House of Earth

by Woody Guthrie


The walls measured eighteen feet from one to the other, no matter which direction you ran your string.

One window was on each side, and there was an east door toward the windmill and the barn, and a west door out across a hard strip of grazing land as flat and just about as wide open as the green cloth top of a billiard table. Yet eighteen feet is eighteen feet, or as long as six wide steps of a short-legged man when he’s walking fairly on a beeline and comparatively sober. This was the vast and undying beauty, the dynamic and eternal attraction, the lure, the bait, the magnetic pull that, in addition to their blood kin and salty love for the wide open spaces and their lifetime bond to and worship of the land, caused not only Ella May and Tike Hamlin but hundreds of thousands and millions and millions of others, folks just about like them to scatter their seeds, their words, and their loves so freely here.

And out of these hard-hitting millions of people, still, all in all, no other two of them were quite exactly like Tike and Ella May. None of the other millions of faces were like Tike’s, and none of the other voices were like Ella’s. And even though more millions of these little sideleaning, termite-eaten, rotting and falling poison houses are everywhere around you, still, none of these bent, warped, sagged, reeled, rocked, nor swayed in the same places as this one, nor did the holes, cracks, splits, slits, misfits, openings, crevices, come in exactly the same place.

Eighteen feet is eighteen feet by any ruler, any yardstick in the land, but some shacks will soak full of dampness and rain and will spread out two or three inches in the course of forty running years. Others will dry out, lose their gum and rosin, and their natural sappy juice will get away into the air, and the hot sun will beat down on all four sides of them, and the dry winds will rip and tear at the boards and scatter the shingles across the earth, so that, say, after the same forty-odd years, this shack will shrivel up, and shrink in size three or four inches.

Tike and Ella’s shack did not come quite under either one of these descriptions, that is, the wet one that swelled, nor the dry one that shrank. It came more in the middle, and suffered all the more because of it. It stood up against the early spring rains that flooded the black gumbo furrows and made them look like the calm parts of the oceans. These spring rains came just on the tail end of hailstorms that pounded the green sprigs down with hailstones the size of turnips, even the looks, the shape, of turnips. Car tops are battered and the first leaves skinned off every stalk and every growing thing. The waters of storms flood down out of the skies and chew the hard plugged mud into a gummy slick black gumbo paste that stops all wagon wheels, all auto wheels, all tractor wheels. These waters reflect the colors of the clouds and the sun above for days and weeks as they stand on the roads and on the fields, because there are no man-made gutters here, no copper drains, no tin runways, no iron manholes, to carry the floods off the flatlands. Some, the soil drinks down to fill its veins, and some the wind scoops up to get drunk on, a bit the horses, hogs, and cattle drink down and splash in, and some the people stagger and bog along in. Still there are lakes and more lakes, flat, shallow holes of sky waters all over the plains, and the whiffs of the wind that blows off these waters feels like the forked tongue of winter.

These hailstorms, these floods, these falling and standing waters, all of them, every single drop of them, fell, sprayed, crashed, burst, exploded, and smashed into the grains of the planks and boards of Hamlin’s little shack. And all of these soaked in.

Then the long keen rays of the late spring sun would come. They would shine down against the house for several hours out of every day. They sucked. They bit. They scratched. They clawed and they chewed at the boards. And they sipped the wild saps, gums, rosins, juices, and waters out again with sunrays, winds, the dry tongue and lips of the weather that sings, then whispers, then sucks, and kisses all of the little houses until they are dry again and brittle. And this was the dryness of the heat against the house.

No place on the earth is closer to the sun than these upper fl at plains. No spot on the globe is closer to the wind that here on these north panhandle plains. Nowhere could the wind blow the rain any colder than here, nor any harder could the rain ever hope to fall, nor any longer could it stand. None of the world’s winds blow dustier nor dryer, nor harder day in and day out. Nowhere on the planet do the winds and the sun suck the grass, the leaves, the cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, dogs, cats, people any drier. Nowhere could the winters blow any icier, the blizzards howl any lonesomer, nor the smoke from ranch house chimneys get whipped out any quicker, nowhere could the icicles hang down any longer, or could the whole world freeze in two minutes any glassier.

Just a flat place you call the upper north plains where ten blizzards and ten floods and then volcanoes had a big argument once and then hurricanes haven’t been able to settle it yet.

Just a little thin boxboard shack in the land of grazing cattle, oil fields, carbon black plants, sheep herds, chicken farms, highways as straight as a string and as deadly flat as a frontline trench. A world of flat lands mainly. Flat, crusty, hard lands mainly. Some washed-out ditches deep enough to be young canyons and some gullies and some canyons big enough to swallow several of your big towns, cliff s and mesas, gorges and hollers, drybedded rivers, sand-bottom creeks, eggless hens, running ducks, stewball nags, hypocrite kilcustards, sons of virgin, hopping hare, buffalo bear, woolly sheep, tedious toddy drinkers, open mouthers, deep thinkers, beer makers, slop inhalers, dust and dirt eaters, and sandrock sleepers. Crawlers of the night soils, diggers under the sunny sod, hole feelers, hole diggers, hole makers, and hole ticklers. Easy gravel walkers and long tale talkers. The soul, the mind, the winds, the spirit of the upper flats, the flat upper panhandles, the winds of heavens unrolling, unfolding, and the listeners down below listening in two or three low brick buildings, wheeling chuckaluck, twenty-one, stud, blackjack, muley dice, racehorse mulers, fast nag tippers, coin fl ippers, vino fermenters, and curly hair sippers. Hair of the top plains. Soils of the dead grasses. Gravel hills, gravel hollers, doggy trots, buffalo wallows. Hens, hags, satchels, bags, the boasting, the knifing, the red-hot bragging. Brushy patch nippers, manurey skippers, backhouse generals, crooked cow trailers, sheep huggers, cheap sluggers, ewes and lamb dippers, sheep sleepers, and sheepy sleepers. You. Who. The winds and the clays dusted over graves of sixteen and sixty and nine in a row, nine in a line. On hoof or on the hook. On the trail or on the sledge. On the ice or on the fire. Hands between legs and stalks of bananas, truckloads of hot ones, and truckloads of produce, cabbage, beer, turnip, celery, eggs, squashes, reeling and rocking, trucks loaded with melons, feed her watermelon so she can’t elope. Hair burned. Singed. Branded and scorched. Hide all blistered, and she’s a burned-out sister. The upper flat plains.

