Reading between the lines


I remember the moment the lights went on for me in Mr. Meeker’s tenth grade English class. Vickey D., class genius, raised her hand and said that the whitewashed walls in Rolvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth had something to do with Beret’s sex life. And Mr. Meeker said yes, that’s perhaps true. Explain.

Vickey D. didn’t really use the words “sex life.” In those good old moral days sex lives lived on as usual but were never discussed at home or in churches or schools. Somehow a few of us caught her drift. Whitewashed walls were not just white walls. They had something to do with the blankness of purity and a need to cope with a sense that sex was unclean. In our silences we read between the lines.

Books became a lot more interesting from that moment on.

If literature is like life––that is, if the world’s best (not always “classic”) books provide models of experience––then there is something to be gained from studying these models carefully. Though I never saw myself as priest probing the entrails of texts for life’s sacred clues, I entered the teaching profession, I suspect, in part because I wanted to initiate students into the practice of reading between the lines. I wanted them to learn the art for themselves so they could respond––consciously and critically––to what’s so often being said without being said. Teachers of literature, the contemporary version of temple scribes, accumulate a certain power and pleasure, if not prestige, from spending their hours learning how to do this well.

For many years I derived a lot of quiet pleasure as teacher-priest by coaxing my students toward the clues lurking in the smallest details of one of my favorite, because most teachable, books, Joseph Conrad’s “classic” Heart of Darkness. It’s a “dark” book about the brutal underside of European colonialism. In it a sea captain named Marlow goes to Brussels to sign a contract for a trip by riverboat into the Belgian Congo. In Brussels he finds a city so defined by buildings made of stone that it makes Marlow think of the city as “a whited sepulcher.” There, among other things, he notices “grass sprouting between stones.”

When teacher-priests and priestesses stumble across an image so evocative they raise a hand and ask their students to stop, look, listen. What does this image say to them? How are the book’s large themes suggested by this small detail? What can we discover about the whole from a tiny part? Pay attention. Think. Connect the dots. Evaluate. Respond.

From between the lines we create food for thought from grass sprouting between stones. Nature, we conclude from other clues too, is alive beneath the facades of the “whited sepulcher” city we call “civilized,” and like a jungle its growth is irrepressible and wild. Civilization is “white” and the jungle is “dark,” dangerously lurking to do us harm. Beneath the white veneer of civilization lurks a subversive “heart of darkness” that is persistent and perhaps more enduring than stones, bricks and mortar. Present in modern Brussels is Conrad’s view of “Africa” and Belgium’s Congo, an evil wilderness inhabited by “black” people. “The horror, the horror!”

Think. Explain. Is this true wholesale, in part, or not at all? Respond.

One bad habit I very much regret having developed over a lifetime is the tendency to miss out on what’s obvious in front of my nose. When I take a walk I seldom see birds in trees or trees in bloom. I stare at sidewalks a lot, lost in the turns of thought or nonsense I’m trying to untwist. I have a recurrent nightmare: I’m alone on a city sidewalk and I look up to see a massive garbage truck bearing down on me.

My bad habit kicks into overdrive on sleepless nights during those long weeks of midsummer rain and oppressive heat. That’s when I notice weeds sprouting between the slabs of concrete on my driveway and sidewalks. These weeds explode from their underground lairs in the middle of the night or when I chance to look the other way, and inevitably a certain mad desire for perfect order kicks in. The weeds have to go. They have no right to exist in gardens and lawns, or in the cracks between concrete slabs surrounding a civilized home. So I stoop, grab them by the hair as if they were juvenile delinquents, and begin tearing them out by the roots until nothing remains but the beauty of barren concrete.

I’m not one to use weed killer on the little beasts, for I’m nervous it might secrete itself into the actual house where I sleep and eat. But after rounding up a handful or two I know the peace that surpasses understanding that must enter the soul of every industrious farmer when he returns at sunset from another Roundup day for a good night sleep: Perfect rows of nothing but soybeans and corn, straight as the yard marker lines on a football field, all the plants standing at attention, saluting in unison as they pass in review before the setting sun. Not one weed rearing its delinquent head between all those nice lines. No jungle in those purified perfect fields. The weeds that survive stand outside barbed-wire fences looking in, big-eyed with curiosity.

By chance one day I nibbled on the leaf of a weed I was yanking from between the driveway concrete slabs. Weed-killing is sweaty work so when I wiped my face with my sleeve a bit of weed leaf slipped between my lips. In revenge I nipped at it. To my surprise its bitterness went down well with me. When my loco-biologist friend Bruno happened by on his bike I asked him about my tasty weed.

“Arugula,” Bruno said. “You pay big-time for it in the store.”

