For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” in my head, especially the chorus:
If it makes you happy
It can’t be that bad.
If it makes you happy
Then why the hell are you so sad?
Those lyrics capture how I’ve been feeling about the COVID situation lately. It’s as if my guides are saying “you wanted this, didn’t you?” And it’s true. I’ve been longing for some paradigm rattling global event for years. When it became clear in March that the novel coronavirus would sweep the globe, the impish part of me was undeniably excited: the seismic shaking of the jar had arrived.
But the collective grief and loss of the past 4 months have finally come knocking at my door, and I have to make room for the Dark Mother. All of my daily tasks are accompanied by deadweight, and now that I’m dealing with this profound heaviness that so many other people are carrying, I guess I’m a bit more sober. I don’t get to be an aloof spectator to the Great Unravelling, or even an ascendant beacon of hope and energy amidst the darkness (that can come later).
The racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes in the United States are an echo of the genocides of native people that were integral to the founding of the American nation state. I and my co-citizens have also had to contend with shambolic politics, massive (yet inevitable) failures in unadulterated capitalism, and the institutional persistence of racial caste systems. All told, we’re being forced to deal with inherited karma and the historical baggage of our culture. Even though I’ve been anticipating for months that we as a global collective would be forced to deal with our shadows in this time, I too am struggling, to the point where it feels like I’m moving through molasses. But I guess that’s the point; we can’t quantum leap forward until we’ve been dragged through the mud. As the writer Charlotte Du Cann repeatedly intones, we must descend if we are to transform. We must learn to embrace the Dark Mother.
I’ve been living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the past 9 months, where I work as an AmeriCorps service member. Almost every weekday between this past September and March, I drove by the general vicinity of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary on my way to the office. I had an impression of what Tidmarsh is about: a 400+ acre former cranberry farm that now constitutes the largest freshwater ecological restoration project in the Northeastern US. But I had never actually set foot on the place. So it loomed at the edge of my awareness, an important environmental undertaking that I should probably see for myself at some point.
On a balmy Wednesday in early March, Rob, one of my AmeriCorps colleagues, gave me a tour of the sanctuary. The Entrance Trail, which departs from the visitor parking lot, first follows level terrain through mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland that is typical of southern New England. But even here there are surprises in the details. At one point, Rob pointed out a hummock of brush-covered land that is composed of soil that was excavated in the digging of an artificial channel last century, a testament to Tidmarsh’s recent cranberrying past.
Next, we emerged from the forest onto “the meadow,” and I felt like I had been transported to the prairies of the western High Plains. The meadow, which can be traversed by either the Ridge Crest Trail or the Meadow Trail, encompasses what used to be a dumping site for sand. The barren expanse has now been colonized by grasses and, along the edges, young pine trees. If the pines continue to propagate over the years and wildfires are allowed to burn, then the meadow could eventually be home to a proper pitch pine-scrub oak savanna, a habitat type that used to cover hundreds of square miles of southeastern Massachusetts.
Onwards we walked, along the Forest Trail and Red Maple Path, over the recently undammed Beaver Dam Brook, and out to the expanse of open wetland that composes the heart of of the restoration project. Along the way, we passed plantings of white cedars that may eventually restore the regionally rare Atlantic white cedar swamp community.
After Rob showed me around, I returned alone to the Ridge Trail, where a south facing overlook offered a vantage of Beaver Dam Brook flowing through a valley. I sat at the overlook, and the expansive view (who knew there were such vistas in Plymouth?) left the impression that I was regarding a whole contained world. And it was just beyond the edges of an expressway and a state road this whole time! I couldn’t wait to return in a few weeks when everything would be in bloom.
I haven’t had a chance to return to Tidmarsh. Less than a week after my “tour of the edges,” I retreated to my parents’ house in Connecticut, where I rode out the first wave of COVID-19 until the second week of June. Things change fast. Almost all of us have retreated and battened down the hatches, and here we still are: staring at our computer screens, trying to make sense of a pandemic the likes of which the industrial world hasn’t seen in a century. Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries were closed for a time. But nature never closed. Many of us have seen the videos of dolphins playing in formerly bustling commercial ports, or of coyotes sniffing deserted campgrounds. Maybe you have noticed unusual birds coming to your feeder; a birdwatching aunt of mine in Florida has made such an observation. It seems that the agency and intentionality of other-than-human nature is suddenly demanding our acknowledgement.
The agency of nature is what the world’s indigenous and traditional cultures call the spirits. I am reminded of the message imparted to Bayo Akomolafe by a traditional Yoruba priest: “You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening.” Later, Akmololafe is told by a different priest that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern society want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost.” Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, sandwiched between two thoroughfares, is a good place to get lost in. The fact that Tidmarsh is a vast ecological restoration site adds more layers to the art of losing one’s bearings. There, the natural processes of a freshwater ecosystem are being allowed to exert their own intentionality (spirit) after decades of human imposition. True, ecological restoration involves human intervention, but only at first. To walk through Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, one is offered a glimpse of what it can be like when we decide we no longer want to be the stars of the show. Now, though, as the world locks down, the wildlife sanctuaries are coming to us, and we’re witnessing a possible future where the vanity of economic development for its own sake is not our culture’s raison d’être.
You are not a defective person if you are taking refuge in displays of emerging nature amidst so much human suffering. You do not have your head in the sand. To quote Jack Gilbert’s self-explanatory words, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Moreover, I’d wager that there’s an imperative to pay attention to nature’s exuberant spirits at this moment in time. They can teach us truths we’ve forgotten.
Here’s one such truth: things change rapidly for the better as well. Through most of March and April, as interminable rain and sub-normal temperatures stalled over the Northeastern US, the return of foliage here in southern New England moved at a snail’s pace. It seemed like the trees were holding their breaths as their branches grew heavier with red, yellow, and pale green buds. Meanwhile, the number of worldwide COVID-19 cases and fatalities ascended a mind-numbing exponential curve we’re all now familiar with. Beginning in early May, though, as the sun re-emerged and the mercury started to crest 70 degrees, a different sort of exponential curve came into focus: the buds were bursting open and the leaves were finally unfurling themselves.
I began composing this essay in my head, while lying on a hammock beneath a mature black cherry during that initial warm spell. With each breeze, bud scales showered down, and it became clear to me that coming away from the road and apprehending the spirits need not involve setting off into deep wilderness with a machete. We don’t even need suburban nature preserves for this work. We can become lost in our own backyards, in the margin of woods at the edge of the road. And it turns out, once we leave the road, we won’t find any monsters. Apocalypse isn’t lying in wait for us. There will be blue sky, new growth, and ourselves. We will discover we’re about as discrete from the landscape as dolphins and coyotes.
