The Old Man
Donald Stockton loosened his tie and scooted back from the long table. He glanced at his watch. His time was okay. It was still two hours before the meeting across town....
The microphone clicked at the podium in front of the tables, and the indiscernible talking in the room automatically lowered to sporadic whispers. As Thomas Lipscombe adjusted the mic, the hundred or so people became quiet.
“It is a pleasure to present to you today the first of six speakers chosen to address this group over the next year. As program chairman, it is my responsibility to obtain speakers who provide insights that will benefit our businesses, our lives, and ultimately our community. As I look out over the audience, I am reminded of the influence present in this room. You are individuals who command much authority. It is your initiative and leadership that provides direction for thousands of people in your respective communities, and for that reason, it becomes increasingly difficult to find speakers, which fulfills my responsibility as program chairman. Fortunately, there was never any hesitation on my part as to who would be our first guest. He is not the chairman of any board of any company, or the president. He does not travel extensively, or for that matter, speak regularly to groups such as ours. I do have a list of things here which I was going to review concerning his credentials; however, he refuses to let me read them.”
The audience stirred, a soft ripple of laughter fluttered briefly through the group.
Thomas Lipscombe smiled. “He insists that what he has accomplished in his life is irrelevant. What is important is whether or not the words he speaks now, today, make any sense to us. And after I thought about it, he’s right again.”
I met Sam Kenton about fifteen years ago, twenty miles from nowhere in the middle of the woods along the shore of Kentucky Lake. I was miserably lost after tracking a deer for two hours in the snow. Some of us get away from everyday pressures by playing golf, others by watching football on TV. Well, I hunt deer. And I’m glad I do, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have found Sam Kenton, wouldn’t have spent the night in his camp, and wouldn’t have developed a friendship with a man who sees things clearer than any man I’ve ever known. If I can introduce Sam Kenton with one thought, it is that he sees clearly and... he has changed the way I see things now. I pray we will learn from what he has seen.”
The Old Man made his way to the podium and looked out over the faces above the politely applauding hands. He studied on their faces before speaking. Finally he began.
“I want to thank you, Tom, for your words of introduction. There are very few chance meetings in one’s life that become indeed meaningful. That snowy afternoon encounter when you walked into my camp has proved such a meeting.”
“First of all, I would like to mention a couple of things that may distract your attention. My lack of a tie is not a sign of disrespect nor ignorance of proper etiquette. It simply serves me no purpose. Also, my choice of improper grammar is an earned pleasure. At my age, one can take advantage of simple earned prerogatives. To dress comfortably and speak casually are two pleasures that I unapologetically covet.”
“I suppose that it is customary to begin with a joke teller who becomes hysterical with laughter in anticipation of the punch line, and never does very well with his audience, so I’ll pass along an amusing story.”
“Once upon a time in the nineteen eighties, in a land called America a number of people banded together to stop the privilege of hunting and trapping. They based their movement on a ‘supercivilized’ concept of cruelty to animals. Of those people,the vast majority were women. Of those women, the vast majority wore perfume. Perfume... a standard of modern society for men and women. Perfume... the primary use of which is to attract members of the opposite sex. Perfume is now as socially desirable as frequent bathing. Perfume... an essence made from the scent glands of dead beaver. These glands are called castors, located just underneath the belly skin.”
The Old Man paused. “Isn’t that amusing? These people oppose the taking of animals and yet they have no problem with the practice of trying to entice people of the opposite sex with odors made from sex glands of dead animals. This practice is a cornerstone of our social society. It is a practice as old as the first beaver that ever left its scent to attract a mate. It is natural. There is absolutely nothing wrong with perfume, or wool coats, or leather shoes, or red meat to eat. What is wrong is that our thinking processes become so removed from the land that we forget our unmovable position in the natural world. And, in doing so, we have declared an unforgivable war on our future.” A murmur swept the audience. The Old Man waited patiently, before continuing. “So... how did we get so civilized?”
