Ed. note – This essay is excerpted from a talk that poet and writer Jim Ballowe gave at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. The piece is a bit of a departure for the City Creatures Blog in both its length (much longer than a typical blog post) and topic (not solely focused on city experiences). The connection to urban areas is oblique for much of the essay, though it should be clear enough to readers that the coal mining and farming that changed so much of the Prairie State’s ecological and social composition were fueled by the growth of Chicago and other cities. The connection to urban areas becomes much more explicit by the end of the piece, particularly when the author discusses Robert Sullivan’s Meadowlands. Consistent throughout are the author’s insightful reflections regarding an altered landscape and our ability to perceive the losses as well as participate in the flourishing of an ever-changing natural world—all of which depends upon our “love in the ruins.”
Walker Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time near the End of the World opens with the narrator holding a carbine in his lap while sitting in a pine grove on the cusp of a New Orleans interstate cloverleaf and gazing at the scene before him. At first everything appears normal. A marsh hawk glides into cypresses lit by the sun against a backdrop of purple thunderheads. On closer examination, the narrator sees that lichens grow into the interstate crevices and mimosas sprout on the shoulder. A motel across the road is in disrepair, its pool stagnant, a turtle sunning itself on the broken diving board. Cars rust in the parking lot. Vines sprout through a convertible top. The narrator tells us that the rooms are inhabited by “native denizens of the swamp, dirt daubers, moccasins, screech owls, and raccoons.” Possum grape covers the Rexall Drugs, scuppernong the A&P, and poison ivy twines around the drive-in movie speaker posts, “making a perfect geometrical forest of short cylindrical trees.” Though this may appear to be a scene from The Road Warrior, it isn’t, for it is not devoid of flora and fauna. Nature is covering over human devastation.
I am attracted to this scene sufficiently to recast Percy’s title so that it applies more directly to my own experiences. I suppose my title would be something like Life in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Life-long Illinoisan in a State That May Not Exist. Like Percy’s, my title begs the question of the quality of life that is lived in ruins, just as it emphasizes the irony of ruination harboring life at all. My subtitle is more epistemological than his, suggesting as it does that what we see may be what we want to see rather than what is actually there. I think it is no secret to naturalists that, if looked at ecologically and culturally, Illinois—like human habitation everywhere—is not what conventional wisdom thinks it was, is, or will be.
For example, consider that Illinois calls itself the Prairie State. There are multiple ironies in that boast. One is the clichéd estimate that only 2300 acres of the 22 or 23-million pre-European settlement acres remain. An even greater irony lies in the probability that a tiny percentage of the 13 million inhabitants of Illinois prairie would understand or even recognize either an original or a reconstituted patch of prairie if they saw it. Having come to a relatively virgin territory and embracing the Puritanical purpose of building a City upon a Hill for God, European immigrants, subsequently joined by others from around the world, have spent four centuries making the environment over to suit their needs and desires by altering the contours of the land, making rivers straight that once were crooked, and changing the character of forests and grasslands.
I can explain what I mean by tracing my own experience in Illinois, living within the ruins of this cultural and environmental landscape that often serves as the inspiration for my writing. I was born in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1933 and grew up in nearby Herrin, a Williamson County town of 10,000 residents dependent for their livelihood on the soft coal dug deep underground by miners who tunneled the earth beneath their homes.
In 1876, Milo Erwin, a local attorney and historian, wrote a history of Williamson County. He begins with 1839, the year in which Williamson became one of the last of Illinois’ 102 counties. He is effusive about the “nine beautiful little prairies in the county, averaging about three square miles each, the edges … studded with … crab apples, hawthorns, red buds, etc., … making most romantic scenery.” A short generation later, when farming began, the scene was gone. “The farmers stopped the hunters from burning the woods,” Erwin explains. “When this was done, the leaves killed the grass, and up came the bushes.” (It’s a simplified analysis, of course. But it might make us think that had it not been for the sometimes unwitting “land management” by fire of Native peoples, we could well have called ourselves the Bush State.) Where the tall grass still grew in 1876, Erwin writes that settlers could yet find “herbs for medicine and beverage.” But Erwin laments that “wherever civilized man has put his foot, it has left its print, and now wild briars, thorns and thistles have grown up to choke out the sweet blossoms which once bloomed over this county.” So, too, did the fauna dependent upon prairie disappear.
