Monday, January 23, 2012

Monday's Poetry: "Pastures of Plenty"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

There was a time in the not too distant past when America was still expanding – geographically, emotionally, and intellectually.  After the Civil War and well into the first part of the twentieth century, many poor blacks headed north looking for opportunities that were denied them in the southern states.   Sometimes they found jobs and homes, and other times they succeeded only in transporting their poverty and perilous living conditions into a colder climate.   But there were also those times when the move north resulted in breathtaking achievement – such as the Harlem Renaissance.

World War I introduced many heretofore isolated Americans to the wonders of Europe, and as a popular song of the day foretold, it was going to be hard to “keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.”  It was in those heady days just after the Great War that several famous American writers and entertainers sailed off to Europe (particularly Paris) and started creating some of the century’s most enduring work.  A good depiction of these willful and fun-loving expatriates can be seen in Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris.  Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein referred to their expatriate cohort as “the lost generation.”

The Great Depression and the unrelenting dust storms that tore through the American heartland in the 1930’s were a one-two punch from Wall Street and God.  The response from poor Americans, particularly the “Okies” and “Arkies” of the Midwest, was to throw everything and everyone into old claptrap vehicles and head west to California – the promised land, the land of milk and honey, the home of sunny skies, warm weather, the blue Pacific, palm trees, Hollywood, and endless dreams.   John Steinbeck, himself a former expatriate and member of the lost generation, explored that tragic and complex era of American history in his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

The great westward migration of the twentieth century was interrupted by World War II, but when the war ended many of the young veterans and their working wives headed to California where they found good jobs in the booming post-war economy, bought homes, and raised their families.  My dad’s brother Wayne, and his pretty wife, Mary, were two of those adventuresome young people who were drawn to the Mediterranean climate and plentiful jobs of San Diego at the war’s close.  Wayne died of leukemia a few years later, but my Aunt Mary (now in her eighties) and their two grown daughters and their families are all Californians.

My parents never did pack up and move to California, although I remember my mother begging to move there on numerous occasions.  Later she shifted her focus to Florida, but she was never able to get my dad to move south either.  While they did not completely relocate, my parents did travel to California to pick fruit the first two summers that they were married – 1946 and 1947.  (By 1948 I had joined the family and they apparently did not want to try caring for an infant in a migrant camp.

What I know about those summers that my parents were migrant farm workers is embarrassingly scant.  I wish now that I had asked more questions.  If memory serves, and at my age it doesn’t always, at least one of those summers they took my dad’s dad – Chock Macy – with them.  I know that at least one of those summers my dad’s job was to ride around on the back on a tractor with a long stick that he would use to beat the branches of English walnut trees, a job that sounds more glamorous than having to be one of the guys on the ground scurrying around dodging and picking up the falling nuts.  Mom’s job, I suppose, was picking fruit directly from the trees or packing it for shipment. 

I remember once when I was  ten or so, my mother looked at me and suddenly asked, “Do you remember  Spike?” 

“Spike?” I asked. 

“Oh,” she said, “He was a young boy at the camp who was always getting into trouble – but you weren’t even born then so I guess you wouldn’t remember him.”  Her senior moment was funny at the time, especially since she was not all that old!

John Steinbeck was not the only chronicler of the westward migration of America’s poor.   Woody Guthrie was also hard at work telling the story of those same people in song.  Today’s poetry selection is actually a song by Guthrie that celebrates the energy and sweat of those poor Americans who made their livings by following the harvests.

Please enjoy Pastures of Plenty.

Pastures of Plenty
by Woody Guthrie

It's a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have traveled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold

I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you'll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind

California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We'll work in this fight and we'll fight till we win

It's always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I'll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free

No comments: