Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Poets and painters on the High Plains?

April 28, 2002

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I have an idea. How about we repopulate the rural areas of America with poets and painters and scholars? And oboe players who want to practice in the solitude of the High Plains?

My thinking is that we get a Rich Somebody's Foundation to buy up semi-ghost towns with the idea of repairing the abandoned houses, cleaning the lots, turning on the street lights, and then inviting a sonnet writer from Brooklyn to Petrarch away in peace for a few months with a morning coffee pot perking in the kitchen and coyotes howling at the edge of town at night. It would do both the town and the poet good. What's so funny?

My wife and I live like this. She's a painter working with glee and oils in a rebuilt chicken shed we had pulled onto our property in Bly, Kansas. There is no Bly, Kansas. I'm not going to tell you where we live. Only that we live in a town like Bly. A lovely, more than half-abandoned town on the High Plains with wild turkeys walking West Dirt Street and dove roosts in the cottonwood trees.

We've got fine neighbors. Do they think we're strange because my wife doesn't make paintings of windmills and that I don't write cowboy poetry for Hallmark Cards much less run cattle for a living? Yup. Do they like us and help us? Our neighbors are the ones who set up my wife's chicken shed.

It's been great fun. By my counting there are half a dozen houses in Bly that could be bought and repaired. Maybe more if you add the ones that aren't for sale but are falling down and might be for sale if you could find the owner. And there might be 10 lots or so onto which you could move in houses from the country.

What the Rich Somebody's Foundation does is buy these properties and hire local contractors to put them in good shape. Then the foundation establishes a trust run by the local banks, and the trust pays for the upkeep of the houses. It wouldn't be much over the years. Oboe players don't do much damage to property.

When it is all settled about the money and the trust, and when the windows of the houses are washed and the floors swept clean, and the squirrels and the pack rats have been run out of the attics, you print a Homestead flyer for the rest of America. Free House In Kansas.

But not free to everybody. And not free forever. I imagine a scholar who needs six months to finish a book on Carrie Nation that is difficult to write because there's no place in his high rise to walk between paragraphs. Writers need a place to walk between paragraphs. Montaigne says his mind was never busy unless his feet were. We've got paragraph breaks all over Bly.

I imagine a potter who arrives from Denver one spring morning with a load of wheels, a kiln and buckets of clay, and by the next day you can hear the wheel spinning as you walk down Middle Dirt between paragraphs. Then a few days later in the Bly Co-op on the edge of town (where the Committee to Save the World meets over coffee) they are talking: "Did you see we got ourselves a woman potter this time?" "My favorite was the bagpipe player."

"Is it true she'd play her bagpipes all by her lonesome down the creek where Cody keeps his goats?" "It is."

"I liked the poet. He didn't seem to do anything but he didn't brag about it." "Cody claims the music was good for his goats." What's so funny?

I imagine my wife in her chicken shed looking out the windows to the south, where she can see rows of pots being set out in the October sunshine by a woman from Denver who has done lovely work over the summer and who, later in the day, will make the rounds here in Bly to thank everybody for how kind they have been, and invite them over to see the pots, and to pick one for themselves as a gift for their kindness. And we will all gather together and tell stories about the bagpipe player and how her music was good for Cody's goats. I like my idea.

Robert Day is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, a natural systems agriculture research organization in Salina, Kansas. Day is the author of the novel "The Last Cattle Drive" and "Speaking French in Kansas," a collection of short stories. When he and his wife, the painter Kathryn Jankus Day, are not living in fictional Bly, Kan., he is a teacher at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

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