Out Among The Ruins
31 July 2007 |
I have been thinking a lot about bee balm lately. Perhaps you know it as wild bergamot — that’s the lighter purple and shorter cousin with the same fluted flowers that so amuse the hummingbirds — and the equally riveted hummingbird moths (those with coats of winter velvet, long snouts and two antennae, who also flap their wings as if there is no tomorrow). Careful readers know that I have been spending time recently in Sussex County, NJ, population density 276 and two-thirds per square mile, swimming in lakes, creeks, the beloved Delaware.
The entire area, and especially the Delaware Water Gap, is replete with the remains of an agricultural people — and before that scattered civilizations of Lenape and European trappers, hunters, traders. My favorite path is the Old Mine Road, part macadam, dirt, gravel, it winds along the river past withering stone walls like some kind of Anatolian highway. The bergamot and the wild carrot, loostrife, thistle, phlox, yellow flax, the outrageous common mullein are having a field day in the fallow pasture. The farmsteads, barns, porches, outhouses, and the stone walls that once demarcated property are left to the will of the autumn olive trees, the bear and vultures, the deer and pheasant.
I have fallen unabashedly in love with the sense of lost control that pervades. The gypsy moth caterpillars have finished — having devoured 170,000 acres of forest in Sussex County alone — and yet with all the rain so many of the trees have already recovered. The moths themselves drift along the roadside, so many to make Truman Capote smile. Now, the spotted touch-me-not flowers in every crease where mortar has given way. “The spotted blossom hangs like a pendent jewel,” says Peterson, “succulent stems exude juice when broken.” Blacktop breaks away; and roof slate and the red-painted wood from walls of barns. Enter one of those empty, sweet-smelling barns: the flapping of wings, the slight sound of movement, movement — where? — my heart jumps for all this marvelous waste. At the stone trestle of a washed-out bridge, an American Goldfinch darts past bunches of Joe Pye weed to the tops of the fire-flowers of the sumac trees. All is lost, or being lost, sifting slowly through our fingers.
And so I dig around the loose boards of an old barn skirted by wild flowers, bulrushes, reed-grass a mile high, oh, the panoply of butterflies, my legs bitten and shredded by the angry, defensive thicket, digging for wooden boards in good-enough condition to make a table-top and all the while at Sixth and Market, in gracious ceremony and with the aid of symbolic water from the Nile, officials closed the dig at the President’s House. What a terrific exercise it was this spring and summer to dig through that ground, at once reifying the space and putting it to question. It was, to so many, Katrina-like in its power to illuminate our nation’s — our city’s — original sin. There it was lying beneath our feet, like the dead rat my kids found after biking to the edge of a washed-out bridge. We covered the rat with stones from the bank of the Flatbrook. Returning a couple of days later, I pulled off the stone: nothing, or so little I had to point out the few identifiable bones, what I thought was the skin, a single claw. Nothing, as if the creature hadn’t ever existed. But the National Park Service can’t make the bow wall or the story of Hercules’ kitchen go away.
Just adjacent to the site of the President’s House, Olin Partners has serendipitously designed a speaker’s corner; what if we followed the lead of this archeology display and began to speak the truth?
I brought along with me to the country The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, by my friend Risa Goluboff. Risa is an academic superstar and her book, which came out in May, is accompanied by almost unbelievable advance-praise. Her point, if I am getting it, is this: somewhere along the road to civil rights, and Risa marks that point as Brown v. Board of Education, economic justice for African-Americans was sacrificed for a kind of emotional and psychological healing. So we’re drizzling Nile River water while one-of-four Philadelphians lives below the federal poverty line. I’m guessing that rate is even higher for African-Americans.
I don’t mean to knock yesterday’s ceremony. You know I am drawn to (and sometimes repelled by) symbolism. In this case, officials attempted to meet the moving act of the dig itself with something appropriately evocative. There are apparently enough Americans who felt shame in the staining of George Washington’s reputation (and would rather we didn’t make such a big deal about his indiscretion) that it’s vital to tell the story. And because it implies the need for such a significant re-telling of the creation-myth of the new republic, the little ruins is sure to have a large impact. But just as bee balm isn’t really the strongest medicine, neither is this kind of cultural rectification. We’ll need something more powerful to find — amidst such colossal ruins — real hope for the poorest among us.