“Soon he reached the overlook: green rolling hills, a muddy winding river, an expanse of forest unbroken except for the town of Buell and its steelmill. The mill itself had been like a small city, but they had closed it in 1987, partially dismantled it ten years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil’s tear thumb, and tree of heaven. The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds; there was only the occasional human squatter.”
Remember all that we and everyone else have written about ruin porn? The debate often reverberates between “pretty! It’s our aesthetics so what of it” and “but you are neglecting the life, the people: it’s victim photography.”
Here’s a third way: what’s happening in there? Things happen in ruins. Bittersweet vines, and, occassionally, the human squatter.
Phillip Meyer’s American Rust is about what happens in in the snow, in the dark, inside an old factory:
“Despite the rubble, it was vast and open inside. Plenty of souvenirs. That old nameplate you gave to Lee, pried it off that big hammer forge, polished the tarnish off and oiled it. A minor vandalism, No, think of all the people who were proud of those machines, to rescue a few pieces of them–little bit of life after death.”
But little is shiny in American Rust, and death follows life too. Still, there are foragers amongst the forges.
“In the time since Poe and Isaac were born, the area had lost 150,000 jobs — most of the towns could no longer afford basic services; many no longer had any police. . . . It was like this all up and down the river and many of the young people, the way they accepted their lack of prospects, it was like watching sparks die in the night.”
You’ve probably got plenty of shiny things around you this holiday season. Sparks in the night. Maybe tarnish will best offer you spirit.