gil was coming over to help her build a fence to make a pigpen and I was bored, unfocused and didn’t want to be inside on a beautiful day. When I got there, Mindy wasn’t home (she had already warned me that she was going out for beer and chips) but just after I opened the door and yelled her name, Gil pulled up in his truck. He introduced me to his brother, whose name I hope is Bescente, since that’s how I understood it. I pretty sure he corrected my “Vicente” by saying the letter “B.” If that’s not his name, then I’m embodying some terrible American-centered values. I think Gil’s brother spoke maybe 15-16 words for the entire 4 hours that we spent together, although his English seemed very good and he laughed at some pretty colloquial jokes. I followed Gil, Mindy and brother around while they scouted in her forested 11 acres for some suitable trees, attempted to get the chain saw running and ultimately settled on using two fairly dull hand-axes to create to fence posts. The hand-axes were what started me thinking that maybe my knowledge wasn’t all that impressive. There is a technique involved that requires moving the angle of the blade so that actually chunks of wood go flying, rather than simply creating a split in the wood, like is done when creating firewood. Gil and his brother moved with an impressive surety, despite the rusted blades. One tree, two 9-foot posts. They then dug the two postholes by hand: three feet deep since pigs like to lean hard against their pens. The pig knowledge is not something they read in a book, but from experience as kids in Mexico. Their family builds guitars but apparently grew corn and raised animals for their own livelihood. Then, instead of pouring concrete, they simply filled the holes with rocks and packed the dirt back in over the rocks, using a big board to pack it down tight. (I spent $4,000.00 to have a fence built with the concrete method because I thought that the only good fence was a picket fence.) This made a big square with two posts that already existed. Gil and Mindy stood around talking about pigs and chickens as they worked, then strolled around looking at various plants in the garden and discussing how they’re used and what other varieties might be better and whether or not they’ll plant them again this spring. This was when I was certain that my knowledge was completely unimpressive in this setting. They would turn back to me as I tagged along, asking, “So what do you think, City Girl?” Then they laughed. It was all very nice and I could tell that they were experiencing that novel feeling of seeing their lives through the eyes of an outsider so I didn’t take offense. However, all I could do for myself was make a self-deprecating remark that I could trace the progression of thought through American history. Eeh.

Let me put in a side note about gardens on the island. Generally, people fence in a rectangle about 40 feet by 50 feet with 8-foot posts with deer fencing wrapped around them. Often they will weave willow branches or driftwood into the fencing to take away the angularity of it and over the years, berry bushes grow into the fencing further to create beautiful tangles. Occasionally, people put quite a bit of artistic effort into the gate, as well. Some people keep neat and orderly beds or plots within the garden, but usually, it’s a hodge-podge mixture with a 5-foot square of potatoes here and an 8-foot square of garlic there. Since there is so much square-footage, space can be used this way, with abandoned plots going fallow for years, sometimes. Often, an old bathtub or other irrigation project that didn’t quite work is still inside, with berry vines starting to grow over them. Jeff only plants self-propagating plants in his garden to accommodate the chaos and Mindy lets her chickens wander through hers. It’s quite wonderful and eases some of my gardening fears about the organization that I thought was required.

So, Gil turns out to be an avid gardener. Listening to him talk is different from listening to Rhonda talk. She talks like a farmer. She talks about soil and sun and fertilizer. He can tell you how long it takes specific varieties of plants to cultivate and how to take them from seed in the house to garden when it’s warmer. He talks about the flavor of onions and kale. (Although both of them know the same things, their choice of what to talk about labels them differently in my mind.) So, again, Gil’s knowledge of plants isn’t because he read it, but because he’s done it enough to just know. I would expect this from some old farmer somewhere, but Gil’s only a little older than I am. He and Mindy spent an hour going through the seed catalogue and discussing the pros and cons of what to plant in her garden and in one of his three or four gardens. (I don’t think he has land of his own, but he uses little bits of other people’s. He works at the best restaurant on the island and has a small garden there that he cooks out of. How cool is that?) As I listened, I realized again that it all came down to passion. He has all sorts of skills: cooking, building guitars, building fences, raising pigs and chickens. But, he loves gardening. In the same way that I don’t often interact with someone whose internal library is twice as big as mine, I don’t often interact with someone whose library is full of just as many, but completely different books than mine with whom I can still communicate. Plus, his knowledge was useful in a very direct way, which made it seem much more important than mine. As I floundered to participate in the conversations, I realized that should some sort of apocalypse put society back into an agrarian mode, I would be insignificant. Being able to discuss the larger metaphor of the movie, Labyrinth, as a story about a girl growing into womanhood, or the Christian presence on The Simpsons, or the best way to teach a teenager noun-pronoun agreement would get me nowhere. The sense of self that I have built around being smart would have to be built again around something much less impressive. Something much more along the lines of 30th percentile.

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