Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Last Weekend

It is the first real weekend in December; last weekend was just too close to November, and Thanksgiving.  It is also the last weekend of deer-hunting season here, if you’re using a regular rifle, and not a muzzle-loader or crossbow.  The day began before light with the sound of gunshot, both near and at a distance. 

By afternoon, though, the noise was coming from chainsaws and log-splitters. You can get a good electric-motor log splitter for around $350, or you could spend three or four thousand for a gas-driven 30+-ton splitter. These aren’t toys for weekenders; with a gas splitter hooked to an ATV you can get back into the far woods, taking on the big trees and splitting eight cords of wood in an afternoon. The sound of that gas engine echoes off the stone walls and the granite faces up the hills so it’s hard to tell where the work is.

That’s not a bad idea these days, when a lot of the splitting is being done on lands that aren’t necessarily owned by the crew with the splitter.  Some is property long unoccupied; perhaps the owner has died or moved far away or gave up on selling it after the market collapsed a few years ago.  In that case, there’s usually some long-standing agreement in place that has passed down by now from father to son and perhaps to grandson.  If the land’s held by one of the old ones, you’re going to split that wood with them, and you’ll split it for them too, saving them the smaller logs, the ones easiest to lift and carry from the woodpile or the abandoned chicken coop or the old well-house.

 Or perhaps it’s state forest land, or it’s on the wrong edge of Catskill Park or it’s part of the wide swath of land the city of New York has claimed for its watershed. This last one is a source of particular grumbling around here.  Partly it’s the stern self-righteousness of the signs telling you to keep out.  They have just a hint of the arrogance locals find in their dealings with the city.  When the governor announced he was going to allow fracking everywhere except in the city’s water-rights areas, he pretty much epitomized the attitude:  if it’s not safe for New York City water, why is it safe for us hardscrabble upstate hicks? Or the obverse:  if it’s so safe, why kowtow to the environmentalist posturing of the city people, people who haven’t ever gotten water from a well.

The poachers up here aren’t cutting down live trees.  There’s no environmental depredation going on.  These are downed trees, and this year the woods are particularly thick with them, often great swaths running down a hill, big trees lying atop one another, their root system still balled by dirt.  The hurricane, and the tropical storm, and a couple of microburst outbreaks took out whole stands of older trees, the tall ones that were most susceptible to the erosion effects of torrential rain and the subsequent strikes of wind. 

That catastrophe of uprooted trees will make superb fuel for wildfires in a year or so if everything’s left alone.  What’s the alternative?  Have the city and the state send in a small army of forestry workers to cut it up and haul it away? And where will all that good firewood end up? In landfills. Up at the Nibble Nook diner, you might hear this line of argument five times between the first sip of coffee and the leaving of the tip.  And the same applies to the deer who have begun to move away from the areas where there’s legitimate hunting, and into the state and city watershed lands.  Up behind the warning signs for Ashokan Reservoir and the long stretches surrounding the pipes down to the city,  they’re no less prone to the devastations of overpopulation—disease, starvation— and they’re all the more likely to end up hit by a car, your car, when they emerge, desperate, at dusk. It’s not like deer in the city watershed are magically protected from propagating deer ticks, and contributing to the Lyme’s Disease epidemic that has every long-timer up here with a case of arthritis and a hefty bill for horse-pill antibiotics.  Up here, there aren’t many long-timers who’ll let their kids or grandkids watch Bambi. They’re too busy checking them for the small black flecks that are immature deer ticks lodged and feeding, or the tell-tale halo of inflammation that tells you it’s time to head back to the clinic for another prescription.

But you won’t hear anyone at the Nibble Nook pretending they hunt deer out of some altruistic desire to eliminate Lymes’ Disease or rebalance the ecosystem to ensure a healthy deer population.  Most of them aren’t particularly keen on the size of the rack, either.  That’s for the stock brokers and financial guys up from the city, hoping for a nice trophy to mount in the game room of their weekend place.  This is about meat, meat that doesn’t cost 6.99 a pound at the Shop-Rite, meat that also isn’t laced with hormones or depleted of nutrients by force-feeding for high feedlot weights. Like the firewood, dressed deer in the freezer sometimes means the difference between your dignity and the ignominy of the food pantry come February. 

So this first real weekend in December, the last weekend of deer season, maybe the last clear, fairly temperate weekend for a while, the days were divided into three parts: hunting from dark to full morning; firewood splitting and hauling till the already-low sun touched the tops of the trees; then back to hunting.  

In the late afternoon light the ridge is rendered vague by the haze of woodburning stoves and wood furnaces that are warming the mobile homes and the small raised ranches and the metal-roofed, paint-scarred houses with the retrofitted chimneys and flues home-installed, probably without a permit from the town. But I’m not too worried about the houses burning down.  These are houses of the volunteer firemen; you can see by the blue lights on the tops of their pickup cabs or the dashboards of the fifteen-year-old Chevys and Fords and Subarus pulled over where there’s a safe space between the road and the woods.  They’re hunting across Harry’s, and Paul and Sarah’s, and our place, too. They’ve owned this territory for decades, and they keep at bay the amateurs, the ones who shoot the joggers and the dogs and the cyclists.  When a cow or goat gets shot up here, it’s not an amusing dinner table story about the stupid rubes upstate. It’s the loss of a significant part of a delicate financial ecosystem.  The dangerous ones, the cow-killers, are posers up from Westchester or Long Island, with the best guns and scopes and the worst aim and no sense of what might be the other side of the deer when they miss.

 Or they’re the ones you give a wide berth to at the supermarket or the discount beer distributor.  Everyone knows who they are.  Like the deer, they’re desperate, sickly, prone to reckless acts. 
So you make sure your guys are out there.  They know the property; they know the angle of fire; they know which way the roads are, and the houses.  If they’re lucky, we’ll have venison chili and stew and maybe a roast, though we usually get the tougher cuts.  We just gave them permission; they’re the ones who sat in the metal folding chair starting at 5am, or shimmied up the tree in the last moonlight, in the cold, and watched, and waited. They deserve the best of the kill and they’re not shy about taking it. 

Next weekend will be different.  That’s the time to pick up the meat from the guy with the handpainted declaration on the piece of beatup plywood leaning against the mailbox post: deer dressed 845-489-0913;  to take it home and put it in the old freezer in the garage after marking each pouch and butcher-paper parcel with the contents and the date, just in case you don’t eat it all before next year. Then it’s time to haul the wood close to the house, to stack it on the old ones’ porches, to fill your own woodsheds and the empty parts of the barn, to make sure the seasoned wood is near and the unseasoned is covered with a tarp or the sheets of metal roof that came off in the storms, too bent for salvage but useful to keep the deep snow out of the pile, so that it’s ready for next year’s stacking, next year’s heat. Maybe by then things will be better. Fuel oil might go down instead of up; you might get more jobs bid with a cushion instead of razor-thin just to get the work, and the boy might get more hours at the mall. New tires. Eggs over easy and ham instead of an order of toast and coffee at the Nibble Nook on Saturday morning. But that’s not for hoping.  And it’s certainly not for planning.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Listening to Limbaugh on the Long Drive

AM780 Your all-News Station! Traffic and Weather Together on the ‘8’s!

