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You Are Clusterfucked!

I traverse this landscape goggling at the sights in wonder and nausea. This part of America has become something worse than a former Soviet backwater, something sadder. In these places, we have managed to overcome even the hard-won fruits of enterprise achieved by the independent people who preceded those alive now. Everything they wrested from the land has been thrown away, or allowed to rot in place -- so that more attention can be paid to televised entertainments.
The past week's adventure took me up the back roads through a little corner of eastern upstate New York into Vermont to Burlington, to tape a public TV show. Are you indignant to read that I drove there in a conventional gasoline-powered automobile? Guess what -- one doesn't have a choice, given the pathetic condition of our railroads, and I haven't ordered my soy-diesel-powered one-man zeppelin yet. Anyway, the subject is what I saw along the way.

It would be hard to imagine a sadder landscape than these rural backwaters along the New York / Vermont border. Geographically they are still beautiful. It's a region of tender hills, well-wooded now, and ribboned with trout streams. It's the human furnishings that are desolate and what they say about what we have become as a nation. This was a farming region of course, and the re-growth of the woods is a symptom of farming's decline the past fifty years.

Dairying was the big thing through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. But regional milk production became irrelevant during the decades of cheap oil, when New Yorkers could just as easily get milk and cheese from Wisconsin or California. So now only a few relic farms still operate. Every building in the landscape related to farming is now decrepit. Siding and shingles have peeled off the barns. The sills are rotting and the ridgeboards sag. The tractor sheds are too far gone to keep tractors in, so the machines sit out in the rain now. The older houses -- many of them dating from the Greek Revival of the 1850s -- are subject to indignities beyond simple neglect. Many are partially cocooned in plastic, because fixing the wooden parts was too expensive, or just too difficult for people whose skills are now limited to operating cars, televisions, and forklifts. The yards are littered with plastic debris: tricycles, hoses, and patio chairs disintegrating under the daily ultraviolet -- and you could see it all because a week of January temperatures into the 50s melted all the snow cover off.

You can track the decades of overgrowth in the pastures: sumac and poplar in the early going, then regular trees. In many places, stone walls from the 19th century run along the roads in woods that were sheep meadows a hundred and fifty years ago. You have to wonder how long all that wood will be there now, with heating bills up 50 percent this year and no relief in sight. Indeed, I wonder if the remnant of people living here will have any idea what to do with their land, when the forklift jobs in the Target Store regional warehouse thirty-eight miles away are no longer there. I'd like to suppose that even people unaccustomed to challenges can be resilient and resourceful when they simply have to be. But if the televisions stay on, they may just choose to die in front of them.

The towns along way -- Salem, Granville, Fair Haven -- may be even sadder than the farms. All civic vitality seems to have been drained out of them by a persistent wasting disease. Little of any value has been built in decades, and certainly nothing with any beauty. Here and there gas stations bloated into snack marts vie for supremacy of the highway intersections, but the little downtowns with their vacant storefronts echo with loss and grief. Everything fixed has been fixed badly. The houses are encased in plastic siding, grimy with years of tailpipe emissions. Here and there a screw falls out of a sofit and a dangling plastic panel flutters in the wind. The town streets are empty.The windows are broken in the small factories along the trout streams. Only the county highways that turn into the Main Streets show any signs of life, and that, of course, is the life of the highway itself, the endless cavalcade of motoring. Cars and trucks are the sole investments made here.

I traverse this landscape goggling at the sights in wonder and nausea. This part of America has become something worse than a former Soviet backwater, something sadder. In these places, we have managed to overcome even the hard-won fruits of enterprise achieved by the independent people who preceded those alive now. Everything they wrested from the land has been thrown away, or allowed to rot in place -- so that more attention can be paid to televised entertainments.

Eventually, I reached the outer asteroid belt of car dealerships and fried food shacks that precedes Burlington. Here the mood switched from depressed to manic. Here, America was still busy, actively destroying itself. Given what we have managed to make of a farming and small town landscape, you had to imagine what these suburban vistas would be like fifty years from now.

homepage: homepage: http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com/clusterfuck_nation/

thanks for the "memories" 22.Feb.2006 13:48

Expat

I lived near the area you describe during the early 80s, and passed through there every few years over the following decade. You really nailed the reality of life there, or at least as it so appeared to a passerby. Thanks for sharing your insights.

I'll not be looking to Kunstler or leadership 22.Feb.2006 14:47

CaptainPlanet

Kunstler has many good points, but mostly for him it's complaining and that we should improve the rail system. Always going on about the rail system, like it's a panacea. He knocks the biodieselers, while making excuses for himself, seemingly not underatanding that biodiesel while not THE solution for energy needs can be an important player among other options. What is his excuse for not driving a hyrid at the very least? Does he not know that he could get a diesel-engine vehicle and fuel up with biodiesel when available, or petroleum diesel when necessary?

He likes to complain, 22.Feb.2006 20:08

but he's funny.

And I just discovered that "clusterfucked" is a US military term. Use prudently.