Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Early Morning Sirens

They went off just after 6 am, undulating wails continuing for three minutes or so, then stopping for a minute or two before recommencing.  It was still dark, and we lifted our heads off the bed to see if we could tell which fire station it came from.  Then we waited to see if the big pickups from up the hill would blast past the house, their flashing blue volunteer lights on the dashboard.  That would have meant Stone Ridge, or Kripplebush.  When that happens you can’t help it; you start to worry that it’s the house of someone you know.

Of course it’s unlikely.  We don’t know people who smoke in bed, or fall asleep on the couch with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and those are the most common causes of fire around here, especially at that hour.  The coal smolders in the mattress or cushion, until the acrid smoke awakens someone, or the alarm clock sounds and someone rolls over to turn it off and sees the tendrils of flame around the bedroom door.

It’s the late-day sirens that should concern us.  Then it’s brush fires that catch the edge of a woodlot, or move through the dried cornstalks of the neighboring field.  Or it’s an electrical fire, a snapping arc unheard in the noise of the floor sander or the table saw that overloaded the antiquated knob-and-tube wiring in the ceiling or walls, the insulation long rotted off the wires set too close together back some eighty years or so ago.  Most everyone with an old house has some knob-and-tube somewhere, even if the electrical has been upgraded.  The weekenders, probably not:  they had everything ripped out before they moved in, at the recommendation of a local contractor, maybe Brian, or Clint, or Kurt, or Will, who knew these clients could pay whatever it took for absolute peace of mind, and pitched the job accordingly.

The rest of us live in houses where the electrical has been upgraded haphazardly.  In the ‘50s and ‘60s, BX cable came in;  it was great for snaking through and around old plaster-and-lathe walls, with its flexible metal outer shield, also rodent-proof.  Later materials were safer, but not so resilient or adaptable to the complexities of old houses built in stages by country people without much money but long stretches of time available for home handiwork.

Still, there are places where it’s just about impossible to replace the wiring.  In the lofts that were once attics, long ago converted to bedrooms with bunk beds for children too many for the house, who grew up and left, moving to the cities or the suburbs, where there was work and possibility.  In the crawl spaces under the kitchens that were built ramshackle atop the clay soil and, after they’d done their initial settling, hunkered down and grasped the main house firmly, holding on more tightly with every coat of new paint on the outside, the work done by the owner or by a neighbor free to do chore-work between seasons, painters who would stop and get a hammer and nails to tidy up where things had separated, or who might add a length of 1x2 furring to close up the draft coming from the crack between parts of the house.

Even a skinny electrician, well-paid with weekender dollars, isn't eager to take on a crawl-space job.  First you have to check for mice, but also for possums and groundhogs and skunks who have taken up housing down there where it’s warmer and close to the compost heap or the apple barrels. Then there are the spiders;  grown men who wouldn’t think twice about brushing a hornet off their arm will pause before confronting the pale-white spiders who live in that eternal darkness beneath the hum and clatter of domestic life. Then there’s the standing water that accumulates, particular after a rainy fall or spring.  It’s not much—not enough to justify a sump pump or some complicated drainage plan, but when you are inching along on your back, with your toolbelt turned around and a spool of electrical wire between your knees, it’s not pleasant to feel the water seeping into your hair.

It’s not that regular electricians charge too much for this work. We’re talking about the ones who know you and have been out before to fix the strange little blackout that hit a ceiling fixture in the living room, an outlet in the hall, and the front door lamp, the crazy breaks that happen when the replacement wiring was done by expediency and not logic, wiring probably done by their father or uncle when they owned the business some decades ago.  No, they won’t even give you a price.  It’d be too much to do that stretch, they tell you.  It’s not worth it to you; as importantly, it’s not worth it to them. I refuse to charge you what it would cost to do it, they tell you.

So that little stretch of knob-and-tube stays there.  More than likely, they disconnect it, and they run channel along the walls, low and close to the baseboard, or down where the baseboard meets the floor, to power the outlets and the lights that once depended on that wiring down there. Most of us have that sort of wiring interspersed throughout the house—along the ceiling of the dining room, down from the upstairs hall light to the bottom of the stairs, or leading to the outside light that goes on when guests from out of town are coming in after dark and might run into the propane tank or just keep driving down into the drainage swale, thinking they’re still in the driveway when they’re definitely not.

But of course you don’t know who did the work for the previous owner, even if you’ve had the house for fifty years.  Maybe that owner himself, Mr. Pratt, or Mr. DeGraw, did the work, and he left the wiring hot while he was laying in the new channel, so as to have power continuously, especially as he was doing that work between chores and jobs that called him away, and that wire went to the toaster or the floor furnace or some other indispensable part of everyday life.  There are back rooms of houses around here, rumpus rooms and tool rooms and tack rooms and junk rooms, where the wiring’s still left, half-done, from 1953, the conduit and the outlet boxes piled in the corner, awaiting the attentions of a man dead for decades or living, barely living, in the county nursing home up in Kingston, the oxygen tank strapped to the wheelchair and the television eternally blaring, a premonition of purgatory, or hell. 

Even if it’s finished, there’s always the chance that he forgot to cut off power to the old line, or simply undid the connections at the electrical box, where some later owner, or some electrician called in for another problem, reconnected it to see if that was the quick fix to what might otherwise be a long and tedious search for the real cause.

Hornets build nests.  Groundhogs dig past the weak spot in the foundation and, if they’re confronted by a rotted piece of wire dangling across their next venture, they might gnaw it, or maybe just push it aside—push it enough so that, when the next rains come, and the crawl space takes on a little water, the puddle reconnects hot and ground, and the wiring sparks, again and again, against the three-hundred-year-old beam, softened by dry rot or carpenter ants, ripe as tinder for the flicker and the wisp of smoke.

Now’s the season when these things happen. Now, when the first frost is hinted in the silver sheen of the topcoating on the haygrass back toward the creek.  Now, when the dry leaves rustle as the bear comes in from the woodlot to steal the windfall apples beneath the tree furthest from the house. Now, when you look up from the firewood splitter to watch the phalanx of geese in their call-and-response arc across the grey sky. Now, when the groundhog moves from his summer home in the cool darkness beneath the unheated barn, and seeks a place where the heat of human comfort leaks down through the wideboards of the kitchen floor. Now, when the mice begin to look for every possible scavenge to insulate their winter nests.  Now, when the sirens wail at 6:08, as the sky’s just showing light, and we raise our heads and try to be sure just which station it’s coming from, secretly saying: it’s not us, I know that. I hope it’s not Harry, with the band saw set up in the dining room of the old farm.  I hope it’s not Patrick and Cindy in that new house they’ve rented, plugging things into unfamiliar sockets. I hope it’s not Jake. I hope it’s not Ike. I hope. I hope.

Those whispered secrets travel along the circuits of community.  They, too, are fragile.  Some are old, and frayed.  Some are new and untested.  Most of them are so ingrained in the everyday life around here that you don’t even know they’re there until the siren sounds and you bring them to mind, and heart, and prayer.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Some Necessary Lies

Down past the end of the hayfield and into the woodlot where in late fall you can see the surveyor’s stakes that delineate where our property ends and Harry’s begins, the creek makes a pair of quick turns.  In between, there’s a deep pool with the stump of a great tree sitting improbably upright where deep becomes shallow again.  That tree when it fell was the cause of that deep place;  during one hurricane and another, and through the fall and spring floods, rushing water, diverted under the massive trunk fallen across the stream, dug and dug until some equilibrium was reached or perhaps just until Peter Lundgren came and cut up the obstruction. 

It was a three-day job, far longer and more complex than he had expected.  The tree was oak, and oak-hard, and the water too deep to stand where a few judicious cuts with the chainsaw might have freed the great logs to fumble their way downstream, likely grounding at the next wide curve, down toward the gristmill where, in a couple of years, they could be assailed again, to be cut up for firewood. 

There was also the very real danger that comes with a powerful chainsaw wielded under unstable conditions—ground underfoot that was part slippery rocks and part shifting sand and mud; hardwood sodden and in places still living, making for unexpected changes in the way the saw might move; and, toward the end, the weight of the pieces clamping on the cut. 

