Sunlight grazes the edge of the barn. It’s a small plank-built barn, sturdy. Maybe there’s mist rolled out over the field behind the barn, mist thick as biscuit dough, made white by the sun; or maybe it’s one of those cutting mornings, so bright it’s sliced right through any semblance of the previous night. The fields have been, as they are, freshly plowed, and the color of ochre, burnt tomato. Someone gazes across the field: we see the field through her eyes. A man staggers, bleeding, his hand held tight across his belly. Then another, dressed in faded gray. And another. Maybe an entire ragged division of troops, their clothes ragged, their faces gaunt…No, there’s only the one. He stumbles, and now we see the field from his perspective: the way the flat earth seems to pitch and wheel beneath him, the welcome relief it finally offers as his feet finally abandon their tenuous balance. As he falls, he turns, and we see he’s made it to the edge of the field, to a small running creek. As he falls, nothing changes: the earth, impassive, holds him; the creek continues to run from its source, a spring deep within the mountain, down to the rivers beneath.
I don’t actually know what the director will choose for the scene that’s being filmed, but whatever it is, that scene will be the way I end up seeing the field that our neighbor tends, where the little barn is in which L’s tobacco is cured in the late summer and dent corn stored through the winter. There’s a little bend in the road there that I’ve always admired, and a pretty beech tree. But however I see it now will change, because of seeing it on the screen. Ron Rash’s novel, The World Made Straight, is being filmed in and around Marshall right now. For almost everyone else, what is seen in the film is all they will know of the land. The fact that the scene takes place a hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of the civil war, around 1863, won’t seem important. The fact that there won’t be thick groves of chestnut trees in the woods by the field, towering groves not yet lost to the blight, will go unremarked; that this field, like many others, hasn’t been tilled by anything but machine in many years, will not be observed; nor will it seem askance that the soil will have been decimated, though not discolored, by the regular use of pesticides and herbicides. The fact that the land is cleared at all, which would have seemed strange to other people at other points in time, will go unnoticed. Our attention, all of it, will fix upon the young man, a boy really, and the mystery of why he has been shot.
We’re an obedient audience, accustomed to being led through the director’s field of vision, having a plot that’s laid out for us to follow, smooth as a two-lane blacktop, one panel leading to the next. There’s only one soldier. There’s only ever been one soldier. We see what we expect to see.
Research suggests that our memories are far less reliable than we tend to believe. We’re easily swayed into believing contradictory evidence, based on the persuasive powers of suggestion based in the present moment. That is, I can easily be convinced that I only saw one soldier, because someone else said so, and it made sense. I agree: there must have been only one. The memory of our one soldier, staggering across the field, so detailed we can see the sun’s glint on his one remaining button, see the stain that darkens that button as he falls. Maybe.
We’ll see the movie the way the director intends. It’s a quiet, scenic mountain community, torn asunder in times both past and present by forces outside its control. There’s only ever been one story. We’ll see the movie, and smile at the parts of our county we recognize. We’ll smile and nod, and agree that it looks just like that, and point out to friends and relations the parts on which our vision differs. We’ll feel significant, because we’ll find ourselves in the privileged position of being able to have an opinion.
Recently, the NPR Planet Money team has been doing a series of stories on the tremendous rise of individuals receiving Social Security Disability benefits. It’s called Unfit for Work, and it’s terrific. Disability, according to social scientists, isn’t a quality of the individual, but a interaction between the individual and the social structures within which he or she lives. Impairment may be individual: an individual may be deaf, i.e. hearing impaired. However, if hearing isn’t required for basic functions of that person’s life, they aren’t disabled. In one rural community, where deafness was so common that, in the words of the one title, “Everyone spoke sign language there”, deafness was a quality like good teeth or freckles. It wasn’t the most significant aspect of a person’s life. It was only a part of who they were.
What’s happening, according to Chana Joffe-Walt’s six months’ research, is that jobs are changing; more and more people are unable to find work that they’re qualified to do, or able to learn to do. Sometimes they’re able to move, to relocate to other cities, to other states, even to other countries. This requires, of course, other abilities: the abilities to move between social support structures; the financial ability to relocate; the imagination and psychological confidence to do so; and some amount of trust and assurance that moving will be an effective strategy in meeting their goal of living independently. If the person has a family, the family must be able to move as well.
Or, they can apply for Social Security/Disability. A person is considered disabled if their individual impairment creates functional limitations for their ability to work. If the work that an individual is able to do does not exist, then that individual is considered, by a judge, in a court, disabled. Millions of Americans are now considered disabled, not because they are unable to work, but because the jobs which they can do are no longer available. But no one tells them that. It’s easier to imagine that there is a new danger among us, the danger of individuals who are too damaged to partake of the healthy desire to work. It’s easier to condemn an individual person for living off the government dime (no matter that the individual has, by accepting disability benefits, agreed to live in poverty). It’s easier to accept that the disabled and the poor are “with us always”, rather than question the lens by which we see each other as poor, or as disabled; or question the lens through which we see ourselves.
Looking again across the field: the soldiers are gone now. The film cameras have moved on to their next shoot. Movie-goers won’t see what happens next: the snow that falls in the night, covering the freshly plowed field.