We may also find that we’re encased too, waiting for a catalyst so that we can unfurl in our own phase shifts of renewal. As the systemic global crises of the 21st century bear down, the spirits, the guardians, the ancestors – they are all waiting for us to ask for their help. They will have our backs. Our story does not have to end in chaos.
When I began this writing project, I had the vague idea in mind that I wanted to explore the margins. In ecological science, ecotones – the transitional zones between biological communities – are known for nourishing novel, adaptive biotic regimes, and I wanted to see if marginal human communities were similarly resilient. After all, from the sixteenth century up until the 1800s, escaped slaves in the Americas established self-sufficient societies in swamplands that were considered to be “economically negligible” by the powers that be. And right now, the slums of the Global South’s urban centers are humming with an informal economy of trading, recycling, and repurposing global neoliberalism’s material waste. I wondered if similar processes of subversion and inventiveness were taking place out of sight in my own home territory in the Northeastern United States. Such ponderings led me to incorporate a study of northern New York’s indigenous Mohawk community and Shelter Island’s historical slave community into my honors essay collection while also lending this website its name “Towards the Edges.” I completed my thesis in the spring, and soon I will have in my hands a print and bound copy of my writing. But before I can begin unpacking my findings, I need to expand upon my consideration of the margins and from where they derive their fertility.
Transitional zone between woodland and saltwater marsh in midcoast Maine.
In These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search For Home, author Bayo Akmololafe is told by a traditional Yoruba priest that “You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening” (130). Another priest expands upon this injunction when he tells Akomolafe that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern culture want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost” (xxxiv). As a whole, the message is both literal and metaphorical. If we want to apprehend the wisdom of nonhuman nature, then we must venture to those redoubts where nature is still allowed to flourish according to a logic that defies anthropocentrism. I had the same idea in mind when I dedicated one of my thesis essays to my suburban hometown and what insights I could glean when I focused on those pockets of land in Darien, Connecticut, that have not been given over to McMansions and manicured lawns. Yet we can become lost without physically going anywhere at all. The priests are intoning Akomolafe (and, by extension, the rest of us who live amidst roads and development projects) to abandon our certitude about what constitutes correct and proper human conduct. On a metaphorical level, then, to go towards the edges also means to consider alternative modes of being human on this planet.
To Akomolafe, nothing embodies the spirit of the edges better than dust. He writes, “As the world…grates upon us, we shed our cutaneous cells and hair and pieces of ourselves, contributing these into a commonwealth of dust that includes their beings and their shedding. Edges bleed in traces of becoming, melding dying and living, beginning and ending, into an always pregnant middle (19). Furthermore, “dust unsettles foundations and eats borders, and yet gives birth to the world” (21). According to Akmolafe, the components of the material world and human society cannot be reduced to stable essences. The physical processes of reality simply do no allow for absolute stasis. With that understanding in mind, the edges take center stage as the places of creation. Left to its own devices, dust eventually accumulates into humus, and the entire province of terrestrial life depends upon topsoil for nourishment. Were it not for the constant disintegration that takes place on the edges of things, that topsoil and the abundance of nature it supports would be nonexistent.
So, can the fertilizing properties of the material edges be applied to human society? Can the persistence of swampland communities of runaway slaves in antebellum America be attributed to their consolidation of the most useful teachings of European, African, and indigenous American society? I am inclined to say yes. I would even venture that many marginal human communities point the way towards a more tenable way of conducting our affairs in an age of converging global crises.
Consumerist culture and neoliberal capitalism aspire to the shining metropolis – the utopian city on a hill, free of effort or want – that will surely come about if stocks keep rising, or if we give free rein to the wizards of Silicon Valley, or if we finally elect the right politicians. Ambitions and promises of these sorts have their origins in the early days of Sumer and Shang Dynasty China, when palace elites established the world’s first state granaries and standing armies, thus ushering in the age of empire. But here we are, five thousand years later, and we are less than sixty growing seasons away from completely degrading our topsoil; the exponential growth paradigm is pushing industrial society into collapse mode; and our drive for microbial purity both in ourselves and in our livestock is breeding frightening new strains of antibiotic-resistant infections. Like the Babelians told of in Genesis who tried to construct a tower to heaven, our aspirations towards dominion over the planet are unreachable. This time around, however, our strivings for transcendence are threatening our very survival as a species.
But edge-dwelling communities, which by their very nature embrace the promiscuity of the margins, rebuke the myopia of transcendence. Bayo Akomolafe comes to this realization when he befriends Kutti, a rickshaw driver in Chennai, and spends a night in the slum home of Kutti and his family. One of the first things he notices about Kutti’s cramped home is that “Space is performed differently here…Everything bleeds into everything else, and in this scandalous perversion of boundaries, politeness is often fatuous” (42). Nevertheless, Akomolafe takes note of the the neighborhood’s intricate abundance of human cooperation, a collective attention to hygiene and hospitality, and concludes that, compared to Chennai proper, the slum feels like a sanctuary: “This Indian slum, hidden behind a phallic Samsung glass building, cordoned off by asphalt, shushed by the traffic of cyborg saints seeking glittery heavens to go marching into, and forgotten in the headlines that tout India as a fast-developing nation with abilities to launch satellites into space, tells a revisionist story…where humans and nonhumans, in chaotic and oftentimes risky configurations, are learning to press closer and closer to each other and live with each other” (49). By embracing the base materiality of existence and that materiality’s ever-disintegrating borders, Kutti and his neighbors have crafted a convivial antidote to the isolation and anonymity that are endemic to most modern cities. In so doing, they have also proved that monetary wealth, consumption, sterile environs, and blind individualism are not paths towards self-realization.
Knowing that our current preoccupations with consumption, neurotic cleanliness, and individualism are choking the planet and destroying our own communities, should we then revert to slum dwelling, open sewage ditches and all? No. Adopting all aspects of Kutti’s and his neighbors’ lifestyle is not the point. What we should focus on instead is finding ways to let the edges back into our daily affairs. Rather than aspiring towards 5,000-square-foot palaces with spacious lawns that are clearly delineated from the clutter of “nature,” it’s time for us citizens of the Global North to downsize to a way of life that recognizes the wonder of the full spectrum of human and nonhuman life.