Normally, Peter told me, you cut from above and below in two opposed V formations, but this was impossible, for the trunk was still half under water. The days were hot and sticky, and the flies and mosquitoes were heavy and difficult to ignore. When he was done, he’d sliced the tree into four parts, with only the middle two headed downstream.  The still-leafy upper branches stayed on our peninsula, to be propelled by the next great storm, the one that washed great swaths of the Catskill Mountains down the slopes, swept most of two villages away, and brought portions of houses, house trailers and woodsheds to us. The next spring, Harry complained, only half-joking, that we’d sent that awkward, debris-clad monstrosity down to the gristmill’s waterfall just to ensure that he’d have to pay Peter twice for the same project.

On the other side, Harry’s side, the stump, five feet high, its remaining big roots forming an irregular ball more than eight feet across, tilted near-horizontal through the end of summer and the winds of fall, until the great storm of mid-October.  We didn’t live here all the time back then. It was sheer chance that we’d been back for a long weekend of closing-up when the storm came in from the Atlantic, flooding much of New York City and leaving sudden lanes of knocked-down trees and yawing power lines sweeping diagonally across the hillsides up here.

So we didn’t see the stump again till Christmas time, when we went back down with the old dog in the first snow of the season.  There it was, perfectly upright, on an island of its own making in the middle of the deep spot where the creek turns.  It seemed impossible.  At first we imagined it was some other stump, washed down from far upmountain, but the next day, when the sun had melted the snow off its top, we could see the complex trajectories of Peter’s experiments with geometry, physics, and biology, with the angle of the chain, the power of the saw, the stubborn resistance of the waterlogged tree. 

It sits there still, some years gone.  Today we walked with the new young dog, and when we got to the stony places before the deep pool, he threw himself enthusiastically into the water, wallowing, drinking, and then turning his three tight turns before laying himself down in the shallows for a few moments, cooling himself from his wild running in the hot  late-August sun. Downstream from him, in the places where the water had fallen enough to bring the bottom stones up to bask in the dappled sunlight, leaves, some of them already orange and brilliant red and yellow, clung and nestled, as if placed there.  Up and down the creek from that vantage point, only a single leaf actually floated, delicately, atop the slow water. Back up to the hayfield, we stopped for a moment to watch a chevron of geese heading south-southeast above us, braying their itinerary to each other, calling out the corrections and then settling in to the long trip.

How do the geese, the trees, the haymown grasses staying brown despite the rains and the warm sun, know what we do not, that it is still summer, but it is also fall, disguised by hot spells and sudden thunderstorms, by barbecues and mornings reading the papers in the lawn chairs beside the stonework patio Dan has built for us? I know what it is. I am a studious observer and I have spent most of my life in places like this, where hot summers always mute to fall and then to bitter winters with the irregular iron-hard ground unsteadying your feet as you walk from the house to the barn or studio or the car in the morning darkness. The angle of the sun grows longer and the time it is high overhead diminishes.  The darkness comes sooner day by day, so I look up surprised from my work to see that the clock in the window and the light beyond it contradict one another—it is seven, still an hour from time to print out the day’s work and carry it in to go over while sitting in the chair on the grass, and yet it is already too dark to read the words were I ready to end the sentence here and summon the printer to click and hum.

The verb is wrong:  the trees don’t know, nor the geese, nor the haygrass.  They are organisms responding to loss of what they need for their exultant lives. And, as yet, we don’t know either; it is August still, for a few more days, and we express a mild sort of outrage that the living things around us are so wrong in their judgment.

Soon, though.  Soon it will be time to call Nick and contract with him for a new load of firewood.  Time to relight the pilot on the propane furnace, and take the air conditioner out of the studio window so the storm windows can go on and the screens be lugged up to their winter home in the hayloft. Time to look for the bin of sweaters up in the attic crawl-space, and bring out the bags of winter coats, hats, gloves, thick socks and sturdy boots.

Between this moment, still summer, only measurably late by the evidence we view with disbelief, and that one, when hard darkness seeps through the bare scuttling branches, there will be days of a plangent beauty unimaginable now, while the rumble of thunder cuts through the wet, exhausted air, days we don’t believe yet, despite the evidence we amassed last fall, when we trapped the best leaves between sheets of waxed paper and ironed them, just as we had when we were children, and then again when our children were young and the ritual was new to them.

All the rest of what is around us knows.  It is we who do not know.  It is past time to buy a generator so the sump pumps will not fail us when the next hurricane knocks the power out for hours or days.  It is past time to have talked to Nick about that firewood; he is back in school now and may not have time for weeks or longer to take Harry’s tractor out to the fallen trees in the far woodlot and drag them to a clearing, set up the mechanical splitter, cut the logs, and leave them open to the sun and air long enough that they will burn hot and clean come November. And so I will be out behind the barn myself, in a month or so, cutting up the old rail fencing, splitting the slices of oak from what Peter salvaged of the fallen tree, now, finally, purged of the deep-soaked remainders of the high creek that brought someone’s shed, almost intact, tumbling end-over-end to smash, disintegrating, into the stubborn tree that had stood for a century or more before finally falling across the imaginary line that separates one piece of property from another, one season from the next.  Cut and split and stack; my hands will be blistered in new places, different from the blisters of the rake and the hoe in the spring or the wheelbarrow and the paint scraper in the summer. Then bring the first loads in to the woodbins by the two fireplaces, the old one small and narrow accommodating only a single day’s fuel, or maybe two; the new one, the one that Harry designed, knowing what we had forgotten, how long is the trek up the hill and past the stand of evergreens, flashlight in one hand, carrier in the other, to replenish  what should have been enough for this cold spell, this blizzard, but was not: this new one big enough that it can take two loads from the trailer we inherited from the old man along with the tractor that he loved so immoderately. He is gone now, and that, too, is something we do not believe, yet. 

It is good that we are not so honest as the geese, the trees, the haygrass.  We will stand as we do now, soaked by the sudden rain, and count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the snap of close thunder.  We will sit and read the papers in the morning, watching the edge of the woods, persuading ourselves that the dense green is not already tinged with just a hint of yellow, that the red leaves and brown and orange that we see trapped in the creek, glistening and supersaturated by the gloss of the water, are just evidence of the stress of hot weather and the sudden unexpected violence of the stormy winds. Despite ourselves, we will not prepare but will instead revel in what is, in what will soon be memory, and regret and, flickering, anticipation of each next moment. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Waiting for Rain at the Farm

I’ve been rebuilding a big powered speaker we used to use for Siobhan’s old standup bass, a band and a half back, when I was living in Chicago. I’ve been waiting for the rain, but it hasn’t come yet.  Now for a moment the sun has come out, though the clouds are black in every direction.

 The parts came in two installments. First the brown UPS truck stopped where the driveway used to turn in—it’s backwards to the road, but safer than trying to pull over when there’s no shoulder and a sudden drop into the ditch that races with floodwater when it rains hard. That was the big JBL high-frequency driver for the horn; we’d blown that at a charity gig for a group home for the developmentally disabled. It didn’t matter that much when you’re using it as a low-frequency bass amp.  Then we managed to break the input and that pretty much sidelined the thing.  The UPS guy knows me pretty well by now; he commented that the package was too heavy to be a book, and it wasn’t from Amazon, which is the usual reason for him to stop by. I told him what it was for and he sympathized.

The second was from Brian Hendrix down in Florida; it was the input component console.  He’d sent it Priority Mail, which made sense from his end—he’s in a nondescript quasi-industrial park south of Orlando, and it’s not far from the post office on Michigan Avenue, right on the way to the entrance to the Florida Turnpike. Priority has the advantage these days of including automatic package-tracking, too, which can matter when you’re sending a lot of packages of sensitive electronic components to people who are depending on you to have things ready for the next bar or lounge gig.

But Sharon doesn’t get out of her little white truck, so if something doesn’t fit in the mailbox, she doesn’t deliver. In fact, she sorts the mail, along with Kathy and Dennis, so she doesn’t have to bother putting most packages on the truck—she just fills out the yellow-green delivery attempted card and puts the package in the pickup shelves. If I get the mail in the afternoon, I can go straight in and pick up the package rather than waiting for her to return to the post office and let someone file it. 

Yesterday I was going over the copyedits of the Dylan chapter, and it was complicated—I was having to listen to every song I’d quoted to make sure I had the words exactly right, and Harry and I were supposed to go out riding at 4. I called him at 3:30, knowing he was fabricating the kitchen cabinets for the farmhouse, and was probably going to get himself wrapped up in the sequence and the details and lose track of time. 