Situation:  dire.  Traffic: a rollover semi- on 80-94 blocked all lanes and traffic was at a dead stop from the Indiana Tollway to the city. 90 minute delays at O’Hare.  Lake Shore Drive a mess both directions from Hyde Park to Hollywood.  Weather:  wind gusts to 55 miles an hour out of the northeast:  waves topping the seawalls and spume making visibility bad on Lake Shore; gusts from all directions toppling the double- and triple-trailers carrying some of the early Christmas packages from Amazon and REI and the just-in-time inventory to Macy’s and Nordstrom The Rack.

Fourteen hours of driving straight through yesterday:  tired to the bone in the way that constant tension and no movement for many hours leaves you.  Also cranky, grumpy, short-tempered from the persistent necessity for compromise:  music or silence; stadium-anthem country or bad oldies. As the road darkened, the rain started, and the driving got harder. The news, usually a respite, was full of self-important commentaries on the Egyptian election, a subject long past its allegorical value, and discussions of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, subjects years out of date.  Rush Limbaugh was even hawking Cyber Monday on his radio show, pushing a Two-If-By-Tea mugset with the promotion code cybermon, though he’d gotten it wrong for the first half of the show.  When he began baiting an Occupy Wall Street caller--  of course corporations are people:  the Supreme Court said so!; of course money is speech: haven’t you ever heard the phrase “money talks?”—the level of demagoguery, normally interesting, had both of us reaching to turn the radio off.

These are times when it is hard to have spent one’s life in pursuit of rationality.  It started in first grade; Pa  gave me a Wesclox wind-up with two bells on the top to take apart and put back together again, after I asked him how clocks told time. When the car pulls to the left on the Ohio Turnpike, it might take an hour to calculate all the possible causes and the odds for each:  angling of the roadway by rational highway engineers seeking to control runoff; one tire underinflated; wind steady and strong from the southeast; misalignment; worn strut; suspension damaged by the deer that leapt into the front right headlight and caromed into the ditch on Thanksgiving night, leaving a baseball-sized dent and swatches of stiff fur imbedded where the light met the bumper.  Then:  the odds that a deer leaping across the highway would hit your car; the question of whether driving faster would lessen or increase the odds; calculating the angle of sight at various speeds and the predictability of behavior of any given deer.

This is dull stuff. Describing a rational sequence, language loses its color and rhythm, and there’s little room for the play of rhetoric—an idea underneath percolating up toward the surface of the writing’s consciousness and then hovering for a moment before sinking under the weight of details and distractions precisely weighed as the keyboard clicks first fast then slow, interspersed with erratic silences as the mind retreats from expression to thought and calculation, then returns to the pouring of words into the unvoiced ear of an imaginary reader.

Dull stuff, but it is what I believe in, not religiously, the way Grandma Catherine believes all things are here for a reason, but empirically, because from these careful tracks of logic something comes that can be verified and, when verified, can be extrapolated to the next circumstance.  This is not what Rush Limbaugh practices.  It is, indeed, what he abhors, fears, rails against.  He knows nothing of the scientific method that has liberated us from cholera and made his ubiquitous voice possible.  He knows nothing of the triumphant logic of athletic training, where regimen is built of precedent tested and modified by specifics:  he is fat and loud and, when you listen carefully, you can hear that he has lost his wind from the nicotine and the bad food.  When hospitalized with chest pains, he depended on doctors trained in the rational world he abjurs.  Even in the car, hours into the long drive away from the place that is ours, from the rattle of locust seedpods on the roof and the rustle of mice in the walls and the surprise of mist on the hayfield in the hour of sunrise, I knew better than to be angry at a stupid mouthpiece selling mugsets with his picture on them to people who thought being flimflammed for $14 was a patriotic act.  I knew better, but my hands were still tight on the wheel and I was hunched over as if punched in the stomach.

It is embarrassing being caught out as an American patriot at a moment like that.  For as we switched the radio from Rush to Chris Young singing I Hear Voices on Froggy99, the big-country station, I knew I’d been brought back to my profound and unyielding love of my country, right or wrong.  This is what I have spent my life fighting against, within and without, and I have lost every battle, within and without.  

Limbaugh’s back-to-back combination of hypocrisy (so then, Rush, this must mean that abortion is legal and right, since the Supreme Court has repeatedly said so) and linguistic stupidity (so all analogic phrases must be read literally; no analogic figures of speech are allowed to be ironic?) was only a moment in a long season of willful hypocrisies and stupidities awash in American mass culture. For a moment, there, taut with impotent rage against this moment and this turn of things and this mouthpiece of malapropisms and misinformation, I thought to myself: it has never been this bad.

But of course it has.  It’s been way, way worse.  When my great-grandfather settled in Provo, Utah in the 1890s, the nation was awash in plutocracy, a flood more influential even than today.  Today the politicians of the right, and to my shame and sorrow, of the left as well, keep the bribe-money in legal accounts.  In the ‘90s, they installed safes in their offices to keep the cash from the oil companies and the meatpackers and the steelmill owners and the bankers. In the ‘30s, Father Coughlin rode the radio waves with weekly addresses that Rush has surely studied, though rarely surmounted. When my father returned from the war, his eyes still yellow from hepatitis and his hands still shaky with weakness, he had a few years to recover his health and his hopes before McCarthy swept through the public eye, before Richard Nixon, running for Congress against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 smeared her as a Communist fellow-traveler.  My first vote for President was a vote against the same Richard Nixon. Right and left may be equally frail and quick to surrender to temptation, but American demagogues come from the right, and they feed on fear and play on patriotism.

It’s been worse.  I can say that this morning, with the wind gusts ruffling the fur around the dog’s face so she looks beleaguered and irritable, and we lean into it to watch the woman walk south to the bus-stop, waiting for her to turn around and wave, once more, as she always does.  I can say it this morning, looking at the front yards of the well-kept two- and three-flats on my Ukrainian Village street in Chicago, each yard now tidily cleared of the controlled riots of sunflowers and roses and daffodils and daylilies and black-eyed susans in the midst of which you might have seen, in midsummer, a small ceramic statue of the Virgin, or of St. Andrew, the patron saint of the home country, or St. Michael The Archangel, patron of Kiev.  The weekend before I left to meet her at the farm, my bag full of apples for the Thanksgiving pie and untidy printouts of recipes stuck into the piles of papers to grade, I had walked back and forth along the streets and watched the older couples weeding and clearing, putting saran wrap and traffic cones over the rose bushes and raking the last small leaves out from in between the small, well-trimmed evergreens.

