Where Have We been? Where Are We Going?
On a hot Saturday in mid-July in my corner of the country, when everyone else is cavorting on Million Dollar Beach at Lake George, or plying the aisles of the home Depot, or riding their motorcycles in faux-outlaw hordes, I like to slip away to the neglected places where nobody goes. I seek out the places of industrial ruin - there are many around here in the upper Hudson Valley, and they are mostly right along the river itself, because there are many spots where the water tumbles and falls in a way that human beings could capture that power and direct it to useful work.
I always bring my French easel, a wooden contraption ingeniously designed to fold up into a box, to which I have bolted on backpack straps. To me, these ruins of America's industrial past are as compelling as the ruins of ancient Rome were to Thomas Cole and his painter-contemporaries, who took refuge in history at the exact moment that their own new nation began racing into its industrial future.
I've been haunting this particular site in Hudson Falls, New York, all summer so far. Originally called Bakers Falls, it evolved over a hundred-odd years into an extremely complex set of dams, spillways, intakes, revetments, channels, gangways, and hydroelectric bric-a-brac all worked into the crumbly shale that forms the original cliff. From a vantage on the west side of the river, you can clearly read the layered history of industry as though it was a section of sedimentary rock from the Mesozoic.
One thing above all amazes me about these American industrial ruins: they're not really very old. My grandfather was already reading law and drinking beer when some of this stuff was brand-new (or not even here yet!). Unlike Rome's long, dawdling descent from greatness, America's industrial fall seems to have happened in the space of a handclap. I suppose it was in the nature of the fossil fuel fiesta that these activities could only last as long as the basic energy resource was so cheap you hardly needed to figure it into the cost of doing business. Which is not to say that the human element didn't change, too, since obviously it did - as America went from a cheap labor nation of immigrants eager to join in the security of factory regimentation, to adversarial relations between unionized workers and business owners, and finally to game over, as off-shoring and out-sourcing savaged American manufacturing.
These factories at what was first called Bakers Falls began in 1858 as an iron machine works, intended to produce the frames for water wheels. Soon they quit that in favor of making replacement parts for the growing paper-making industry that made use of the pulpwood from the Adirondack Mountains. Activities related to this went on clear through the 1960s, about a century in all, until things fell apart in the upper Hudson Valley and business mysteriously went elsewhere.
I'm sure it was a mystery to many of the people around here who got a living from these factories, who felt strong, willing, and able to trade their labor for a decent paycheck. How could the world not need them anymore? American political leadership explained it rather poorly to them. This was a new economy, they said. From now on making a living in America would be all about being clever at cooking up "innovations" that the rest of the people in the world could use in order to churn things out for us at twenty cents an hour. America's young people, they said, should go to college, even if it meant taking on a lifetime of loan obligations. Or enroll at the local community college to learn "computer technology," the coming thing.
What really happened to places like Hudson Falls is now painfully visible on-the-ground, in the streets, and in the shopfront windows, which are either vacant or occupied by the most marginal businesses - martial arts studios (training for what? Gang war? Insurrection? Afghanistan?), second-hand shops, and the ubiquitous pizza joints for a cheese-hungry populace. The once dignified business blocks at the small center of town - itself perched on a bluff with a panoramic view west - are vacant and falling into gross disrepair. The owner class of citizen, still inveighed against in progressive radio circles, are so gone that their ghosts seem to have packed up and left, too. But then so is every other class of people above the nether-class - that is, people engaged in something other than subsidized idleness and crime, people who's only obligation in life is waking up in the morning. (No wonder the nation is obsessed with zombies these days.) I passed a wedding late in the afternoon on my way out of town. The bride had a tattoo the size of bumper-sticker on her décolletage. The groomsmen were dressed in black baby shorts and backwards hats. You want to weep for their offspring.
I only saw them on the way out. All the rest of the long day, I was blessedly alone under a fierce sun on the far side of the river, in close observation of the visual details of history and the quality of the day. It is hard to imagine the determination and ingenuity (not to mention strength and sweat) it took to pile up all these buildings right next to this raging river, or to fling a concrete dam across it. I don't see how we could do that now, since we seem collectively incapable of accomplishing anything anymore - except some phony new political disposition of foot-dragging, evasion of responsibility, or refusal to confront reality.
The reality I spend these days rambling the river with is the reality of a nation riding a great wave of entropy into the unknown. Only at this stage of the ride can we indulge in our Goth fantasies of the charming vampire nether-life. Believe me, when things really get dark we will all be wishing desperately for something more like lambs-in-the-meadow and the kindly touch of a loving hand and the dim memory of what it was like to care about anything or anyone.
Where we are now, to me, is the real dark time, the proverbial moment before the dawn. The depravity of our culture, Disney merchandise, cool ranch Doritos, and all, is something that people of the future will marvel at for centuries to come. The purity of our surrender will fascinate them. They will conclude that we looked into the abyss... and decided that we liked what we saw in there.
A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.