As it turned out, he couldn’t extricate himself from the glue and the clamps till just after 5, so I didn’t check the mail till 7:30 when we got back. It was close to dark by then;  the clouds had been moving in since 4, and Harry said we’d have rain after midnight.  The big corporate weather site had said not till this morning, but Harry has lived here all his life, so I tend to believe him, and not to fault him when he’s wrong.  We are in what’s loosely called the Hudson Valley—the gentle swale that great river has cut over epochs, as it has wandered between the Litchfield Hills over in Connecticut, and the Catskills over here in New York. In fact, ours is the Rondout Valley, carved by that river between the obdurate conglomerate stone of the Shawangunks, the easternmost vestige of the old Appalachian range, and the Catskills.  Because it’s a valley in a valley,  weather is quixotic, and our own valley, formed by the Kripplebush Creek, is even more isolate and unpredictable.  Often you can sit on the old metal lawn chair that’s on the uphill side of the barn, sunlight on cool mornings, shade on hot afternoons, and watch the thunderstorms rage in a line five miles north, marching west to east, for hours.

I checked the mail and brought it in, putting the delivery notice on the dining room table before sorting the mail into its four piles—hers, mine, catalogues, junk for the recycling.  I put the water on to boil, took a shower, and listened to the radio while I was making dinner.  It hadn’t started to rain, but when I let the dog out before going to bed there weren’t any stars visible.

This morning it was still dark and threatening, and a few sprinkles hit the windshield of the old man’s Ford on my way in to the post office.  Dennis went over to the shelves as soon as he saw me:  book or manuscript? he asked from the corner, trying to determine the size of the box. I buy a lot of very used books, and they come by Media Mail, which is extremely cheap though the time frame of delivery is pretty flexible. I told him what it was, and we were both a little surprised at the size of the box which, as it turned out, was mostly full of Styrofoam peanuts. 

Brian Hendrix is pretty much the only guy to go to for tech help if you’re a musician in central Florida, and that includes the ones who work the tourist hotel lounges and the kid-themed restaurants that have grown up around Disney World. In the grownup bars you’d better know every Eagles tune, and every Jimmy Buffett hit; in the kiddie palaces you’ve probably got a worked-out script that treads perilously close to the real guys—Raffi, or David Gonzalez—who have made it big enough to have agents and tour schedules. You’ll know songs about dolphins and monkeys and also more than a few of the tunes off the latest three or four Disney animation movies. You're putting on a happy face every night of the season, putting it on so hard it hurts at night to let yourself go. Off season, you've got repair projects piled up-- mixers with bad channels, processors missing their power sources, iffy cables-- and you'll be calling Brian to see what he's got and what he can order for you. Better do it now, while you've still got folding money left from the tip jar or the basket on the stage lip or the after-concert CD sales off the folding chair your girlfriend manned back when she still believed in you.

  If it weren’t for Disney World,the part of Florida  where Brian has his shop would be a wasteland, pockmarked here and there with sinking subdivisions and faded trailer parks populated by the old,  too poor or too gullible to head for the parts of the state that have something resembling topography, or scenery, or views.  There are shallow lakes where the ground has sunk a bit over a few million years, and there’s bass fishing; the Seminole tribe found excellent foraging before the speculative fevers of the 19th and 20th centuries in Florida pushed them out.

It doesn’t get much different, there from here, though there’s a similar economy.  There are the tourists, here and there, and there are the locals, who try to eke out a living as symbiotes or parasites. The musicians, there and here, nurse old or cheap equipment, and Brian sends a fair quantity of tubes and transistors, toroidal transformers and the like up this way.

So I have the big case split in two, and I’m using a flashlight to illuminate the places where the press-on connectors go into the circuit board.  It’s dim, but since I rarely work out here at night, there aren’t any good lights to turn on. Throughout the year, I let the daylight determine my working life. In July I’ll be writing or practicing or thinking, staring at the screen and then out the window at the hayfield, till well after 8. There’s the break to ride, sometimes early, when it’s hot; sometimes late when Harry wants to push up Mohonk before it gets too close to the time when the landscapers race their trucks over the summit, pulling trailers with their zero-clearance mowers tied down provisionally rocking back and forth as they head too fast for the light and the blind curves.

In the winter, I start late and finish in the dark, sometimes the light of the monitor the only source. I have that flashlight I’m supposed to remember to bring back and forth, but often I forget it, and stumble down in the snow, negotiating the icy patches by moonlight. Like the animals, like most other people who are here year-round, winter is a time of longer sleep; the days are often marked by necessary bouts of hard labor in the cold. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch out here, reading till the pages blur, and awaken, disoriented and disconcerted, very very late.

It’s supposed to be raining right now;  it was supposed to be raining this morning, and last night; and it’s supposed to rain tonight, and tomorrow, too. So I have set aside all the outdoor chores—painting the window wells of the old house, picking the riper blackberries before they fall to the ground from the sheer weight of the fruit on the slender boughs, thinning and moving, cutting the new storm door for the back house dutch door and fitting it. Harm has his hay-trailers out in the section he cut last week before the last bout of rain.  He complained to Harry that we’ve got too much standing water over in the next section, and he wants to wait another week or so to see if it will drain.

He’s not going to be happy if it rains hard and long, like it should. But it hasn’t yet. The clouds are black sprays beneath a veil of lighter grey torn here and there to show the blue.  Over on Mohonk Mountain, the lower layer moves swiftly, obscuring Skytop and the Bonticou Crag while, further along the ridge, the sunlit areas seem sharply greener by contrast.

We’ve got some time.  The rains are coming in from the west.  It’s a Canadian cold front, slow-moving, stalling sometimes and then picking up momentum again. We’ll probably know when to close the windows on the old house; the creek will start to rumble and rush as it fills from its headwaters just down from the Catskills, in the Vly. The front will hit the mountains, pushing over them, then fly down the other side and, where the cool air meets the warmer uplift from the valley it will drop its moisture in blinding sheets, and the smaller, narrower cuts will fill with rushing water.

The USGS map shows our creek in its drier, more permanent version, beginning where springs draw to the surface and even in the droughts the rocks are slick and shiny with moisture. But if you work your way above it, you can see that there’s another five or ten miles of dry wash, waiting for those sheets of water coming down the mountains in a roar that can overwhelm the county culverts and rip the blacktop off County Routes 213, 3, 4, even the wider and more barricaded 2, which runs into Catskill Park.

When the fronts come down like this, the creek unfurls up there, taking in waters that in slower times would go to the Esopus Creek further down. Stones roll, then the unstable rocks move, as the detritus from earlier storms rises and frees itself from the once-dry bed and tree limbs, rusted gas cans, parts of a fallen barn, and all the rest that was scraped from the mountain hollows in the hurricanes of last October start down toward us.

You can hear it coming.  First there’s the rush and burble of water rising rapidly up the banks.  If you’re outside, at the right angle to the amplifying wall of the barn, you’ll hear it, and head in to put the windows back in the old milking room that’s now full of guitars and computers and boxes of books and stacks of papers and photographs and old magazines. Or you’ll head down to the old house to close the windows up on the second floor, in the bedroom.

If you miss that first wave, you’ll more likely hear the second, a sort of muted, distant rumble under the sound of water.  Small stones are racing along the creek bottom, bouncing off the rocks that are already there, slapping against the  miniature pebble beach made in the big storm year before last. The wind will pick up, and pieces of the sycamore trees will break off and crash down onto still-hard, dry ground.

Then the susurration of the rain itself, bouncing off the leaves, changing to a higher-pitched hiss as it hits the roadway, and dropping an octave when it crosses the front yard and hits the metal roof J.C. and his crew put on last year.  If you’re upstairs, you’ll hear the individual punctures of drops growing more and more frenetic until they merge into a full roar.

I hope you remembered to put the windows up in the studio. I hope you closed the workshop door when you were putting the still-unpainted screens back in, before you got distracted by some thought, some phrase, some rhyme that might be teased into something if you moved obliquely toward it. I hope you put the vodka in the freezer and turned the big tube-amp off so it won’t burn hot and unattended, impatient with disuse, till the morning. Did I leave that book on the metal chair?  If so, I hope I can unstuck the pages when it dries out. Will I hear from her? Are the cats in? What will I cook, listening to the radio turned up louder than usual to overwhelm the steady wash of noise from the rain and the hollow drumming where the roofline extends past the gutter and the water hits the half-empty galvanized pail set by the door to make filling the bird feeders easy on the bad winter mornings when the cardinals flashed red against the snow.