We will make it through this one.  But it won’t be easy. It’s never easy.  They’ll pull the driver out of the semi-, alive or dead, and they’ll pull the twisted metal to the side, and the cars will get by on the shoulder and everyone will stay later tonight as a consequence, just to get the work done. The sand- and mud-spattered cars on Lake Shore Drive will pull into the handwash on Clark or Broadway or on Dodge in Evanston or up at Clark’s in Naperville tomorrow or over the weekend, and the illegal Mexican workers will clean them off, vacuum out the insides, leave the stray dollar bills and the lost watch and the spare change in a neat pile on the passenger seat.  In a decade or a generation, they’ll be citizens, or their children will, Rush to the contrary.  Already there’s a Mexican restaurant in a beat-up RV parked by the Pilot truckstop off I-80 in western Pennsylvania, and the kids driving back to college and the truckers carrying the Christmas inventories from the container sites in Jersey City to the stores in Pittsburgh and Youngstown and Cleveland were lined up with us, waiting for the tamales. One of them, weathered and big-bellied, ordered three, and when he climbed up into the cab and shut the door, I saw it was festooned with Limbaugh bumper stickers.

I hope they pull that trucker out unharmed.  I hope, in any case, that it isn’t any of the truckers we were jockeying with all day yesterday. I even hope it’s not the one with the three tamales, the one who gave us a little wave and a smile as he pulled out in front of our old car, packed tight, with the old dog enthroned in the back seat, heading back from one place to another.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Settling In, Uneasily

A week after Halloween, and all the weekenders and summer people are up.  They drive too fast out of the hardware store, their faces set and pieces of building material they probably should not be allowed to purchase, let alone attempt to install, akimbo out the back windows of their Priuses, BMWs and Mercedes sedans.  The more stoical and self-righteous have older Mercedes diesels, cars that seemed smart when they bought them, 15 and 20 years old, with 138,000 miles on them.  The plan was to stick them in one of those monthly garage spaces out in the boroughs, and use them to get to and from the place on weekends. Soon enough, that plan collapsed—even a spot miles from the nearest subway stop still cost more than a decent one-bedroom apartment in Kenosha, and besides, the small difference between diesel and turbodiesel, a matter that had escaped their notice when they bought what they bragged at dinner parties was such a bargain! turned out to mean the difference between a car that could get on the freeway, accelerating to a sane 55 or 60 in ten or fifteen heartstopping seconds as the big rigs bore down on them relentlessly, their airhorns blaring, and one that, on the best day with a downhill start, would never ever make it to 55 or 60 in time to avoid being run onto the shoulder, leaving them in the ignominious position of driving on the shoulder with the emergency flashers on for a good deal of the drive from the Garden State or the GW Bridge or 17 to the Thruway. 

So now they kept the Mercedes up at the place. We have a place in the country, or we have a place upstate, or a place in southern Vermont or a place way up in Connecticut:  that is the way they speak of their destination as they ride the Central Hudson line or the New Haven Railroad out of Manhattan on those weekends. It’s not we live up here or even we live up here as much as we can. The language is about having, and being able to say you have, and not about living, with all its complications and its ordinary sublimities.

When they got the place, it was achingly lovely.  Even the small mushrooms growing up inside the house along the stone foundation line were signs of a different life they would soon be leading, a life closer to the organic rhythms of things.  They brought the cat up from the city, and in an excess of good nature, let it roam the field.  Perhaps it brought them offerings—a mouse or two, perhaps still squirming though its neck was broken and flecks of blood showed on its tiny teeth, or a baby bird—before the hawk came down, or the coyotes, and the cat was no more. The pleasures of Friday night pizza from Benny’s on 209 wore a little thin after a few months, but the kitchen was so primitive, the electric stove off-kilter, the refrigerator capable within days of gestating green mold from its core, through the cracks between the plastic panels, requiring a thorough clean before the groceries could go in, after which the lettuce smelled like Clorox and the meat had a hint of lemony freshness that lingered on the tongue, and not in a pleasant way.  The big project loomed—an eat-in kitchen, historically correct down to the 19th century gas stove, with a half-bath containing a chain-pull toilet bought at the salvage place in Kingston for about twice the price of a new one, and still requiring the reporcelain job that smelled up the house for weeks with the stubborn nose of epoxy resin and acetone.

Summer was over, long over. In between there was the hurricane that took down the best and oldest trees and left the place without power for 10 days.  Returning to that refrigerator and freezer, opening it to the reek of sour milk and rotted meat and the sodden collapsing remains of a Benny’s pizza box that gave up its contents onto the new replica wideboard floor, leaving a permanent stain evidently different than the carefully patinated replica stains the decorator’s finisher had put on in discreet aura of authenticity:  that was tough.  Trying to make the insurance claims after flood insurance had seemed such a needless luxury when the windows needed reglazing and the landscaper charged so much just to plow out the driveway before Friday night’s arrival:  that was tougher.  Sobering. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone else was in the same situation, it might have been humiliating.  As it was, it was the subject of intent dinnertable conversation, back in the city and at the little fall parties in the waning weekends once the mess was subdued and the contractor paid off.

Now it was that weekend after Halloween, the weekend for closing up, or for making over. By comparison, closing up was relatively easy.  The heat was already on—you’d called the propane man to get the stubborn wall unit going the week after the hurricane, even if you had to pay a premium to get ahead in the line.  The gutters had to be cleaned, the garage closed up, the firewood out back covered again with the tarp, and enough brought into the cellar to cover the first couple of winter weekends, but not so much as to attract the termites and the tarantulas that one of you believed, despite all entomological evidence on Google and Wikipedia, were bound to come in with the kindling.  At the least, the tell-tale mark of the Black Widow was sure to be found on the belly of the spiders that had seemed so benign all summer, so fascinating as they wove their death-shrouds around the still-buzzing horseflies and moths that were good riddance to bad rubbish anyway.

The big job was the storm windows.  It was tempting to just give in and embrace the summer-people ethic—to turn off the water, drain the pipes, leave the faucets open, turn off the water heater, turn the valve on the propane tank until it would turn no more, lock the Mercedes diesel in the garage or at the least put the tarp over it, say goodbye until April, and wait for your turn to get the local taxi to take you to the train.

But all those weekends of cross-country skiing, all those cozy nights in front of the fireplace, not to mention the turkey dinner at Christmas, or the New Year’s Eve party that you’d not have to drive home from, drunk, peevish, neither liking the person in the car next to you nor liked by them, or the chance to escape the piles of dingy snow in the city, saturated with dog urine and festooned with piles of poop and random garbage, to come to the pristine reaches of snow and the clear icicles dripping water in the morning sun:  these were fantasies too irresistible to subject to the klieg lights of pragmatism and statistical odds-making.

