In the year of our lord seventeen hundred, under the authority of a charter granted to William Penn by his majesty King Charles II, an English Quaker, looking for a new life in the new world, pushed a little further westward into the American wilderness and built a small log cabin beside the Brandywine River a full day's ride west of Philadelphia. The Brandywine flowed east, then as it does today, and with its sturdy English name and its woody, North American burble, bore the tidings of this foreign, rolling world of rich, deciduous hardwood back toward the center of the colony. Within a generation, more settlers would follow and two mills, one for corn, and one for grist, would be constructed on the banks of the Brandywine just upstream from the first cabin, and before long a town was established. It was named Milltown, in accordance with the practical, straightforward, no-nonsense ethos of men with the discipline and pragmatism necessary to survive in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, and still uncivilized part of the world.
This was the age of expansion, and the face of Europe was moving across the waters, recreating and reworking the distant parts of the earth in its own image, calculating and dividing according to the golden mean of its own civilization. Soon enough, I imagine, Milltown had its own one room schoolhouse where children memorized phrases from Latin grammar texts and learned to appreciate the triumphant history of Britain and its kings over the sea. Soon enough there were cobblestone thoroughfares with streetlamps, and houses with glass windows and portraits of the English navy cresting, with great puissance and unfurled regalia, the green-gray breakers of the cold Atlantic. And yet for the men who lived in Milltown, England must have always been a kind of dream, a fantasy, a fairy tale reference point shared in common and held in high esteem, a giver and receiver of goods, an arbiter and a law maker, but never a immediate presence in day-to-day reality. The fullness of the English worldview could never be wholly their own; although their affairs were ordered by a logic that was European, molded and remolded by centuries of the western tradition, their lives took place in a terrain whose body and spirit proceeded from a different than that of the motherland.
They lived there amid the sycamore and the silver beech and the wild cherry trees, the squat contortions of the dogwood and the serenity of white oak, their cabins fringed with brambles, clover, and rhododendron, there in the uncharted American forest. They are to me strange, near-incomprehensible figures, visible like the traces of moving shadows seen through thick gauze, warped and refracted by history textbooks and historical societies until their faces become blank and unreachable. They are the men of another era, invisible to me except in the footprints that they left on the land where I live, their collapsing stone walls with patchy skins of moss and lichens, stumbled upon suddenly and unexpectedly, out in the woods behind the strip malls and the housing developments of the modern world. In a way, they were exiles, outcasts, pilgrims and wanderers, torn between two worlds, never fully invested in either, and their dilemma persists today, three centuries later, although Milltown has been engulfed by the American dream and given a new name.
The area of land that was once used as a stopping off point for stage-coaches halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster, has been renamed, after one of its more prominent nineteenth-century citizens, as Downingtown. Strands of the old English cosmology persist: at the center of town there stands a red brick pub, in a style that would not be out of place in many parts of England, called Ten Downing Street. The log cabin, also, persists, albeit in a new location; at some point during the throes of suburban development the decision was made to move the cabin to a more picturesque location, and so, after the intervention of cranes and flatbed trucks and several gallons of whitewash, it stands now just down the street from the pub, in Downingtown's central park, perched right on top of the river, attracting dutiful and perfunctory tourists, gleaming with the dull sheen of an ideal historical relic. The world that produced it is gone, shattered by highways and concrete bridges and spreading circles of red brick houses with Christmas lights and chain link fences, punctured by oily gas stations and tattoo parlors, little-league fields and ice cream stands, smothered by hard asphalt parking lots that grip the land and ward off the remnants of Penn's great forest. The town's central church, a white colonial monolith that rises on its haunches and proffers its gothic spire just across the street from the supermarket and the drug store, has been gutted and turned into a furniture warehouse; "Dane Décor" has been emblazoned in smart red letters between the tall, arched doorway and the wide mouth of the bell tower. Another monolith, sharper, leaner, and more compelling, rises from the center of Downingtown as well: one long, white paper mill has replaced the old colonial structures, and it, too, hunches beside the river, emitting a gray, powdery haze that settles down around