Each season carries over into the next, and the next, leaving things behind: the snow shovel still in the storm-entrance to the cellar, the half-empty 50-pound bag of pasture seed shoved onto the workbench next to the spare racing pedals for the good bike. Leaves,  red and yellow, still brilliant, still stuck between the sheets of waxed paper, in the book you open. A note from her, next to the bed, left under the pillow as a gift, small consolation, the last time she and you rose in the dark and you made coffee while she prepared to leave again. The picture of a dog who died last year, or was it the year before, stuck into a  frame holding that photograph of the two of you in the doorway, both of you shielding your eyes from the brilliant summer light, the light that will come tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, when the front has pushed through and the last trailing remnants of raincloud and grey dawn are somewhere else, somewhere east of here. Now it is silent, almost still, only the tall grasses moving just a little, waiting for rain.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Secret Lives of a Fallow Farm

We don’t have big, long-maned, heritage workhorses to shake their harnesses in the barn.  We don’t have horses at all.  We don’t have dairy cows in the old milking shed along the back of the tall barn, nor goats in the area behind the workbench and tack stalls, where the pigpen used to be. Chickens are all the rage among urban backyarders and back-to-the-farmers. Sometimes when Harry comes for a drink and dinner, or to consult about something, he brings a dozen eggs.  They are lovely; not brown and not white but blue, and pale aquamarine, and a greenish-pastel, and the yokes are a dense, supersaturated yellow.  Sometimes they taste, faintly, of coffee grounds or even melon; the chickens have broken into the garbage again, or the peacocks did, or the coyotes, and the chickens finished the job.

We aren’t growing organic kale or arugula or squash or sweet corn.  When they come into season we stop at Gill’s on 209 on our way into Kingston to get the oil changed or pick up primer at the Home Depot or make a party run at the discount liquor store. Cindy Gill stands at the counter, a flowered apron over her blouse and shorts, and rings up the pile of eggplants and peppers and squashes and beets and the corn and maybe we’ll be eating a roast ear we took from the Igloo that serves now not as a cooler but as a keep-warm and a steam-finisher for the ears that came out of the roaster.  That’s on Fridays and Saturdays and especially Sundays, when the weekenders make it worth their while to fire up the roaster, and the parking lot is full of Audis and Mercedes Benzes and BMWs and Priuses and upscale SUVS, and Cindy looks sympathetically over the heads of those stocking up for a week back in the city, as their children, already restless and viscerally anticipating the long, dreadful traffic jam that is the Thruway down to the Palisades Parkway and the GW Bridge, or to 17 and, eventually, the Holland Tunnel, misbehave in ways that remind you of the travail of parents not quite wealthy enough to have au pairs or nannies from Ireland, but too immersed in their own lives and the life of the City to have yet learned that it is their responsibility to control their children in places where heirloom tomatoes fall easily onto the concrete floor or, if their children commit such indiscretions, that they are responsible for apologizing, for making at least an effort to clean up, for paying for what exploded rich and red or yellow, sweet with juice no one will now revel in, onto the rough stained floor. We look back at Cindy with equal sympathy, and we sometimes break our own rules and get the paper towels from the rack by the onions and mop up the lost treasure and put it in the trash can behind the cash register.

Here’s what we do have. We have a hayfield.  In the late spring and early summer, close to a hundred redwing blackbirds will make their nests there, and they will perch, watchfully, prepared to mob the hawk should it try for the nestlings.  We have the hawk, a redtail, and his partner, whom we see less often, for she, too, is nesting just into the woodlot that separates our land and Harry’s. We have acres of milkweed dense along the edges of the hayfield, and many more individuals interspersed in the tall grasses at the middle, where the slight rise separates one spring flood-stream from the next. We have a snapping turtle who has laid her eggs in the remnants of the old woodpile, where the branches collected each spring after the winter blizzards, and every fall after the hurricane season, pile each year, providing kindling for the fireplaces and, every few years, the necessity of a burn pile, when the county lifts its moratorium, and the volunteer firemen are sure they won’t be overwhelmed by calls from those who can’t seem to understand that a burn should be far from the house and the garage, without dry hayfield surrounding the pile, waiting to carry the flames to woodlot or chicken coop.

We have seasonal visitors, we have sojourners, we have seasonal guests and fulltime residents. In the early spring, the sky darkens with waves of geese moving north. A pair of mergansers nests in the still pool where the creek has moved after the last big hurricane redirected its flow, carved out the swimming hole, and sent chunks of someone’s toolshed to rest atop the rusted remnants of a Model A Ford pickup truck and the inner drum of an old washing machine, back where the skunk cabbage and the ferns and the wild raspberry and rose hide things till the late fall and the scouring of life that leaves only the hulks and hulls and memories of things that come and go or perch or die here with us.

We have fish in the creek, so Harry assures us, though I’ve never seen one.  What I have seen are the crayfish, who explode from their muddy camouflage when your shadow crosses their habitat. Once a man came around the back and I heard the hollow knock and rattle of the unlatched screen from up the barn, as older neighbors say it, and I came down to see what he might want.  Georgie was still alive then, though old, and her barking had only a shadow of its old ferocity.  He had netted crayfish with his stepfather down there, and it had good memories for him.  Something he said, about learning to trust the new man and his slow, near-silent ways.  Now he had his daughter just on weekends; would we consider letting him bring her down there some Saturday or Sunday to see the place he and her grandpa had come to know, and to know each other?  Of course, I said, and you should bring your net if you’ve got one.  We don’t catch them ourselves; you would be welcome.  It was more than a couple of months, but one late-August afternoon I saw him skirting the house, following the line where cut grass met hayfield, a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve, striding in his footsteps, down to the creek, a net, the sort you might buy in a Walmart or a Dollar Store, in her hayfield-side hand. That was years ago; sometimes we see his truck parked on the side of the road, on the triangle of property the other side of the bridge, orphan land that should by rights be part of Harry’s clover field, but is ours because the properties were platted back in 1780 and the creek ran straighter, its boundary-banks a hundred yards the other side of where we are now. Once, not long ago, I went out to warn them of the poison ivy pressing up against the shoulder of the road, and I saw a teenage girl, tall and shy, sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck now rusted out below the door panels, her father a passenger, holding the nets across his lap.  I walked past without speaking to them; it was a moment close to holy and I wasn’t going to break its spell.

Harm hays the field once a summer, sometimes twice if the later season has good rain and sun.  He could do the first haying early, and be assured of two cuts, but we and he have decided it’s better to let the nestlings have full term to leave, and to allow the other nests and secrets to be undisturbed. The milkweeds in midfield, too, can shelter early Monarchs, leaving greater area for the brilliant yellow and black to flash in the evening light.

Dragonflies and dumb wasps who come into the studio and pound their lives out against the screens until I give up, leave the keyboard or set the guitar back in its case, and go out back to loosen the screen and free the desperate grotesque to fly, dazed and disoriented, out into the hayfield or over to the milkweed patch that crowds the edge of the milkpail room where her studio stands orderly and still. Barn swallows who swoop, dive and disappear into the eaves. Snakes under the barn, under the kitchen, under the library, writhing quickly back into the field from the cut grass where they’ve been sunning themselves on the flat edge of the glacial bedrock that emerges, here and there, across the property. A blue heron who comes and goes.  A bald eagle whose nest is down at Harry’s other farm, above the place where our creek emerges from Pompey’s cave, meanders down the other side of Lucas Turnpike, and loses itself in the Rondout; he comes when Harm is haying, leaving the redtails wary and then if nothing large enough to interest him has emerged from behind the haymow, tenders the field back to the hawks and, a day or so later, the turkey vultures in for the dead snakes and the voles and fieldmice cut, bled and dead at the hands of farm machinery. Their doubly hostile names notwithstanding, they are beautiful in the air, their descents languid and geometric, though once they land their ugliness is quickly apparent to the weekenders who stop along the road above to photograph the rustic scene, Harm’s ancient tractors and the baler still boasting the name of a company long bankrupt, its brand not even valuable enough to merit purchase by some Chinese manufacturer who has taken over the business of making things that are used to make things.

