These are the signs I read as I drive into my hometown: Limberlost Efficiencies. Hawaiian Isle Trailer Parks. PIG ROAST SATURDAY ALL ARE WELCOME. Clean fill-dirt wanted. Vacation Bible School July 11-18. R&M Used Auto. Marty’s Watering Hole. Sewing by Joy. And then, on what used to be Green Farm, the Walmart, the Hair Cuttery and the Dollar Tree, all of which arrived in 2007 with the bright promise of progress.
This is home to me—nurseries growing boxwood, viburnum and arbor vitae, small farms planted with cucumbers, zucchini, sweet corn and melons, family owned businesses set up in pole buildings and slab houses with hand-painted or light-up signs yellowed by time, mounds of dirt and gravel, tractors with their jaws full of rocks, old cars parked by the corner with FOR SALE placards in their windows.
There is a grief to the Midwest landscape, or the Mideast, as Northeastern Ohio is more accurately called, the Rustbelt, that does not seep from the land itself. The land has known its grief, like any land that has seen battles and the displacement of its indigenous peoples. But the land itself is beautiful—layers of green, glaciated rock ledges and huge old growth oaks, locusts and fir trees in the forests, shale ridges where Lake Erie receded millions of years ago, the lakeshore drifted with stones in every tone of quartz and granite. It is not the land that radiates grief to me, but what we did to the land, the way we didn’t seem to know what we had.
Easy for me to say. I have not had to survive on the land. I have not planted crops or bravely opened the door of my small business with a hand-lettered sign. Once I used to sit all day, reading a book and counting the cars as I waited to sell strawberries and sweetcorn by the side of the road at my grandparents’ farm. But I was just a child, and that was a long time ago.
Even then, whenever I looked out at the landscape, I’d mentally deconstruct any evidence of what was called progress. I’d try to imagine what the place had looked like before the colonists came. I’d stare at shores of Lake Erie, or the scrubby, industrialized banks of the Grand River, and mentally erase the billboards, smokestacks and ugly buildings, trying to see what it would have looked like to the Ojibwe, Potowatomi, and Seneca people. I pretended the past constantly, crouching on the sand to build a fire, picking weeds and herbs for my “stews,” and, in time, I lived my own small experience of displacement. Mine happened not because of the colonizing entrance of the whites, which is what I am, but of the colonizing entrance of industry, because of an ongoing cost analysis that didn’t include the cost to our landscape or our health. We lost the Grand River to chemical plants. We lost the woods behind our house to a subdivision. We lost the woods beside the high school, the home of the rare red trillium, to a label manufacturer. We lost our Lake Erie view to the huge cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.
“The power plant will put a cloud over our town both literally and figuratively!” I wrote to my congressman when I was nine, thinking that I’d crafted a very good sentence that would make him seriously reconsider. It came anyway, offering jobs and tax breaks to us, the relative poor, but I didn’t see it as a good thing as much as a threat to our safety. In every photo I took of the lakeshore in the years afterward, I cropped it out. I looked the other way. Surely that implicates me as someone too susceptible to a Romantic longing for the undeveloped past, but the American trajectory has always relied on that self-making imagination that allows us to pretend not to see what is right in front of us. The fact was, the nuclear power plant was hard for me to see. That looming hourglass was visual proof that the land I loved and we its people were deemed poor enough to be expendable.
When the Power Plant came to our area, it came also with mandatory evacuation plans, signed forms in which parents pledged that they would not come to pick up their children at school in the case of a nuclear leak, malfunction or emergency, but would instead allow us to be loaded onto buses and driven to shelters in Erie, PA. My parents informed me that they would pick us up, that we should look for them outside the school, that, if possible, we would avoid the roads and get into our boat and shoot straight north into Lake Erie to try to escape the crowds and the radiation. I think they made this plan just to assuage my anxiety. What no one said, but everyone knew, was that a nuclear explosion would obliterate us before we had a chance to get into cars or buses or boats, that we and the land would be reduced to mere shadows.
