Archive for January, 2010

Main Street and Wall Street

Closed Ice Cream Shop, Weirton, West Virginia © Jim Korpi

Catchy sound bites about Main Street verses Wall Street are subtly, but neatly, wrapped in manipulative rhetoric. After driving through a number of main streets across the country, I’ve come to the understanding that they’re not dying, they’re dead.
The revitalization of our cities, towns and villages would take a change of mindsets and habits no politician could accomplish.
Our consideration for space and place has dissolved into a hapless disregard for all things sacred. The natural world, community, craftsmanship, and basic use of the human body are all lined up for future exhibition at the Smithsonian.
But there is hope. There is an alternative. I’ve seen it in places like Burlington, Vt., and Charlottesville, Va. The downtown areas are alive. People are walking through the streets, eating at cafes, and enjoying life and the company of their neighbors. People come from around the country to go to towns like this, not for all the box stores their own comfortable towns have, but because of something unique. The towns are truly alive.
Who loses when a downtown becomes vibrant again?

grandfather’s toast

This burned toast sat on the sidewalk like a spent cigarette. No window nearby to toss it from. No reason to toss it from a window.
When I was young I can remember the smell of burned bread. I then recall the scraping sound of a butter knife sliding down toast coming from the kitchen. My grandfather, who happened to be blind, would either forget his bread in the toaster or prefer it well done.
There are few memories of my grandfather. He died when I was just old enough to cry and young enough for time to have erased years. It’s amazing how a burned piece of toast on the sidewalk can bring someone back.

Torn by the Land

“To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors — the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.”
– Chief Seattle in Contested Speech
Wendell Berry talks of two types of people in the world, the nurturer and the exploiter. The more I begin to understand my own tendencies and those of the people around me, I’m frightened by human potential and those types who have defined our history.
I think often about owning land. Why? Do I crave the security of entering into the communion of homeownership? Do I want to draw a line in the sand as if to say, “This is mine?” Or is it just a bit of the ol’ “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em?”
People talk of owning property in terms of “view” and “location” but rarely does someone say to me, “I would like to buy this piece of land because the history my family has here.” It’s as if the land has become only something to look at and possess, another thing to place in a box in the attic or in a storage facility nearby.
I’m well aware of the belief that if one doesn’t own something then they don’t care for it. This I believe only if one is brought up without a strong value system and/or sense of entitlement, but I’m not sold on this idea when it comes to the land. No law or ownership is required for me to know that I shouldn’t throw trash from a moving vehicle, nor should I dump my refuse while going for a walk in the woods.

House Fire

playing house © Jim Korpi

Saturday morning started with an early phone call. When the phone rings late in the evening or early in the morning there is always a thought that the call may not be a good one.

Our friend’s house had just burned to the ground. Their giant log cabin-style castle, complete with stone tower, had caught fire the night before and was still burning. The fire department said that when a log cabin burns it takes a little more to get it going, but once the fire starts it burns extremely hot.

Annah and I drove to their place as soon as we got the call. We could see smoke from the highway on the hillside where their house would be. It was worse than we thought.

Everyone was safe, but the house, a mansion-like estate on a small hill at the top of their winding drive, was a charred smoking half-wall.

Tanya had seen the fire start on the second floor and came running downstairs while Andy was placing a log in the fireplace. She grabbed the two children with no time to grab their shoes and ran them to their grandfather’s house next door. Andy, who has served two tours in Iraq, emptied three fire extinguishers on the growing fire on the second floor. He then ran outside to grab the hose only to realize it was frozen. He then ran back into the house and was overcome with the smoke. At this point he realized that there was absolutely nothing he could do to save his house and there wasn’t an item he could save.

Every piece of clothing, every photograph, his grandfather’s gun collection…EVERYTHING… gone.

What do you do for friends who have lost everything except the clothes they were wearing when they left their burning house? Their insurance is good and will rebuild the house, buy new appliances and replace things of value.

Our instincts are to help, but why? How?

The morning after the fire I saw a shocked Andy at the farmer’s market. He  recalled a talk with his good friend Bill, who he and his wife spent the night with while their house lie in a smoldering pile a few miles away. “Look at it this way, Andy,” Bill explained. “You just cleansed yourself of all your belongings, and you didn’t have to become a Buddhist to do it.”

Tis’ The Season

The frozen heaving of the ground beneath my feet never meant much more to me than the inconvenience of a bumpy car ride. In the compacted paths that lead to the woods in my backyard this upheaval has made me think differently about this frosty season and the thawing one to follow.

There are periods of frigid and lonely stillness, thawing calm and resurrection, blossoming warm growth, and the inevitable decline and decay. These are the seasons of our lives and those defining the natural world. For the paths behind my house, the compacted soil has adjusted with the frost and loosened to give room for the seeds and swelling of spring.

I’m growing a beard this winter, partly to see if puberty truly hasn’t skipped my facial features, and partly to reconnect to some personal version of seasonal change. Over the years spent in cold climates, I’ve grown more  interested in things like hibernation, not because I desire a break from the world, but because the notion of adjusting life’s activities to that of the climate  makes sense.

After running out of cord-wood for the firestove two days ago, I called up my neighbor Kent Butler  to see if he knew anyone in the country with some seasoned hardwood. “You’ve been a bad squirrel,” he said after listening to my predicament. “You’re right,” I said surprised by his analogy. “I’d be a dead squirrel.”