So you were bound to take the wooden storm windows out of the outbuilding or the garage loft.  They were heavy, and dirty with the cobwebs and bird-droppings and dust of summer and fall.  They had to be handled one at a time down the ladder, and then they had to be washed, inside and out, before they went on the window.  There was always the mystery of the code—which number was the right one?  The one in black magic marker on the edge, now somewhat obscured, or the inner one, in pencil? And the ones on the upper floors meant taking the ladder down from the storage shed and bringing it up to the house.  You rued, perhaps, your decision to take out those standard storms, the ones that slid up and down a little squeakily but seemed to work fine, even though they weren’t nearly as authentic and they reminded you of the previous owners and their very different approach to living on, or near, the land.  So you’d paid to have them taken off, paid to have the old ones in the loft reglazed and painted, paid for the three or four that you never could find, the ones that went on the windows where you most needed succor from the storms.

Then there were the ones who weren’t closing up at all.  They were in to prepare for the Thanksgiving turnout.  They’d invited their friends from the city, and their relatives from the suburbs, and college friends from the far-flung provinces like St. Louis and Houston, and this year, everyone was coming, charmed by the description of a long rustic weekend. This was to be a feast that would demonstrate the rationale for the double oven and the oversize refrigerator-freezer, the extra harvest tables bought at the antiques fair in High Falls or North Guilford or Rhinebeck, the midweight down comforters bought online from The Company Store to cover the historically correct replica beds in all the bedrooms that had been so assiduously insulated with environmentally correct ingredients by the green contractor last summer. 

 At the hardware store, stony-faced, the two factions faced off, first in  the fasteners aisle and then with the custom-paint guy, and finally at the cash register.  Everything packed into a car never meant for any contents not wearing cashmere or khaki, backup lights impatiently gleaming as the parking-lot ballet worked itself out.  At the turnoffs from the main highway to the side roads, the cars would line up, waiting impatiently for a break in the oncoming traffic, where the dump trucks carrying road-repair gravel might afford a notch in the long line of cars going to and from the Thruway, to and from the supermarket, to and from Benny’s Pizza and the liquor store.  Quick now, but not so quick as to knock over the paint cans or slide the 6 feet of aluminum gutter already angled rather dangerously out the window.  Quick, because there was still more to do, and daylight savings had come, and the sun was already low on the horizon, though it seemed just moments from midday.

Where were we?  We were in there, too.  We were stuck between factions; more accurately, we were both of them together, an awkward, ill-organized to-do-list. We were, no doubt, the subject of knowing glances from the ones whose diesel pickups stayed idling in the back, daring anyone to box them in, the ones picking up stuff not for them, but for those who paid them to do the work they didn’t dare to do, and thereby made this marginal economy a little less harsh. 

Some of what we did marked us as sojourners, romantics tripping over the big feet of our illusions. Some of it was different:  we were semi-locals, here sometimes for months, and soon to be here for good. Ours was a different list. Call Wayne and Wayne about trenching the ditch in the hayfield.  Make the arrangements with Harry and Kurt for the deer hunters who’d be shooting across our fields to state their turf, so they’d keep the poachers and the trespassers at bay. Split the oak from the tree that went down last spring, and had lain in two-foot diameter segments out behind the garage.  Fill in the bird feeders. Talk to Jeff about the squeak in the front suspension—we’re driving back: is it safe? Bring the dog to the vet and the old one to the nephrologist. Cook and freeze the meals, labeling them in large clear letters with instructions on microwave times. Unplug the tv. Walk the fields one last time.

 It will only be a couple of weeks, maybe three, maybe four—it depends on the work.  But in that time, everything will have changed.  The roads will be emptier and it will be mostly pickup trucks on them, pickups and older sedans with noisy snow tires, and the Subarus of every type, age, and color, the only vehicles that will definitely make it to school, to work, to the doctor’s or the old one’s house if the plow is slow or the sand truck runs low. The prim houses with their historically correct colors will be dark, the chimneys cold, while the double-wides and the raised ranches and the Sears bungalows and the balloon-frame farmhouses will be nearly invisible under the protective walls of firewood and the wood-furnaces and the wood-stoves will fill the air with the smell of the cold and the fight against its menace. When it snows, we will shovel, side by side, unless some neighbor comes back from a morning of contract plowing and, sweeping in, honks us out of the way and in one pass clears us with a quick wave of the hand.

We are not natives.  We will probably always live in the old Pratt house or the old Pratt house that the ladies used to have. But we are settling in. It is good to be so.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Looking at America: Closing Up

Looking at America: Closing Up: I had missed the service at Christ the King on the Friday before, because I had to return to Chicago to teach. I’d told Harry I’d be back ...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Closing Up

