Monday, March 26, 2007

The Towns Never Really Won...

By the time I was in Junior High, Ray Bradbury was one of my favorite authors. It started with stories that I read (or heard on rebroadcasts of X Minus One) that made up the book The Martian Chronicles. But more, growing up in Los Angeles I would get to hear him being interviewed on radio talk shows (in the days when hosts like Michael Jackson or Hilly Rose hosted, rather than monopolized, conversations between guests and listeners. So I got to hear Bradbury talk about writing, monorails, Walt Disney, Moby Dick, libraries, growing up (and living) in Los Angeles, motion pictures, Proposition 13, etc. The Ray Bradbury who enthralls me can be found, among other places, in his 2005 book Bradbury Speaks, about which you can read in this spot-on review or at Right now I am reading Dandelion Wine, his "semi-autobiographical recollection" of growing up in Waukegan (the town that also gave the world Jack Benny) in the summer of 1928.

Last summer I went to Sweden and visited rural Kristdala parish in Småland, the place from which my great-grandmother, Emma Sophia Bring, emigrated in 1870, the first in the family to follow her brother Lars August Peterson to America. The photo here is of the last house in which she lived in Fagerhult. Don't worry, the house isn't there anymore--just the foundation. After being in the family for a couple of hundred years (or more), people stopped living in the house in the the mid-1930s. And in the intervening 70 years it has been reclaimed by the forest. The gray in the middle is part of the house's brick foundation, one of which sits on my fireplace mantel next to a photo of Emma's daughter-in-law, my Grandma.

Bradbury writes in Dandelion Wine:
Douglas turned. This path led in a great dusty snake to the ice house where winter lived on the yellow days. This path raced for the blast-furnace sands of the lake shore in July. This to trees where boys might grow like sour and still-green crab apples, hid among leaves. This to peach orchard, grape arbor, watermelons lying like tortoise-shell cats slumbered by sun. That path, abandoned, but wildly swiveling, to school! This, straight as an arrow, to Saturday cowboy matinees. And this, by the creek waters, to wilderness beyond town. . . .

Douglas squinted.

Who could say where town or wilderness began? Who could say which owned what and what owned which? There was always and forever that indefinable place where the two struggled and one of them won for a season to possess a certain avenue, a dell, a glen, a tree, a bush. The thin lapping of the great continental sea of grass and flower, starting far out in lonely farm country, moved inward with the thrust of seasons. Each night the wilderness, the meadows, the far country flowed down-creek through ravine and welled up in town with a smell of grass and water, and the town was disinhabited and dead and gone back to earth. And each morning a little more of the ravine edged up into town, threatening to swamp garages like leaking rowboats, devour ancient cars which had been left to the flaking mercies of rain and therefore rust.

"Hey! Hey!" John Huff and Charlie Woodman ran through the mystery of ravine and town and time. "Hey!"

Douglas moved slowly down the path. The ravine was indeed the place where you came to look at the two things of life, the ways of man and the ways of the natural world. The town was, after all, only a large ship filled with constantly moving survivors, bailing out the grass, chipping away the rust. Now and again a lifeboat, a shanty, kin to the mother ship, lost out to the quiet storm of seasons, sank down in silent waves of termite and ant into swallowing ravine to feel the flicker of grasshoppers rattling like dry paper in hot weeds, become soundproofed with spider dust and finally, in avalanche of shingle and tar, collapse like kindling shrines into a bonfire, which thunderstorms ignited with blue lightning, while flash-photographing the triumph of the wilderness.

It was this then, the mystery of man seizing from the land and the land seizing back, year after year, that drew Douglas, knowing the towns never really won, they merely existed in calm peril, fully accoutered with lawn mower, bug spray and hedge shears, swimming steadily as long as civilization said to swim, but each house ready to sink in green tides, buried forever, when the last man ceased and his trowels and mowers shattered to cereal flakes of rust.

The town. The wilderness. The houses. The ravine. Douglas blinked back and forth. But how to relate the two, make sense of the interchange when . . .

His eyes moved down to the ground.

The first rite of summer, the dandelion picking, the starting of the wine, was over. Now the second rite waited for him to make the motions, but he stood very still.
Dandelion Wine, pp. 17-19 (in the pictured edition).

Fagerhult 1870/1936/2006, Canoga Park 1960s/70s, Peoria today outside my window. Ah, to be a boy of summer. Thank you, Ray. Thank you!

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