all the buildings on hot days and fills the air with a waxy, particulate cloud of dirt. Driving down Route 113 into the valley of the Brandywine, its one upthrust smoke stack visibly commands and overpowers the shapes of the town. It is an industrial axis toward which everything else is oriented. Its smell, thin and subtle, and noxious, spreads down all the streets and avenues, grainy and smooth, like the walls of the mill itself, and pungent as if with the essence of industrialization. Three centuries later, Downingtown is still making things, milling things, stamping them in boxes and sending them to far-away places, only now the things are stranger, whiter, finer, more precise; before the boxes were filled with coarse, rich corn meal to be consumed in other parts of county, and now they are stuffed with heavy, exact blocks of paper and carried away by diesel trucks into the grid of American highways and cities. Three centuries later, beneath the concrete and the stone, the wood and the brick and the steel, the land itself still blooms and subsides in the same rhythmic undulations. From the dead, taut coldness of the winter, when all the trees lay gray and bare and dangle frozen water droplets like rows of rounded, glassy teeth over the thick, spreading layers of frost and evergreen grass, it crescendos and mounts and swells to the boom of summer, when the crackle of cicadas fill the spaces behind the houses and echo off the walls, and all the hills are green and lushly radiant and spotted with low lying flowers. Then the wave of living energy begins to recede, and the winds gust through the trees and shake their heavy sheaves of drying leaves like soft, swooshing rattles, and gradually darkness increases, and the air becomes shrill and filled with the cold, white veins of winter, and the pastures lay silent.
I grew up about ten blocks away from the center of Downingtown, along one of the rows of American red brick houses, squat and practical, square and neat with all the proper perpendiculars, stop signs, and manicured hedges. Two houses to the left of our home lived Mr. Gene and Ms. Marie, as I knew them then, who, as a retired couple, were a constant, peripheral presence in the tableau of my childhood. At the end of the day, as the blue veil of evening began to drape itself over the warm, baked colors of the afternoon, Ms. Marie would sit in a multicolor plastic folding chair on the concrete stoop in front of her house and gaze out into the street from beneath a bun of white hair, her face slack, her eyes elemental and shining a deep, gemstone blue. The physicality of her still body would fade until she was almost as invisible as an individual brick in the wall behind her, caught up in the chiaroscuro of the evening shadows, and only her eyes and her face remained, at once tired and brilliant, creating the impression that she was awake to some other world hidden from my view, immediate and yet impossibly out of sight, to which the mundane reality of the street with its rows of parked cars and smudged windowpanes was almost irrelevant.
Her husband, Mr. Gene, would slam open the aluminum door of their house in the middle of the afternoon and stump outside, blinking in the brightness, hoe and shovel in hand, and move down the hill of his yard toward his garden. He would yell over the fence to us: "If you don't hoe, it won't grow!" and chucking, turn his head away, the bemused possessor of an active, incantatory form of knowledge that was composed, ultimately, only of hot air, and in which even he didn't place too much stock. Each of his movements seemed severe and final, and his face was hard and leathery and heavy, his mouth twisting around his speech as if he was drunk, enraged, afraid, uncomprehending, and dumbfounded by his words all at once. "I seen you kids comin in over my fence, hitting baseballs into my yard, stay outta there! Them tomatoes are just comin up!" Sometimes, when talking to my parents or to one of my neighbors, describing a stay at his shore house on the Maryland coast, he would appear amused and tired and full of wonder and practical cynicism all at once, railing against the storms, describing the weather and the sea, and suddenly becoming quiet. Mr. Gene and Ms. Marie were mutable, like the weather itself, their aspects changing and flowing fluidly from one pose to the next, and they were connected to it, in harmony with it. The weather was, in fact, one of the primary subjects of neighborhood conversation. They would continually expound on it, at times bemused and at times authoritative, sometimes halting and sometimes with great spurts of animation, and yet I have the sense that they were never wholly present, in those conversations, that something fundamental of themselves was reserved, held back, and that they were in fact waiting, waiting for something that would never arrive, and in the meantime they simply existed, aloof and detached and endlessly patient, swelling and subsiding with the wind and the sun and the rain. After the distillation of remembering, the sense of their reserve becomes, in my mind, their definitive characteristic: they were there, but they were not there, not fully at home, and their long, homeless patience shone unmistakably in their eyes and in their faces.
