Of the many things I learned working in villages in Yunnan, the skill that transfers most directly to my current work on West Texas Interlude is how to do field research in a rural setting. Efficiency has a completely different meaning in a rural setting, and a task that could feasibly be accomplished in 2 hours elsewhere might be better finished in 24 in the country — people tend to want to talk to you more if you’ve spent a little time helping out around the house or have stopped for groceries in town before you start peppering them with questions. Or if you bring them fresh tamales.
I would never expect to set a 2 hour appointment for language surveys in a village in Yunnan and have a tea farmer actually keep to that schedule, and neither do I expect my grandparents to stick to such a timetable. Instead, I know that I will enjoy the process of interviewing them a lot more if I go into it expecting to spend 4 or 5 days in order to get a few hours worth of decent recordings. Inevitably, the phone will ring and Bob D will have to go out and help the guy fixing the fence, or Ann will suggest we bake something. Or the physical therapist will show up at the front gate. Or someone will fall asleep in their recliner.
And so, I’ve spent the past few days living life with my grandparents and experiencing their daily reality on the ranch 25 miles out of town.
I have attended the monthly ladies’ luncheon at the Boonsville Community Center, where I have vague memories of my grandmother taking me to eat potluck suppers with her friends and neighbors when I was a kid.
I have driven Bob and Ann into Jacksboro and into Weatherford, to doctors’ offices and the Rexall drug store and the bank and the dollar store. We have driven slowly on back roads, the fall foliage golden and russet lining our path, my grandfather telling me where he thought I should slow down for curves or drive on the left side of the road to avoid potholes. I have become an expert at parking the big old Mercury Grand Marquis.
I have stood in the front yard watching a yearling deer in the late afternoon light, while the yearling stared and pondered me in return.
I have gone on walks with the dog, a border collie mix, along the gravel road leading from the house back out to the public road, stretching our legs for half a mile after a few hours of being cooped up at the house. She likes to trot out ahead of me 50 yards or so, venturing to the right and the left off the gravel, sniffing in the brush at evidence of a deer or raccoon or who knows what that had wandered through the night before. After a couple minutes I call her back, just to watch her run — I call, she starts towards me, running flat out, and every time, just in time, she veers to my side and skids in the gravel, just before the collision point. Maybe one day she’ll miss and knock my legs out from under me, but so far she’s right on, and I love to watch her build up speed and create a cloud of dust behind her.
I have woken up at 3am to the sound of a pack of coyotes piercing the dead silence of night with their yipping and howling. I don’t know if you’ve woken up to that sound before, but in those first few seconds of hearing it I always think they must be right outside my window, probably 30 or 40 of them, and fear mixes with wonder at the thought that I’m sleeping close to something wild. In the less groggy moments of later in the morning, I realize there were likely less than 10 of them and they weren’t in the yard, after all, but the fear and wonder remain.
And I have recorded 4 1/2 hours of talks with my grandparents, in 15 or 20 minute segments. The days have been peaceful, isolated from my daily routine, but they have been filled with much thought — and will be followed with much work as I transcribe the recordings and organize them by date or by topic. I’ve been through this routine before, when I spent a couple of months interviewing Lydia in the evenings after she got off work, and it’s a daunting task. But I love working on book-length projects like this, and when I get overwhelmed with the mass of information, I remind myself that these interviews aren’t about being precise in the first go-round, but about honing in on an idea over a period of time. I still have the next week and a half to finish this first set of recordings, and then we’ll have another couple of weeks at the end of January to do follow-up questions after I finish the transcriptions.
Next up is a day trip to San Angelo and the little town of Paint Rock, where my grandfather worked in 1956 and took a tour of Indian rock paintings on a nearby ranch. The private tours still operate today, and I have an appointment with an 84-year-old tour guide tomorrow. I love my job.