Groundhogs, lumbering, insulted, into the dense growth on this side of the creek down past the Purple Martin house and the new river birches just now establishing themselves. A mink, last year; we thought he was an otter but he was too small, too quick, too inquisitive. That blue heron who takes up for a time, awakening me of mornings with his fatalistic, disgruntled cries as he arises from the nesting area to head for the Rondout where the better fish are found. Gnats, swarms of them, vibrating in the hot air below the eaves of the barn. White butterflies that float and flit above the mulch when she has been watering, or in the well beneath the newly planted river birch that replaces the willow downed in the great storm. Viceroys, miniature versions of the Monarchs. 

Ours is not a farm, though we call it that. We have no fantasies of a hardy, self-reliant life, in which we might reclaim some romance-novel picture of a homesteader or pioneer, tanning the hides of the cows too old to offer milk, cutting patches for the old shoes or panels to be sewn into capes and pantaloons. Our lives are devoted to the opposite of self-reliance, to mutual dependency, to trading and buying, to diversity and a healthy respect for the specialties and vocations of others.  Cindy Gill and her family, and the Davenports closer in to town, and the Sheehans, and little Amy with her organic stand selling just three or four things:  these are the people who provide us the greens and the squashes and the corn too sweet to be tender, requiring that we find the toothpicks after the last ear is done and the cobs are in the bag to be tossed with the other cuttings and leavings, down in the growth by the little willow, at the creek’s edge. Young Bush, Wayne Junior, hunts our property in the season, and sometime in late fall he brings us venison cut and wrapped in butcher paper, the contents scripted in wide magic marker:  Stew Meat. Steak. Burger. Charles Noble has 70 head of cattle who migrate across the open meadows of the wealthy weekenders, people from the city, in financial, who are charmed by the lowing and the sight of the small herd seen on a Saturday morning from the back porch. To get from one pasturage to another, he has arranged to cross our hayfield, and the herd stays overnight down in the lower reaches, where Harm doesn’t hay.  In the spring, after the slaughter, he or Francesca stop by with the charmingly packaged cuts, vacuum-packed and frozen, their brand, Moveable Beast, perfect for sale in the Manhattan farmers’ markets where they make their money, and the locavore restaurants down in Red Hook and Brooklyn and up in Harlem, where the population’s hip enough, and rich enough, for their particular culinary braggadocio.

What do we offer in return?  Buffer, recompense, reparation, even penance. Across the Rondout, on the Schoonmaker’s farm, the cropduster whines and roars; to make its runs, it must return across the edge of our woodlot, where, each first time of the season, we are sure it is too low and will clip the tall oak and crash. That sweet corn is better than the ears we get, or at least more tender, if a bit less sweet.  Like Charles’s tenderloin and Amy’s organic arugula and the Davenport’s tiny, misshapen eggplants of brilliant and unexpected hues and patterns like snake-skin or butterfly wing, like the Gills’ heirloom tomatoes and Peter Lundgren’s honey, these crops will make their way down to the city to feed the fashionable and the fickle. The big farms have sequestered areas for organic growing, and they are far more careful with what they spray, and where, and when, on the rest.  But this is still farm country, where ploughing edge-to-edge, where draining a wetland, where growing to the demands of market and not the ideals of diversity can be the difference between an economy-class winter cruise to the Caribbean and a bankruptcy sale in the equipment shed by the highway.

Five years ago, the barn was filled with bats.  In the twilight, they would emerge, black clouds against the deep azure of the near-dark sky, racing along the grass and above the meadow and down by the creek, erasing the air of mosquitos. They are all gone, now. Three years ago at this time, the milkweed patches were thick with Monarchs; yesterday I saw my second of the season, or perhaps the third.  Each year we look, a bit fearfully, for the ungainly first landing of the heron, listen pointedly each morning for the drumroll made by the pileated woodpecker on the hollow of the dead tree where our woodlot meets Harry’s.
The bees are back; Peter Lundgren is secretive and a bit smug about his cure for Colony Collapse Disorder; he should be, since in this scarcity economy he can charge goldbug prices for his wild honey. Our clover, our wildflowers, cacophonies of color down at the edge of the wetlands, are noisy with his bees on the right afternoon, in the right month or week.  He brings us a tub of honey when he comes by to argue Puritan theology with me after the harvest season has begun to wind down and before the deer hunting season has begun.  There’s a few weeks in the late fall when he comes by not often, but more often, the old pickup packed with beekeeper’s equipage piled disorderly from bounding around in the fields between hives and colonies, pulled into the driveway, while he waits to see if I will emerge from the house or studio, having time to talk of theological precisions few others could tolerate.  I was at one time a scholar of the Mathers and the Winthrops and the others who defined a steely intrepid way of conceiving human life, in New England.  A boy of ten, I received my own Bible from Reverend North in the nave of the First Congregational Church in Guilford, Connecticut, the prize for memorizing all the books of the Bible, plus two long passages, one from the Old, one from the New Testament, and reciting to the Sunday School class four separate Psalms, one each Sunday for a month, assigned to me by the assistant minister, a theology student at Yale who came out to train and who, while kind, remained unmemorable.  His name is lost to me, but Reverend North’s is not, for he preached the old Puritan way: uncompromising, with no effort at rhetoric, building his sermons on a logic so clear and so unyielding that all of my writing since has been made to construct its opposites.  I write not like the iron law of the Heavens but like the unruly vines that keep the dog from marching unimpeded through the undergrowth down to the fast and dangerous part of the creek. 

Peter’s bent is different; he came here from Minot, North Dakota to train as a poet at the college, and somewhere the language of the Bible possessed him fully; now he is the rebbe of a tiny congregation replicating the church of the first years after Christ’s death. He accuses me of Antinomianism or, worse, pantheism; I suggest certain fallacies in his doctrine; we talk of our grown or near-grown children and the perils they will face. Then he starts the old black Dakota, and all the tools, the hoods, the gloves, the boots, and the spare screens and the roll of wirenet and the pruning shears rattle and shake in the back till the carburetor steps back from the precipice of vapor-lock and the engine steadies, and he lets in the clutch and heads for home.

The bees are back, but the bats are not, and each year the Monarchs have shown fewer and fewer.  We are, I said, recompense and reparation; not just us, but many others up here, for whom the land is not a picturesque escape or a romantic folly-in-the-making or simply scenery to be photographed from the side of our road, Harm’s old tractor on one side of the frame, balanced on the other by the loom of our tall, asymmetrical barn and, beyond it, the low outlines of the old house with its red metal roof an appropriate contrast to the deep blue of the summer sky. Paul and Sarah at the top of the ridge, his hammer echoing across the valley as he repairs the ancient barn, her screen door slamming as she goes out to dump the garbage in the composter; Harry with his vineyards and his clover fields, great swaths of his property  left to scrub or meadow, slow-emerging woodlot and untouched riverbanks unvisited by the dangerous unpredictability of human tourism. The bald eagle is back, after forty years. The mink is perhaps a harbinger.

I don’t know what it is I do here.  I have little to show, if wild honey or the venison or the eggplant are the particularities against which I must measure what I make.  Perhaps it is enough to witness; perhaps it is enough to listen hard and stare relentlessly and seek faithfully to do honor to the waves of wind across the hayfield, the bowl of the night sky and the torn curtain of the stars. It’s all I have, and so I offer it.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Piranesi In Exurbia: Political Geography in America, Part Two