Furthermore, it was not just Mr. Gene and Ms. Marie. I have the sense almost no one, in Downingtown, is wholly inscribed in or explained by the network of images and buildings and sound bites, goals and reasons and explanations that arise as the current of American culture and English language flows and gusts through this particular space of Pennsylvania. My neighbors were part of a continuity of aloofness that extended throughout the entire town; they were allied with all the other older, stooped, care-worn evening walkers and starers into storm drains, with the busy-bodies who would pause from their hedge trimming to stare out into space without seeing the houses and the patios and the telephone poles standing right in front of them.
There was Mr. Johnson, who lived in the house adjoining our own, who would come out onto his back porch each afternoon and gaze up distrustfully at the enormous, billowing maple that hung over our yards, and remark that he hadn't yet gotten around to calling a landscaper to cut part of it down. He would grin a toothy grin and then squint and gaze up at it, foregrounded against the grassy field that swept from the picket fences behind our houses to the trees clustering along the Brandywine tributary the flowed in the background, without taking any of it in. Instead he wrestled with a sense of obligation, having heard the portentous announcement from Mr. Gene time and time again that the Maple was going to come down on us all, one stormy evening or another.
There was Roger Paisley, a friend of my parents, or "Paze", as they called him, who came around once and a while and filled the air with the verbal spell of an auctioneer. He would talk about fire hall showings, veterans' meetings, prospects and accomplishments, gains and losses with conviction and with a calm, sustained excitement, winding his words around and around and around us, pausing only to stare out into the distance, just for an instant, his blue eyes shining, as if not entirely convinced of anything at all.
These were the people of Downingtown, the people who inhabited the actual, physical space, the wanderers, the break-downs, the up-starts. Across the street lived a factory worker who would come outside each evening around six o clock and stand smoking, a cigarette held to his lips, a muteness covering his sooty face and dark eyes, and you could almost see him steaming, still interwoven with the machinery of industry, as he looked blankly, through all the color and bustle of the moment, toward his own inscrutable thoughts. Just past Mr. Gene and Ms. Marie lived a young, baldheaded twenty something with his pregnant wife, all muscles and alacrity, who, seemingly through sheer force of will, had commandeered a two hour morning show on the local radio station. In the afternoons you would see him in his back yard, moving things around, renovating his lawn and garden, building decks and sheds and buzzing his power saw. He too, when the time for all of this motion had ceased, would stand at the side of the street, as evening blew in, talking, talking, talking, his self assurance almost complete, except for nearly imperceptible moments when he would look off into the distance and seem lost, a part of him detached and unconvinced, even in all the fullness of his physicality and presence. Then he would flash a smile, shake your hand, and hustle back into his house, as he had things to do, it was dinner time, time to go.
These are the people of Downingtown, the people of my home town, and to me, none of them have ever really seemed to be at home. There is a sense of displacement and detachment that radiates from them, which is subtle among the young and restless, but powerful and undeniable among the ones that have been around, the ones that have spent their lives here. After all the years of their lifetime they have never really come to understand the place itself, never tamed it or completely made peace with it, and they exist, consequently, in the throes of an uneasy habituality. They don't seem quite comfortable, never taking a full, easy, satisfied breath; they aren't quite in touch with the place that they have tried to make their own. There is no seamless relationship between the people of Downingtown and Downingtown the living, dynamic, material phenomenon.
