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Entries in civilization (4)


Blue Highways: Palmyra, New York

Unfolding the Map

We pass through Palmyra, New York and then past mobile homes.  William Leat Heat-Moon (LHM) remarks on the permanence and impermanence encapsulated in these uniquely American creations, and that gets me writing on a subject which seems to be very close to me right now.  Fortunately, Palmyra sits permanently for now on the map - though the ancient city in Syria from which it took its name evidently could be moved at a moment's notice to escape a Roman invasion sent by Mark Antony.  Talk about impermanence!

Book Quote

"Palmyra was a clean town of three-story brick buildings where I turned east on New York 31 and went down along the route of the Erie Canal, through villages, over fields of deep green, under blooming locust trees, and past barns collapsing next to mobile homes that looked depressingly immobile yet also impermanent."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 5

Photos of Canaltown Bed and Breakfast, Palmyra
This photo of Main Street in Palmyra, New York is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Palmyra, New York

Permanence and impermanence is on my mind this a lot as I write this post.  The image that LHM conjures up - the "mobile" homes that look "depressingly immobile" and also "impermanent" is a really wonderful metaphor.

I'm going to digress first on mobile homes.  I've always wondered why we call them mobile when usually they are just parked somewhere on a lot or in a trailer park.  Yes, they seem to serve as housing and some of them are quite nice inside.  Recently, my wife and I stayed in a mobile home at an affordable spa called Riverbend Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences.  The inside was quite nice and comfortable though, to be fair, it was housing just her, me and our dog for an overnight.  Fitting a family of four or more in there might be a different story.

However, most of these mobile homes sit, in their permanent impermanence, like fiberglass magnets for tornadoes during the spring and summer weather seasons.  (I joke, but it seems like every summer the media reports on a mobile home park that has been decimated by a tornado.  I realize that tornadoes aren't really attracted to mobile home parks.  Media tends to report on these instances because the damage is usually extensive and the casualties can be high.  Yet mobile homes, however stationary, are cheap alternative housing for those who cannot afford to buy a more substantial home.)

Once my father and I were leaving our property near Irmulco, California and heading back up the dirt logging road to the highway near the ridge of the mountain.  About a third of the way, we were delayed for two or three hours as a group of men tried to figure out how to maneuver a large mobile home around a sharp corner.  The bank of the roadway eventually had to be dug out in order to create enough clearance for the mobile home.  I was young at the time, but even then it occurred to me that this mobile home wasn't that mobile, and that by going down into the Irmulco Valley, it was heading to its final resting place.  And, because it is made of flimsier materials than a regular home, I wonder if it is still there, some 30 years or more later, or whether it has crumbled into a ruin.

We tend to get involved in things with the illusion that they are permanent and fixed.  Yet most of what we do takes action and attention to remain functional.  An amazing show on the history channel explores Life After People.  There isn't really much hope that what we build will last very long.  I seem to recall that within 50,000 years or so, a period of time that barely even registers in the entire history of the universe and only a blink of an eye in the evolution of the earth, all visible traces of humanity would be gone except to the most discerning eye.  Our bones would last 150 million years or so, but our buildings will crumble in less than 50 years years, though some of our bridges might last for 1000 years if extremely well built.  If you think that the thousand year civilization of the Romans has only left crumbling ruins, or that the Mayan civilization is buried under jungle, and that is only after 2000 years or less, there really isn't much permanence to what we create and erect.

But, that's not the only reason that permanence and impermanence is on my mind.  Even things that we don't physically construct, but build in other ways, are subject to forces of decay and change.  Take marriage, for instance.  Most couples say "I do" with thoughts of building a marriage that will last each partner's lifetime.  Yet in the United States, a large number of marriages end in divorce.  Even with care, cracks and strains can show in relationships.  These can be patched up, but the underlying weaknesses, unless addressed, will undermine the whole structure.  Or, perhaps one partner or the other is neglectful, and weeds will begin to grow.  My wife and I have been working on an essential element of relationships, communication, because we had neglected that aspect in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and work and eventually, that neglect mushroomed into difficulties.  We are trying to address those issues now, and it's hard work to maintain not only the edifice of a marriage, but also its foundations.

