Sunday, July 5, 2009

This place

I like this place, this corner of New Jersey, up here in the northeastern part of the United States of America, a good country to have been born and raised in, not exactly a holy cause as some kooks claim, but a country with a sound constitution and occasionally great leaders who have guided us through those times when it looked as though we might not make it. Like those first unsteady years after the Constitutional Convention, or during the Civil War, or the Great Depression. We won't be able to judge the outcome of our present difficulties until historians parse the official record somewhere down the line, but we've got some good people in key positions, though perhaps not enough of them. I hope we do. One thing is for sure -- during a period of real upheaval, when the underpinnings of society are shown to be rotten through and through, when the question of what human beings are for is being asked again with urgency, then most of the commentators -- left, right, smart, dumb -- will be mostly wrong about mostly everything. Spend a couple of hours perusing political sites on the web -- especially the comments sections -- and you'll likely want to take off for the furthest hills, like Chris McCandless in Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Unfortunately, as the poet said, you can't escape life.

These hills and this valley have survived four centuries of occupation by white people -- some foolish and exploitative, some wise and careful -- and parts of it still bring delight to the senses, though there is little diversity in the wildlife, too many of one species, nothing left of another, and, as is the case all over America, there are too many roads, strip centers, and too much trash. Bears and coon, crows and gulls have a field day at our overflowing garbage cans and dumpsters, then we get pissed off at them and call for 'control.' Deer pile up like refuse at the side of the road and Canadian Geese -- the very same bird that Aldo Leopold was decrying the near extinction of -- shite all over our lawns and beaches and drive other waterfowl away. If it wasn't so sad and serious, it would make one hell of a comedy -- watching feeble humans trying to 'manage' nature, ankle-deep in goose shite, collecting reeking carcasses off the side of the road, at the same time they're bringing their little doggies down to the little doggie spa to get a little doggie hair-do. I like watching the turkey vultures lazily looking down from their cozy gyres of warm air -- they know some poor beast is always getting killed and there'll be plenty of clean-up work for them. No sweat.

Still, I like this place, the big broken rocks, the giant rhododendron, the jays and herons, the boggy mess when the Wallkill runs high, the few farms that remain, growing peaches and apples, onions and cabbage. They keep horses, goats, and a few sheep, and one family even has some big birds racing around their acreage -- emu, I think. It's not a spectacular landscape, though the view from Mt. St. Peter out toward the west when the sun is setting can choke you up, but it is green and varied and nicely pitched to a human scale. It can be fearsomely icy in winter and real trouble if you get caught out in a lightning storm, but most of the time it's a congenial place for critters like us. Plenty of food and water, a decent growing season, game, and pretty good air despite being so close to the city.

Quist used to tell me that "the world is gonna shrink as you get older. What you think is a great distance will turn out to be just a little ways." For a long time I had to concede that the old boy was right -- you aged, you gained experience, and the world came closer and closer. Soon a flight to the West Coast felt as short as a trip to the shore. Paris was just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away. But now I don't think so anymore. Instead, I think that the process begins to reverse itself and distances grow again. Parts of the world move away from you. These days I walk a lot and ride a bike and don't care much to drive. Hell, just going down to Butler to get a pizza feels like a long haul, especially with the traffic out on Route 23.

Ken the Electrician came up here almost twenty years ago. He's originally from Queens. "Now I would never think of goin back. In fact, I haven't been to the city since my mom died some four years ago. Don't miss it a bit. Up here, I've got everything I need -- plenty of work, plenty of fish, plenty of things for my kids to do. And I only fill my gas tank once every two weeks. That's livin."

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