ContentsPutah and Cache: Woodland

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In the Land of Men

Jan Goggans

The title of this piece comes from a short story by Antonya Nelson. The story is narrated by a 23 year old waitress, who one night walks out of the restaurant at which she works to find waiting for her all three of her brothers, each of whom has been taking turns escorting her home from work since the night, one year before, when she was raped. She gets into the car with them, and after they have driven a mile or so, the oldest brother tells her that after months of shadowing the man who raped her, they have caught him, and he is, at that moment, locked in the trunk of the car. Each has an idea of what he would like to do to his sister's rapist, but all have agreed to leave it up to her.

When they tell her, the narrator realizes that in the year that has passed since the night she was raped, she has only been able to hope that the rapist "would get what he deserved," a vague phrase that indicates her also vague sense of justice in an unjust world. Her brothers, on the other hand, are ready to both define and execute a concrete action, the reality of the "what" in "what he deserved."

Finally, they stop the car and get out. As she is standing in the snow, waiting for her brother to open the trunk so she can get a look at her "perp," as her brothers call him, the narrator suddenly remembers how, years ago, when her mother died, leaving her with only her brothers and father, she thought to herself, "here you are in the land of men." In the story, she says, "I never missed her more, I never felt more outnumbered, than when I came home from the police station last year."

The land of men is not always a kind place for women, or one that is easily negotiated, as I have found, but it is definitely a place that for all the difficulties it has posed in my life, I have always wanted to get to, always been glad to be in, and, I guess, always glad to leave, as well. In a recent conversation with another woman, it occurred to me that part of what draws me to this land of men is the very fact that I know I will have to leave it. My inability to stay there came home to me very clearly a few years ago, and that experience is also where the title of this piece comes from.

Two years ago I began writing an essay on farming. About half way through that essay, I wrote the sentence, "I was back in the land of men," referring to the two main topics of that essay, my father's world and the world of farming. In the various forms and re-forms that essay has taken, it has alternately been about how I came to get a connection with my father by spending a summer in the farm fields of the Putah and Cache creek watersheds, and about how farmers work the land in that same region. Sometimes, the essay talks more about my father, about his life as a men's clothing salesman in a small agricultural town, about the years he spent coaching little league and playing slow pitch, about his membership in the Elks, Lions and something called the Tiemakers Club, a small group of men who held their monthly meetings in the back room of my dad's store, nestled right in among the coarse-smelling stacks of Levis—starting with 27 X 28s on the right hand wall, up to the 42 X 36s on the far left. Sometimes the essay ends up being more about farming, about the price controls set by the Mercantile Exchange, about the way county workers-thinking your carefully planted native grasses are weeds-will spray them with toxic chemicals. But no matter where the emphasis falls, on him or them, the essay is really about baseball. However, no words about baseball have yet come to the surface of the text.

I began the essay very simply, like this:

In the summer of 1997, landscape architect Rob Thayer hired me to interview a number of people who were somehow involved in making a living off the land of the Putah Cache Creek watershed. Rob was writing a book on bioregion, and he was interested in the cultural, personal, and economic influences that create an ethic of stewardship. But he was even more interested in people's stories, what public and private myths shaped their lives. Because the people of this watershed are my people, he hired me to ask the questions.

What I mean by "my people," is simply that I am from this place, which means that the land holds my stories, and my stories hold other people who are part of the land, too. Rob's list of potential interviewees included my junior prom date's little brother—a boy we cruelly taunted with the name "Tubby Tom" one cold November night when we were huddled together, drinking Schlitz talls by the tractors. Some of the farmers Rob named had shopped at my dad's clothing store, coming in right before the school year started to buy Levis and Pacific Trail jackets for their boys, and my dad would take as payment boxes of tomatoes, lugs of peaches, bins of walnuts.

When I wrote those paragraphs, I had already realized that one of the reasons I was hired two years ago to do these interviews has to do with the place I am from and the people I know as a result of that. From years of living in Woodland, I know that many Yolo County residents mistrust Davis in general and the university milieu (just for our ability to toss around words like milieu without flinching). But perhaps more important than my so-called knowledge of my people, perhaps the real reason I got to ride around in rice harvesters and drink beer in barns and walk barefoot through the mud in a walnut orchard, is that I am shaped out of many of the same facts as those men.

So, in the essay I wrote, I could say this:

The town I grew up in revolved around agriculture. We lived seasonally, in response to the harvest, and the enormous pull of the land made it seem all powerful, powerful enough, at least we pretended, that the things we did to profit from it could not destroy it—or us. I grew up swimming in irrigation canals: that was the extent of our lack of awareness, a lack I can now see was to a great extent willful. We wanted to believe farming was a natural process, one whose ultimate outcome—food for people—was heroic, and so crop yield took precedence over land use; disease and infestation control took priority over environmental sustainability. Changes in practices so ingrained will come about only as changes in attitudes begin to take place, and I came away from these interviews hopeful about those changes. All of the farmers I interviewed demonstrated not simply a concern for moving away from chemicals and erosion-producing farming methods, but a willingness to tinker with new methods.

