This summer, our niece and her family came up from Virginia to our home in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. While we were driving through the countryside checking out local craft breweries, she mentioned that the houses we passed, even the smaller, less-expensive ones, were neater and better cared for than what she saw back home.
I think it’s the weather, particularly the regularly-scheduled natural disaster that New Englanders call winter. We know it’s coming, we know what it will be like, we know what we need to do to get ready. And if you don’t get things done before the snow flies, you’re stuck with them until spring. That hard deadline tends to make people take responsibility for getting the fence painted or the bushes trimmed.
By contrast, I grew up in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, a small town on the Susquehanna River halfway between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Back in 1959, when the area’s main industry was anthracite coal, one mining company dug a little too close to the underside of the river, opening a hole that let most of the Susquehanna drain into the mines. In the three days it took to plug the hole, ten billion or so gallons of water poured into the tunnels, shutting down the area’s economy all at once and beginning to rot the supports for the mine shafts laced beneath the entire valley.
So in addition to ongoing depression, I grew up in a place where, every once in a while, someone’s backyard would disappear, leaving behind a gaping hole with brackish low-grade sulfuric acid – which is what you get when you steep anthracite coal in water for a couple of years – at the bottom. The entire town sagged subtly downhill on either side of Nassau Street, which followed the solid ground between two mining companies. In addition to watching the town sink, we got to play on the column dumps – the huge mounds made up of oil shale that was separated from the coal on multi-story breaker columns and simply piled nearby. The largest column dump in town – relatively small by local standards — covered roughly a quarter of a mile square and was known to us kids as the Black Desert. Fun fact? Oil shale burns, so every once in a while, older kids would get a tire fire started and set the column dumps ablaze. The soft, blue flames outlining the mounds of shale can actually be kind of pretty, as long as you’re upwind.
Growing up in Mordor gives you a very different outlook on life than growing up in New England. [Read more…]