Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Useless places

I’ve thought for some time that the most beautiful places are often the “useless” ones. Where I live, the productive properties are almost all ugly: quarries, industrial parks, commercial strips, giant mono-cultural factory farms, office-cubicle hives…all ugly and based on destruction, seemingly free from the vibrant organic flowering forth of life.

I want to sing a song of the beautiful useless places, the places that have no economic benefit. Because they are worthless and unwanted, they were either abandoned, or left alone. The swampy headwaters that no one bothered to drain, the too-steep slopes of the bluffs down to the river, the shifting dunes by the lake, or the poor land that could not support farming and was left to heal, slowly, ever so slowly. Wherever we thoughtless modern humans gave up on “getting” anything from the land and it could just tend to itself: those are the places we are drawn to in our hidden animal minds.

It wasn’t always that way. I visited my friend Keith Taylor on a huge tract of research land owned by the University of Michigan, which was itself “worthless” in the late 1800’s after its forest had been clear-cut, and fires had killed off most all of the vegetation and wildlife. Since it was worthless, the timber barons gave it to the state for cheap. Since it was useless, it was allowed to sit undisturbed until it became beautiful again. Keith told me about a site he found near there with the archeological remnants of an old Ojibway summer encampment on a lake, a productive place for fishing and hunting and gathering food. When he looked around the site, he thought about why they’d chosen that particular spot, and came to the conclusion that it was because it was the most beautiful one that they could find. They wanted to be in beauty even in the “production” of food. Every fall when they left, they buried their gear, and the place was no less beautiful for their habitation of it.

I wonder if we will ever learn to do that—to find the uses of a place and work with it so it can still be beautiful. Until we do, I give thanks for all the useless places and their worthless beauty.

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