I’m reminded now of Birdsfoot Farm, an intentional community in St. Lawrence County, New York, that I visited about five years ago. Birdsfoot Farm, with its miniature cottages backed up against gardens that bled into the surrounding woodlands, was where I first encountered the beauty of alternative modes of human organization. I’m also thinking of the Ramapough Lenape people of northern New Jersey, who have kept their cosmology alive by erecting traditional handmade artwork and performing tobacco ceremonies in the midst of a suburban housing tract. I’ve also seen how the subversive sense of place developed by enslaved Africans and indentured American Indians on Sylvester Manor has now been honored by the Manor’s recent transformation from private property into a not-for-profit cultural museum and CSA farm. All of these endeavors are carrying into the present a spiritual mythos that our modern world of striving has forgotten. Salvation and wisdom lie not in some pure realm “up there,” but in the dense materiality of the nature that surrounds us as denizens of Earth. The wisdom and teachings of earthly existence are the spirits of the thick forests that Bayo Akomolafe is told of, and as many current edge-dwelling communities demonstrate, those spirits and their powers of generativity can still be accessed even in this era of spiritual deprivation.
In July I paid a visit to Darien’s historic Mather Homestead on Brookside Road. Built in 1778, the history of the Mather Homestead resembles that of Sylvester Manor: it was privately held in the same family over the span of several centuries before being incorporated as a historical nonprofit and opened to the public in recent years (2017, to be precise).
Front of the original 1778 structure.
The stories of many New England towns are animated by a narrative arc that stretches to the origins of the American republic, and Deacon Joseph Mather, the original proprietor of the homestead, features prominently in Darien’s own foundational tale. Joseph’s father, the Reverend Moses Mather, is related to Increase Mather (of Salem Witch Trial infamy) by way of Increase’s brother, Timothy. The Yale-educated Moses arrived in Darien, then known as Middlesex Parish, in 1740 at the age of 25 in order to take up his post as the town’s first Congregational minister. Moses was staunchly anti-Anglican, and during the Revolutionary War he cultivated a reputation as one the most fiery Patriots in the Stamford-Middlesex area. On two occasions, he and his sons were captured by Loyalists from Long Island and imprisoned in New York City. In a separate raid that took place in March of 1781, Tories stormed Joseph Mather’s home while only his wife, Sarah, was present. They then confiscated valuables that were hidden by friends in the family’s well.
The well where Patriot friends of the Mathers hid valuables like silver and clothing, hoping that the homestead’s relative distance from Long Island Sound would keep the items safe from raids.
This WPA mural in Darien Town Hall depicts the July 1781 Tory raid on the Middlesex church and meetinghouse during an afternoon service presided over by Moses Mather.
Joseph Mather’s property on Brookside Road was occupied by his unmarried daughters until the death of Rana Mather in 1880 at the age of 96. Thereafter, the homestead functioned primarily as a summer residence for the family of Joseph Wakeman Mather (grandson of the elder Joseph), a San Francisco businessman who eventually relocated to Brooklyn. Joseph’s son, Stephen Tyng, became the first director of the National Park Service in 1917. Despite Stephen’s early years and college studies in California, plus a career path that took him to Chicago and Washington, D.C., he considered the house on Brookside Road to be his permanent home. In fact, Stephen was the sole inheritor of the Mather Homestead in 1906, and continued to use it as a summer retreat until his death in 1930.
Stephen Tyng Mather
I wonder about what impact the setting of southwestern Connecticut had on Stephen Mather. In The Last Undiscovered Place, David K. Leff reflects that Connecticut’s lack of open horizons or sweeping mountain vistas allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the beauty and underlying processes that animate the other-than-human realm, and Stephen seems to have cultivated this appreciation. He was instrumental in persuading Congress to expand the National Park system beyond the dramatic scenery of the West, and by the end of his tenure at the the Department of the Interior, Mount Desert Island, Shenandoah Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains were encompassed by national parks.
Stephen Mather would not be the first influential figure in American conservation/environmental thought to carry into adulthood the imprint of a youth rooted in the Constitution State. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of New York’s Central Park, grew up in Hartford County, and he attributed his vision as a landscape architect to the complementary patterning of the built human world and natural scenery that characterized his birth state. Henry Chandler Cowles, a botanist who pioneered the study of ecological succession, grew up exploring the countryside around the town of Berlin, where he first appreciated the reality that the landscaped is an ever-changing mosaic.
I’ve written repeatedly in previous essays about unearthing sights of natural wonder and gems of discovery hidden in the overlooked corners of Darien. Using his position of power in Washington, Stephen Mather seems to have instilled that expanded definition of natural wonder in the broader American consciousness via national parks, while Olmsted achieved similar ends by offering a green respite in the middle of Manhattan. Our foundational mythos does not have to rest solely on the pomp and patriotism of exploration across oceans or a war for independence. When we tell ourselves stories of origin and identity, I think all cultures operating in the industrial, hyper-connected world would do well to acknowledge the quiet, humble workings of the land we inhabit.
I once harbored a grudge against an entire species. Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, or simply ailanthus, is a deciduous tree belonging to the simaroubaceae family. With its spindly trunk and frond-like bows of pinnate leaves, ailanthus vaguely resembles a palm plant, and its native range extends from the temperate regions of China through Southeast Asia. But if you live in Europe or the contiguous US, there’s a good chance that you have crossed paths with this “tenacious bastard,” as I once referred to it. Ailanthus is an invasive in both regions, where it thrives in disturbed, low-quality soils such as those found in abandoned lots or the margins of railroads, freeways, or any patch of land that has been cleared of vegetation (the photo below was taken at the edge of a playing field). For this reason, ailanthus is sometimes referred to as the ghetto palm, although its pungent odor and status as a noxious weed has earned it a variety of epithets: stink tree, stinking sumac, tree-of-hell.
My war with ailanthus began five years ago during my senior year of high school. As part of a project for my AP environmental science class, I learned to identify invasive plants in a tract of woods near my house. I did not come across tree-of-heaven in those woods, although in the course my research I happened on a webpage with a photograph of an ailanthus sapling under the bold-face heading “IF YOU SEE THIS PLANT IN YOUR YARD, REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.” I learned that a tree I had taken to be just another part of the urban scenery of the Northeastern US was in fact a foreign invader. Thereafter, I was seeing tree-of-heaven everywhere. I eyed two saplings growing along my bike route to the YMCA, noted the prevalence of ailanthus along the edges of playing fields, and, while driving out of New York City, spotted a mature, six-story specimen from I-95 in the North Bronx. I had no idea how overrun my home was.