But even as he bemoans what he believed to have been a more virginal and idyllic landscape, he proudly announces the discovery of coal in the area, saying, “No country on the globe is better supplied with coal than this county.” And he was right. Three quarters of the 433 square miles of Williamson County land covered ten veins of bituminous coal averaging nine feet in thickness. By 1900, Herrin was totally dependent upon coal, and the faces and culture changed to those of coal miners. My own grandfathers lived a typical boy’s life there, each beginning work at the age of 12 deep in the pits under Herrin. Their experience inspired me to write this poem:
THE COAL MINERS
The holes you made
inward. Whole towns
the graves you dug.
This is your legacy.
Not Lawrence’s togetherness
even then prompted you
to consume the blackness
that became your soul.
It was coal. It was coal.
Drugged by the dark,
you imagined light
shining from Christ
in the dust that turned
you into dust.
You were a miner
deep in the pit
whom no one knew.
You a shade
in a blackened world
I see too. I see too.
The advent of WWI served only to exacerbate the immense growth in the production of coal in this area. Only a decade before my birth in 1933, 30,000 of the 60,000 Illinois miners who belonged to the United Mine Workers of America mined coal in Williamson and neighboring Franklin Counties. The detritus of what they and those who followed them dug from the earth has thoroughly transformed the landscape and the environment of which Milo Erwin wrote.
Much later I attempted to capture in poetry a sense of how life was lived in this new environment. Here is one poem in which I reckon with the mined land reclamation attempts begun by the state.
Farmers of the black vegetable
reap fields below the earth
into which years later
city streets sag
and heap slag (like cobs)
high into the air
and let it burn
with a blue flame through an eternity
make of it mountains
rugged barren heights
to whet the imagination of their children,
and leave skeletal structures
to remind themselves
that their work is done.
At 17 years of age, I came north to attend college in Decatur, Illinois, and one late spring, needing a job, I found myself on a tractor, cultivating crops on a quarter section of prime Illinois land that had once been prairie. It was an experience wondrous in its monotony and dangerous, to the field at least, in the reverie it engendered. It was, in short, poetic, and it led me to produce a poem I titled “Cultivating Half-Mile Rows.” England has few such farms, if any, and because of the fanciful subject, I’m sure, an editor in London paid me 17 pounds for the words, the first time I knew poetry would sell. Here’s what I learned:
CULTIVATING HALF-MILE ROWS
Mounted upon a tool
no dreamer of idyll knew
heavy against the broken earth
looking back at trench of clods
he feels the meaning of lines
he never read—sheer plod
makes plough-down sillion/Shine—
but a poet of masculine hoes
or painter of feminine sickles
might find and idyll in this:
Attach tool to tool
observe the virgin soil
in ponder of sheared sillion
and be but a fool mounted
upon a tool
dragging a tool;
occasional plodding pirouettes
to confuse the parallel pattern
beetles and such
diced in mid squeal
for accents along the way.
no painter of sickles
nor poet of hoes
would find it idyllic to plow
Such was the life of a scion of coalminers become a temporary farmer. But, believe me, it was a way to know the contours of a land once covered by prairie but which now displayed a dark and prodigal earth far richer than the mountains of soft coal I had known. The central and northern Illinois land on which I had come to spend my adult life was intriguing for its seemingly interminable flatness alleviated by occasional slopes, curves, and plunges into river valleys. The land appeared fruitful and aesthetically interesting, but it held neither the challenges nor the diversity that early pioneers had recorded in their crossing of a vast sea of grass.
