by Raju Peddada
"So I was once myself a swinger of the birches. And so I dream of going back to be."
—Robert Frost (1874-1963)
(Swans - November 21, 2011) In a world from which we need to escape I have a small sphere that I can retreat to with my boys. This sphere is no more complex than walking 150 yards to the train tracks with them. Here I can forget everything and become immune to the present. Here I can teleport myself into the compressed potential and innocence of my boys. Respite washes over me in warm waves, in their guileless questions, in the visual distraction from the burdens and wisdom in the textures of loneliness, aging, and refuse. I hover over my boys like a blue dragonfly, ever jittery and anxious, to protect their ignorance of a vicious adulthood, and the worldly ways. We threesome get aboard on all trains of thought and glide away to esoteric destinations, and the only baggage we disembark with is that levity and mirth. Stones satiate stability, refuse excites our sensibilities, and the grasses coax us into antiquity, and then, swing us back, with a craving for rice. Looking at my watch means the end of my escape, as dinner or sleep time drags me back into the banality.
Sunday, 22 May 2011, 9:00 am - 11:14 am.
Butch: Daddy... daddy, why are you always staring at the plants?
Mani: Yeaaah... he's always looking at grass, like he wants to eat it...haheheeei!
Boys... I want to tell you something... can I have your attention?
Butch: ...About grass? No thanks...!
Mani: yeaah, no thanks!
Did you know that without the discovery of grasses and their edible seeds, we'd still be savages... like the cave men?
Butch: Really... no way!
Mani: Look... I got four types of grass... this one looks like sparkles like you see on the 4th of July!
Boys... what is at the base of the food pyramid... ones that must be eaten in large servings?
Butch: Grains and cereals... like rice, wheat, and oats...
Mani: What are you talking about?
Baba... I was asking what we must eat most?
Mani: Rice... I love rice!
What do you think rice and wheat are... I'll give you two guesses... OK?
Butch and Mani: Plants... trees?
Nope... they are grasses... you want to listen to how the humans became smart?
Mani: Is it boring?
Butch: How long is the story...? -- Looking at the train signals.
It's as long as and as tall as this grass here... ready, and there's no train coming, see it's red.
Butch and Mani: OokK!
Let's sit here... listen carefully, thousands of years ago people were hunters and gatherers... they either killed animals or looked for already dead animals, and tubers and fruits...
Mani: what's a toober?
Butch: Is it is like a potato... duh?
Yes, tuber is something that grows attached to the root system under the soil, like a potato... thanks! ...let me continue... These gatherers looked for and collected food, and they were basically no more than walking animals. Then, about 7000 years ago, in a land that is called the fertile crescent, between the two rivers called Euphrates and Tigris, in today's Iraq, these hunters and gatherers discovered grasses... with sweet and tasty seeds that burst from the pods upon their touch... and these grasses grew in the marshes, like swamps, there between those rivers... they must have been very surprised to see such plants with useful seeds. As the years went by, these wanderers figured out how to plant and raise the grasses for their seeds, which reduced their hunting and gathering activities... in other words they became agriculturalists... farmers, and when they...
Mani: What is aggrikulturis?
Butch: Dude... it is someone who grows plants by digging the dirt in rows to plant seeds...
Thanks, buddy... so, the farmer is someone who grew food by plowing... digging the dirt, and in order to dig dirt, and sow the seeds, and wait for the plants to grow, they had to stay in one place... right? So, these people by staying in one place created a village... they changed from being savages to being friendly... civilized... that's it! In time, they figured out language, writing, and buying and selling. Villages grew into towns, Towns to cities and cities to civilizations... all due to the grass seeds. It's the grasses that made us civilized and modern... isn't that awesome... this is why I am fascinated with the grasses... more for their beauty and adaptability!
Butch and Mani: ... it's awesome... we'll have to tell mommy this, do you think she knows? Let's press the grasses in a book... could be an awesome show-and-tell in class!
Why not guys... sssshh! -- In whisper: I heard something rustling... wait, back off slowly... Butch and Mani: Is it a... snake?
Sssshhh!... there it is... it's slipping away... oops, oouchh...yeoow!
Butch and Mani: Catch it... catch it, daddy... get it!
... feisty little critter... oops... where is it?!
Butch and Mani: Oh scat... why did you drop it? It's there dad... quick, behind Mani!
It bit me... a garter... it's really upset. -- Moments later it settles. ...how beautiful... it's calm now.
Butch: Can I hold it?
Be careful... and no jerky movements... here... by the tail...give it to Mani.
Mani handling it: Cool... can we take it home... put it on mommy?
Mommy would go through the roof... and we don't want to kidnap the snake... do we, take it away from its home here? What if someone takes you away? OK... let it go slowly... shoot, I hurt my hand in all this excitement.
Butch: Is it bleeding...? I guess you get the badge of honor.
I explained long ago that getting hurt while playing or exploring is a badge of honor... it meant we explored and played hard.
Naaw... it's just a bruise, but worth having the snake in our hands, right?
Mani: Yeaah... my hand smells weird... did the snake pee on me?
Butch: yes... I can smell it too... what if an animal pees on you... is that a badge of honor?
Wouldn't you pee if someone 100 feet tall picked you up and examined you... and gave himself a badge of honor for hanging you upside-down?
