Thursday, April 30, 2009

Enjoying the Shade along Memory Lane

Writer and philosopher Wendell Berry of northern Kentucky is my kind of guy. He writes broadly about humans and the environment (What Are People For? is his masterwork in this vein), but it is the jewelled precision of his knowledge of his home country, the bountiful soil and the generations who have lived on it which I, and many others, treasure. His novels and stories are not only all set there, but the same characters (based on real people) reappear, to the delight of a constant reader. When one key family loses a son in World War II, Berry brings in the theme of brutal, senseless outside forces battering the seemingly isolated community simply but clearly when the father mutters, "It's always the war or the economy..." The gradual disappearance of small local schools and businesses and the barely understood damage these trends cause should resonate with most of us when we stop to think of it. The big highway changed everything -- as we were connected, we were fragmented.

The road my grandparents' house was on changed forever when it was widened and raised 12' in 1973. The water runoff then coursed down the hill and right into their basement, requiring two pumps running continually during downpours. School buses and tractor-trailers could now run blindly up and down at all hours rushing to the nearby town from the highway. On a summer Saturday night during the 50s, we'd see no more than five cars go by. I could identify them all by the shape of their taillights, and usually knew whose they were. The only entertainment was going to the A&W Rootbeer stand at Hogestown, a few miles away. With no air conditioning, that was a real treat. Now it's a convenience store, where a woman clerk was murdered a few years ago by her ex-husband. Due to years of water damage working its way up from the basement, degenerate tenants and the maintenance burden, the house was torn down several years ago. Trucks roar by, drowning out the crickets' sweet music.

What remains? Across the road from the house stands a line of Chinese elm trees, orphaned descendants of saplings planted in the back yard which had grown tall and wide in the 60s, now gone from wind and storms. My grandmother's sister and her husband brought those saplings from their yard in Buda, Illinois as a gift to provide, in their maturity, dappled shade over the wooden Adirondack chairs set in a semicircle underneath them. Do the roadside elms, now adults themselves, remember their parents' childhood trek from the midwestern plains? The storms will fell them too, in time, if the transportation department doesn't do it first. I will remember them all: modest people, generous trees and the sleeping 17-year locusts; it's all I can do.

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