Political Geography in America, Part II
Piranesi in Exurbia:  Rotting Utopias at the American Edges
In the fall of 1991, Washington Post writer Joel Garreau released, in book form, a version of his Post feature series on the rise of a new form of American landscape.  Not city, not country, not suburban, these edge cities, as Garreau named them, were located in previously underpopulated areas, within a reasonable distance of a major metropolitan airport, but otherwise forcefully independent of the older American geography that saw cities as the locales for industrial and manufacturing economies, suburbs as the place where the luckier members of the meritocracy lived, and the areas beyond given over to agriculture, scenery or resource extraction.
What Garreau noticed first were planned communities springing up along major outer-ring traffic corridors; simultaneously, corporate office parks and research centers would occupy a swath of former farmland, even as a combination of suburban-style subdivisions and new-urban townhome communities would appear, almost instantly, off nearby roads. Both forms would be marked by their isolation. The office parks would be ringed by camouflage plantings hiding electronic fences with one, two, at most three entrances, guarded by gatehouses occupied by security officials who monitored incursion, or by unmanned security gates activated by corporate employee identification cards.  Similarly, the subdivisions would often take the form of so-called “gated communities” (privatopias, my friend and colleague Evan McKenzie named them, in an important premonitory book, published in 1994), in which internal regulation and contract bound the individual community occupants together, but isolated them from the financial, social, or political life outside their walls or fences, in the guise of protecting them from outsiders.
Garreau’s interest was in those edge-city clusters in the Northeast Corridor, from Washington, DC, to the Massachusetts-Vermont border.  They’re striking, and their fates deserve the attention we’ll give them in later essays. But to see the picture in sharpest outline, we might begin with a Midwestern example, not least because it’s so easy to observe its shape, thanks to Google Maps.
Abbott Laboratories is a global pharmaceutical company; relatively early in the edge city movement, it moved its corporate headquarters out to the largely underpopulated Illinois farmlands far north of Chicago and west of the older, super-affluent lakefront suburbs of the far North Shore. Theirs is a relatively unsophisticated version of the more sprawling and heavily landscaped “campuses” of places like Sears Holdings in nearby Hoffman Estates.
 Start by googling Abbott Laboratories, Lake County, IL, though, and you’ll get a false site, a small office down in Lake Forest, one of those older, super-affluent suburbs where wives pick up their husbands at the train station in their Mercedes SUVs still wearing the jodhpurs from their horsemanship lessons. Instead, you’ll get your fastest hit if you googlemap Abbott Park, IL. It’ll come right up.  But notice that the google entry on the left lists Green Oaks, Illinois as the municipality where the lab is located.  That can’t be:  Abbott employs more than 15,000 workers within Abbott Park, and the village of Green Oaks only had a population of 3,855 in 2010.  The village doesn’t even list Abbott Labs among the businesses within its boundaries. Somewhere along the line, though, Abbott declared itself a separate metropolitan location—it just happened to sit atop little Green Oaks. 
Of course, you already know that there aren’t any green oaks in Green Oaks—that old joke that Americans name their communities after the picturesque feature they’ve destroyed to build:  it applies here.  As landscapes go, Green Oaks is a bit of a wasteland, a Midwestern desert.  There are some forlorn water features, the rigid linearity of their outlines indicating that they were at one time, or perhaps still are, artificially made, meant to drain off the ground water in the surrounding agricultural land, or to serve as industrial or agricultural waste ponds, or both.  One forms a lovely triangle that you’d swear you’d remember from high-school geometry class if you remembered anything from high-school geometry class. Another, visibly choked with algae from the runoff of industrial-strength fertilizers, is hopefully named Shady Lane Resort Lake.  It’s bordered to the south by the railroad tracks, on the west by the Illinois Tollway, on the north and east by no-longer-arable industrial farming wastes. There’s no resort, no lane; there’s no shade, either, unless you’re small enough to huddle under some marshy scrub that runs along the older farmfield divisions.
Almost due north of that, though, is Abbott Park, a picturesque greensward if you’re on Waukegan Road driving past it, with grassy knolls, ornamental trees, clumps of shrubbery, hiding what’s behind.  From above-- that is, via googlemaps-- you see that it’s really just sham parkland;  the vast preponderance of land behind the screen is taken up with warehouselike utilitarian structures surrounded by parking lots full of upscale sedans—sunroofs galore, not a pickup truck or rusting minivan to be found.
Cross Waukegan—virtually, of course, as to do so on foot would be dangerous, indeed (in that regard, Garreau was spot-on:  no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no walk-don’t walk appendages bolted to the traffic signals)—and you get a sense of how those who work within the buildings at Abbott live their off-work lives. The clustered townhomes look like idealized interpretations of the tenets of so-called New Urbanism, the sort that made itself famous with the Disney Corporation’s planned community, self-satisfiedly named Celebration. Here the ideals of the New Urbanists seem exemplified—essentially to turn back the clock and turn on the airbrush to produce a replica of an imaginary American town circa 1905, with manageable lawns to water, porches upon which to sit, sidewalks to walk from home to neighbor, friend, grocery or hardware store, or to the park, where the bandstand would feature a Sousaphone and a big drum surrounded by trombones and piccolos, pumping out patriotic piffle:  God Bless America, followed, perhaps, by Joy to the World, Jeremiah the Bullfrog transliterated to the bass saxophone.
The townhome communities around Abbot Park aren’t so fully orchestrated;  they cluster around a commons, they’re appropriately intimate but with sufficient common greensward to give the impression of gentility and spaciousness. Look carefully, though, and you’ll notice:  the structures are modular prefabs, with faux clapboard fronts and brick-it faux stonework on the false chimneys. Each townhome is built around and above a two-car garage.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not so the earnest mental worker can drive a block or two to Abbott Park.  The nearest supermarket is many miles away; much further is that hardware store, and the nearest public space is probably in the middle of Market Square, in Lake Forest, far to the east.
Market Square is the earlier type of edge-community planned development—it’s arguably the first planned shopping center in America (though Kansas City, Missouri makes a strong competing claim), set across from the Lake Forest commuter train station.  If the parking lots in Abbott Park are filled with Lexuses and Infinitis, the small parking lot for the train station is populated by Porsches, BMWs and Mercedeses.  It’s small, though, not just because it’s trapped in an older tradition of land use, but because it serves a very different social and cultural class, one in which wife collects husband at the station, still dressed in those jodhpurs we ogled earlier. Over at Abbott Park, the family units are most commonly two-worker professionals; in many cases, both of them work for Abbott, but if not, there are plenty of similar high-skill professional corporate and research campuses scattered about.
As Garreau pointed out, though, proximity is a highly relative matter out in edge city’s geography.  To go from Abbott Park to, say, the Sears corporate office park in Hoffmann Estates, would take you just under an hour in regular traffic, close to two hours each way in traditional rush hour.  You’d have to go down Interstate 94 to Interstate 294 and then over to Interstate 90 west, exiting at Beverly Road and winding into the Sears campus—along with close to 6,000 other workers entering or leaving that campus. What this means, then, is that the professionals who live in the vicinity of Green Oaks, Illinois, eunequally split their commute:  on average, one worker is in transit less than 30 minutes a day, while the other is stuck in traffic on average 3 hours, 47 minutes, more or less. 
This is the sacrifice that exurban edge city denizens make in order not to live or work in the dense core of the old American city.  The reward is clear:  median family income in Green Oaks is close to $140,000; since the median salaries at Abbott and Sears Holdings are in the $85,000 range, one can assume that double-income professional families are reaching close to $200,000 per year. And they live and work in environments that are comfortingly, relentlessly, homogeneous. In Green Oaks, 96% of the population is white or Asian. African-Americans constitute just .14% of the population. The schools, too, are considered excellent—Oak Grove Elementary School in Green Oak is rated A+ on the standard measuring metric.  If you were among the 866 pupils there, however, there would be a better-than-even chance that you would never see a black face among your schoolmates.
Part of the reason professional families settle out there is encapsulated in those two telling facts about the school system:  it is excellent, and it is astoundingly homogeneous.
But that implies a level of autonomy that is only found in the mythos of freedom-loving, adventurous, frontier-seeking America.  The reality is that high-skills professionals go where the work is, and the work has been out there, where the absence of crumbling infrastructures needing costly repairs, underemployed citizens needing social safety-net support, environmental and safety regulations that might require costly remediation, and savvy political and social activists looking to require the full costs of settlement be paid by the incoming corporations—all those urban disincentives were (at least, back then) blissfully absent.  Corporate planners made the decisions; high-skills workers moved out there for the jobs.
Of course, many of those high-skills, high-tech workers reveled in the bland homogeneity of the exurban environment. If you are working 18 hours a day, six days a week, and you need to prepare yourself to pack the moving van in a year or three or four to go to the next opportunity, the amenities of the sensual, emotional and intellectual life afforded by cities, older suburbs, or real rural communities don’t matter much.
If you’re a couple that shudders at the prospect of a life lived above a two-car garage, surrounded by people just like you, the nearest independent coffeehouse located more than forty miles away, the nearest independent bookstore located all the way down in Chicago proper, you might consider a different trajectory.  You might decide to live in the city and commute out to your workplaces.  In Chicago, this would probably mean that your double-commutes would continue to be dramatically unequal—one of you commuting by CTA or bicycle or walking to work somewhere in the inner-core city, the other trapped in the car on the freeways, listening to Marcia or Jim giving Traffic and Weather on the 8s, doling out, every ten minutes, your dolorous fate for the next one hundred minutes.