When I was a kid my father ate weeds––dandelion greens––that my mother picked tender and young right out of our front lawn. But I was too sweet a boy then to tolerate the strong taste of dandelions. I also had developed the conviction that real food comes from supermarkets, not dirt. Dandelions were embarrassingly homemade. Why couldn’t we eat iceburg lettuce like my Norwegian friends, and Wonderbread instead of that crusty stuff my mom made in the oven at home even when it was 90 degrees outside?

After I slipped a few arugula leaves into my salad my mouth watered for more. I spent that night in a long dream that featured me, panting as I salivated over endless rows of arugula disappearing into the sunset like fields of soybeans and corn. I awoke to a more prosaic prospect: Why not farm arugula at home, just leave the plants alone in the cracks between a few well-chosen concrete slabs? I would have fewer weeds to pull. And to keep my car from crushing my crop I would ride my bike instead. My heart, suddenly exercising my mind, said Yes!

Bruno happened by again as I was attacking a different gang of weeds hanging out behind the garage. He looked at me as if I were half-crazed as I was clubbing them to death. “Weeds!” I said as I waved a fistful in front of his nose.

“Urtica Dioica,” he replied. “Great for treating arthritis. You just rub fresh leaves against the skin.”

I yanked out another weed.

Atropa Belladonna,” he said. “This is where the extract comes from for the drops your eye doctor uses for dilating the eye pupil.” He pointed at a delinquent in what looked like a patch of grass. “Rumex Crispus. Beautiful. They taste like spinach when boiled in H2O. And there––Taraxacum Officinalis. You can eat the tender leaves and brew a delicious coffee from its roots.”

Taraxacum Officinalis. Also known as dandelions.

“But I don’t eat them,” Bruno said, “because I love the yellow flowers they make.”

Suddenly the weeds had not only names but uses. And they could be beautiful. Why not allow the best and useful ones to fulfill their destinies? So my thinking about food for thought that comes from reading between the lines was turning toward thoughts about food made from greens sprouting between stones. Weeds, when they had names, became vegetables, herbs, medicinals. In tight small spaces a vast new world loomed, enlarging a New World already blessed with wide freeways and streets, hillsides, Great Lakes and smaller ones, purple mountain majesties, and amber waves of grain on the vast fields of the Great Plains. So much space had fallen into the cracks of my small consciousness: The two feet of dirt next to the garage; the vast expanses of lawn waiting to be reconfigured into gardens blooming with flowers and vegetables; the dull slabs of concrete repressing the witchery from which an apple, apricot, pear and cherry tree might blossom; the crawl spaces waiting for pole beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and grapes to climb their walls; the ledge of a balcony overhang ripe for a pot of basil or savory. As I began thinking small a vast new world was growing in front of my nose.

Robert Engleman of Worldwatch tries to tell us what we already suspect: “Half of the world’s original forests have been cleared for human land use, and UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) warns that the world’s fisheries will be effectively depleted by mid-century. The world’s area of cultivated land has expanded by about 13 percent since its measurement began in 1961, but the doubling of world population since then means that each of us can count on just half as much land as in 1961 to produce the food we eat.”

These warnings fall mainly on deaf ears. India’s population has passed the billion mark, China’s closes in on 1.4 billion, and even in the U.S., where wide open spaces are still available for exploitation and use, population grows even if its rate of increase slows. As we approach the 7 billion mark in a few more years the planet continues to heat up, species become extinct, and increasingly toxic oceans are being fished out. Highrises are the order of the day in China, but when the earth’s balance begins to wobble will these towers tilt and come crashing down? Do we need wider freeway lanes or more bike paths? Are we better off chasing jobs hundreds of miles from home than we would be creating work we can do within walking distance of our front doors? Would we have a happier wonderland vacation on some cruise ship or exploring the exotic spaces in our own back yards?

How we answer these vital questions depends importantly on the names we use. If the grass growing between stones is a “weed,” the word makes a killer of us. If it’s a “jungle” down there with a “heart of darkness,” then African and other rain forest regions are ripe for the rapacious exploitation we misname “civilization.” This misnomer also makes killers of us.

In crazed moments I see myself as a Johnny Weedseeder transforming vast armies of soybeans and corn to a rich fabric of Edenic garden plots. Imagine how many cracks there are between all those rows of soybeans and corn––how Taraxacum Officinalis, Rumex Crispus, Urtica Dioica, and Atropa Belladonna could flourish there next to well-kept orchards and patches of tomato, pepper, eggplant and potato plants. All those straight lines would have to go, but I wouldn’t really mind. My eye gravitates naturally toward beautiful curves.

As a child I was warned that if I stepped on a crack I’d break my mother’s back. My effort to avoid those cracks probably helped spoil my view of whatever was going on all around, and even now as an adult I keep stepping over them. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s not some evil heart of darkness lurking inside those cracks, some dark jungle we have to eradicate. Maybe instead it’s the miraculous creative force we still call Mother Earth.