THE DIG by Nathaniel Popkin

From LION AND LEOPARD (The Head and the Hand Press, October 2013)
by Nathaniel Popkin

Charles Willson Peale, Belfield, November 24, 1818

I woke at half past four, drank two glasses of water, and with the wind in my eyes, walked past the sleeping elk’s pen and into the barn.  There, I milked the two cows, remarking to myself on the double economy of doing one’s chores oneself.  It is apparent that many a gentlemen farmer, if that is how I am to be labeled, pays good money for his own idleness and sloth.  It is like purchasing one’s hastened demise.  The body in motion stays in motion, says Mr. Newton, the body at rest stays at rest.  I don’t need to be convinced of the better alternative.

I set down the bucket of milk, took a spade and a basket, and so I trudged, suppressing worry of danger, through the fetid late autumn field, which felt thick and even overgrown (and not winter raw or empty), into this splendid darkness.  Breathing deeply as I walked, I passed through the grazing field, our small vineyard, and ducked under the bare branches of the pawpaw and into the little apple orchard.  The sky was the black of wet ink, blotted in places where clouds showed through the darkness.  One stares into the darkness as if it is made of substance, as if it can be touched or felt or even inhabited.  Nothing in darkness is greater than darkness.  In day, the experience is opposite.  The air has no form, no mass.  It has no structure.  The air signifies nothing more than the state of the weather.  It is cold, it is humid, or it is crisp and still it is nothing.Charles-Willson-Peale-Belfield-FarmIn painting, the blue sky is not only an object of its own merit, but it carries with it various symbolic meanings.  Likewise, clouds, the rays of the sun—mostly invisible to us—become the life force of the landscape picture.  Naturally, Birch’s nautical scenes, mere paeans to war and national feeling if not for the otherworldly clouds, come directly to mind.  And so it is, yet again, the opposite when a dark background—chiaroscuro—is employed by the painter.  Darkness thus becomes, exquisitely, invisible.  Only the subject comes forth; only the person matters.

I stepped through the orchard, taking care not to trip in a fox hole.  Mrs. Peale says she will withhold sympathy for me if walking in the dark I fall into a hole and break a bone in my leg or wrench my back.  I don’t tell her that at times like this I feel myself a hawk.  (The savages who once roamed this land knew something, I believe, of the power of this feeling.)  The hawk never sees the little mouse clambering through the leaves made papery by the hoarfrost; he doesn’t have to because he senses the vibrating earth.  And thus I become the hawk and just the feeling of it increases the acuity of my senses.  So on I went, beyond the third row of trees and there, finding my prey, I planted myself, now no longer the hungry raptor but as a small child alone amidst God’s creation.  This is, after all, my own earth.  As I hunched over to begin my work, the lipid heat of mold and decay rose to warm my face.

When Raphaelle arrived last Wednesday to sit for his portrait, he was armed with a thousand diversions.  He walks slowly and now with a cane, but insisted I take him for a tour of the late autumn garden.  “You aren’t bundled well enough,” I said, but since I think it best in these cases to push on, as the will only grows in proportion to its obstacles through practice, I gladly acquiesced.  Mrs. Peale came to the door with a heavy blanket made of horsehair.  My son draped this over his shoulders, holding it closed across his chest with one hand while grasping the cane in the other, in such a way that only heightened his appearance of derangement (the blanket trailed behind him).  We made our way along the stone path now covered with a skin of leaves, past the greenhouses and, pausing briefly, I started to explain my deep appreciation for the place.  “You will note,” I began to say, “once we rise to the bluff of the summer house, how gratifying it is to sit still and ponder nothing but the glories of nature,” but as I did so, I worried that such a statement might sound to my son as an endorsement of excessive repose and so I quickly amended the statement to include a phrase on the way “such careful study of nature has improved my ability as a colorist.”  We climbed, slowly enough, up the stone staircase I had built myself, to the Pedestal of Memorable Events.  Each of the eighty events is denoted with a little engraved star, but I drew his attention to a single star without descriptor, a space left for an example of the positive progression of the American philosophy yet still to come, with the intention, while looking him over, of suggesting that the place be reserved for a notable advancement of his own.  But this too I amended on second thought.  Instead, I said, and not without truth, the space has been reserved for the glory of industrial invention, perhaps the steam engine, perhaps the prosaic, nay ingenious, mill.