Romantic notions of landscape and nature are fleeting, because nature itself is unpredictably evanescent. The latest instance of immense change nature wrought here in Illinois was the receding glaciation of some twelve millennia ago. Our nostalgia for what was here before human beings is circumscribed by a two-thousand-foot wall of ice, slowly receding from a landscape unutterably altered. The fact is that such a barrier to our imagination has appeared before and will again.
To accept such a fact is to proclaim oneself a philosophical naturalist or materialist, thinking of nature and humanity as the 1st-century poet Lucretius did in De Rerum Natura. Here is how the philosopher George Santayana talks about Lucretius’ thought:
Nature remains young and whole in spite of death at work everywhere; and what takes the place of what continually disappears is often remarkably like it in character…. While Heraclitus lamented that everything was in flux, Ecclesiastes, who was also entirely convinced of that truth, could lament that there was nothing new under the sun.
This double experience of mutation and recurrence, an experience at once sentimental and scientific, soon brought with it a very great thought, perhaps the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon, and which was the chief inspiration of Lucretius. It is that all we observe about us, and ourselves also, may be so many passing forms of a permanent substance.
Although De Rerum Natura may be less inspiring than supernatural or romantic poetry, the naturalists’ view of things, I think, helps us to understand better how to put into human perspective the changes we force on nature in the name of progress.
For one naturalist’s view, I turn to Aldo Leopold, who is often referred to as the twentieth-century successor to Thoreau and John Muir. In a little-quoted passage from A Sand County Almanac, Leopold describes the “Quality of Landscape” in North America of the thirties and forties. When Leopold first drafted his manuscript in the 1930s, his anger at the ruination of the environment was such that his friends cautioned him to contain it if he wanted an audience to listen to his message. His posthumously published book is much more persuasive than it would have been had his friends and editors not prevailed.
But remnants of his original style remain. In this cynical passage, he writes of taking a bus trip through Illinois, struck by the sight of a farmer and his son “pulling a crosscut saw through the innards of an ancient cottonwood.” This tree, under which Leopold surmises George Rogers Clark may have camped and buffalo may have roamed, he says, “is the best historical library short of the State College…” But given the present environmental thinking, the cottonwood tree must be cut down because “once a year it shed cotton on the farmer’s window screens.”
Leopold leads his reader to consider the ethical portent of this scene. He observes that the State College tells the farmer more about “beautifying the farm home” and how to achieve greater crop yields than about where the farm comes from. “[The state college’s] job is to make Illinois safe for soybeans… Everything on this farm spells money in the bank,” he writes.
In contrast, there are only wasted vestiges of what gave the farmer his opportunity to be wealthy: “The old oaks in the woodlot are without issue. There are no hedges, brush patches, fencerows, or other signs of shiftless husbandry. The cornfield has fat steers, but probably no quail. The fences stand on narrow ribbons of sod; whoever plowed that close to barbed wires must have been saying, ‘Waste not, want not.’”
“In the creek bottom pasture, flood trash is lodged high in the bushes. The creek banks are raw; chunks of Illinois have sloughed off and moved seaward. Patches of giant ragweed mark where freshets have thrown down the silt they could not carry. Just who is solvent?” Leopold asks. “For how long?”
In a parting shot, Leopold is merciless: “Illinois has no genesis, no history, no shoals or deeps, no tides of life and death. To [the bus riders] Illinois is only the sea on which they sail to ports unknown.”
“Through an open window,” he says, “I hear the heart-stirring whistle of an upland plover… A boy spies the bird and remarks to his father: there goes a snipe.” Yet, even Leopold’s anger is modified by his sense of irony in the incapacity of humanity to apprehend its puny evanescence in the larger scheme of things.
Another naturalist who examines life amid the ruins is Robert Sullivan, the contemporary author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. Sullivan, recording America in the twenty-first century, is more urban-centered than Leopold and, for that reason, perhaps more darkly optimistic, more reconciled to the drama played out between mankind’s domination and nature’s indifferent resiliency.