So the seed of alarm was planted when, one weekend that June, I noticed a young, seven-foot-tall ailanthus growing in my next-door-neighbor’s side lawn, just a few feet from my own family’s back yard. I wasn’t surprised. Our neighbor at the time was not a fastidious groundskeeper, and a veritable jungle of overgrown bushes and weeds demarcated our properties. Tree-of-heaven can produce 14,000 seeds for every pound of biomass, so it was inevitable that an ailanthus samara would settle and sprout in that jungle. After getting my neighbor’s permission, I armed myself with a pair of garden shears and a plastic lawn barrel and spent an afternoon hacking away at the invader, all the while scowling at tree-of-heaven’s burnt peanut oil scent. I had read about how ailanthus can clone itself via root suckering, and that cutting down the exposed parts of the plant is only a temporary control. Yet I also read accounts of tree-of-heaven roots growing through concrete and destabilizing building foundations, and so the warning kept flashing bright red in my head: REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.
Felling that one ailanthus offered no satisfaction. I continued to regard with near-horror entire colonies of ailanthus clones erupting along the roadways of the Tri-State area. That summer on a trip abroad I saw a cluster of tree-of-heaven growing beside a gravel parking lot in rural Tuscany (no!), and when I returned home to Darien I discovered that the same tree I hacked to pieces a few weeks earlier had grown back to its previous height (the bastard!). Ailanthus even infiltrated my sleep. In one dream, I walk out the front door in the morning to find that, overnight, an ailanthus of sequoia proportions has taken root across the street and bulldozed one of my neighbor’s homes to the side. In another, ailanthus samaras, borne by an equatorial breeze, are showering over the neighborhood like snow, and every native plant has been replaced by an embryonic tree-of-heaven.
Ailanthus was a punk, I decided, a spoiled brat with no capacity for restraint. It didn’t belong in New England, land of white pine and sugar maple. It was too smelly, too exotic. It just didn’t look right.
It just didn’t look right. Hungarian nationalists use these same words to describe Syrian refugees walking down the streets of Budapest. The parallel between contempt for an invasive plant and that for foreigners and ethnic minorities is an imperfect one; as the above photo of the kudzu barren makes clear, crowding of ecosystems by non-native species is a legitimate environmental concern. But displaced people and invasive plants are both symptomatic of the Crisis of Now, and therefore merit joint consideration.
In Failed States, Collapsing Systems, journalist Nafeez Ahmed outlines how the sectarian violence that has riven Syria since 2011 is partly an outgrowth of a years-long drought that exacerbated unaffordable food prices and growing unemployment. These global warming-induced pressures only added more strain to a nation buckling under declining oil revenue. Similar biophysical trends played out in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, and in aggregate resulted in the pulse of immigration from the Arab World that Europe witnessed 2015-2016. Meanwhile, in the botanical realm, global warming enables subtropical plants to migrate northwards in moist regions such as the eastern US, while intensifying droughts in arid climates allows the further spread of xeric exotics like Russian thistle.
With this background of interlocking global systems in mind, the sentiment “it just doesn’t look right” belies a lack of understanding of the complex feedbacks that are altering the contours of human life around the world. My growing comprehension of those feedbacks these past five years is partly why I no longer grudge ailanthus. I imagine that going deaf in my left ear in 2014 also helped me learn to let go of the unalterable, and much of what we as a global society will experience as the Crisis of Now progresses cannot be blunted as much as we’d like. In an article for Grist titled “Let it Go: The Arctic Will Never Be Frozen Again,” Eric Holthaus details how, as of last year, polar researchers can confidently project that the Arctic will never again be reliably frozen like it had been since modern humans evolved 150 thousand years ago. Last week, The Guardianreported that the most ancient of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice ruptured for the first time in recorded history this past summer. In a similar vein, recent research indicates that the carbon storing capacity of soils worldwide is diminishing rapidly in relation to increasing atmospheric temperatures.
Each new climatological threshold is a potential Rubicon for globalized human civilization. In addition to giving up modes of living that we know are destructive to Earth’s life support systems – no more 5,000-square-foot houses, nightly steak dinners, or ski resorts – we also have to learn to let go of certain trappings we used to associate with home, wherever that might be. According to the most optimistic forecasting models, Connecticut will have a climate comparable to that of northern Virginia by mid-century. Worst-case-scenario models predict Connecticut’s climate will resemble South Carolina’s in thirty-odd years. If the latter turns out to be true, then I have to accept that, probably in my lifetime, white pines and sugar maples will recede to the Canadian Shield and New England will become a land of palmetto, loblolly pine, and, of course, ailanthus. Europeans have to brace for further influxes of refugees from destabilized parts of the Middle East and Africa, while all denizens of the world’s coastal regions will need to negotiate a new shoreline as sea levels rise. We can act to mitigate the effects of global warming, but words like “mitigation” and “resiliency” are already an admission on our part that there’s no going back to what we once knew.
My neighbor of the unkempt jungle no longer lives next door. His property was bought up by a developer who replaced his relatively humble 1960s-era house with a larger, more marketable structure. The developer also cleared out the jungle and the ailanthus tree with it (they probably had to use a backhoe to do the job). Yet even if that tree-of-heaven were still standing, I don’t think I would care. There’s just too much that’s in flux now in the 21st century, too much change that cannot be undone, while the legitimately urgent problems are much greater than a scrawny, root-suckering tree. When I spent an afternoon hacking away at my neighbor’s invasive weed I was also motivated by a primal desire to see ailanthus – my enemy – vanquished entirely. Such a desire is quixotic in the extreme and belies a scorched-earth antagonism that will be of no help in the decades to come.
Besides, as Lauret Savoy tells us in her book Trace, to inhabit a landscape means also to be implicated in that landscape’s history. Well, tree-of-heaven was introduced to the United States at the turn of the 19th century, when everything Oriental was trending among America’s educated class. After being cultivated in the gardens of the gentry (including, probably, the grounds of Sylvester Manor), tree-of-heaven was used as a street tree in the young Republic’s urban centers. Imagine that: ailanthus first took root in North America when the United States was in its infancy. We grew up together on this continent. And since then, tree-of-heaven and One Nation Under God have been casting their seeds to the wind, yearning to multiply.
These thoughts in mind, I cannot help thinking of Camille Dungy’s poem, “What I know I cannot say,” which considers a different invasive plant:
“the blue gum has colonized
the California coastal forests, squeezing out native plants, dominating the landscape,
and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate
the blue gum eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing,
by which I mean to say from their pods, you know what I mean
I hope, their original homes, from the well of their longing
blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me?
