Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not the sum of what we have been, but what we yearn to be.
– José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Spanish philosopher and essayist, author of Meditations on Hunting, first published in 1947
Collisions with the future
Days spent in major metropolitan areas make my spirit uneasy, and last week’s visit to my erstwhile hometown was no exception. Walking streets with familiar names I found few traces remain of the haunts of my youth, but after 50 years’ absence that is to be expected in any town not locked in a Twilight Zone stasis of frozen time.
Many of the changes I encountered, however, were not the typical transformations of a once-rural region undergoing rapid urbanization; they were more in the nature of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s “collisions with the future.” Most were predictable outcomes of the incorporation of a farming community of 5,000 population into an urban sprawl of two million people: streets jammed with constant vehicular traffic, public places crowded with impatient people, long lines at service counters, the clamor and confusion of construction and renovation of buildings and facilities both private and public. But some changes were surprisingly positive: increased park and playground areas, for example, that were better designed, configured, and maintained, and also much greener and connected by hiking and biking trails.
The “city center” – what used to be called “downtown” – was modernized with a small tip-of-the-hat to local history: faux brick sidewalk and street sections, history scene murals painted on building walls, and plaques mounted on posts at intersections to show visitors how it once was and how progress has made it better.
And to all appearances it is better, the aging and somewhat shabby hardware stores, bakeries, appliance stores, car dealerships, dimes stores, clothing and jewelry shops, beauty parlors, five-and-dime stores, sandwich shops, movie theater, and service stations of the 1950s and 60s having been replaced by brew pubs, upscale restaurants, specialty shops, boutique businesses, community playhouse, professional offices, coffee shops, stores offering antiques and collectibles, even a used book store. All the building fronts conform to the construction codes that make the city center picturesque.
It was not picturesque when I lived here. “Utilitarian” would have been a better description.
Walking through the old part of town (no one walks through the more modern residential areas where custom-built homes sit on expansive and carefully manicured lots; a pedestrian would risk injury from speeding SUVs; dressed in camo shirt and cotton duck vest I would probably have been stopped and questioned by police) I was struck by the friendliness of most people, although they all responded to my “good morning” salutations with a moment of startled hesitation before answering. One of my nieces told me this was partly because casual conversation is no longer the norm, even in the “small town” sections of the megalopolis, and partly because a friendly greeting on the street from a stranger who is obviously a grumpy old man augurs petty mischief and evokes a cautious reply.
By coincidence I was at the old ball park the first day of the little league baseball season and witnessed the ceremonial first pitches being thrown by seven or eight local dignitaries, some of them almost as old as me. To their credit, they were all able to throw overhand, which I doubt I could do. To their embarrassment, not a single pitch was close enough to the plate for the catcher to snare.
Although it can be difficult to tell in this era of androgynous hairstyles and sports uniforms, I did not see any girls among the teams assembled on the field, dressed for photo day and ready to play the summer’s first games. Among my series of “collisions with the future,” it would have been fitting to see a lefty female pitcher mowing down male batters with a 70 mile-per-hour sidearm fastball and a wicked curve. Maybe next year.
The most stark and troubling of the “collisions” was the evident separation of this former-time farm-based community from the natural world. One does not expect a city suburb to have acres of wildlife habitat – or even to see much wildlife except for cottontail rabbits, the ubiquitous Canada geese, and a few whitetail deer – but the landscape in general has been transformed into something resembling a synthetic surface athletic field. In actual acres, there may be more green space now than 50 years ago, but it is all rigorously maintained by mowing and clipping and weeding. The effect is “golf course fairway” rather than “native grass prairie.”
Almost without exception, residential lawns and most of the grounds in parks and along roadways and trails are a monoculture of carefully trimmed and edged bluegrass sod, not a stem of dandelion, thistle, clover, or crabgrass to be seen. Apart from my aversion to the thousands of gallons of herbicides that must be applied to the soil to achieve this unnatural landscape, I recalled this look would have been impossible 50 years ago when the turf of every yard and open lot was scuffed, rutted and scarred by children playing pick-up baseball and football, and various free form tag-and-scuffle games. Free-ranging children as a management tool for a healthy and natural ecosystem – we need to think about that.
America’s small towns are doomed, sociologists tell us, as the population patterns of the country (the world, in fact) continue to transform at an ever-faster pace to archipelagic, metro-belt, mega-city regions where the wealth is concentrated, scattered across an economically arid and sparsely populated plain of poverty this is dotted by wilted and poverty stricken small towns. These failing towns, where so many of us grew to be adults and learned the truths and standards that guide our lives, have collided with the future. Many were crushed and left to rust on the roadside, and the rest have been hammered into a different shape and a different ethos than we yearned for them to be.
There is not unequivocal “right” or “wrong” about this shift to predominantly urban populations and an urban culture. Those who live in the megalopolis have made a conscious choice to enjoy the benefits and bear the burdens of city life as I have chosen the benefits and burdens of rural life. My view of the transformation of my childhood hometown is subjective, I admit, and I suffered no regret or nostalgia when we departed the city and began the long drive to our North Country farm. My feelings were more a sense of relief that I had left the town of my youth before the storm washed over it.
Escape is much more difficult today, I imagine. Who would walk away from the oasis and into the desert? You’d have to be crazy as a coot.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.