I had missed the service at Christ the King on the Friday before, because I had to return to Chicago to teach.  I’d told Harry I’d be back to help him when the others, the friends and relatives, mourners all, had left and he would have more use for me.
I was up at 3:30 Friday morning checking my boarding pass to Newark and my printouts for the rental car; with these early flights, it’s hard not to lie awake worrying that the alarm won’t go off or the taxi won’t arrive in time.  I had directions from Google Maps that took me from Newark Airport to the Thruway, after which it was pretty much rote memory to get over the mountain and back to the farm and to Harry’s.  The first few miles took me right through Newark, so far as I could tell, and the rush-hour traffic was just beginning to thin out as the directions started to get much more detailed and complicated and I found myself trying to calculate just where I was on the sequence that Google Maps prints out.  It’s always difficult to determine which set of mileages applies to which segment on the printouts, and the rental car’s trip odometer wouldn’t zero out, leaving me with recurrent exercises in addition and subtraction even as the traffic sped up and my chances of properly executing the moves diminished steadily.
When I called Harry, I was somewhere between Ho-Ho-Kus and Mah-Wah on New Jersey 17.  It was after I had turned on the smart-phone GPS and then obeyed an order to exit immediately, a move that got me onto Passaic Street in what was probably Rochelle Park, though I didn’t notice, as there was no return ramp to 17, and the GPS firmly and repeatedly instructed me to take an immediate U-turn and get back on the offramp.  After a half-hour tour of the small-house suburbs of Jersey, I found a quick-talking Pakistani gas station manager who put me back on 17: two lefts and a right quick as you can, three blocks you see the sign. I was clearly not the first person he'd seen flimflammed into getting off onto Passaic Street.
The houses off Passaic were originally small postwar Cape Cods, close cousins of the famous Levittown, Long Island mass-production houses that are generally seen as the model housebuilder’s response to the housing shortage brought on by extraordinary demands of returning GIs and their new families.  This was one of those small ad-hoc developments, and the streets here were named after the relatives of the builder’s extended family—Marion Avenue, Dorothy Avenue, Gertrude Avenue, and Ward Street were sandwiched between Spring Valley Road and Fairview Avenue.
Catherine Pskowski, my mother-in-law, pointed out that the experience of most postwar house-seekers involved not mass-scale developments like Levittown, but small, in-fill projects like the one off Passaic—three or four streets filling in a few acres of residual farmland or a larger estate gone to seed during the Great Depression and unexploited during the war. She and Ed had bought a house like that on Greylock Parkway in Belleville, about 12 miles south of the development I was haplessly circling, as the GPS voice repeatedly announced it was recalculating route and then, repeatedly, directed me to that suicidal drive the wrong way up the exit ramp on Passaic. She’d had an aunt who’d bought a house in Belleville, a more substantial place put up on spec. in the economic upturn just before we entered the war, when Lend-Lease and war conversion were restarting the American manufacturing engine. Now that developer had bought a parcel, run a cul-de-sac street into it, and was building a dozen houses on the satellite streets off the semicircle. It was small, but they were glad to have it. It was their first house;  Fredericka was already born and Catherine was pregnant with Eddie. When they moved up toward Montclair years later, they’d had no trouble selling the Greylock house. It was a starter home, and now a new family was going to begin there.
The houses on Dorothy, and Gertrude, Marion and Ward are no longer uniform boxes of a thousand square feet.  As in Levittown, the generations of buyers and sellers have put their personal stamps on the houses.  Over the last couple of years, despite the housing crisis, houses on Dorothy and Marion have sold for prices in the $350,000 range; they average about 2,100 square feet, and it was only because I have been studying Levittown’s transformations over the course of the postwar years that I could detect the small, unprepossessing starter home embedded in the elaborations of various remodelers:  second and even third floors, dormers, large entry atriums, bulging extensions off the backs, filling most of the small lot with family rooms and bedrooms and large eat-in kitchens.
But there were still near-untouched original houses tucked between the looming rehabs.  They were the ones whose owners were out on that Friday morning, clearing the fallen limbs from the fluke October snow-and-windstorm that had swept through the last weekend, knocking out power for days and taking down many of the trees that had lined the streetscape.  Those were the trees planted as saplings by the developer some 60 years before; fast-growing trees that had reached maturity decades ago and were now aging and vulnerable.
The men and women out on that Friday were probably out of work or forcibly retired;  they were the vestigial union workers who had soldiered on in the shrinking industrial economy until the Great Crash of 2008: commuters down to the factories and ship- and railyards  in the towns and cities on the west side of the Hudson River, connected by the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan:  Fairview, West New York, Union City, Hoboken.  Now they had time to clear their yards of the storm’s detritus, and they looked at me as a suspicious stranger in a neighborhood wrapped up within itself and its shrinking hopes.
In the Cold War years when this part of New Jersey was booming, NY 17 was a vital arterial roadway between the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel and the New York State Thruway, one of the major postwar superhighways completed before the Interstate Highway System was fully incorporated. During the years between 1953 and 1960, the road was widened and the intersections were converted to freeway-style interchanges, a process that had been proposed as early as 1936, during the first wave of “parkway” and other limited-access motorways. Along 17, the patchwork of interchanges, stoplights, construction zones and older and newer commercial strips made for a deeply frustrating drive if you were trying to get somewhere in a hurry.  But for many of those who’d thronged to Jersey after the war, it was a sort of consumer-capitalist thrill-ride; LaZBoy franchises chock-a-block with Chevy dealerships, with metal-clad diners to stop at if you were heading, say, for the Irish or the Jewish Catskills, for the working-class and emerging middle-class summer cottages in clusters off NY 209 or perhaps up further, on NY28, to the hotels and resorts.
Today you can still see vestiges of those cottage resorts on the roads up from 209.  When you turn up toward the mountains, the roads get rougher and less populated, and you’ll see the concrete walls of swimming pools long abandoned to fill with leaves turning to loam, saplings growing up in their midst, with the collapsed roofs and disconsolate clapboard facades of the cottages sometimes visible under the welter of vines and weeds and brush.
I didn’t stay on 17 to the 209 intersection in Wurtsboro.  I managed the last maneuver that got me to the Thruway, and I called Harry back, pretty sure we wouldn’t lose the signal this time.  He told me we were going to take the netting off the vines;  it was a three-person job, and Klink was back from Boston for the day to round out the crew.  It was a gorgeous afternoon, and as we reached the end of each row, I had the chance to straighten up from the big can into which I was stuffing the netting as Harry drove the tractor forward and Klink walked along the other side of the row, lifting the netting off the vine-ends that had grown through the crisscross of sharp-edged plastic that discouraged the deer and the turkeys from feasting on the cab frank and the chardonnay grapes, and abraded my hands until they bled as I shoved the stuff down into the storage bags locked into the garbage can roped to the back of the tractor on the makeshift platform Harry and Peter had welded together a few years ago, working from a catalog photograph for a $5,000 version of the thing, sold by an upscale gentleman-winemaker supplier. Theirs had costed-out at just over $500 and, like everything Harry did, was simultaneously makeshift and meticulous.

Stretching my arms toward the blue blue sky, I could see the hawk still following us along the updraft, and below that, Harry’s shoulders, slumped in a sort of resolute grieving, as he steered the tractor and Klink kept up a clatter of talk to distract us all from what we had no words to face. We were men in the company of men.  We might pause for a moment, lapse into silence, look into each others’ faces knowing what was behind our careful demeanor. Then Harry would put the tractor in gear, it would make its slow arc to the next row, and we would begin again the ritual of work that could suffice for everything else we could not do or say.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Highway Design Seen Sideways at High Speeds: Bus Crash Interstate 40 23 Miles North of Lake Havasu City, Late July 2002

It was the left front tire that blew, and we were doing 75 when it happened, on Interstate 40, in a Van Hool luxury bus, with Bill at the wheel.  Bill was a million-miler, a retired Army vet who’d been with the company for a decade.  We’d had him for about a thousand miles, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, back to Gallup, Acoma Pueblo, up to Durango, Colorado, then along the winding highway to Silverton, back down to Purgatory, then westward to the Grand Canyon.  At a rest-and-tourist stop outside of Ash Fork, I’d watched Bill check the tire pressure and run his hand over all ten of the big tires, while I was on the mobile to the Department of State concerning a kidney infection on a participant from, it think,  the United Arab Emirates.

We had come down the elevation to relative ground level, and it was suddenly hot.  We'd been warned away from the normal route to Las Vegas because we had a bus full of foreigners, many of them from the former Soviet Republics and as many from known Muslim nations, like Egypt and Uzbekhistan, all of them fully vetted by the Department of State and six weeks into a sponsored American Studies Institute, but still too risky to allow over various bridges and dams. We were going to take I-40 to US-95 up to Vegas, Baby! As Neil, my fellow guide used to call it.  This had an added benefit:  it put California as a notch on the states-we-saw-in-the-States list, and California was a jewel-encrusted notch.

