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The Farm

   My Home, or Why I Hug Trees

by Joe Martinez

Granite City lies in the middle of an ancient flood plain on the world's most useful river system, the Mississippi, drained and fought at every turn by the forces of man with levies, dikes, ditches, and sluices. The east side of the Mississippi is a swampy place rife with industrial rust and organic decay, the defunct factories offering dangerous playgrounds for those who dare explore.

The bones of industry defunct or obsolete litter the place, resting beside the living, snarling, flame-belching behemoths of the same, yet more evolved, ilk. The dentition and plumage of the beast may change, but it always maintains its reliance on fire. Steel needs fire like fire needs oxygen. Steel, the bone of our civilization, is born here, Vulcan's home away from home: Planet Granite. Vulcan has to take a dump after he's finished, so his shit's lying all over town.

The steel mill provides jobs for many people whose beautiful pickup trucks fill the parking lots across the street. They love to burn fossil fuels too. From the contributions of dirt bikes, ATVs, chainsaws, balmy winter houses, jet skis, bass boats, aimless teenage driving, and just plain burning stuff with it, the consumption of gas is kept high for the community per capita.

Granite City is like a hundred other industrial satellite towns lying on the despised outskirts of a greater urban area, still kicking after lots of hard times. The population crashed in the early eighties, when the Reagan Recession crushed the steel industry. The town went from 40,000+ people to 32,000 in three years. Thousands of families moved away, businesses were shuttered, and the downtown area kept only a pawnshop in business. It was hard times in the rust belt back then, and I know a couple of the FARM folks know all too well what I'm talking about. The spectre of joblessness hung in the air, and all us children sensed the fear, the emasculating fear of losing the only job in town.

But the wind turned, and the jobs came back: Trucks for all, and a boat under every carport! Put gas in one end of the machine at hand, ignite, and your purpose is served. The magical fun juice that makes all things possible was cheap and money was plentiful.

The town is defined by burning fossil fuels. Coal, with the exception of peat, the crappiest substance to burn, is fired without oxygen to make the hot burning substance known as coke. Heated and deprived of oxygen, it is not allowed to truly burn; the original sample undergoes a metamorphosis into hell's own embers. With this stuff you can melt anything, but it smells like crap!

I remember riding in my mom's big '72 Le Mans, listening to the Bee-Gees on the eight-track, marveling at the bright orange sky at night, inured to the foul whiff of rotten eggs. There were huge jets of fire in bright blue and orange, and it was on the way to a favorite ice cream place; perhaps that's why I favored the Weathervane so. For years I believed that the northwest side of town was consumed by some weird, factory-induced fire sometimes. Later I would come to find out that the glow came from the blast furnaces being opened.

"Blast" furnace always sounded especially hardcore to me and induced visions of heavy metal daemons being smelted. I was listening to a lot of Metallica at the time, so I'll blame them.

The dual connotations of the term "heavy metal" have great significance to our story. Not only are many of the denizens of Granite City into "heavy metal" music, but many of them have very high levels of heavy metals within their bodies! The irony, tragedy, or whatever you want to call it is well, kinda freaky.

I lived there for about seventeen years, full time, and it wasn't that bad of a place to grow up, when one doesn't consider the extreme pollution. I mean I seem OK, much like fish that seem healthy, plying their fishy trade in Lake Michigan off the coast of Chicago -- and in fact may well live unaffected to a ripe old age -- as go lake trout, so goes Joe. Those things contain more lead than an anti-Superman hideout! For god's sake don't eat them or me!

The EPA came and took my grandma and grandpa's yard to a depth of a foot. I have pictures of the EPA guys in white suits taking away the yard. They did spare a couple trees.

I'm glad they saved my tree.

My grandpa freaked out one day in the midst of the deep, dark seventies because my cousin and I carved our names on that tree. Of course, our heads were filled with visions of coming back as grown men to see these sacred glyphs, but my grandpa thought, not unjustifiably mind you, that we were gratuitously harming his tree. Repercussions were rough, but the marks were indelible.

Now, when I look at the tree, I notice that the sacred glyphs look like old war wounds on the poor lead-poisoned gray, and the scribble, "Vince and Joe," now resembles Elvis or Jesus or something. Oh well, I don't have nearly as big pectoral muscles as I envisioned on my adult body! My cousin sprouted those at age 12; I got an irritable disposition and too much intellectual arrogance. At least I still have a tree.

You just know that the ground is super-safe now. The EPA doesn't fuck around when they replace your yard after excavating it away. No sir! The come in with beautiful combed Kentucky dirt and some Kentucky bluegrass, and voila: no harm, no foul. Industry's excrement is everywhere. The pollution they cleaned up, lead-smelting waste, was almost one hundred years old.

I probably ate a cubic foot of the old dirt while growing up. So to restate my point, if you happen to crash-land in the Andes with me and I, god forbid, should snuff it, look to another corpse for your macabre feast.

I, thankfully, lived upwind from the mill, on the outskirts and out of the swath of stench that surrounds it. Our most immediate industrial pollution came in the form of rodents, varmints, and assorted critters. The grain elevator down the way attracted the freeloading vermin like the mighty Pharos at Alexandria. Luckily for us we had a solid, well-sealed brick home, so our only internal problems were mice. Sure there were some fucked up D-Con moments and some messy traps, but in the grand scheme of things I'll take mice over the stench of rotten eggs any day.

I think I'll stick close to the plants from now on. Agriculture's annoyed me, but industry's been out to get me since I was a wee lad. Who knows, the silent sleeping dollop of mercury in my pituitary gland might madden and kill me yet. Anybody need a thermometer?