As it was, the land was steadily eroding, crumbling into Lake Erie through all the years of my childhood. The shoreline would recede a few inches every year, so the cottages where my dad had spent his childhood had fallen into the water by the time I was born. We loved to ride in our little boat and gauge the shrinking shore, looking into the backyards of all the houses we knew; my dad especially admired one cottage that found itself closer to the edge of the bank every summer. It was a tiny white clapboard structure, and every day someone walked out to the cliff and raised the American flag. This happened even when the bank was crumbling down in hunks of clay and sandy soil, even when you could see up through the floorboards of the porch, even when the house was a husk.
I believe that the flag meant something different then, that it represented a different kind of mindset than what it’s flown for now. That is true, and the other truth is that we didn’t fully realize what it represented. We were not grappling with the great outputs of denial, the subjugation of others, and the manipulation of myths that our patriotism relied on. We were just seeing the hopeful heroism it implied, in the hands of Betsy Ross so long ago, in the soldiers risking their lives on the Potomac, and now in the elderly residents of that little house that we knew would soon slide down the bank—split boards all akimbo.
Our beach was drifted with thousands of glacial stones, lodes of earth and fire that were ancient, common, endlessly individual. My mother and I loved to walk the beach collecting them, keeping our eyes out for fossils, the tiny spiraling freshwater shells we called periwinkles, and beach glass scuffed and smoothed. Sometimes we also found pieces of delft—softened chards of china that had washed into the water with the lost cottages, brass doorknobs, or ornate Victorian doorknockers polished and molded by the waves. We found plenty of funny and disgusting things too—countless plastic tampon applicators, single flip flops gummed to putty, bottle caps and fishing lures, even a doll’s head with shorn plugs of hair and eyes cataracted by mold. Those decaying plastics bunched up in drifts along the sand, never to decompose, only to weirdly change shape, evidence of a vague cultural ignorance that would leach oils from the earth to make the petroleum plastics that would strangle the waters. All those choices of the present that would compromise the health of the future.
There, in the heart of the country, the fog of unconsciousness was always encroaching on us, in the clouds of steam from the power plant, in the plastics washing up on the beaches, in the dead fish killed by pollutants, in the slag rattling on the rocks from the burnt-out chemical factories, in the newspaper inserts touting all the new things—made in China—that we needed to buy. Those plastic tampon applicators and dental floss wands always washing in were constant, painful evidence of our steady forgetting, our privileging of personal conveniences over a collective respect for our land and waters. They would never biodegrade, they would drift up in lines along the sand and play their part in the killing of the Lakes, just the way all our little unremembered acts of forgetting would dull the dreams of what we and our land could be.
This year, I discovered that the writer Annie Dillard’s grandparents’ summer home was directly across the street from my parents’ house, on the very beach where I had spent my childhood. Annie Dillard is a famous name in the world I move in now, but her name means little to anyone in my town, which is why I never knew this. Dillard wrote about my town in her book An American Childhood, although she never named it. It startled me to see her descriptions of a landscape that I had thought of as prelingually private. She got the details smackingly right—the “flat bits of big Lake Erie sand, like hammered dots,” the apple orchards and cornfields, “sandy woods and frame houses with green shutters and screened porches full of kids.” She also captured the feeling of being a child in a town layered with history, where just under the surface of the soil are fossils, arrowheads and slag from aluminum plants. “I had been born too late,” she wrote of her games of colonial pretend, remembering what it felt like to awaken at 10, to anoint herself the necessary observer of her singular life. “Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sunporch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside?”
What most impressed me about An American Childhood was Dillards’ way of rendering boredom, which boiled up in her as a kind of fury. I was also percolating with boredom, but I didn’t have the clarity or independence of mind to admit that to myself. For me, it turned inward. Anger, that outward, active emotion, was converted to something like an ache in the joints, a melancholy nostalgia for what was already lost, and what would surely be lost to me when I left. I always knew I would leave.
All through my final year in town, I saved vignettes in my mind. The horse walking down the street on its way to the high school. All those geese—lawn ornaments—that people dressed up in kerchiefs and aprons. The man in a pickup truck who chased my car down street after street, and then followed me into my own driveway where he brandished a rifle, just because I’d flipped him the bird. My brother ran inside to call the police. But I, already a feminist, walked to the passenger side of his truck and yelled to his wife, “I am so sorry you have to live with such an asshole!”