While eating our small, simple dinner of boiled potatoes and cabbage—Raphaelle spent a great bit of time making jokes about the austerity of our meal (at my expense), which Mrs. Peale unflinchingly and quite calmly deflected—I asked him to tell me how he thought he ought to appear in a portrait.

Portrait_of_Raphaelle_Peale_and_Titian_Ramsay_Peale)_Google_Art_Project“I think you had better ask that question of the man with the pencil,” he responded.

“But don’t you care how you are presented to the world?”  I looked across the table.  Alas, the boy looked tired.  His ears were blotched red, his skin waxy.  Upon his arrival at Belfield, I had looked him over carefully.  He was clean, shaven, and wore a high collar and a cloak.  He carried no odor of alcohol, but seemed to mutter to himself rather frequently.

“Well, then,” he said, looking around the room, “why beat around the bush.  Paint me for what I am.”

“That’s what I do intend,” I said.

“No.  Paint me as flesh.  A good cut—Now where’s the difference? to th’ impartial eye / A leg of mutton and a human thigh / Are just the same—for surely all must own / Flesh is but flesh and bone is only bone.

“That line of argument has already been taken.”

“That may be the point.  Surely you can improve it.  I should think a porterhouse cut with some curls of onion.”  He brushed his hair with his hand.  Did I imagine this, a hand rheumatic, claw-like?  I guided him into the painting room.  The fire in the hearth barely glowed and I took some time to stoke it.  I then arranged him in front of an easel and canvas of his own and put a palette in his left hand, a brush in the right.

“Then why not paint me as Raffaello?” he said a bit imperiously, pausing for effect.  “You don’t get me, do you?  Paint me in the style of Raffaello Sanzio.  Shouldn’t there be a drop of guilt in my eyes?  No insipid despair, what I want is guilt.  It’s more pleasing.”  He paused and I allowed him to go on nonsensically.  “Anyway, I have always desired that—as a joke, you see, what you might call a gesture.”

“You don’t need to act a fool anymore, dear boy.  Suppose I just paint the person I see before me.”

“And isn’t that the quite real Raffaello?”

For some reason he felt the need to press the point.  I tried not to resent the constant go around.  I was already growing tired of the crazy fellow.  I wished to make his portrait as a sign of defiance and if he hadn’t that capacity then I would have to provide it for him.  The portrait would resurrect him.  “I will paint you as Raffaello Sanzio, one of the cleverest members of the papish religion and, my dear boy, a master of the portrait.”

“Then I shall die in the arms of a voluptuous whore.  There will be glory, at last.”

In that moment I never felt more certain that I would outlast Raphaelle—not only Raphaelle, but every last one of them.  My day that begins at half past four ends punctually at a quarter past ten.  That’s nearly 18 hours awake, a full 15 of which is spent in the act of work: six on farm chores, care and feeding of the animals, mending and rebuilding farm utensils and farm buildings, and working in the garden, six in the act of painting—I am determined that the portrait of Raphaelle will reestablish my own reputation as a portraitist—and three in the planning of my cotton mill.  Glory, I am certain, will come in the spinning of the waterwheels, even without the aid of my recalcitrant sons.


The rest is spent eating (one hour fifteen minutes spread over three light meals) and writing to my children.  And who of my children, or even my wife, 20 years my junior, comes close to this example of vigor?  Rembrandt?  He requires too much sleep.  Rubens?  He very competently manages my museum, but lives in the delicate mold of a Roman bureaucrat.  During his long supper break, he strolls aimlessly around the city or idles about the statehouse gardens.  The second Titian, I imagine, works hard on his naturalist exhibitions, but is easily distracted.  The rest I need not mention.  Mrs. Peale tells me I am a wretched father for expecting so much of my children.  “Let them be!” she says.  I tell her I don’t get her point.  “But they must live their own lives!  One way isn’t better than the other.”  I can only look on impassively, but with secret joy in my ice blue eyes.  One’s children are, indeed, like one’s piece of earth.  They must be cultivated, pruned, clipped, fertilized, and arranged to one’s liking.