In many ways, the place itself, in its physical reality, is not their own, and can not be their own; it is in flux, and is not even at peace with itself. America moves through it, America and its nerves and veins and blood and bones, and all of its ideas. Train tracks, highways, delivery routes, power lines, pipe lines, gas lines, telephone lines, bus lines, cable lines, radio waves, and microwaves run and flow and gush and pulse through the town. Airplanes burn through the sky. Here is inextricably threaded into elsewhere, bound up with the suburban and urban worlds, tied into a larger project of civilization that makes sense, maybe, in some larger context, from a greater height, and on a bigger scale. But here, in the streets studded with fire hydrants where people walk their dogs in the lazy afternoons, it doesn't quite make sense, in the back of our minds. It is intimately familiar and yet it doesn't wholly work; we aren't wholly comfortable with the divided, restless, ambiguous nature of our world. It begins to seem like two worlds colliding, superimposed over one another, interfering with one another, disrupting each other and obviating the possibility of any profound authenticity of place. There are bucolic pastures roamed by cows and horses juxtaposed with rapid-fire, four-lane highways, paradisiacal gardens that end in fences constructed to ward off vast parking lots filled with broken bottles, evenings when the moon beams down softly, only to be upstaged by a myriad of high-wattage incandescent lights. There is an old Quaker meeting house, erected by hand centuries ago by the earliest residents of the town and where people continue to practice contemplative, communal religious life, across the street from the McDonalds with its high-volume, twenty-four hour traffic of vehicles and people. There is the old brick town itself, a nucleus from which radiates circle after concentric circle of stylish, over-landscaped modern block-house developments, corporate parks, and strip malls. There is the modern world of this American moment, in all its electrical intricacy and abstraction, and the physical, sensual, unchanging, rhythmic, natural place that lies beneath it, and that, over the course of hundreds of years, slowly and grudgingly gave birth to it. Between the two there is a field of discord and contradiction; there are gaps, unforeseen, unavoidable gaps, discontinuities of time and quality and substance, and for the people living in the patchwork conflation of two different layers of reality, there is a sense of unease, discontent, and an inability to fully relax into relatedness and awakeness to the world in which they find themselves.
I find myself wondering: is there anything authentically here, in the suburbs? Our houses are built according to blueprints and ideals that come from elsewhere, from who knows where. They are parceled out in square plots and filled with paper plates and plastic clocks, DVD players and televisions sets, Compaq computers and DSL lines, light switches to blot out the darkness and climate control to deny the sharpness of the seasons. Culture, in a profoundly physical sense, flows through us, animates us, powers us, charges us, makes and unmakes us, here in the American suburbs of the twenty-first century. All of the artificial, homogeneous, mass-produced forms that overlay the older ways of existing and realities of the natural world call us away, they blur our vision and stir us up and set our blood in motion until we no longer have a sense of place that makes sense. The world is not ours, was not made the way it is by us, and it did not develop according the logic of our blood and our bodies and the trees that sway beneath the streetlights. Yet we find ourselves in it, in its messiness and its strangeness and its contradictions, and our response is often to withdraw from it, or to rebel against it.
The younger a person is, the more acutely and urgently this sense of displacement is felt, and the more savage the thrashing out against it. Where the old men and women walk along the sidewalks in the evenings with a folded newspaper beneath their arms with a tired, patient aloofness, the kids are desperate to belong somewhere, maddened, blown this way and that by the gusting currents that come through all of these pipelines that slice through the town and the country, without enough anchoring, without even a habitual relationship to this place to fall into.
Not long ago, four sophomore students at Downingtown High School left the building after afternoon classes and, from the parking lot of an adjoining building, took the car of one of their mothers and set out on a high speed joyride. Drunk with the illegitimacy and freedom of it all, they took the winding country roads at turbo speeds, until, negotiating a curve out in the beautiful Chester County countryside, sycamore and white oak lit up in the same dappled, late-day splendor that the earliest residents of Milltown would have experienced when they made their home in this part of the world, the driver lost control of the car at ninety miles per hour and skidded along the asphalt, leaving a trail of smoking rubber to the point where the car burst through the threshold of the guardrail and into the forest beyond, the metal auto-body screaming through the underbrush and crunching down the saplings until it finally wrapped around an ancient, thick-trunked tree.