In an “Op-Ed” article titled “It Isn’t a Case of Paradise or Parking Lot,” published in the December 26, 2000, edition of the New York Times, Sullivan entered the debate over whether to construct a 204-acre mall on the site of the old Meadowlands, a 32-square-mile “swath of swamp and truck farms, of dumps and fallen-down factories at the confluence of the Passaic and the Hackensack Rivers in New Jersey.” In words that remind us of the opening scene of Walker Percy’s novel, Sullivan contrasts the “old or classical swamp” with the “new swamp.” The old swamp became, of course, a “reclamation” project for humans. Beyond anyone’s memory, it was drained for construction of heavy industry and homes that have since become the new swamp: “pockets of wetland amid buildings and parking lots and a new kind of decay where some of the old projects lie abandoned—failed truck farms, unsealed dumps—and nature is creeping back.”
“The New Jersey Meadowlands,” Sullivan writes, “is a prime example of the new swamp. It is studded with nearly sunken factories, the long-gone sites of berry patches, even rubble from World War II.” The defenders of saving the Meadowlands in its present condition argue, Sullivan says, “that the land is pristine and beautiful in places: they emphasize the old-swamp qualities of the new swamp.” Sullivan has this sense of the land: “…It is still a swamp, in the broadest sense of the term: it is dry and not-so-dry, with that edge-of-the universe feel. But it is not so classically beautiful. There seems to be plenty of classical wildness, as the opponents of the mall contend. But there is also lots of other wildness: old bridges with stalagmites of pigeon dung, abandoned living room furniture sets. For me the experience of a Meadowlands exploration is akin to looking for old breeds of roses in cemeteries or walking through Roman ruins…”
“Even if you don’t live in New Jersey,” he continues, “there is a Meadowlands near you. Your local Meadowlands is that old swampy area down by the river where the railroad comes in, the no-man’s land near the city airport. Your Meadowlands does not look like the Colorado River as it runs through the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worthless or lacks a beauty of its own or should be covered over by a mall.”
Sullivan’s point may be disconcerting to restoration conservationists. Yet elements of his argument are echoed in parts of the country faced with interesting restoration challenges: by those who argue against the demolition of outmoded oil rigs in the gulf because they have become inviting habitats for numerous species of fish; or by those who argue for the planting of slag heaps to engender new habitats for birds and animals. What these seemingly radical and contrarian points of view have in common is, I think, a view that nature will accommodate for its own purposes the ruins that the wasteful, habitué of obsolescence, upright animal that walks its surface and breathes its air is intent on creating.
Early settlers of America who thought they would build a City of God almost discovered what seemed to be an infinite tabula rasa on which they could freely scrawl their identities anew. But they winced at the apparent difficulties—forests, prairie, unruly rivers—that temporarily thwarted their efforts. Today we may wince at the ruin we seem to have created while we marvel at the progress we’ve made. Perhaps, as Sullivan suggests, we can make ruination habitable and add to it the reconstruction of those things Leopold believed necessary to be ethically and esthetically right, as well as economically expedient. “A thing is right,” he wrote, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.”
It is difficult to reconcile ourselves to the progress that we continue to make. A naturalist/materialist in the classical sense knows that what matters is matter. Human beings who understand this will continue their small work to develop, maintain, or reconstruct natural environments, holding to a belief that—even when they fail—nature, that matter of which they are a part and parcel, will have endured.
My final comment is in this poem I wrote a number of years ago. Some readers may find that its philosophy is informed by naturalism, romanticism, supernaturalism, and, perhaps, a hint of optimism:
Now April’s planting is in the stubble and stunted
stalks march into fields plowed black
for winter’s wheat. This calendar’s complete
but for an illustration. Ez sez
it’s a toothless bitch, a botched civilization.
There’s truth in that. But not enough if we know fields.
Remember Vallau where we drank brilliant Napoleon
among the grapes, ignored by the German with binoculars
until he asked if we knew his brother in Minneapolis?
In Bretagne, we hear, their smoke curls into fog from the bay.
Here a mist blows into ice. Wait.
Soon there will be snow frozen deep enough to hold us all.
Good Christ! We need these fields to survive our years.