With the wind beating down on my unprotected neck, now crouched on the ground beneath the apple trees, I began to dig.  A single, last leaf of the apple tree twirled around and around, making a scattered, intermittent sound, the very quality of the noise of children playing upstairs.  After digging through the raised beds beneath the apple trees, I came to realize I had estimated wrong—this patch of orchard had been harvested already.  I advanced to the last row of trees—and here was the motherload of potatoes.  So be it, there were enough to deliver with the sample bottle of wine to Tharp, a chore which Linnaeus hadn’t ever completed.  He’ll only work, he says, if he is to be paid explicitly for his services.  Room, board, and the infinite patience of his mother aren’t quite enough.  I filled the wooden basket until I could no longer easily lift it and carried it to the path that runs between our houses.  There was now enough vulgar light to see clearly and for this, and just for a moment, I felt a usual pang of sadness, for never do I feel as defiantly alive as in these earliest hours, when the world expects a man of my age and standing to be auditioning for the hereafter.  Should I be spotted doing my farm chores at the early hour by some perspicacious neighbor who thinks he’s witnessed the installation of madness, it would only be so much more of a pleasure.  Now, with the rising sun, any bird worth its weight thought it necessary to announce its presence.  Even the creek, which I hadn’t noticed while digging for potatoes, went about its mesmerizing holler and I went inside to escape the clatter.


Mrs. Peale was still asleep; in fact, the house was as dark as the orchard had been an hour before.  I drank two more glasses of water and went into the kitchen to fill and cork a bottle of wine for my neighbor.  I searched everywhere in the kitchen and then in all the possible locations inside the house.  I had already filled the bottle with good sweet, clear wine, which Linnaeus himself had crushed.  But the boy hadn’t cut more corks (or so I thought, as it’s never possible to receive from him a “straight” story).  Instead what emanates from his mouth is both diffuse and cluttered, and therefore impossible to discern.  It’s a bit like the morning’s scattered wind.  Since he was a boy, Linnaeus has driven me, with efficiency and predictability, to anger.  I won’t stand the obfuscation or the undercurrent of deceit.  It was only much later I realized his mother (and the mother of Franklin, Titian II, Sybilla, and Elizabeth) hadn’t the same studied calm as Rachel, the mother of my older children.  This certainly contributed to his instability.  But I’ve always studiously avoided taking pity on the boy.  And so he left for some time and joined the navy, despite my admonitions against war, only to return with a monkey on his back, a sword in his belt, and a sad, shit-eating grin on his face.  His sisters fall for it every time.

But now where were the corks?  It had been my intention to reach Tharp before he became busy at the mill; I lost nearly a full hour cutting down a cork from an old bottle of whiskey I found in the barn, only to have it crumble into tiny pieces and fall into the wine.  I carefully kept my temper in check during this fitful exchange, which also resulted in hitting my head on the pediment to the kitchen door.  Luckily, the slight welt that rose above my right eye was mostly invisible to the unknowing eye.  At last, I employed a decanter, whose glass top would have to suffice.  Now instead of laying the bottle down on top of the potatoes, I would have to secure it standing up for fear of spilling.  I did so, resting the basket every few paces and sweating profusely despite the chill and the wind, and now something else, a sudden soaking downpour that felt more like a remnant of spring than late autumn.  Being a hawk would no longer quite do.


*       *       *

1. Charles Willson Peale, Belfield Farm, c. 1816. Detroit Institute of the Arts
2. Charles Willson Peale, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), 1795. Philadelphia Museum of Art
3. Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Steak, c. 1816. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. Utica, New York
4. Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Cake, 1818. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
5. Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait), 1822. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Nathaniel Popkin

Cleaver fiction review editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.




Comments are closed.