Or scenes from my summer job at Richard’s Campground, just south of my town near the glaciated rock ledges and forests beside the Grand River. I was a lifeguard at 16, still too young to work at any of the good beaches or pools because of their stricter rules. By the end of the first week, I realized that Richard’s Campground wasn’t really a campground at all, but a place where people lived year-round—paying high rent to Richard’s widow and slumlord Maggie, in tents and tiny trailers. The children did not have bathing suits, but swam in cutoffs and undershirts, and I took it upon myself to teach them how to do the front crawl in the murky little pool. And then there was Alan, the Viet Nam Vet who had lived there for years. He would invite me back to his trailer every week for burgoo, a stew he made from roadkill. He told me all the different tastes of it—squirrel versus opossum and how best to clean a skunk so it was safe to eat. I never went with him into his trailer, but I talked to him all summer.
Dillard’s book reminded me of that feeling I knew well—living in a place stalled by time, a place that I could feel myself outgrowing, day by day, while loving it with an urgency that drove me to want to record it all. Like any good book, Dillard’s book revealed new aspects of my own life to me, yet I couldn’t shake my sense of its privileged blindspots. Dillard expertly renders her boredom with conventional values, but makes assumptions about white, upper-class American life in a way that seemed emotionally underdeveloped in its dismissals of people. We combed the same beaches and rode our bikes past the same orchards two generations apart, but I would have been one of the townies to her, one of those unnamed rugrats on a porch teeming with children who did not go to private school, who did not have her pedigree or prospects. My real life was transpiring in the kind of town that rich people only visited, the kind of town where they said, “but what do people do here?” The kind of town that now, having been unnamed by the Annie Dillards of the world for so long, has decided that it does not need her, and has shut itself off from what it may have learned from her.
“I have loved every day of my life,” my grandmother told me once, when she was in her nineties. “When I was a girl, I loved exploring and playing with my sisters and brothers. I loved being a newlywed with Philip. I loved having and raising our children. I loved watching them grow. And I loved retiring and having those years with Philip when we were just free.” My grandparents were married during the Great Depression. They saw their siblings fight in World War II and take jobs at the asbestos plants on the river that riddled their bodies with cancer. They lived close enough to difficulty and loss that they never forgot their luck, and they had the clarity to create from where they were. My grandparents’ only life belonged to each other, the land, and to us, their offspring, and we all grew in the glow of their certainty.
We also lived under the idea that we were meant to replicate that happiness in later generations, and that inheritance of imperative happiness worked better for some of us than for others. It denied the real unhappinesses that many of us went on to experience, and it prescribed a convincing, but narrow, frame for joy. It seemed, in short, nostalgic, based on the way life had already been, rather than on what it would become. Even I, who admired this happiness and could have inherited it as a birthright, did not know how to trust its expectations. I never met Annie Dillard or her family, but somehow I had internalized the idea that this town was one that I had to leave. Its stillness had been too much for me.
I was thinking about all this last summer, as I stood on the bank overlooking the lake with my cousins. All of us were home to celebrate our grandmother’s 100th birthday, a day she had always told us she would reach. She walked up to me, ready as always with one of her pinpointed observations, her way of saying something about the outside world that was really a commentary on my undisclosed self. “There’s a weirdness to the waves today,” she observed. “They are smooth on the top but hiding stronger currents. They seem to be fighting something in themselves.”
She knew that I, like the waves, was fighting something in myself, as I always was when I was home. I had returned to the deepest sites of my being, the place where I had learned to be a person in a family, in a community, in a country, but my peace was skirmishing with my restlessness, my desire for consciousness, individuation, my own life, my own dream that had moved away from white, nostalgic Americana, away from the scenes and sites that were both most precious to me, and most heartbreaking in the ways that had stalled. I was always the kid who’d swim out and out, deep into the lake until my grandmother watching would whistle to me that this was far enough, come back. I had always been eyeing some farther shore, and that may have been the most American thing about me.
Author Bio: Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the books September, The Endless Unbegun, and Mary is a River. Rachel grew up in Madison, Ohio, near Lake Erie, and now lives with her daughter Adele, in Evanston, Illinois, near Lake Michigan. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University. You can read more of her writing at www.racheljamisonwebster.com, and follow her on Twitter @racheljweb.