I absolve you. You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.“
I am not yet at the point where I can think of ailanthus as a beautiful tree, but I do now appreciate that tree-of-heaven and its status as an invasive in North America is only a single phenomenon, one subplot in a very complex story line. Who among us is not a manifestation of a convoluted chain of events? I’m referring here to conquests, genocides, mass migrations, innovation, leaps of faith – world history. And the pageant continues today in the decisions we make in this century of transition, an era some refer to as the Great Turning. Whatever actions we take, though, must be directed by a fierce desire to persist and forge new ways of living amidst so much loss and dislocation. Ailanthus, which can grow from the most degraded of soils, has already demonstrated a tendency to thrive far from its original home, and for that I regard it with a certain degree of respect.
Several days ago I took the train to Manhattan for one of my medical treatments, and thus joined the roughly 300,000 commuters who rely on Metro North Railroad on a daily basis.
Let me begin by saying that I like riding Metro North. Whether it be Amtrak or commuter rail, I enjoy the rhythm, the feel – the atmosphere – of trains, and believe railroad travel offers the most logical means of transporting large numbers of people between population centers. Yes, passenger railroads in this country have become more than antiquated, especially in the Northeast, and trains are occasionally delayed or cancelled altogether. But nearly two decades of never-ending military campaigns in the Middle East plus a distinctly American aversion to reasonable tax policy and infrastructure spending means that our roads aren’t in much better shape. And whereas one can read a book, pull out a laptop, or take a nap before the local service arrives, there’s not much you can do when stuck in rush hour traffic except wait for the cars ahead of you to ease up on the brake pedal. If you happen to ride Metro North into Manhattan, there’s also the added bonus of rounding out your morning commute at the unequivocally grand Grand Central Terminal.
On this most recent trip into the city, however, I found myself thinking about the unquestioned modes of living that undergird our modern commutes in all their forms, and how radically novel the idea of the commute is. The rhythms of our days are shaped according to necessity, and for the vast majority of human history, the biological imperatives of energy conservation have bound our days within an overland radius that rarely exceeded ten or twenty miles. Yet this physical limitation of a day’s or week’s tasks cultivated an exceptional depth of knowledge of one’s immediate surroundings. The Tri-State area’s indigenous Lenape people knew just which springs yielded the sweetest water, which valley’s soils were best suited for maize and tobacco planting, and which coves were populated by reliable shellfish beds. They had to possess this knowledge in order to make a living with what was available.
Life today in the New York greater metropolitan area are governed by an entirely different suite of imperatives. Will traffic be heavier on the Merritt Parkway or I-95? Tomorrow will be rainy; should we take the kids to the aquarium instead of the zoo? Many people, my parents included, end up in Darien because they’ve pondered the long term: which suburb has the best schools? Will my home be worth more after I’ve paid off the mortgage? These are the sorts of questions that the Industrial Revolution and the combustion engine have made possible. The automobile, expressway, and railroad mean we can work and live wherever we choose, regardless of the logic of the landscape and count on civil engineers to smooth out any wrinkles. Destructive storm surges? Higher sea walls should do the trick. Chronic drought? Start digging those aqueducts.
Being a relatively old city that predates interstate highways and mass landscape modification, New York and its periphery aren’t saddled with quite as many design follies as America’s newer megalopolises. It isn’t sinking like Miami and Houston, or desiccated like Phoenix and LA. Instead, New York owes its status as a global financial capital to it’s natural deep water harbor, a fact of the terrain that immediately caught the attention of the commercially-minded Henry Hudson, who sailed through the Verrazano Narrows under the flag of the Dutch Republic in 1609. But, of course, Europe’s Age of Exploration was a commercial endeavor. The Dutch and English, followed by the American Republic, transformed New York Harbor into a nerve center of Atlantic shipping, and the rest is history. So the reality remains that New York sits at the helm of corporate globalization, and the increasingly financialized nature of the world economy means that the five boroughs and their outlying suburbs have become even more untethered from biophysical reality.
When I’m waiting at Noroton Heights Station, the closer of Darien’s two Metro North stations to my home, it’s not uncommon for me to cross paths with a smartly dressed former high school classmate of mine. We’ll catch up on what we’re up to, and my classmate will invariably tell me he or she has an internship/job at a financial firm, or a marketing firm, or consulting firm. I never remember the specifics names, and I sometimes perform a mental eye-roll at the cliché: You grew up in Darien and work in finance? How unique! But I know my snark isn’t justified. My classmates are only making a living with what is available, and in 2018 in Fairfield County there is no shortage of jobs related to servicing the corporate world’s finances (My classmates are also working at least. I’m still a student.)
So it is that on this most recent commute in and out of the city, I found myself looking out the window and wondering how many of Westchester and Fairfield County’s 1.9 million residents really know this place when we see most of it while in transit, when the necessities of our days orbit around Manhattan instead of the nearest springs and shellfish bed. Sure, I fancy myself a pedestrian naturalist, and I can point out the sugar maples and shagbark hickories leaning over the railroad tracks. But can I tell you off the top of my head how all of those trees are pollinated? Er, no. What about the sexual habits of the eels who used to surge up Connecticut’s tidal rivers every spring? Ditto. I don’t have much on my fellow commuters in terms of deep ecological knowledge.
Readers of Thoreau, that Yankee contrarian who insisted that “the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot,” and that “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” will be more than familiar with my musings. Almost every American environmental thinker since the Transcendentalists has decried an estrangement from the landscape wrought by our fixation on profit. But what of it? Should I refuse my medical treatments? Should my high school friends ditch their suits and take up ornithology? Or maybe we in the industrial world should cut to the chase and flagellate ourselves for the original sin of the steam engine. Human life, like ecology, is complex, and the responsibilities that give shape to personal habits and decisions span our families, our communities, our culture, and even history itself. Such a web of connections cannot be dismantled in a day.
So the question remains: if we are committed to reversing our dislocation from the land, what to do when faced with the rigid scaffolding of the status quo? In “Homebound, Once More,” I recount the richness that has been added to my life by exploring the cracks and interrogating the commonplace of Darien, and here I’d like to suggest that such a practice of probing the contours of one’s own locale is a first step towards bridging the divide between our lives and the physical places where we live. Anyone can do this. You don’t need to claim Native American ancestry or live sixty miles from the nearest post office to forge a deep connection with stone and water. Learn to identify the shrubs growing in the abandoned lot down the road. Spread out a blanket at the nearest park and observe the birds, insects, and people coming to life on a sunny day. Or marvel at the way the roots of a mature oak will chew up and mangle a neglected stretch of sidewalk. If Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island teaches us about acknowledging and rectifying the injustices of history, and the Mohawk people of St. Lawrence Valley offer a model for commitment to a single landscape through centuries of dispossession, then a study of Darien suggests that a re-enchantment with the wider world is possible in the most unassuming of places. Thoreau famously found spiritual correspondence in the thawing sand of a railroad embankment, and we can do the same if we look hard enough.