Jobs, also, are fleeting.  One might take a new job that one likes very much, only to find in two years that everything about it has changed.  A supervisor leaves and another takes her place, and suddenly everything is affected.  Sometimes the change is for the better, a lot of times it can be for the worse.  Soon, that job that you thought you'd be at for 10 years or more, or even until you retire, becomes intolerable and your whole life is thrown into flux.  My wife is in the middle of this.  Her career landscape, once so full of opportunity and very clear paths, has become muddled and frightening.  Yet even in the midst of uncertainty, there is hope that she can open new pathways and build new bridges and roadways to a modified or even new career.

Civilization, as Life After People tells us, needs attention if its structures and institutions are to be maintained.  So do our own structures - those constructs of relationships and identities that we build. We put a lot of emphasis on the physical things - our mighty architecture and our creations in arts and sciences.  Ultimately, though, we are nothing if we cannot maintain our own internal constructs that define our identities - our sense of purpose, our knowledge of ourselves and our needs, and our self-esteem.  Collectively, each persons attention or lack of attention to our internal identities work on a micro and macro level to either fight or hasten .  We can give the illusion of permanence to those things we want and care about.   I write "illusion" because eventually, all things will fade and go but the illusion allows us to feel, to know, that in this time and place we matter.  Just like we build bridges, roads, skyscrapers, institutions, and countries with the expectation that they will last, we must constantly maintaining the structure and meaning of our lives.  Our lives are all we have and, if we, like all other things, are impermanent in an unforgiving universe, we can still construct our temporary mobile homes where we are and turn them into shelter and our own stationary place where we can feel safe and secure in time and space.

Musical Interlude

A double shot for this post.  I love the idea of Airstreams, and I'd love to own an Airstream - they seem to tap into the impermanence that is part and parcel of our lives, for those who are willing to accept it.  Miranda Lambert, in Airstream Song, wishes to be a gypsy moving from place to place and never putting down roots.  Fastball, in Airstream, wants to "leave the world behind."  Impermanence isn't a bad thing - one just needs to embrace it because ultimately, we're always fighting against it and it's a losing battle.  Sometimes it's good to just give into it.

If you want to know more about Palmyra

Historic Palmyra
History of Palmyra
Official Palmyra Home Page
Wikipedia: Town of Palmyra
Wikipedia: Village of Palmyra

Next up: Savannah, New York


Blue Highways: Grand Forks, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

At Grand Forks, we say goodbye to North Dakota and look toward Minnesota ahead.  I passed by Grand Forks once.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets his water pump fixed, I'll use this opportunity to reminisce about how the city seems to herald civilization at the edge of the Great Plains.  To see where Grand Forks does its duty, head to the map!

Book Quote

"Who in America would guess that Grand Forks, North Dakota, was a good place to be stuck in with a bad water pump?  Skyscrapers from the thirties, clean as a Norwegian kitchen, a state university with brick, big trees, and ivy.  On Monday morning the pump got replaced in an hour for $37.50.  I had expected to be taken for three times that figure, but I met only honest people."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10

Downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota. Photo by David Stybr and hosted at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Grand Forks, North Dakota

I remember Grand Forks vaguely, kind of like a dream that appeared in the midst of the flat farmland of North Dakota as we (my fiancee and I) made our long drive from Dunseith, North Dakota to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The city just seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and the large buildings that LHM describes, the "skyscrapers from the thirties" stood out in stark contrast to anything else that we had seen up to that point.

To me, just as St. Louis once signaled the end of civilization and the beginning of the frontier, as memorialized in its massive and spectacular Gateway Arch, Grand Forks seems to signal for travelers passing toward the east the onrush of civilization again from the sparse emptiness of the West.  First Grand Forks, modest in size and scale but seemingly gigantic after a thousand miles of prairie and farmland.  Then Minneapolis/St. Paul, the twin cities, positively cosmopolitan on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, one seemingly frozen in time with older architecture, the other with sleek, modern, glassy buildings reflecting the sunlight from a distance.  Then Chicago, which veneers a rough, wintery, no-nonsense type of grit with its own combination of past and present architecture.

But Grand Forks comes as an initial shock to the senses.  It almost seems, after all the miles and all the flatness and the sparseness of North Dakota, like it shouldn't be there.  It's buildings shimmer in the hazy distance like a mirage that you expect to disappear until you are right upon it and discover that indeed, it is there.  It has sprung, like a flower (or a weed depending on your perspective and your like or dislike of civilization), and persists despite the blazing summers and the freezing, blizzardy winters.  It persists despite the devastating floods along the Red River of the North that occurred in 1997, inundating the downtown and neighborhoods and causing the destruction of many buildings and the displacement of many people.