It was the left front tire that blew, and we were doing 75—the speed limit, not a bit over, for Bill was a by-the-book driver.  We lurched, and I was thrown out of my seat.  From the floor, I watched the bus veer wildly while Bill struggled with the steering wheel and the contents of the overhead compartments spilled out into the aisle.  We headed down into the gravelly median, as Bill steered us past a guardrail that would have impaled the bus and sent me, at least, hundreds of feet forward through the windshield to die. 

In the gravel, the bus settled down: 70; 60; 50; then it slid onto its side, the gravel flying like a bow-wave as the prow of the bus rose into the oncoming lanes of traffic racing at us at 80, 85, 90.

From their first incarnations in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York State, high-speed limited access freeways have wound through artificial landscapes of the picturesque.  Take the Merritt Parkway or the Wilbur Cross, even today, and you’ll see rusticated stone overpasses marked with Gothic Revival details, set within a bucolic landscape of native trees, brilliant red and yellow shrubs, brief swatches of meadow, dark green or golden, close-cropped in places, in others left to grow tall and wave gently in the gentle breezes directed to them by scrupulously located groves of maples and oaks. On the Wilbur Cross Parkway, the median was a wide swatch of well-groomed lawn.  The entrance to the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich dove through an apple orchard, then cut through stands of evergreens interrupted by tall individual hardwoods;  on either side, rough cuts of granite rose and fell, their rock faces in winter brilliant with ice cascades. On the Taconic State Parkway, maples and other fall-foliage hardwoods crowded up to the lanes, and rills and waterfalls tumbled down the hillsides and raced underneath the traffic lanes.

All this was originally designed to be seen by a new kind of driver, part tourist, part commuter.  The parkways and freeways were both vectors and destinations, and their architectural details and landscape designs were meant to be seen at appropriate speeds:  35 to 45. When landscape architect Gilmore David Clark was commissioned to design the Taconic, he was already a celebrated practitioner, with the Central Park Zoo and the expansion of Riverside Park to his credit; he organized the parkway’s vistas to expand and contract, showing mountain vistas, swaths of Hudson Valley, river views, and the more intimate details of rock and rill, maple stand and greensward.

That’s all very well when you’re building in the ‘30s and ‘40s, for cars with bias-ply tires, drum brakes, bench seats, wide plate-glass windshields and windows that rolled down to let the breeze in, and 40 mph is pretty thrilling.  It’s fine when the climate is seasonal but temperate and the rainfall is predictable and the watertable high. 

Out in Arizona, on I-40, there’s no water at all most of the year, and the closest you’ll come to landscape design is a few cacti planted on the rest areas. That’s about the only place anyone would notice the scenery anyway, when the speed limit’s 75 and everyone’s doing 9 miles over that, if they worry about the radar, 20 miles over if they’re hot and irritable and in a hurry. If you’re bored, there’s low, brown mountains twenty miles away, but no matter how fast you’re going, they pass too slowly to qualify as scenery. The rest is desert scrub, sandy soil and trucked-in gravel for the median.  Compared to the older back-east ones, it’s wide, and rather than doming slightly, it cups down in a V, so the flash floods will race off the pavement to be captured in the storm drains that run underneath the center, at the lowest point.

We hit the bottom of that V hard enough to lurch back upright before coming to a stop, front wheels—one of them smoking-hot metal without a hint of rubber left on it—hanging disconsolately a couple of feet above the pavement. Bill turned to me as I pulled myself back upright, and I could see his hands as he tried to loosen them from the steering wheel.  It took a minute before he could, and the tremors went up his arms and into his shoulders with a regularity that reminded me of the stripes on a rotating barber pole.  In front of us, three cars had stopped and one of them was putting out flares while the others ran down the shoulders of the eastbound lanes waving frantically to slow the semis and the SUVs and big sedans that were barreling back to Grand Canyon Village and Flagstaff and Albuquerque and beyond that:  Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville.

It took the state cops a couple of hours to cordon us off, sort us out, and write us down.  By that time it was 1050 and most of us had left our water bottles rolling around under the seats as we dove for the door.  Some of us huddled in the meager shade the bus provided, but wary as we were of the thing tipping over, we didn’t leave ourselves more than a single-file sliver, and it wasn’t much cooler there anyway. 

Then the cops ferried us over to the nearest exit, where there was a Pilot Travel Center with a Wendy’s.  It was air conditioned, and there was water for sale.  It took a few hours to get a replacement bus out from Flagstaff, and by then the relief had turned to boredom and even discontent, and one of the European women, the one with the best shoes, had noticed injuries that might require the healing touch of an American lawyer.  

Not the Muslims, you can be sure.  They were too busy trying to blend into the formica and laminate dinettes—a little hard considering Ahmed had decided to dress that morning in full-on Saudi costume to demonstrate the virtues of Middle Eastern garb in hot desert climates, and most of the North Africans had followed suit, partly to outdo him in the brilliance of their plumage.  The truckers pulled in with their little American flags tied to the rooflines of their cabs and their Let’s Roll! slogans painted on the doors, and pretty soon they’d be clustered in small groups around the diesel pumps giving us the hard stares. Eventually they’d disperse, noisily blatting and airhorning their way back onto the interstate, and after a hiatus, another group would assemble.  Even the state cops were getting patriotic; one of them decided to take Ahmed aside for a little quiet interrogation and I had to explain to him that the State Department wasn’t going to take kindly to my phone call if he followed through. Vigilante justice isn’t just a movie theme in Arizona;  it’s a hallowed tradition. 

We made it out, though, and the European woman never did get satisfaction for the trauma she’d endured, despite calls to various American acquaintances who she hoped would know the right lawyer.  The State Department had flown her over and put her up for six weeks and paid us to teach her and to ferry her around the scenic U.S. of A. and our Washington rep had a certain disdain for ingrates.  When her story got around, the rest of the foreigners pretty much shunned her, and she had a miserable last two weeks of it, especially since she periodically forgot she was injured, arriving late at the new bus in the morning having forgotten to don her makeshift sling, leading her to reenact the injury in steadily more incredible melodramas to steadily more contemptuous audiences.  In the group debriefing in DC, she tried one more time to unmask the bus company and Bill in particular for wanton disregard and cruelty, and she was loudly shouted down by the rest of the group.  I think there was a little shoving involved, too.  It was heartwarming evidence that they’d been studying the natives even in a Wendy’s attached to a Pilot Travel Center twenty miles north of Lake Havasu City, Arizona;  they’d learned a little vigilantism, and Ahmed even did a passable Clint Eastwood, derived from the Westerns we’d been showing on the bus in the long flat stretches on either side of Oklahoma City.