Tike Hamlin knew the inner sounds and all of the other outer sights of the things of the plains, his plains. Belly band. Back band. Neck yoke and collar. Buckle it up. Snap it down.

Carry it off and hang it up. Smokehouse. Woodshed. Cow stall. Manger. Henhouse. Big house. Backhouse. Cellar. Tap. Bolt. Nut and screw. Skinned knuckle. Cut finger. Burned arm. Scalded shinbone. Wheels. Hubs. Spokes. Seat. Brogans. Clodhoppers. Tit squeezers. Things of the barn and things of the pens and of the lots. Smells and the odors, sweet, sugary, syrupy, foul, rank, mean, and ornery. Hardheads. Stubborn heads. The loco cattle and bronco ponies. The penis of the stud slipping into the mare, and the sweaty hot open womb of the cow as she waited for the bull.

Ella May was of these things and born and raised among these things, and the life that she felt in her was the life that she saw and heard, felt, in all of these things in their seasons.

But the seasons of the summer things and the hot things were gone for this year, and this wind that was blowing its first hays and dusts across the farm was the very first touch of the winds of the cold season, the frostybreathed, icy-tongued breaths of old winter. And here where no valleys hid them like cowards from the sun, or from the wind either, here where they hunted for no shelter behind rocks, here where they faced all of the ten million things that men and people and the weather could throw at them, here they both knew, Tike and her, that the difference between
the summer and the blizzardy winter was sometimes, most times, just a couple of little short minutes. Th e tongue of the blizzard of winter licked under the flying tail of warm summer. One could go and the other could come in two minutes.

This was what was going on in the mind of Tike as he splashed his flour paste on the wall and pasted his papers down flat.

Ella May sat across the table from Tike and watched him eat his supper. She knew that a herd of deep thoughts were traveling through his mind. He looked down at his plate and he looked on through the plate. He looked at the dishes on the table and on through the dishes. He looked out across the room and his eyes went on through the walls. He looked out through the dark window and his eyes went all over the farm and through the panhandle. He looked across the plains. He spoke only a few words and the words seemed to go out across the country in the dark of the night. He smiled and looked into her eyes, and his eyes went in her and through her and on and on. Most of the time they talked about things at the eating table. There was a feeling of lonesomeness around the table when one of these quiet gazing spells came over Tike. Ella May felt Tike’s feelings, though, and she knew that he had just let his troubles get heavier than his lips could carry. It caused her to feel sorry and she kept quiet.

She done the supper dishes while Tike spread more pages of magazines and papers over the walls. She set her pots and pans away in their orange-crate shelves on the south wall, then fixed the dishes on the table, covered them with a linen tablecloth, and said, “In a way, I’m always pretty glad to see the cold snap come, when it comes it kills out all my old bothersome flies.”

“ ‘S right.” Tike had gotten into the motion of flattening the pages against the walls, and he seemed to be angry deep inside him, so that he worked as fast as he could to try to fight back.

“Need a good hand there, brother Tike?”

“Yeah. Use one all right.”

And together they whistled, hummed, sang parts and pieces of songs, and Ella May held the papers flat while Tike pasted them down with his broom. Together they laughed at the old pictures of sharp-toed 1910 shoes. They hugged and laughed and pointed at square-built, clumsy models of automobiles with brass trimmings, squeeze honkers, and straps and buckles. They doubled over and held their bellies as they looked at the ladies in their hats, bustles, nets, and wigs. A well-dressed man in a white Palm Beach suit and a stiff straw hat caused them to go into laughing fits. They had looked through the papers and the magazines before, because Ella May had been saving them for several years. So their laughter was caused more by the wind outside, more by the shack and the sound of the dirt blowing against the sides, more by their actual hard luck, poverty, more by the debts and the worries, than by the pictures on the pages. They both felt that all of their fears and troubles were still not as silly nor as funny as these things in the papers of twenty years ago. Yes, both of them would have explained their laughing in these words, but the truth of the matter was that this was just one of those minutes, one of those hours, when the hurt of worry had hit its white-hot heat, and had simply melted and burned into laughs. If they had seen a kite in the sky, a cat on a fence, a boot in the alley, a dog with long hair, three trees on a hill, a weed out the window blowing in the night wind, they would have laughed.

-II: Termites (pp.90-97)

Copyright © 2013 by Woody Guthrie Publications Inc. Reproduced with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 5. March 1, 2013.