Yet to the surprise of the urban planners, the New Urbanists, the corporate office-park designers, the upper-level corporate decision-makers and the exurban county economic development cheerleaders who made the edge city phenomenon happen, this is exactly what has begun to take place.  The new American meritocrats are not dreaming of a townhouse with a small concrete patio in back, upon which sits a gleaming stainless-steel gas grill. They are, instead, the new hipsters, riding their fixed-gear bikes down Milwaukee Avenue from Humboldt Park to downtown.  Given the choice between a job at Abbott Labs and one at a small startup in the West Loop of Chicago, they’re not even bothering to show up for the interview out in the picturesque parking lots of Abbott Park.
(Part of this concerns a more complex cultural phenomenon.  The new generation of high-skills workers are not just information workers,  or knowledge-workers, or even, more boldly, high-skills workers.  They are, instead, minds;  their skills are found in their ability to think critically, hold multiple conflicting ideas in balance while evaluating complex strings of possibility, push past the instruction to fabricate and instead push on to actually make. They are, in sum, creative workers. One important corollary of this shift is that these creative workers consider themselves the owners of their own value, portable engines rather than fixed information-assembly-line workers. Partly this is a consequence of the cybernetic revolution they entered at birth. When most high-skills mental work can be off-loaded to a bank of high-end servers in an air conditioned basement room—hell, when you can buy the computing power of the entire Cold War anti-ballistic-missile defense system and NASA and the nuclear war arsenal combined for less than a grand and put it in your backpack or fake Louis-Vuitton bag or your man-purse, programming it yourself while you’re on the subway or waiting for another beer at the Hopleaf—it doesn’t take much mental wherewithal  to see that the shining path requires, rewards and promises adventurousness, intellectual risk, social and cultural flexibility. This generation doesn’t go hat-in-hand to Abbott Laboratories hoping for a white-lab-coat job modifying the molecular structure of a pediatric ear-infection drug like Omnicef so as to keep the corporate monopoly.)
This new generation is actually the second to reject the siren call of the edge city life.  A decade ago, the commute pattern along Chicago’s freeway system tilted decisively:  in the mornings, the roads were full and slow going out from the city.  In the afternoons, they were packed with people escaping the edge city for the edgy one. These were people trapped by the decisions made decades earlier to uproot corporate life from the dense downtowns to the dispersed disaggregations of exurbia;  they had to work out there but they were damned if they had to live there or, worse, raise their children in that zombie-land. This was the interim generation, cautioned by the dot-com bubble and crash, but not young enough to have grown up the wiser for it.
These days, the commute patterns are far murkier than traffic planners and urban designers ever thought they’d be.  In city centers like San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh and the like, urban life has returned.  In the early stages of resuscitation, these resurrected cities are decidedly youthful—colleges and universities have bought into underpriced downtown building stock, and their graduates are the ones comfortable enough with the complexities of the edgy city to hang around—after graduation, but also after six, seven, ten pm. As these reborn city centers mature, they draw empty nesters, who find the 24-hour street activity comforting rather than threatening, and the youthful energy on those streets rejuvenating.  The result is, temporarily, a doughnut-hole demographic.  What’s missing is the school-age-children cluster. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, and in San Francisco and other urban centers, that’s already shifting:  that’s the hidden push behind charter schools in places like Chicago, and it accounts for the dramatic rise in alternative private and semi-private schools like Avenues in New York’s Chelsea, or the Manhattan Country School on the Upper East Side, or the International School for Peace, in Tucson, Arizona.
Avenues School is across the street from The Projects. At least, they were The Projects, 20 years ago.  Now we live across the street from a park just a block north, a park that’s full of hipsters in hipster soccer and lacrosse and even kickball leagues. The project kids are playing basketball with 27-year-old VP-for-Product-Development types and 25 year old MFAs with their own edgy Chelsea galleries. To keep the creative workers commuting down to those Silicon Valley office campuses for a few more years—till they can be abandoned, that is, having served their economic purpose—companies like Oracle and Google are running private buses that pick up in the Mission and Pacific Heights and Noe Valley, breakfast on board and full 4G wifi.
Out there in the edge cities, matters are more forlorn, more dour.  Communities like Green Oaks, Illinois, and the larger community of Libertyville that engulfs it, were swamped by the infrastructure demands and the municipal responsibilities that came with the influx of the corporate office parks and their privatopia housing communities. They had to build or expand schools and that required bond issues and long-term debt, swaths of new teachers with their salaries and their pension obligations, and curricula that were targeted to the demands of a new elitist constituency.  Most of them didn’t plan well:  they were so enthused by the short-term benefits of growth that they didn’t calculate the long-term costs of sewer systems, of streets and sanitation, of snow removal and school bonds. They usually built on the cheap and, two and three decades in, they are facing big repair bills. Meanwhile, those corporate campuses aren’t generous in ponying up the cash.  Most of them got major tax abatements to start things off, and they’re grumpy enough at suddenly having to pay taxes at all. 
Some of them are even preparing to pick up and leave.  As Garreau noticed in his study of the just-maturing edge cities, the cultural environment of one is pretty much identical to the next, and the citizens of edge cities are not tied by the bounds of place.  There isn’t any there there, so they have nothing to regret when they go.  The corporate planners are working off much more sophisticated financial algorithms; those older campuses have lost their shiny luster, and they need anything from a major sprucing-up to a complete gut-renovation.  At that point, a no-tax offer from some other uncomprehending municipality in, say, North Carolina, or Texas, or Indiana, can make it easy to pick up and leave.  Two years ago, Sears contemplated abandoning that Hoffman Estates campus;  the tax abatement deal that brought them out there was about to expire, and the numbers no longer added up.
That’s happening, sure.  But it’s not the smart, the flexible, or the happening move.  That’s occurring to the hottest and most savvy corporations;  they’re looking for smaller but funky, interesting, sensual locations—Tucson, yes, or Austin, but also San Antonio, Pittsburgh. And they’re moving back into town—into the South of Market area of San Francisco, for example, or the old Center City of Philadelphia and the Loop of Chicago.  Last year, Motorola Mobility abandoned a sprawling Libertyville corporate campus and took over three floors of downtown Chicago’s venerable Merchandise Mart, right on the Chicago River, surrounded by icons of architecture and bustling with energy-nodes, from the Art Institute Al’s #1Italian Beef  to Buddy Guy’s Legends, arguably the best blues club in the country.
Motorola has 84 acres, complete with buildings, canteens, an employee gymnasium, and nicely maintained privatopian roadways (Technology Way circles the outside, separating the campus from the forested campus of St. Mary’s of the Lake Seminary).  The sales agent, Binschwanger, Inc., says it thinks the 1.1 million-square-foot facility would be best for a single corporate entity—perhaps as a regional headquarters, or back offices.  That last phrase signals the new trend:  the real offices will be back downtown.
If you want to know what the edge cities might look like in a decade or so, you can drive in on I 94 toward Chicago and get off in Skokie.  That’s where the high-tech exurbia of the Cold War years was located— where they invented, fabricated, and manufactured tape recorders, microphones, vacuum tubes, precision gauges, innovative gaskets for new-tech motors. They were made in sprawling factories in corporate parks that are now all but invisible behind the overgrowth of once-tidy shrubs and ornamental trees.  The prairie is returning, and these modest masterpieces of modernist industrial architecture—derived from the famed factories you learned about in art history classes:  Fagus factory, the Bauhaus—are hidden, their terra-cotta brick still shiny, only a few of their metal-and-glass lightwells and glass-brick curtain walls shattered by vandals.
Out there in Green Oaks and Hoffman Estates, the future in ruins won’t look so pretty.  No Piranesi will draw fanciful exaggerations of these exurban campuses, crumbling grandly, bedecked by vines and explored by lovers.  They were too quickly made, too cheaply built; their planners and designers and owners had no illusions that their institutions were destined or deserving to last more than the length of their tax abatements and a little more. They’ll be easy enough to demolish, though where to put the toxic waste of their construction and their production will be a conundrum for villages, towns and counties already saddled with the cash-flow problems once reserved for the deindustrializing cities.
Meanwhile, those cities are returning to full life.  You can make fun of the hipsters of Brooklyn, of Hoboken and Jersey City, of Harlem and now the Bronx all you want.  They have returned urban life to the entropic zones where deindustrialization seemed a permanent hammering of doom on the hollow drums of emptied factories and neighborhoods.  Wicker Park and Humboldt Park in Chicago, but also Edgewater and the Pilsen:  they, too, are places where the creative generation makes its mark. 
Back up to the high-map satellite views of Google maps.  Turn on the traffic feature.  Watch the patterns over a day.  Look closely at a Friday afternoon—maybe this early June in Chicago, when the Blues Festival is going on, or Manhattan when there’s a live concert on Strawberry Fields in Central Park.  Observe the shifts of color and then, if you’re fully hooked, add the traffic camera sites. Then start mapping trajectories of movement, and watching how Google calculates the time-of-travel at different times of day (36.4 miles, 48 minutes; in current traffic, 1 hr. 28 min.).  You’ll see the skeins of possibility, the ebb and flow of commerce and culture.  You’ll fix your attention on one spot, then another, perhaps for weeks at a time. 
Check back here.  We’re going to look at some of those places over the next few essays.  Malvern, Pennsylvania.  San Jose, California.  Danbury, Connecticut. Tucson. Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. There are patterns in them, and patterns in the patterns.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Political Geography in America: Part One