I never did get to Lake Havasu City that year, though I’d planned to skip town and drive down there from Vegas, leaving Neil to keep the foreigners from losing their stipends at the blackjack table.  I wanted to see the London Bridge they’d bought, dismantled, shipped over, and rebuilt as a tourist attraction. I didn’t make it back for a few years.  After that trip, we changed the route, skipping the Grand Canyon and taking in the Navajo Res and Monument Valley instead.  We kept the same bus company, but try as we might, we couldn’t get Bill to drive us again.  

All in all, though, it was worth it, even if I didn’t see the London Bridge.  Later, when I went, I would find it was the wrong one, anyway—not the spectacular Gothic Revival  Tower Bridge but the low, ornament-free New London Bridge designed by the brilliantly innovative Scottish engineer John Rennie.  Rennie’s design was revolutionary, for it allowed far longer spans between piers, and no complex superstructure. Stripped to its bare, functional bones, it is the model for most modern American highway and freeway bridges.

And that’s the problem.  Out there in Lake Havasu City, New London Bridge looks like every other bridge you’ve ever driven over at 65 or 70 or more. It spans a turbid little cutoff of the Colorado River between two artificially widened bays; on one side there’s Papa Leone’s, on the other, Barley Bros. Brewpub. To juice it up, they’ve illuminated it with colored spotlights, but they don’t do much for the stolid grey stone of the bridge. Far more sublime was the sight of the bus, still cantilevered over the fast lane, as we saw it looking over our shoulders out the rear window of an Arizona State Patrol car driven by a fastidious young man trying his best not to gawk at Ahmed in his bisht and turban, and Fatou in her takchita, crammed into the front seat next to him. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Looking at America: A Note About These Essays and the Looking at Ameri...

Looking at America: A Note About These Essays and the Looking at Ameri...: Readers have commented that it's sometimes difficult to know what in these essays is based in fact and what is imaginative. The interpenetr...

A Note About These Essays and the Looking at America blog

Readers have commented that it's sometimes difficult to know what in these essays is based in fact and what is imaginative. The interpenetration of these two is a central theme of my life's work, apparent in Atomic Spaces and moreso in the forthcoming study of American culture from the end of World War II to the Virtual Age, Outside the Gates. In the case of these essays, though, the apparently factual assertions are drawn from verifiable sources-- for example, the case of the strip miner who was thrown through the windshield after the dumper on the gigantic supertruck he was operating failed because the interlocks had been removed: that's drawn from a pending legal case. The preceding description of methane in the tunnels of the deep mines is drawn from the 2011 disaster.

More broadly, the essays are drawn from four different wellsprings: historical research of the sort I've been trained in by great mentors over forty years; personal observation, the result of my research travels in the spirit of J.B. Jackson and the anthropologist Clifford Geertz; personal memory, which is necessarily as flawed and unreliable as is all of ours, with the exception that my visual and spatial memory has always been preternaturally acute (and that is part of the reason I was drawn to this field, decades ago); and imaginative reconstruction, often based upon the combination of other sources and the combing of reminiscences, interviews, letters, and other forms of documentation available to me.

Two other requests: I receive a number of emailed and facebook message responses, but there seems to be some reticence to write comments on this site. Please do! Part of the goal of this site is to provide a space for discussion among the many different types of readers and writers who share an interest in the subject of the ordinary but significant American landscape.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Looking at America: Running Bull Run, 1969

Looking at America: Running Bull Run, 1969: We were naked, young, and foolhardy. We believed if we were one with the water, we could not be hurt. Hundreds of summer days, racing...

Running Bull Run, 1969

We were naked, young, and foolhardy. We believed if we were one with the water, we could not be hurt. Hundreds of summer days, racing down the fast waters, lying on our backs, feet first: climbing back through the rhododendron on the creek’s edge, we saw copperheads and water moccasins, black widows and lightning strikes just above us when the storms came in fast and low.

Getting to Bull Run, West Virginia wasn’t an easy thing back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The gas-station maps didn’t guide you there because it wasn’t a place. On top of that, the roads, such as they were, shifted back and forth from blacktop to gravel and, when the big coal trucks had been running full-out in wet weather, they were often entirely washed away. You couldn’t know until you got there just what you were in for; you couldn’t exactly call up Consolidation Coal and ask them, because Bull Run wasn’t public land, and they had the mining rights—deep and surface—and they sure didn’t want hippies and freaks with cameras taking pictures along the way.

So you watched the weather, and checked in with the other Bull Run people to see how things were. The crapshoot was this: good rains meant the Run was deep and fast, but those same rains washed down the denuded hillsides, taking the road with them.

Rain also increased the acid mine runoff in the Run. We weren’t sure what was in it, but we knew it was bad. There was arsenic, certainly, and lead and mercury. Just how much, we didn’t know. Even the West Virginia Bureau of Mining didn’t give out that information; back then, the regulatory bureaucracies were simply arms of the coal companies. That hasn’t changed much; one of the biggest online propagandists for the virtues of strip mining is a Mine Safety Inspector moonlighting on his time off.

Then there was the human gauntlet. Even today, most of West Virginia divides between the mine people and the outsiders. For most of the 20th century, though, the miners used the union to throw off their wage-slavery, or at least to fight back against the company store and the company-owned housing and the ways they kept you in thrall for generations. You might still go to your grave owing everything but the burial insurance to the company store, but you didn’t owe your soul.

When the mining companies managed to bust the union late in the century, it did so by methods familiar to labor historians and labor organizers. Mechanization drastically cut the workforce, and by rigorously closing economically marginal mines the companies were able to lay off whole towns of miners. Even if they belonged to the union, they were fodder for a race to the bottom in wages, benefits, protections. With that much scab labor available, and with union voting members themselves out of work and out of benefits, it wasn’t hard to break the unions or simply renegotiate the contracts down, down, down.

Of course the companies were emboldened by the collapse of coal prices, the introduction of even-minimal environmental regulations of coal-fired power plants, and a wave of mergers and consolidations that eventually left most of the coal mining in the hands of two companies—Arch Coal, and Peabody.

Back then, though, deep mines around that part of northern West Virginia were run by Consolidation Coal Company—the Con, we called it. Towns like Cascade and Masontown and Dellslow, all of them on Decker’s Creek and all of them on the way from Morgantown to Bull Run, still had vestiges of their histories as company towns. When you turned off county road 7—Main Street, in Masontown—you went past the company houses, dating back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, some of them photographed by Walker Evans when he came through in ’36.

Then you were out. There was a little store there where you could buy sodas if you hadn’t brought them. That was where the miner’s kids hung out, and they would give you the hard stares, sometimes push past you hard, and you’d try to stay loose, not to knock things off the shelves. When you didn’t push back, there wasn’t much for them to do, so they’d head out to the porch in front of the store. When you came out, they’d be close to your car, not quite so close that they touched it, but close enough.

