Autobiography - The Dead Farm
[Back Story: For two years I was alone on the empty farm, incapacitated by grief and sickness. Very slowly, I began to pick up the pieces, to clean up the debris from the exuberant surges of farming and artistic activity that had been my life.]

During the return of time, I plunged into the residue of the farm, to the fallout lying in vast heaps, the artifacts and trash that filled cavernous barns and gentle attics. For two years, I edited the materials of my past. I sorted through buttons and bones, marble slabs and ceramic dogs, masks and U-bolts. Boots, bicycles, and brushes had been abandoned to the Peterson farm, like the half-eaten meals immortalized in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. There were skis and paintings, mangled model railroad track, barely portable shrines of the universe and of teeth, and a six-foot Mr. Peanut. Skulls and exotic dead flowers, mannequins, cabinets full of blenders and scummy see-through dishes, aerial salutes, sweet stacks of valentines, a 3-D near-life-sized exhibit of the circulatory system—all day, month after month, I disengorged. There were dozens of chairs, scores of baskets, enough lamps to furnish an inn. There were mountains of barbed wire that used to keep the cows in, tons of assorted hardware—bolts, corks nuts, bungs, burrs, and plugs—pipe by the thousands of feet, great piles of steel channel, hundreds of fence posts, tools to keep a small village intact. There were racks and racks of rough cut lumber and ornate trim boards, stacks of rotting windows and doors and shutters, boxes of Victorian bric-a-brac. I sifted through hundreds of test tubes and beakers, beautiful green spirals of Chinese mosquito repellent, Styrofoam molds, subpoenas and foreclosure notices. I lugged logs and drainpipe, cut old plows into scrap or sculpture, sorted stacks of Angora sweaters. I answered letters from ten years before.

The past went into boxes with big labels and onto deep shelves and wide racks that went on forever. I created departments and zones, atmospheres and centers.

I created departments and zones, atmospheres and centers.

As the barns and sheds emptied out I could see the cracks in the foundations, the broken floors, the massive support beams eaten clear through by rats. I could see the sky through holes in the roofs. Window panes balanced in their frames by one remaining nail or the last gob of putty. I caulked and cemented, patched and glazed. I bolstered and jackposted, straightened and plumbed, painted and roofed. I resurrected building after building.

The countryside was a bad place to heal. To have been a drug dealer or alcoholic, a cancer victim or a car thief—at least that was to be defined, to have context. The twentieth century somehow permits every kind of weakness if a name can just be assigned to it (especially a medical name). But to be cleansing, to be deciding whether to keep the green spirals of mosquito repellent, to make wishes on buttons . . . I was a home boy gone bad, an incomprehensible freak in my community.

I wanted acceptance. I wanted to belong. One day I watched the television. If I bought something that was advertised on the television, I thought, I would be acceptable. I went to Kohl's Grocery in Beloit and bought a large box of Fab laundry detergent. I stood in the checkout line prominently displaying my box to the other shoppers. For days, I was excited about my reintegration into the culture.
[End of Excerpt]

[Back Story: As commodity prices and land prices collapsed further, other farms in the community were being lost to debt. Other families that had been on the land for generations were being uprooted. I wrote a play about this farm crisis and performed it for thousands throughout the Midwest. CNN picked it up, as did many newspapers and radio stations across the country.

Besides touring my play during this period, I was spending time in Mexico and Guatamala, performing and writing about my life—I had sworn off farming forever. In this rustic Southern world, however, I encountered people who were still close to the land, who still farmed by natural methods. In spite of my vow never to farm again, among these vital people I found myself gradually yearning to farm once more, and this time I wanted to do it organically. However, I had no capital; the farm that I envisioned seemed an impossibility.

My schedule with the play frequently called me back to the heartland. As the intricate weave of rural America was unraveling during this period, my local community also collapsed and was left in despair, looking for someone to blame. Ironically, as I was touring my play in the Midwest, helping farmers to heal, my community was vilifying me. Vicious local rumors turned me into a scapegoat, casting me as a Satan-worshipping drug dealer. This spread like wildfire. It went up and down the rural roads. It went to the grade schools, the high schools, and even to the sheriff's department.

I would come home from a couple months of touring with my play, or a few months in Mexico, and people were even coming out to my farm to do devil worship, just because of the reputation the farm had gotten while I was gone. Squad cars were coming out every night and shining their lights into my windows, looking for devil worshippers and drug activity. Two or three carloads of people a night would drive in and scream ‘Satan' out their windows.

When I finally decided that I was somehow going to farm again, I knew that I had to put a stop to this hysteria in the community. I confronted a perpetrator of the rumors, who had spent four years stalking me, interviewing neighbors about my life, and digging up my fields in search of human bones. I encountered him at a farm auction next door to my farm; our conversation took place with the din of the auctioneer's chanting in the background.]

"Jim," I said.
"You got a lot of people thinking very bad things about me."
"Well...I'll straighten it out if I'm wrong, John. I mean," Jim leaned slightly towards me and looked me in the eyes, "did you kill anybody up here? No, I'm serious—through the…through the cult."
"Through the cult. Ya know, I…I thought maybe you did, that's all. If I'm wrong, I'm sorry..."
"Jim, this week, my plan was to go to an attorney and put an official stop to this, and it could put you into a lot of trouble—defamation of character, slander, a lot of problems. You're going to be in trouble."
"Yeah, I know that. I know that. I know. Who wants that kind of trouble? Nobody does. Nobody does. So, unh, well, as long as it's all quit with me, it's're familiar with spiritual experiences, aren't you—what I'm talking about, as far as, uh, infallible issues, that sort of thing?"
"Infallible issues?" I asked.
" issues. You know what I'm talking about."
"All right. So I went through one, and uh...I don't know, but the cattle would get spirited. They'd come in. I'd, you know, get kicked all over the barn. I didn't know what was wrong. I didn't know if there was something going on, and after I talked to you in October of '87 when you were filming, we haven't had any more Friday the thirteenth deaths at the church, so I assumed that possibly someone down there," Jim nodded towards my farm, "did kill some people. See? That's what I thought. Well, so, it left me in that mind-boggling dilemma, okay? But if you didn't do it, I'll straighten it out. I'll go down there and I will. And if you want me to, I'll talk to your folks. I'll straighten it out with them...uh, if that's fair with you."
"Yeah, but other people, too."
"All right."
"...and I know that you've, you've talked to the sheriff about this stuff, there's no question in my mind, and I want you to straighten it out with him."
[End of Excerpt]

"…did you kill anybody up here?"

>>>To continue reading -- The Fire

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