Political Geography in America:  Part One

If you don’t live in the US of A, and maybe if you do, the notion of American political geography is pretty opaque.  Hell, they haven’t even taught it as a separate university discipline since Mark Twain wrote a devastatingly witty satire on its vaporous imprecision.  No, actually, Twain’s satire concerned political economy and, when it was published in 1870, it was widely viewed as a send-up of celebrated authors writing without knowledge or even a trace of shame about whatever a paying editor might imagine would draw a readership.

Which is not to say that political geography hasn’t always been essential to understanding America.  But the best writers on the subject never mentioned the discipline.  They wrote fiction:  William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty on the South; William Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner on California; Ken Kesey on the Northwest states. Elmore Leonard has recently brought the strip-mining areas of Kentucky, western Virginia and West Virginia proper into stark relief. 

There is a demandingly difficult academic journal devoted to the subject.  Political Geography recently ran a scholarly article about “enclaves of abandonment,” places that were “resolved” by a political process that made life within them impossible.  One Indian spent his entire life in such an enclave, ceded to Bangladesh but far from its borders, leaving him an illegal immigrant to India whenever he needed shoes or fertilizer, never able to enter his legal state because his enclave was surrounded by Indian territory.  This is the subject of political geography—the ways landscapes and spaces lie at odds with, or bring into being, political institutions and systems.
   But most of the public writing on America’s political geography has always been, at best, shallow and simplistic.  In the later 19th century, and then again in the 1960s, the recurrent distinction was between The South and The North. Having spent a good deal of the 1960s in West Virginia, which after all became a separate state by seceding from Confederate Virginia over the issue of slaveholding, I had no illusions that it held greater kinship with, say, Connecticut or even Ohio than Kentucky and Mississippi—except insofar as Mississippi had a far greater, if largely silent, black population.  In the ‘70s, I played guitar and pedal steel in Austin, Texas, while getting a Ph.D. in American Studies, and there the political geography was so fine in distinction that not just different bars on the same street, but different tables at the same bar, conformed to radically different political geographies. At Threadgill’s on a Saturday night there were two-steppers who’d voted the Communist party in 1936 and Houston corporate lawyers with manufactured tans and endangered-species cowboy boots moving side by side with Kinky Friedman, the Texas Jew-Boy. In one band, I was the only non-Chicano;  when we opened for Saul and Rueben’s uncle’s conjunto orchestra, there were long comedic passages concerning my dress, my hair, and my gringo-stupid inability to speak either Castilian or streetwise Spanish, none of which I could understand, as I spoke no Spanish.  In an earlier, ill-fated attempt to monetize my musicianship I played pedal steel in a C&W band so Christian that the other members couldn’t play past midnight Saturday, minimizing the bar-take, and refused to break down, move, load or unload the equipment on the grounds it was work on the Sabbath. Leaving me to do all the work but not receiving any recompense.  I first met Saul and Rueben coming home discouraged after one of those gigs, and followed some spectacular guitar playing into a shitkicker fratboy birthday party.  I wheeled in the Twin Reverb, took the axe out of the box, and became the band’s first and only White Boy. I grieve that band daily.

People said Texas was different, and Austin was different than Texas, but I knew better.  Driving down the first time, in a wornout VW squareback with the Twin and the pedal steel and about six guitars and a box of books filling the back, I had to stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA for the night when a big piece of steel belt emerged from the side of the radial tire, causing everything to shake madly at anything over 45 mph. I had never been south of the Mason-Dixon line.  The only thing I knew about the South in the counterculture years I had learned from watching Easy Rider in a theatre in Paris in 1970, but it was dubbed into French, in a sort of muffled way and I could not follow the language. The South was where pickup trucks pulled alongside you and blew you away with a shotgun. Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA was a Merle Haggard song and I’d played it enough times to know the lyrics:

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

We don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

            At the time, I had hair about to my waist, and while I was wearing cowboy boots, they were the wrong sort (leather Fryes, well-worn) and my jeans had a zipper and a slight bell-bottom “flare” to them.  I was pretty sure I’d be sleeping in my car in the tire shop.  Instead, I met a very nice motel keeper and his wife, and had my first chicken-fried steak at the urging of everyone around me at the diner, who were thrilled to see a Yankee eat his first bite of what is still one of my favorite foods in the world.  After dinner, I walked out to the small park, redolent of newmown hay and irrigated alfalfa.  The next morning, I was introduced to biscuits and gravy, and also grits.  The tire shop gave me the new tire just over wholesale because I was a musician.

   Today the pundits still speak of Red and Blue States, which is something like hitting a soufflé with a hammer until the pyrex breaks and then declaring the concoction and the glass to be of the same family, since you could have called both of them dishes—before you went at ‘em. American political geography isn’t defined by state boundaries.  State boundaries are arbitrary and dangerous in much the same way the postcolonial African states were rendered arbitrary and dangerous—no attention paid to belief, to loyalties, to kinship patterns, to climate and crop and foodways.

If there’s a difference, between us and postcolonial Africa, it’s been in the ways that the democratic political system has, until very recently, forced not just compromise, but something more important—mutual learning among unlikely and unsympathetic groups.  In Evanston Illinois in the 1980s, the school board decided to move white children by bus to a predominantly black elementary school.  Until this time there had been, in the US, virtually no successful busing of white kids out of their neighborhoods, and this experiment had its typical sad future ahead of it—the wealthier whites would send their children to private school, the empowered white would whine and finagle their political representatives until quiet exceptions were made and their children were grandfathered back into the old school.  By some very happy coincidence, I went over to the school in question and met the principal who at the time was dressed in a light-up Christmas Tree of a dress, to which no fewer than six small children had managed to attach themselves.  She seemed utterly unfazed by this style of meeting a representative of the apartheid-loving white side of the town.  Then and there, I fell in love.  I grieve Clara Pate daily.

But I digress.  When I started going to meetings of the mostly-black PTA of the new school, I was treated with the suspicion, even contempt, I deserved.  These parents didn’t want privileged white parents barging into their lives, with their self-righteousness and their sense of entitlement and their ten-dollar words. 

I learned this the hard way, when the School Board announced that they were not going to increase the number of teachers or staff to accommodate the 100 or so new students due to arrive.  This was, of course, outrageous:  I had no idea that the Board members knew that when those two buses drove through the white neighborhood to pick up those 100 students, only three would get on:  Caroline Winter-Rosenberg, Rocco deFilippis, and my son.  At the time, I thought most of the kids would be on the bus, and by my lights, this was an invitation to overcrowding and cheapening of resources. I got up to speak about this, in an impassioned way, hardly noticing that all the black parents were looking at me as if I were perhaps the most naïve rube to have arrived in the Midwest since the Civil War. When I railed against the Board’s niggardly treatment, though, I heard an audible gasp and a rising torrent of response.  I was too het-up to hear what was being said until one parent got up and dressed me down for speaking of the nigger-treatment. It took me a good fifteen minutes to understand what had happened.  It took me six months before any of those parents would speak to me, and it was Clara Pate who took them aside and told them to get over it:  I was a professor and I used ten-dollar words when I should have used regular ones because I was an ignorant naïve rube, but I was good of heart.  I hope she was right;  certainly I have spent the rest of my life trying to live down my flaws and live up to her kind assessment of me.

That, my friends, is political geography in America. Boundaries matter;  when they are well-drawn, they confirm and amplify the strengths and weaknesses of the citizenry.  When they are badly drawn, perhaps something new will emerge:  something better.  Or something worse.