This morning I dreamed that I was looking at paintings that appeared to depict a Russian royal wedding and that it was vital that I put them into the correct order. I did not know whether they should be arranged chronologically or in some other order. In the middle of the stack I came to a magnificent full-length portrait of a woman in an ornate costume (the bride or her mother?) and thought perhaps she was meant to be the culmination of the series. I had a feeling that, if I didn’t get the order precisely right, something very bad would happen to me. Then a light started flashing beyond my closed eyelids — my alarm — and I woke up thinking some catastrophe was about to occur.
The early Sunday morning alarm was to get me up in time for a trip to Ann Arbor. I’m on the train now, passing through a cross section of countryside that probably represents a good portion of the eastern and midwestern United States — family farms, small towns, and industries of various sizes. In minutes you can pass everything from fields, trees, taverns, decaying houses, and bland new subdivisions to massive concrete smokestacks that put food on the table and a blight on the landscape and the soul.
As industry grew and promised a higher quality of life for more people, did anyone question whether this was any way to live? I remember a story about a place in Brazil where the air quality was so poor that the writer’s lungs began burning within minutes of getting off the plane. The lungs burn; the soul sickens; the animals die or disappear. Is this the fit legacy of general prosperity?
Unbeknownst to me, my dad lived a double life. Early every morning for 26 years, or nearly 30 percent of his life, he went to work at the Ford Stamping Plant in Lackawanna, New York, an industrial city south of Buffalo dominated then by Ford, Bethlehem Steel, and the rails that carried their shipments. The few times I went to or through that part of Lackawanna I must have felt like I had entered an alien world where all the beauty of nature had been completely supplanted by the ugly dreariness of steel, concrete, and pavement.
And every night he came home to a trailer facing an open field and backed by woods in which deer, rabbits, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, and other animals thrived. He saw owls a few times; occasionally I heard whippoorwills. When we went to the butcher’s, they’d give us suet for the snowbirds, and we’d buy enormous bags of birdseed at the feed store or grocery. Watching the antics of the chickadees or cursing the aggressiveness of the blue jays gave both my parents great joy — a joy they could not have found in Lackawanna.
I have to remind myself that I can’t completely disparage industry, although I can lament some of its lasting effects. Without it, and unions like the UAW, men like my father might not have earned a living wage, been able to provide their wives and children with health and dental care, and had enough to live on during retirement (for my father, 23 years). In areas where industry has come and gone, the blight is felt the most — the negatives without the benefits.
It’s easy to forget about or ignore industrial blight when it doesn’t surround you — out of sight, out of mind — or when it blends into the urban landscape. From the vantage point of a train, as it travels through different human settings like a bit through layers of sedimentary rock, it is impossible not to compare and contrast the smokestacks of Hammond, Indiana, with the forest, fields, and farms of south central Michigan. Life on a farm is hard and uncertain, but there is a natural rhythm to it combined with an indefinable emotional satisfaction. Life in the shadow of the factory is also hard and uncertain, and the reward is to be able to provide for the family. In that shadow, however, how many wither and die inside?
As I see decaying or abandoned mills, plants, and other remnants of the age of industry in my train travels, I wish that we could reclaim the land — tear down the concrete and steel and let nature rebuild. But there is neither the money nor the will to restore the land, and so the Rust Belt grows ever rustier — part of our legacy to our future.