Earth is stratified time.
Use some wind, water, and pressure. Sift it, layer it, and fold it. Add an inhuman number of years. Stack and buckle these planes of rock into mountains of frozen time. Use a river to cleave that mountain in two. Hide hundreds of millions of purloined years in plain, simultaneous sight as a single massive bluff. It’s a good trick.
Bodies, made of earth, are just the same: in my face, unchosen, generations of people are stratified in plain, simultaneous sight. My father’s nose, my grandfather’s ears, my mother’s wink, the lines my kids have etched into my squint. My wife pats my cheek and says: “Dear, your genealogy is showing.”
She’s right. The lines on my face and in the palms of hands are family lines. But these lines aren’t easy to follow because, counter to expectation, time’s line isn’t straight. Time piles up. It loops around, knots up, peters out, and jumps ahead. It moves in fits and starts. Time’s inevitability, its straight-shot necessity, is tempered by the meandering play of accident, coincidence, and contingency.
In Home Waters, Handley finds the same thing. Alone in the family cabin, he tries sorting out his own family lines. He’s got rolls of genealogy, “full names, dates and locations of birth, dates of death . . . each name like myself, a knot of time and flesh” (75). But these knots are the trouble. They’re tough to untangle because life is not the line but its skein.
There are simply too many tangentials and too many generations in the past that must exhaust us and be arbitrarily ignored in order to create the impression that families are “lines” at all and not wide webs, connected below the surface of time like that grove of aspen trees out my window breathing in the same nutrients through the same shared root system. (71)
Call it gene/ecology. Here, stately family trees turn out to be more like thorny briar patches. And if we’re going to talk not about oaks but briars, we may as well just be honest and make room for sun, rain, rocks, and dirt. Who can draw the line between what lives life and what gives it? Plotting these family histories, we’re going to need more paper: “If genealogy teaches us anything, it is how narrow and contingent our understanding of kinship is” (104).
The illusion that I’m simply me, free of ecology, independent of pedigree, is just another variation on the illusion that only the “dramatic” events in our lives or notable names in our trees are decisive. This kind of “Great Man” history squeezes off stage the ordinary and tangential that compose the bulk of our lives. A more faithful history would have to be much more modest. We’re wading in a river, here, not digging an irrigation ditch. “It was irrigation that reduced the river to a straight shot of water and caused the wildlife to retreat to higher reaches” (12). Doing family history, we need to coax the wildlife out – squirrels, bugs, and all – not scare it off.
It’s as if we believed we could order time in a straight and sequential chain, belying time’s surfeiting fluidity, as if the past is not also our future, the dead our living. Dams have created the impression that water is manageable, fixed, and immutable. While this feat of engineering makes living comfortable, it elides reality. (83)
I’ll leave it to Handley to say what mark his brother’s suicide left on his life. Steven Peck’s review of Home Waters does better than I’m able:
Like a dark darting shadow in a streambed glimpsed only from the side, his brother’s suicide appears and disappears from time to time throughout the book. It has affected his life in numerous ways. It is a horrific event of shock and dismay that haunts his memory, his dreams, and his waking reality. Its complexity confuses and disorients him. The event is portrayed in full at the end of the section called ‘Winter.’ The event is never allowed to stand as a metaphor for anything: nature’s cruelty, or humans damaging the environment, or the river’s channelization. Unlike, Terry Tempest Williams work Refuge in which her mother’s cancer stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the Great Salt Lake bird refuge, this tragedy is described because of the complexity and confusion that it has caused to enter into Handley’s life. He does not ‘use’ it in the book for some literary purpose. Rather it’s there for us, as it is for George. A reality that has ripped and rippled through his history and touched much of who he is and what he has become.
Like a stiff punch in the eye, this death leaves Handley bruised and seeing stars.
But I am just as interested in the room that this book gives to a colleague, a gas station attendant, a peach farmer, a soccer mom, and a hiking buddy – Handley’s accidental companions, his collateral pedigree, tossed together by circumstance. Whether our lives are filled with or bereft of Spirit depends on learning how to see the small, unrequested contingencies of time, place, and family as a grace rather than a spoil. Doing this means learning “something about how to assent to circumstances, how to live within constraints of place and culture, and then maybe [we] will know the depth of extended mercy” (16).
We can resist these impositions, but family history is hematology, a study of how lives bleed into one another, spreading life from one body to the next. Whatever our choice, we’d better not offer resistance to the claims of these lines in the name of religion. “It isn’t religious energy that is misspent in denial of the bloody facts but rather the energy of our hurried automated lives” (65). “Whoever thought that the idea of eternal life meant we could disparage this fleshly life never finished the hard work of belief” because the hard work of belief is nothing but the work of assenting to the messy contingencies of this fleshly life eternally (68). Seal these bodies. Don’t abandon them.
Seeing my father’s hands in mine, hearing his words come out of my mouth, feeling the pulse of his ambitions in my own, time thins. Here, at least, we touch. Just so, I imagine, with his father.
Here at least it seems that the veil of the world is thinner, and I am always yearning to push through the surface of what I see, to feel a hand on the other side. Might not the angels also wish for the same, to reach back into us, to feel the pulse of our blood and to feel the swirling of the earth’s breath around them, to veil their minds with the blue sky and green canopies of trees that are our home? Yes, I think they envy us. (67)