Farmers and growers have always lived in compliance with nature; unlike the rest of us, they don't work when the weather tells them not to, and their work corresponds to the cycle of seasons—certain things are always done in certain seasons. They have a necessary respect for the effect on their lives of what we call the "natural" world. If they grew up thinking they could do to the land whatever they wanted and it would keep producing, they know now that isn't true. They know how much people can influence farming and to what extent their methods will determine not—as the weather does—if they can plant today, but if they can plant in ten, twenty, or one hundred years.

I learned these essential facts about farming over the course of two summers and twelve interviews. I began with a long list of names, people who were involved with organizations like the Yolo County Resource Conservation District, which helps growers and farmers fund sustainable agriculture projects on their land. I found out about farming methods, about the social structure of farm lives, about the way men and women who live on farms stay involved with community, about where they like to vacation, about why they would never force their children to farm. I also learned that in this area, women farming alone are rare, and women farming with their families seem generally too busy to worry about whether or not their role is what an outside observer would call traditional. To an outsider, the shortage of women was stunning; to an insider, the women weren't missing, they were simply busy.

Besides, this piece is about baseball.

I know baseball the same way I know farming—as an observer, a person who understands the practice of each, and who has participated in both, but who has done neither professionally. Most of all, I know baseball and farming as a person who is a woman. In the eyes of most Americans, my gender necessitates to some degree my observer status; I look into these enterprises that society constructs in heavily masculine terms. There are women who farm, women who work on the machines, who understand the science and economics of agriculture, just as there are women who pitch and catch, women who understand the marketing and media relations of major league ball. But when society looks onto those fields of green, we see men.

For me, despite six summers playing softball and a brief attempt at college ball, baseball is still populated by men. They suited up today in locker rooms across the nation; pitchers threw in bull pens until their arms were warm and loose, fielders shagged flies and baserunners slid in hard at second, and there wasn't a woman on the field.

Here is the way baseball occurs to me:

A rice field in spring is the same green as a baseball field.

A baseball player is almost as good as a farmer at saying that you can't do anything about what's done. One farmer told me that farming is learning to live with your decisions. He said to me, "You can't do anything about the weather. All you can do is learn from your mistakes. You can't be perfect as a farmer—too much is out of my control. Farming does that—it teaches you to live with what you decide to do."

At the time, he and I were standing in a field of green peppers, and three long rows were charred a mottled burgundy-brown by triple digit heat, by a relentlessly bright sun which had been slamming down on the peppers he had decided not to provide with extra irrigation. So the proof of his statement was palpable, just as it is on any day you head out to the ball park and try to second guess a pitch after it's crossed the plate. What I mean is, you cannot erase the run that scored when a grounder slid between your legs any more than you can unwither the bell peppers that you didn't irrigate before the hot spell started. You learn not to think in terms of "what if"—what if I hadn't walked that guy before I gave up a homer; what if I'd turned on the water.

In baseball, that type of thinking is referred to by Baltimore Sun writer Ken Nigro as "the fallacy of the pre-destined hit." The phrase refers to a type of thinking which mistakenly believes, somehow, that the homerun the pitcher gave up to batter number two, the one that came after the pitcher walked batter number one, was unavoidable. It ignores the reality that pitchers pitch quite differently out of stretch. In this sense, farmers think in baseball terms. No heat spell is pre-destined; no market fluctuation capable of being what-if'd. You learn as much as you can about farming and you try to apply it all; then you have to learn to let the last play go.

You learn to play on.

But of course, the baseball in this essay is not really baseball in general; by baseball I mean the Giants, a team my father loved, a team I watched patiently in the winds of Candlestick Park, my program carefully marked to indicate my father's favorite players, their positions, their order in the line-up, their respective categorization as good or "a bum." I learned about baseball so I could sit next my father without being bored, so that I would not shame him or me by hopping up and down the immense spill of stairs or whining for candy as I saw other girls do. I learned about baseball so that my father would see me and hear me, and so that many years later I could sashay into a weigh station in Colusa county and lean over the counter to look straight into the eyes of a guy wearing a Mack Truck cap and say, "Hey, the Giants and Dodgers are in the 10th right now and both bullpens are just about shot. Somebody's gonna jack one out of here any minute and it better be the Giants. You got a radio in here?" and he would see me and hear and me.

And so, this is what I mean when I say that this is an essay about men suiting up each spring, and about me learning their language. And so I can end my essay this way, and now I know it will be clear that this is an essay about baseball:

The people I interviewed all knew my father. When they looked at me, I saw them see him, and he was alive for me again. This, the re-creation of something wonderful that I lost when my father died, was a very real, very powerful experience.

As an interviewer, I set out simply to record what I heard, but I look back at the experience now and acknowledge that I ended up telling stories about myself, as well. Many of those stories came together into the shape of my father, a man who took place, for me, on this land. It wasn't simply memories that were coming back; it was that I was back in the land of men, where I grew up, back in the world of my father.

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