The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.
-Joe Brewer, “Solving a Problem that Has Not Been Named”
I feel that I need to clarify what exactly I mean when I bring up The Crisis of Now in these essays; this clarification is for myself as much as it is for anyone who has been following my posts. The name “Crisis of Now” is an imprecise label, a phrase I concocted on my own so that I could easily refer to the interlocking emergencies of global warming, late stage capitalism, ecological collapse, hydrocarbon depletion, and the erosion of democratic norms and values (especially in the West). Yet even that slightly more nuanced explanation only feels at the hem of the converging trends whose consequences will remake life as we know it in the more affluent parts of the world.
Fans of Irish poetry will recognize that I am essentially trying to sketch the outlines of “that rough beast“ slouching towards Bethlehem after twenty centuries of sleep. The language of the Crisis of Now, however, need not be biblical, esoteric, or apocalyptic. Joe Brewer, a Seattle-based complexity researcher, has grappled with this same question of how to properly identify the bottleneck we as a global civilization are approaching. His preferred term, The Great Transition Beyond Empires, is more adequate than the Crisis of Now on a number of fronts. First, a name like “The Great Transition Beyond Empires” recognizes that we are indeed living through the disintegration of a truly global empire – the enterprise of corporate globalization – and that its zenith and demise rounds out a six millenia-long era of ever more ambitious empire building.
In Beyond the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott enumerates the evidence arrayed against the “social contract” theory of early state-building. The earliest states of the Near East and China were not the products of reasoned, ingenious communal cooperation; they were brought into being only by the typically violent coercion enacted by centralized palace elites. They employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (the reach of taxation). Now in 2018, in the wake of the Great Recession and the one-two punch of Brexit and the ascension of Donald Trump, the coercive underpinnings of corporate globalization and their shortcomings are in plain view. Fifteen years ago, the most ardent opponents of the WTO-IMF-World Bank triumvirate were small farmers and public sector employees in developing countries hit hardest by structural adjustment schemes. But when voters in the nerve centers of the neoliberal consensus can be convinced to reject the status quo (however artificial such campaign promises may be), you know the days of our paradigm are numbered.
So is corporate globalization the empire to end all empires? After all of the planet’s climatological positive feedback loops have scrambled Earth’s biosphere, after we’ve chewed through the low- to mid- hanging fruit of the hydrocarbon tree, it’s hard to imagine any financial or political entity (or an alliance of entities) wielding power the way corporatocracy does now. But whatever follows corporate globalization depends on what decisions we make in the decades to come, how we choose to fill the vacuum where consumption, wealth hoarding, and unbridled monetization once held sway.
That brings me to the second reason why I like the name, “The Great Transition Beyond Empire.” The shocks and tremors that are currently destabilizing our ideas of how we see ourselves in the world are also opportunities. Disorientation can allow us to rethink our priorities, how we organize ourselves in the landscape and relate to our co-denizens, both human and non-human. In the interim, there will be profound pain and suffering as political turmoil and dueling elements of the social body rush to fill the vacuum. Just ask the people of Syria and Venezuela, or the thousands of families separated these past months at the US border; they are already in the crucible. The dangers being unleashed by global warming, ecosystem collapse, and the sputtering of capitalism are real, but recognizing the potential of disruption and chaos gets to the heart of what crisis can mean. “Emergency” comes from the Latin emergens; to rise up or outward. We as a people – the human tribe, if you like – have the potential to emerge from the rubble of our dying way of life.
Okay, enough of the abstract theorizing. It’s time to talk specifics. Where will this transformation take place? Who will power it? Change will come from people like you and me, anyone weary of centralized bureaucracies and decision making, who circumvent rigid federal and supranational power structure and try to effect change on the local level. I recently cut out a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks titled “The Localist Revolution,” which posits that the real change makers going forward will be locally oriented: neighborhood associations, state and municipal officials, farmers’ cooperatives. All 7.6 billion of us alive today face the same global emergencies, but only individuals with an intimate sensitivity to their immediate surroundings will be able to respond to how those crises manifest on the ground. After all, do you really think Congressional committees will know how to best allocate the water supplies of Oregon’s Klamath River, or that Brussels technocrats possess the regionally particular knowledge that is vital to stalling thedie-back of ancient olive groves in Calabria?
The New York Times is hardly a den of fringe intellectualism, and David Brooks is only picking up on what legions of thinkers and activists have been saying for decades. In her essay collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy shares her hope that the 21st century will be the century of the dismantling of the big, and that the god of small things will finally be shown the deference she deserves. Already, small farms in Puerto Rico are demonstrating a newfound robustness in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and town civic associations throughout Spain are working to provide support and integration services to an influx of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa. In the digital realm, groups like Tamera and Bayo Akomolafe’s Emergence Network are working to connect and build a dialogue between local change makers across the globe. Taken together, I like to think that all of these initiatives and trends hint at a germinating reverence for the beauty and diversity of the particular.
The photograph featured at the beginning of this post was taken in the final days of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, when the Water Protectors vacated the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in anticipation of Governor Doug Burgum’s eviction order. A lot is captured in that photo. The colorless sky, stagnant water, burning structure, and backhoe waiting to clear the detritus of a once-jubilant resistance movement make for a dystopian tableau. But those who closely followed the Lakota Sioux’s standoff with Energy Transfer Partners, LP, especially after the Dakota Access Pipeline was lain under the Missouri River, have taken heart in the invocation that we the living are the Eighth Generation, and that our decisions, not just the single action of a government agency or corporation, will shape the world of the seven generations that follow. As our global crises converge, will we muster the fortitude needed to assemble our own resistance camps and triage centers, to halt and reverse the depredations of corporate globalization? The answer lies in whether each of us is willing to engage with and assume a deeply embedded citizenship of the places we call home.
What does it mean to be back in Darien at the age of 23, to have the architecture of my days once more be molded by the place where I grew up? To begin to answer that question I recently reread an essay I wrote at the close of my first semester of college. The essay, which I titled “Commonplace,” verbalizes my then-newly crystallized belief that the places we are most familiar with on a day-to-day basis have the potential to yield the most profound insights and discoveries about the world at large. In “Commonplace,” I recall a bike ride to a local beach one cloudy September Saturday during my senior year of high school:
Long Island Sound was a drab, grey monochrome. The unbroken clouds overhead sapped the trees of any bright hues. A wind blew off the water, just crisp enough to forebode a change in seasons. In short, it was the type of day my suburban neighbors would use as an excuse to stay inside and do chores around the house. But, standing there alone on the sand, looking across to the opposite shore of New York, the thought came to me, “How could I ever turn my back on this?”