Mani: ...I would fart and poop too.
A few months later, on a bright Saturday morning, we went south of Oakton Street, where the area surrounding the train tracks is more interesting. It is a perfect mid-summer day. The area around the tracks is laden with junk, hidden in the grasses, or spread around the stones by the tracks, or just in plain sight. Plastic bottles half-filled with water, or full of urine; worn off brake shoe pads from the trains; corroded sheet metal; track nails, flanges, and tie-plates by the hundreds amongst the stones; crushed beer cans, crushed or twisted sheet metal with hornets nests, old mildewed freight labels; odd shaped metal objects and mechanical items whose use remains a mystery; plastic and rubber brake pipes from the train; and rotting driftwood and plywood sheets with textures. It was junk, it was aging, but, it was not boring; on the contrary, it was beautiful in the process of corrosion, rich in textures.
Saturday, 23 July 2011, all morning after 9:00 am.
Butch: Hey daddy... what's the difference between garbage and junk?
Mani: Junk doesn't smell.
Riiight baba... very good, junk is garbage too, it perishes very slowly... junk can be recycled...
Mani: what's pereshible?
Butch: Perishable is something that can get rotten and starts to smell...
Yes... decomposition... a smelly process of breaking up that has maggots or microbes turning the garbage back to earth... a natural recycling process. Butch, you had asked me once "what are the agents of change?" well, the maggots are agents of change, just like people...
Mani: People can change to junk too... do people get rotten slowly?
We're made of flesh, so we rot away quickly... look at this boys... this was a shiny metal piece once, look at it... it has red-brown dots... isn't it beautiful?
Butch: It's got a pattern... looks like drops of spreading red color.
Mani: uh huh... are the maggots smelly?
Butch: Of course they are... they look smelly!
We're smelly too, without showers... aren't we? Hey look... here's that particle board again, it's turned beautiful... the staples have turned rusty... rust is bleeding onto the board... look at the mildew pattern brown and green... isn't this great? Look at the whole board... the staples on the top right holding the chart head, the white paint chipped off with the mildew growing... the whole board looks great now!
Butch: You're weird... you say beautiful to every piece of junk.
Mani: Yeaah... he's a weird dude.
Look turds... I didn't say I like all junk... but there is beauty in decay, or in getting old -- it's a way of appreciating the textures of age. Let me show you... come here... is this tree trunk interesting, or this young trunk?
Butch and Mani: This one.
Explain to me why.
Mani and Butch: This trunk has cracks, and looks like an alligator... it looks designy, interesting... also, it looks like a tree; this one looks like a large plant... kinda boring.
Well, gentlemen, you are on the way to appreciating age and good taste... that particle board I showed you guys... has been there since 2004... Mani, you weren't even born... I used to bring Butch here when he was two. This particle board was here all this time, and I had ignored, but today... after seven years it has great texture... all worn out.
Mani: Daddy... all this junk was here before you were born?
Maybe some pieces, baba... like this rusted piece with no definite edge... nobody moves them, they just stay in one place and wait for guys like us to discover them. Look... do you like this flat metal sheet, or this crushed one with holes, and with the rust spreading around them... whoa!... a hornet's nest... let's set it down slowly!?
Butch and Mani: Even the hornets like it!... I love it too!... me too... man, the home of hornets!
Great... can you dudes show me why things look cool... and if you can show me the difference in things, and why one looks better than the other... you get to be weird like me... is that a deal?
Friday, 30 September 2011, at 8:25 pm.
Mani: Daddy... Butch, it's turned green!
OK boys... which direction is the train coming from?
That way! -- They both unanimously point to the south
Butch: Let's bet... I say it's going to be a Union Pacific engine... Mani, you?
Mani: ... Um-mm, Norfolk Southern... no wait, it'll be BNSF!
My bet's on Canadian Pacific.
We hear the air horn blast, and within seconds, we see the reflected light on the tracks by the turn, due south. The boys are right. Suddenly, three piercing light beams stab us, blotting out the darkness. We could feel the vibrations underfoot, as we are overwhelmed by the power of the exerting engines. It was a coal train.
Butch: Yeaaaa... it's a Union Pacific! I wooonn... I won!
A disgusted Mani: Why is it always Union Pissific?! Silence, as we see the train roll by. Daddy... why does the front engine always have three lights?
Good question... I have no idea, baba... maybe, it's their way to say it's the front... the back engines always have only one light... remember, the front engines pull... the back engine pushes.
Butch: Only the coal trains have engines in the back... right?
Yes, I think so...OK guys, can we go home... it's almost bedtime now?
Mani and Butch: No! No... another train please, please... please.
Butch: Why does it always feel that the train is coming right at us... in the darkness?
It is coming for us...
Butch: ...an illusion?
Mani: What is elushun?
Something that seems real but is not... like mirage in the desert...
Mani: What is a meerage?
Butch: A mirage is something you think you see in the distance... but it's not there.
Mani: How come?
Butch: Oh come on, dude... it's just hot air that makes you seeing things... right, daddy?
Yep... partially right... let's go home and see what the encyclopedia has to say.
Mani: Look Butch... it's like the train is disappearing into a black tunnel!
Butch: ... it's a shiny snake slithering into the hole
All the trains are giant snakes... let's go... it's late.
Mani: If it's late... why are the trains still running?
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)