“In the beginning a natural system evolved, which included the deaths of certain living things so that others could survive. It is a perfect system. It works. There were no qualms about the use of animals back then. If one had qualms about it, he wasn’t heard for very long, ‘cause he didn’t eat and promptly died. Man’s initial struggles were against a hard, cruel land. It would have been difficult to forget one’s origins back then. Man was fighting everyday just to eat and stay warm. The land’s challenge was a constant provider and an obstacle to overcome. The American Indian was the epitome of land-producing-food awareness. He understood, more than we, the principles of animal ecology. And, through his understanding, he gave homage back to the land so that it would continue to provide for his people.”
“But, in our eyes, the American Indian was a pagan. ‘His priorities were all wrong,’ said we, and we proceeded to fight the land for different reasons...prosperity, comfort and glory. But still we were in touch with the land. We still knew that cloths came from animal skins, and meat from their bodies, and corn grew best on those lands that had been sometimes flooded. And we proceeded further... clearing the land, building dam after dam to prevent the floods, and growing more and more food until only a few had to grow crops for the entire country and only a few raised cows.”
“Somewhere in this century, we stopped fighting the land for our survival. We had progressed so far, so quick, that the struggle within the boundaries of the land collapsed. We suddenly had the technology to rape the land without struggle. We had fought the land for thousands and thousands of years just to eat, and suddenly we were in total control. Unfortunately, we gained control at the same time that we started raising children who assumed that hamburger was made at the grocery store and milk was born in plastic jugs.” The Old Man stopped and drank from the filled glass at the podium.
“So,” the Old Man continued, “our basic struggles for survival have been replaced. We are long past the time when a full belly and warmth, and the full bellies and warmth of our children, brought happiness. In these days it takes much more. It takes social acceptance among those who think milk is born in plastic jugs. It takes travel to exciting places. It takes money. And, since none of these things are now directly tied to the land, the collapse of our land goes unnoticed. And why should we notice? We’re not hungry... we’re not cold... yet. The simple fact is that no matter how intelligent we become, no matter how civilized we are, we are still wearing animal skins and eating once-bloody meat. We still get sick when we drink poisoned water. We cannot civilize ourselves above the basic laws of nature. If we destroy the land and water that provides for the healthy living of all creatures... we will cease to exist. We are destroying the land and water now through lazy unawareness. We just don’t care because our priorities don’t include that awareness. And, I’m sometimes very sad, and I’m bitter, because I’m sixty-eight years old and I’ve done nothing to stop it. We must stop it. Please let us stop it. The war against the land is over. We have won. She is mortally wounded and needs aid.”
“You, in this room, have the intelligence to change our priorities to include a wonderful harmonious civilization with the land. It is not too late, but it is very close.”
“You know, when I was a child, the word ‘Tennessee’ immediately brought visions of great wooded ridges and cold, running streams. ‘Tennessee’ meant overwhelming excitement, because it included quail exploding at your feet and ghost like deer and rabbits and bullfrogs and red-tailed hawks that screamed out above.”
“I’m lucky... probably the luckiest man I know because ‘Tennessee’ still means those things to me... and much, much more. The wildlife here is our best indicator as to the health of the land, this land we call Tennessee, and whether we think about it very often or not. Our happiness is directly related to our concerns about these wonderful natural resources... the land and its wildlife.
“There are thousands of people in this state whose lifestyles include a strong relationship with the land. Some of them are right here in this room, but we have been way too silent for way too long about the importance of ‘Tennessee’s’ future in our lives. We care that our children have a healthier land to grow up in. We care that our children are not ignorant about nature’s wonderful gifts, in all her glory and sadness. We really care, and I’m asking you here today to please care, too. I thank you for your time and pray you find happiness in the land.”
Donald Stockton sat alone in the auditorium after everyone else had left. He stared at the coffee cup handle on the table in front of him, but his thoughts were on the farm he left as a child, the farm he vowed to leave for success in the city, the excitement in the city. He remembered the backbreaking work on the farm, the quiet nights, the barn, the creek, the grapevine, the dusty roads, the smell of cut clover, and wood smoke in the fall.
He thought of his children who knew nothing of those things or of anything about the Old Man, Mr. Kenton, talked about. He thought about the last time his concerns were about the land, but his memory failed him. Suddenly, he realized the emptiness he had felt for years was the longing for those things.
He rose from his chair and sighed. In an hour he was due across town.