Because it is scenes like this, times when the world shows its capacity for the unabashedly mundane, that catch me the most. My earliest vivid memory rooted in the coastal Connecticut landscape where I grew up is of swimming in a neighbor’s pool with my brothers and some family friends one summer evening and insisting that everyone look at a sunset-streaked cloud that happened to be passing directly overhead. I was interested not in the sunset itself, but that one small stratus cloud, brushed with pink and purple. As I got older, no matter what interests took hold of my attention and state of mind, I always found time to stop and contemplate the perfectly commonplace interplay of the naked natural world and the built, suburban environment I called home. And in those mundane scenes and moments, sometimes as unremarkable as a dull orange twilight horizon set against a foreground of dusky houses and maple trees, I have found sources of wonder comparable to looking across the Grand Canyon or out at a panorama of the Rocky Mountains.
Where I grew up is in many ways a mundane place, easily written off as a mere bedroom community where an absence of definable local culture is paralleled by a lack of distinction in the natural or ecological sense. My town’s woods, where they exist parceled between roadways and residential development, do not erupt with orchids and wildflowers in the spring, nor are its horizons animated with the melodrama of snowcapped sierras. Yet it is precisely this mundane landscape that has left an imprint on my psyche. It was amid the suburban spread I called home for the first eighteen years of my life that I learned to appreciate not just the occasional scenes of ostentatious natural beauty, but also the world in its simple, unremarkable manifestations, be they a mellow twilight or a cloudy, colorless day at the shore.
Weed Beach, November
I typed those paragraphs five years ago. I had no idea then in the fall of 2013 the scintillating path I would take in the next stage of my life: two brain surgeries, hearing loss, a season of peripatetic farm work, two experimental rounds of chemotherapy, and a bout of major depression. And I am still working towards my college diploma. Darien and my parents’ house on Thomasina Lane has remained a constant this whole time, and that constitutes a generous mercy. Any measure of stability is helpful in a time of transition and turbulence.
Yet I am grateful for my anchorage on the north shore of Long Island Sound not just because of the consistency it has provided. In “Commonplace” I conclude:
On that grey September day at the beach, I did eventually turn my back and let my future take me wherever it may. Because these moments of mystery and silence are not exclusive to a pebbly stretch of New England coastline. Rather, they exist everywhere and every day as the inherent beauty of this world.
The knowledge that profound insight – mystery and silence – are present everywhere has sustained me on a spiritual level through my setbacks and disappointments these past five years, and by regularly returning to Darien I have kept that knowledge fresh.
I don’t mind that I never got a chance to study abroad or spend a summer backpacking through the latest haute ecotourist destination; I don’t need mementos from far-flung places to make my life richer. Through the first 18 years of my life, followed by all of my recent convalescences and languid vacation days away from school, the shingled rooftops and hardwood woodlands of Darien have been the stuff of my world, just as cattle paddocks and baobab trees are the stuff of a Herero’s world, or freeway underpasses and chaparral hillsides are the stuff of a southern Californian’s world. Wherever you happen to make your life, there are layers of discovery waiting in the cracks between the most unassuming features of our natural and human landscapes.
Casement Street, sunset
Several years ago while walking in Darien’s Woodland Park I picked my way through underbrush and encountered an army of shrimp-like arthropods marching across a scummy pond margin. Last summer I kayaked to a cove in neighboring Stamford and explored 1-acre-square Vincent Island, where the mason shell of a house that burned down before I was born is being swallowed by poison ivy and other sun-loving herbaceous plants. I don’t have as much time to explore the woods or go kayaking this summer, but only a few days ago, on a visit to Darien Town Hall, I saw a justice of the peace presiding over an outdoor civil wedding ceremony between a young couple dressed in shorts and t-shirts. These are the sorts of discoveries that lie in wait if one chooses to interrogate the commonplace and see what happenings unfold behind the static of the day-to-day.
While I could sigh with regret or resignation that I am now well into my third decade of life and still bound to the address where I grew up, I don’t really feel regretful or resigned. I will leave Darien for good at some point then end up in a new locale whose commonplace is just as fertile as any other. But in the meantime I can explore the endless crevasses and cul-de-sacs of my immediate environs.
Not long after I returned from Shelter Island, I made plans to meet up with a friend for lunch at Mama Carmela’s Italian Deli. Mama’s, located in a strip of commercial zoning along the Boston Post Road, is less than half a mile from where I live, and I had dropped in on Mama’s for sandwiches several times in the previous year or so. But this most recent sandwich stop was the first time in a while where I actually sat down with my lunch at one of its tables and took in the details of the place. Except for the Darien Times articles detailing the latest local sporting and academic exploits stuck to the tack board by the back entrance, I didn’t notice any significant changes in the appearance or atmosphere of Mama Carmela’s. Nor did I expect anything to be different. Mama’s is one of those places that has always just been there.
Of course, Mama Carmela’s has not occupied 1981 Post Road since time immemorial. It set up shop in the summer of 2001. But Mama’s, mind you, is a “deli” deli, one of those salt-of-the-earth sandwich joints that’s as embedded in the local geography as the nearest hill or stream. Every American town needs such a place. Your equivalent to Mama’s might be flavored with a German, or Latin, or a down home accent depending on where in the country you live. But whether you order fried okra or a potato knish to go with your wrap, America’s long-standing lunch and breakfast joints are all kept alive because they connect their patrons with the local ecology of human interactions that make a community. This sense of community belonging, which Wendell Berry describes as “membership,” is the topic of many an impassioned op-ed screeds, most of which (rightfully) bemoan the loss of said belonging in the face of globalized corporatocracy. But here I want to briefly reflect on how precisely I feel a sense of membership when I’m standing in line waiting to place my order at Mama’s.
Frank, Patty, Carlos, Sue, Frankie, and Juan are the vital names you need to know. Frank Colandro is the founder and head proprietor of Mama Carmela’s, and, appropriately, with his bushy beard and ham arms, mans the deli’s meat slicer on most days. Next to Frank’s work station, Patty, a sharp-eyed older woman, works the cash register and speaks with an exacting, cut-to-chase tone of voice to match. At the other end of the counter, the cooks – Frankie, Carlos, and Juan – cantilever around each other with spry precision as they switch between frying eggs and bacon on the one hand and slicing vegetables and cheese on the other. Amidst all this, Sue (wearing a pink shirt in the photo above) makes sure the machinery of Mama’s stays greased. When I’ve stopped by for lunch over the years, I have seen her at work taking orders from customers, unpacking supplies from cardboard boxes, helping the cooks with food preparation, and relaying information between the entire crew. If Frank is the pater familias, then Sue is the grande dame of the deli.
