Gravel and mud, mud mixed with gravel, gravel sinking gray and jagged into the soft brown mud as the spring storms beat down and pass by, as puddles fill and ebb away, as the heavy yellow diggers and draggers and loaders prowl in their loud slow way. This sloppy wide mess that runs down one side of the creek, across the sidewalk and the street and back the other side of the creek will be for the good of all—so we are told and mainly believe. The storm waters and the foul waters should not mingle.

The mess is temporary, we believe, the costs manageable. The mud and gravel and slimy tracks and branches broken, trees uprooted and undermined, all these are small and temporary against the greater good, against keeping our sour and difficult wastes sealed off from the innocent rain.

So we pick our way, try to ease our minds. This is not the Somme after all. Any day now the green pipes and the concrete junctions will be laid and joined and covered, the mud leveled and smoothed. The new grass will be sowed and sprouted, the sidewalks patched, saplings planted where the lost trees stood.

We have seen the old photos, the bare fields that are wooded now, the fresh streets, the first rough buildings. We close our eyes and can almost remember those days and the days before, the days of no streets and no village, only the deep woods and wetlands, traces the deer follow to the water, to the clearings where they browse at dusk and dawn, their faces lifting solemnly at what might have been the whisper of a stealthy paw, of a moccasin.


A hundred years ago my country entered the Great War. This morning the radio told of horses and mules shipped over the ocean to drag machines and food and men through the mud, the splatter, the broken bits of trees and men, flowers and guns.

In 1914 the entire British Army owned eighty motor vehicles. Between 1914 and 1917, the United States shipped a thousand horses a day to Europe, many of them half-tamed animals from the Great Plains.

The horses were so valuable that the Germans plotted to infiltrate the docks at Newport News to infect the horses with anthrax and glanders.

The plot failed, but eight million horses died in the war, plus countless mules and donkeys—better suited for conditions on the front, but like the horses, large and attractive targets. Very few were volunteers.


No man or animal was suited for the mud of Flanders, the mud of Passchendaele, the mud that was a slime of dirt and shit and piss and blood, iron and casings and shrapnel and flesh in all stages of disintegration.

The mud was sucking wrote Siegfried Sassoon, wrote Herbert Read, wrote Richard Aldington, wrote Wilfred Owen. It entered through the mouth, the eyes, the skin. Men sank in to their knees, and deeper. Men foundered and despaired. One was trapped for sixty-five hours before being rescued.

Hell is not fire, hell is mud, wrote someone in a trench newspaper.

Tolkien, at the Somme with the Fusiliers, caught trench fever and was sent home. Much later he had Sam Gamgee come face to face with dead things, dead faces, in the stinking mire of the Dead Marshes.


My room is quiet this morning. The machines are still as stones, the wind tugs at the Douglas fir and the bald cypress near my window. The mud runs along the creek, this side and the other, like the scars of surgery on the largest animal anywhere.

To get here I walked around the yellow tape, the orange pylons, over the raked gravel waiting between the wooden forms.

I have seen, we have seen, the earth heal and change. Flanders is lovely again. Things grow from the mud. New greens erupt irresistible as gravity, as rain, as love.

Every mess is not a crisis. Eggs must be broken. Today is not tomorrow, or yesterday. Everything is connected, and every thing is precisely itself.


Like the mud and the gravel, the creek and the trees, like you and everyone you love and despise, I am spinning through space and time on a course too fast and wild for any sober reckoning.

I have a good bed, and no rifle. The wars are a long way from here. My shoes are only a little muddy.

Jeff Gundy’s seven books of poems include Abandoned Homeland  and Somewhere Near Defiance, for which he was named Ohio Poet of the Year. His most recent prose book is Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace. His essays and poems appear in The Georgia Review, The Sun, Kenyon Review, Christian Century, Image, Cincinnati Review, Artful Dodge, and many other journals. He teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio, and spent a recent sabbatical at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

Photo by Lauren Crux