Making the mudane not so dull; From a Limestone Ledge, by John Graves. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $11.95.
John Graves writes about carving out a life in the sparsely populated cedar hills of northern Texas. In doing so he accomplishes what can make essays so satisfying to read: He takes the mundane observations and details of everyday life and shapes them into something not mundane at all. What otherwise would have been a fleeting response is preserved in a form that others can share.
Although the land on which the author dwells has long been drained of agricultural productiveness, it still provides him with a less tangible yield.For one thing, its isolation has caused him to be self-sufficient. In "Notes of an Uncertain Blue Collar Man" he recounts his struggles to rewire the barn, dig a hole for a septic tank, and patch a leak in the trough from which his heifers drink, all necessary tasks when the nearest plumber or electrician is many miles away. But as grubby as these jobs are, they are not without compensations.
"You go ahead and cope because you chose to be where you are and still like being there, and coping is part of the bargain," he writes. "And in it, too, you attain sometimes the pleasant illusion, rare these days, of dominating the world around you, technology and all."
Beyond just coping, the expanse of land under his feet unleashes a wild creative desire to leave some sort of unique mark upon its surface. In "Building Fever" he describes his fascination with a decaying town in which crumbling limestone structures reveal the work of a zealous artisan he calls the Mad Arch Builder. While not enamored of the Roman arches that adorn each house and church, the author nevertheless feels a strong kinship with the man who made them. Huge stretches of undeveloped land inspire such building fantasies, he contends, revealing that his own has been to construct a 30-foot- high storage tower for water with a study on top "from which its exhausted builder might gaze out vacantly at the far horizons."
Another fantasy his region inspires is that buried treasure lurks beneath every plot of land. In "Coronado's Stepchildren" Graves amusingly describes the many vain hunts for Spanish silver and other legendary riches. Near his own property, he writes, is a hole 6 feet wide and 15 feet deep with a tunnel leading off from it. It was dug through solid limestone by a farmer "with picks and crowbars and dynamite, expecting to intersect some dream-certified chamber stuffed full of precious metals." Neither history nor the impenetrable geography of the region holds much promise of any treasures ever turning up; the attraction clearly is the hunt itself.
The raw material for these essays (others of which encompass his thoughts on cows, chickens, beekeeping, barbed-wire fences, and other homely matters) comes from a keen ability to discern the wonder of even the lowliest aspects of his surroundings. In a beautifully written essay called "Noticing" he defines what, for him, is the best part of country life -- the opportunity to observe the endless parade of activity staged by nature. While living in the city he effectively shut out the noises beneath his window, but in the country he is alert to every noise the insects make. This, he makes clear, is not from idle of even scientific curiosity -- it is from a need to survive. "Because if you grow careless about what's happening on the land, you stand a good chance of ending up broke and back in town," he writes, concluding with the idea that "in surroundings you care for and have chosen, you use eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and whatever other aids you can muster for reception. You notice. And, noticing, you live."
After sampling the pleasures contained in his essays, one hopes that John Graves continues to share what he has noticed.