This, also, is a part of the spirit of Downingtown. Two worlds are colliding: the world of the highways, of elsewhere, of America at large, of modernity, and the world of the trees at the side of the road, the trees that were here first. Through both worlds comes the pulse and inevitability of death; death is at the crossroads, death hangs between them, and, fleeing from this sense of death, torn between the two worlds, we find it all the same.
No one knows quite how to deal with the situation, how to make the old ways of living work in a new world, how to be here when the very nature of here has been exploded and fragmented and wrapped together again in plastic wrap and tin foil. No one knows how we fit into this picture, not really; we're still searching for the same answers that those first restless settlers set out seeking. We're looking for a better life, or even just a life, a life that makes sense in a world that is shifting and tilting beneath us, that is moving faster and faster and faster and that nobody knows how to slow down.
This essay was written as a synthesis of and a response to the material that I digested over the course of the fall semester from the courses readings and discussions for EL 171. It is a stab at doing my own kind of wisdom-speaking, and lies somewhere between travel and sage-writing. Like Carlyle, Ruskin, and others, as my argument unfolds I declare that something (in this case, Downingtown, in both its historical and present-day existence) worth analyzing and then proceed to perform both evocation, using various kinds of details and the presentation of particular characters and voices, and interpretation, explaining what it all means. I then continue by arguing that "we" have fallen away, in a sense, from nature and the right road, although I stop short of declaring "right" what we have fallen away from and "wrong" the path that we are on; the picture, according to my essay, is more ambiguous than that. This is where I depart from the sages, and I continue in my own direction from there, not explicitly asserting disaster if things continue in the way that they are going (in fact, I don't particularly think there is another way). I make no visionary promises about wonderful things to come if my warnings are heeded; it seems that sage-writing difficult if not impossible to do, authentically, in the modern climate. Writers like Didion and Chatwin, who write sharp commentary about the way things have broken down and gone wrong, never seem to present visions of a better world: it simply isn't a part of the modern tone.
Many of my techniques for making my argument and evoking a sense of place were drawn from the texts of the various authors that we have studied, as well as the actual subjects and organization of my essay. As is present in the travel writing of Lawrence and the nature writing of Dillard, as well as in the writing of many of the other authors that we have studied, my writing has a lot of motion between the detailed evocation of a place and dispassionate, abstract analysis of what it all means and how the details that I have chosen are relevant to a greater understanding of the world at large. There is a parallel motion between evocation and analysis of the natural and the cultural worlds, and the ways in which they relate to one another. I was also sensitive, after our class discussions on the subject, to the ways in which the pronouns I, you, and we can be used to different effect on the reader of an essay. I is a somewhat neutral and straightforward term, signaling that this is what I, the writer, think and am arguing. I used you to bring the reader in a more immediate way into passages of description and analysis, and we to present particular arguments or generalizations in a "soft" fashion, trying to get the reader to unconsciously take for granted what I take for granted, to follow where I lead, and to feel a kind of solidarity with my narrative voice.
The subjects explored in my essay were very much drawn from the subjects of the various sages and wisdom speakers that we studied. At the core of my essay was the goal of looking at the world, and in particular the familiar, and seeing through the surface, and then, communicating, in a compelling fashion, what I discover there. The idea is to connect what is immediately present, for the speaker, with the powers that motivate, shape, and inform it. This mode of writing, I feel, was employed by most of the course authors, including Carlyle, Ruskin, Lawrence, Didion, Wolfe, Suleri, Dillard, and Chatwin.
I also emphasized a theme that can be found in many of the sage's writings, and I think particularly in Carlyle and Ruskin, of the relationship between the human and industrial dimensions of a particular time period and cultural space. The sage is interested in how the individual man experiences the forms and constructions of post-industrial society, and my essay was very much interested in this topic.
Along the same vein, I sought to uncover the particular relationship of the people of a specific place (Downingtown) with the place itself, as is one of the centerpieces of Lawrence's project in Twilight in Italy. Furthermore, I strove to see the most intimate place in the world for me, the town where I was brought up, in meticulous, objective light, as Suleri does in Meatless Days.
Last modified 16 December 2003