If you were there with Peter Barton, it was different. Peter had the full-on West Virginia accent, and he had red hair, pretty short, and though he was slender he was tough. He liked to mess with them back. He’d walk up really close to one of them, not the toughest one, not the head dog, but the lieutenant, and he’d stick his face right there, almost touching cheek to cheek and he’d talk, slow and quiet, into his ear, all the while holding his right hand just above the boy’s forearm, as if to caress it, or to grab it had and break the bone. What he said wasn’t much, but it was enough. He just called the bluff, called it with simple, small questions: hey: why’d you do that? No one taught you manners? No one taught you to live and let live? Is there something you want from me? From him? From us?

Peter could do that. We couldn’t. We wondered when there would be consequences. When we drove out of Masontown, we watched the rear view mirror.

Passing the old company houses was the same. They sat on the dirt road, and behind them was the hill, strip-mined so it was naked dirt, gullied and raw, with here and there a patch of weeds or a scrub tree—nothing the coal company had planted in its hillside reclamation. What that meant in 1969 and 1970 and 1971 was: spray a layer of topsoil mixed with water into a thin slurry, using big firehoses, that slurry with a little grass seed mixed in. Do that a few times for a few weeks, till a hint of green would cover the hillside. If the hard rains didn’t strike. But they always did. Maybe not that week or even that month. But come the next spring, and the hillside would be raw dirt washing down into the back yards of the company houses along the road there. Passing those houses, you’d see people sitting on the porches, sitting on old lawn chairs, or house furniture with the upholstery busted out. When you drove by, you could feel them staring with the same hard stares, and you tried not to look like you were staring fixedly ahead so as not to meet eye-to-eye even in the car, for the windows were rolled down, and you were doing—what? Maybe ten miles an hour, maybe fifteen at the most.

You didn’t want to get thirsty and you didn’t want to drink the water. So you’d stop at that store. You could have brought cokes from home, bottles full of water, 3.2 beers, but you didn’t, because it was part of way you earned Bull Run.

You’d wind your way on Depot Street till it turned into county 23, and then turn left, right before the big clearing where the strip mine had taken off the topsoil all the way around the big hill and left nothing but gullies where the rhododendron and the wild rose and the scrub trees had once anchored the hillside. Past that, the road wound around above the Run, and though the rhododendrons shielded it from view, you could hear it. Soon you were looking for a place to pull over, far enough off the road that the coal trucks could get by if they were using the road that week or month or season.

The Run was fast. In the Northeast, there are rivers, streams, creeks; out west there are washes and arroyos and pretty much anything continuously running water down it was a river. In West Virginia, the creeks and streams became runs when they were fast, and steep, rocky, irregular and unpredictable, marked by sudden drops, small waterfalls, right left right drops, splits around boulders and sharper rock formations, sometimes three and four, increasingly narrow before they met again in quieter pools, shallow, sunwarmed, where you lay for a time before letting yourself slide again, down the next set.

Close to the Cheat, I think, there were a couple of big drops. Most of the summer, you stopped short of those. If it was drier than usual, you risked dropping right onto dry rock, maybe twelve, fifteen feet below you. Most of the summer it was wet—the Weather Service statistics consistently put July as the wettest month, at the top of a gentle mound like a stripmine hill. When it was wet, it was fast, and when it was fast, you could be slamming and sliding so quick you had no time to direct yourself to the slower pools or grab the rhododendron branches hanging over the water’s edge. You just let it take you and when you went over the edge, you held your arms in and your hands folded in your lap like you were praying and you kept your feet up and your neck taut so your head might not hit so hard. At the bottom, the dark shiny leaves took the sunlight and modulated it into a pale green mist against the bright orange and deep blacks and blues of the acid runoff and the rocks it had etched into brilliant relief.

That was forty years ago. Today, there’s a subdivision built on one of the strip-mined hills on the outskirts of Masontown; the houses sit, surrounded by the brown dead earth, a few starter trees around each house, struggling to find a hold in the sterile soil. Back then, strip miners were pretty much small time. Con Coal tended to subcontract with locals—it kept the liability down and reduced their profile with the newly-emboldened EPA. A strip mine took a hill. Then, if the coal seam followed the contours, another strip mine would appear where the elevation was right to get at the seam.When the stripping was finished, the land went back to the farmer, but it was done by then. If you had an enterprising son or son-in-law, you might try to build a couple of houses on it, trucking in some topsoil to lay around the quarter-acre lots. It was doomed to wash away, too, but maybe not before some credulous soul had bought that house from you.

Today there’s a different sort of project. The EPA has made the little strippers pretty much obsolete, along with the decline in coal values, the rise in big-equipment costs, and the costs of liability insurance. Now it’s not strip mining. It’s mountaintop removal. And they aren't exaggerating. At Hobet 21, you need a satellite camera to get the whole thing in one frame. The Big Three coal corporations don't pretend their work is safe for the surroundings. They just buy it all up, creating a human buffer, sometimes an environmental buffer, that makes lawsuits and regulatory action difficult. Evangelists like Monte Hieb, an engineer with the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Health, who declares the U.S. the Saudi Arabia of Coal, declare strip miners demonized. The blasted hillsides and rutted gullies are vestiges of an old practice long abandoned, according to him:

Today's reclaimed mined lands are an oasis to wildlife of all kinds. As a result, a broad-spectrum of wildlife has returned to Appalachia, surpassing all numbers since records have been kept. When I walk beneath the lush green slopes worked and reclaimed by the Strip Miner, along cattail-studded wetlands created intentionally by the miners, among the deer and wild turkey that now thrive here, I hear echoes …of… human soul[s], who, practicing their craft… opened a chapter of Earth History page by page, to reveal her treasures and secrets, then gently closed the book again.

Hieb is outdone by Dink Shackleford, a paid lobbyist for the Virginia Mining Association: We have a chance to improve on God’s creation.

Bull Run is still laced with acid runoff. Now, though, the state regulatory agencies know just what poisons are in it, and how much, and where they have leached from. The company houses have mostly rotted and fallen to ruin. The populations of Masontown, of Dellslow, of Cascade, have shrunk, and the family household income has fallen even further. When the chance comes to mine, even at nonunion wages, even when the deep mines are awash in methane and the boss sends you down anyway, when the strip mine machines are jury-rigged, their safety interlocks jettisoned, so the big dumper can drop back so fast it knocks you through the windshield and out onto the long hood: even then, you’ll take the work. Going there now, I see the same hard stares. I’m still not wanted, and neither are you. But the Run is still fast, and if you’re naked, young, and foolhardy, you can still slide breakneck down the slick rocks to the pools, warm and dappled, surrounded by the jungle of rhododendron.