On any given day there are bound to be alterations to this ensemble of employees. Frankie’s or Carlos’s places at the fryer might be temporarily replaced by a seasonal worker, or Frank will be stationed at the cash register instead of Sue. But the variations in staffing at Mama Carmela’s are minimal, and employee turnover is low: a sure sign that you can trust a dining establishment to prepare your food. It is this stability that allows me and dozens of other Darienites to know the staff at Mama’s on a first name basis, and the familiarity is reciprocated. You can usually count on there being a laminated flyer posted on the deli counter displaying the go-to order of a faithful patron (usually a high school athlete or local first responder). When I myself was a DHS student, and spontaneously grabbing lunch with friends at a local sandwich joint was a rite of establishing teenage autonomy, I became a regular enough face at Mama’s that after placing my order one afternoon, Frankie gave me a fist bump and introduced both himself and his co-workers. In effect, Frankie bestowed on me a membership that went beyond the walls of the deli and encompassed the entire web of Darien affairs that crosses paths with 1981 Post Road.
As the writer Arundhati Roy suggests, we should not make complicated what is actually quite simple, so I will not parse and dissect every meaning behind the ideas of ‘membership’ and ‘community.’ I am even cautious about using the word “idea” to describe what I feel when I’m standing in line at Mama Carmela’s, since ideas can be maddeningly ambiguous; mere ideas, without any grounding to them, are the playthings of convoluted philosophy treatises that no one will read. Home, however, is not ambiguous. Home is where you feel most comfortable, the place you go back to, where you belong. Even though I spend significant portions of my time in New York’s North Country these days, my permanent address is still in Darien, and ordering lunch at Mama’s during summer and winter breaks serves as a reminder of where in the world I am grounded.
I am no longer on Shelter Island. Instead I am writing this from home in Connecticut. But physical distance sometimes provides greater clarity when reflecting on a geographic place, and I am not done thinking about Sylvester Manor.
During my last week on Shelter Island, high summer arrived thick and sagging over the northeastern US, and the moderating effects of the Atlantic were not enough to spare Long Island’s East End from excessive heat. It is important to realize that working in the sun on a farm is not like being at the beach, even if said farm is within striking distance of the Hamptons. Out in the field, with your neck and back to the sky for eight hours a day, anything over 74 degrees in the afternoon and 66 degrees at night is hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. During my final week at Sylvester Manor, high temperatures ranged between 84 and 90 and never dropped below 70 at night. For the first time in my life I found myself slowing down my speech and bodily movements so as to conserve energy; not just while working in the Windmilll Field, but also when climbing the Manor staircase to my bedroom, where I only had an electric fan for cooling off. Come night I remembered my aunt telling how when she was a girl in the late 1950s, her family visited relatives in Missouri in August, where whole neighborhoods would gather at nightfall to munch on watermelon and drink lemonade until it became cool enough to fall asleep (usually sometime past midnight). Lying in bed on the second floor of the Manor with my top sheet flung away and sliding to the floor, I understood why watermelon was my aunt’s favorite food.
Even walking through the boxwood garden between the house and the detached kitchen became a somnambulant chore. On those walks, which most often took place in the late afternoon, I was nudged by breezes that felt as though they had arrived direct from Pamlico Sound or Gullah country. These subtropical breezes were more than just warm; they carried a scent I can only describe as “decadent bloom,” with special emphasis on the Latin origins of ‘decadent.’ Decadere: to fall, sink, to decay. That is, these late day drafts that slipped north across Sylvester Manor were laced with summer’s floral exuberance just as much as they bore the traces of moldering springtime biomass. Any denizen of or traveller to those parts of the American South that have not been sterilized by urban sprawl will know exactly what I am trying to describe.
A green shoot ascending from the previous month’s rot, death begetting life; these are common pastoral tropes because they are the natural ordering of things, and spirit resides in a landscape where the dualities of growth and decay harmonize. But the light of my last evenings at Sylvester Manor is what I really want to tell you about. “My god, the light!” I’d wager good money that sighs and exclamations of that sort have been uttered on countless occasions at Sylvester Manor since the plantation days of Nathaniel and Grizell. Early evenings between the end of June and the first half of August – when the sun reposes at a slant which turns the air to an amber syrup that slicks every surface with grandeur – has probably drawn out the greatest share of wistfulness from the Manor’s residents and visitors. An environmental historian might caution against ascribing aesthetic tastes like an appreciation of the quality of sunlight to different eras. But when I stood rapt on the lanes of the Manor as that deep, deep syrup seeped through overgrown yews and drooping lindens, I could feel the presence of the generations before me who possessed an innate human reverence for beauty. That I beheld the same Georgian dormers from which Julia Dyd Havens Johnson and Isaac Pharaoh once witnessed the waning day, or the same boxwoods that Cornelia Horsford and Alice Fiske spent long afternoons fussing over, made the imprint of those past lives all the more poignant. They said “this light was ours.”
But then the glow wanes in intensity and depth throughout the growing season before fading with the harvest moon. For Joan Didion, the dwindling of summer and the ends of things is presaged by the long blue twilights of the northern mid-latitudes. For me the annual decline is signaled by the thick, bright early evenings of high summer, and I could not articulate why until I smelled the winds of Sylvester Manor. Life on these Earth is fecund beyond comprehension. Yet all fecundity returns to humus or oceanic muck, and the amber hours of the warmest months serve as a reminder of that law. The sighed message of, “this light was ours as well” was also a warning: “It won’t be yours forever.”
In retrospect, I’d say that amber light was pregnant with melancholy, with a human forlornness towards the unalterable ways of the world. Because no matter what the last wills and testaments might say, the land upon which we make our living is not ours to claim, not really. Cornelia Horsford must have known that one day her garden would go to seed. Even Nathaniel Sylvester, who parceled out Shelter Island in his will to his sons and sons-in-law so as to establish a cloistered Sylvester colony, must have sat alone in old age one summer late afternoon, possibly with the tidal shush of Gardiners Creek lulling his thoughts , and realized how frail a piece of paper is compared to the stone and water of creation.
All life falls, and we the living borrow our sustenance from the departed beneath us.