LHM refers to the hardiness and toughness of the people when he makes a reference to "Norwegian."  With typical midwestern and old world industriousness, the people of Grand Forks cleaned up after the floods.  They demolished some old neighborhoods to put in a levee system, and made a riverfront park to buffer and secure the city from future flooding.  In other words, nature gave Grand Forks its best shot, and staggered it, but the flower continues to sprout on the Great Plains, welcoming people back from the hinterlands to civilization.

Yes, I remember Grand Forks, which after a long drive through North Dakota, past flat farmland punctuated by occasional trees and missile silos, seems to sit as a beacon on the plains.  I was grateful to Grand Forks for providing something besides the occasional water tower to arrest my sight.  I wish that I had time to stop there and visit and experience the "honest people" that LHM mentions.  Perhaps one day I'll get to all the places I want or feel that I should have seen.

Musical Interlude

I've been waiting to use this song, and now that we're moving out of Grand Forks and North Dakota, I have to use it.  Lyle Lovett's North Dakota is a winsome and melancholy song, juxtaposing the loneliness along borders, and the search for and loss of love.

If you want to know more about Grand Forks

The City Beat (blog)
City of Grand Forks
Dakota Student (student newspaper of University of North Dakota)
Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau
Grand Forks Herald (newspaper)
Grand Forks Life (blog)
High Plains Reader (alternative newspaper)
Travel North Dakota (blog)
University of North Dakota
Wikipedia: Grand Forks

Next up: Oslo, Minnesota


Blue Highways: Somewhere along the Milk River, Montana

Unfolding the Map

We are moving right along through Montana, and we stop in this post to consider whether we are alone in the universe.  Are we looking for something outside of us to help us understand who and what we are?  What are the prospects for civilization and humanity in general?  Lots of questions, few answers on the banks of the Milk River.  To see where we are pondering, go to the map!

Book Quote

"East of where the muddy Milk River begins rubbing its back against the highway, I stopped again, climbed a fence, and walked out to a pair of rusty boulders that an ice sheet dropped in its northward retreat.  Stones like these the Indians carved into billboards, scorecards, boundary markers, prayer books.  I hoped for a message from the first people, but the stones sat as featureless as the land."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Photo of the Milk River at the Follow the Piper blog. Click on photo to go to host page.

Somewhere along the Milk River, Montana

In an attempt to keep up-to-date in politics so that I can teach my political science courses, I often read opinion columns by writers with whom I disagree.  One person that I tend to have many disagreements with is the columnist Charles Krauthammer.  Yet a column that he wrote recently that ended with the observation that everything is political and everything depends on our politics, has had me thinking.  The quote from Blue Highways that I'm focusing on in this quote seems to remarkably fit with my thoughts.

Krauthammer's column asks two questions.  First, are we alone in the universe?  Second, why might we be alone in the universe.  With modern technology allowing us to see farther and more clearly into the universe than we've ever been able to see, so much so that we have discovered new worlds revolving around distant stars, and some of them have been within the so-called "habitable zone" of solar systems, we still have not seen any sign of life.  This goes for our own solar system, though we are still hoping that we might dig something up on Mars, and for everywhere out there that we look.  We have trained "ears" to the skies in the form of radio telescopes, hoping that there might be a blip in the cosmic radiation, some type of pattern in the white noise, that would lead us to conclude that the pattern isn't the normality of randomness but is in fact the product of distant minds.  So far, nothing.  Our own radio and television signals have had enough time now to reach the nearest stars, though the inverse square law would make them almost indistinguishable.  It would be nice if we began receiving the equivalent of alien television shows but so far, that hasn't happened and nobody has responded to ours though their response would probably take a long time to get here if subject to our known physics.  (Both Star Trek and a very humorous movie called Galaxy Quest explored the possibilities when alien civilizations who have received our radio and television transmissions model their civilizations or their understanding of us on shows they watch.  Imagine what they'll do when they see our reality shows!  Is a Jersey Shore planet still a possibility?)

The Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake who developed it, calculates the potential number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy.  Many of the factors that make up the equation are guesses, so by playing with the numbers and making guesses you can find that the number of civilizations could vary anywhere from 0 to in the tens of thousands.  Time is factored into the equation, so the overall figure based on the numbers input for factors shows the number of possible communicating civilizations at any point in time.  According to current estimates for the factors, there should be an average of 2.31 communicating civilizations in our galaxy at this point, plus a couple hundred intelligent civilizations that are not communicating.  The astronomer Carl Sagan, who was keenly interested in what the Drake Equation could tell us about our own civilization's chances for survival, felt that the number of communicating civilizations was actually quite high.  However, we haven't discovered any.  This is known as the Fermi Paradox, as the size and age of the universe, as Enrico Fermi put it, should make the probability that we would have discovered other advanced civilizations quite high.  Sagan argued that the problem is that rate at which advanced civilizations destroy themselves is probably quite high, and that this would explain the seeming silence.  In that way, he used the Drake Equation as a caution to humanity.

We also know that our planet has seen a number of civilizations rise and fall.  None has lasted very long in the larger sense of the time of human existence.  Many consider the 3,000 years of Ancient Egypt to be the longest-lasting civilization in human history, but if you consider humans have been in existence physically for about 200,000 years, and behaviorally for 50,000 years, then our civilizations have not been very successful enterprises.  Yet we know they have been there.  Past civilizations and the passage of peoples have left records, both non-written and written, that point to their existence.  LHM writes that he was hoping to see some of these signposts inscribed into the boulders he inspects, but doesn't find any.  However, in almost every area of the globe, signs of previous civilizations are plentiful.  One can walk in the open-air museum of Rome to see the signs of its past glory.  One can visit the ruins of Chaco Canyon, climb the steps of Machu Picchu, ascend the pyramids of Egypt, visit the lonely temples of Angkor Wat, traverse the top of the Great Wall of China, stand amidst the stone sentinels of Stonehenge, and even view Aboriginal rock art down under.  We know they were here on earth because of what they left, and we can even point to reasons why they are gone.

We don't have any signs of any extraterrestrial civilizations, and if all we have to go on is what we know, then we have really three choices.  First, in the vast expanse of the universe, we may be completely and utterly alone.  That would make life on earth a miraculous accident in what is otherwise a lifeless reality.  Second, we just haven't discovered other civilizations that, like us, are also wondering if there are others in the universe.  That would mean that, if we are patient, we might eventually discover them.  Third, as Sagan suggests, there have been civilizations capable of making contact but they have fallen and we are just the latest to attempt to create something stable that will survive and sustain us.

I don't know which possibility I prefer.  What I know is that when I think of whither and how far our current, 21st century civilization can go and what heights we can reach, I know there are many variables - availability of resources and resource use, human ability to heed warning signs, our own inventive skills and other things.  I also know the cards are stacked against us and that we are just the latest in a long line of civilizations that have come and gone.  What makes us any different than those that have preceded us?  I guess we'll find out.

Musical Interlude

I know nothing about the band Justice, but in looking for another song I ran across this song and its cool video.  Enjoy Civilization!

If you want to know more about the Milk River

Big Sky Fishing: Milk River
Wikipedia: Milk River

Next up: Wolf Point, Montana


Blue Highways: Maryhill, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We stop for a walk with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in Maryhill, continuing to ponder on some large questions of life and time.  In this case, why do we bother to try to realize dreams that crumble and blow away over time?  Sounds depressing?  I don't think so.  I think it just is. Navigate over to the map to pinpoint Maryhill.

Book Quote

"Sam Hill had many plans - some shrewd, some cockamamie - and he had money to try them.  His plan for Maryhill, Washington (first called Columbus), was to find a narrow zone where coastal rains met desert sun; that belt, he believed, would be an agricultural Eden....He talked some Belgian Quakers into considering settlement, but when scouts for the group came, they saw and left.  To them, Hill's ideal zone was the fiction of a creative road engineer more adept at theory than practice when it came to agronomy and climatology.  And they were right.  The town lay in the rain shadow of the Cascades.

"Hill continued building the big and costly stone manor, often called, with some accuracy, 'Maryhill Castle.'  At one time he said it was for his wife Mary, but she apparently refused even to visit the place....

"....But Hill died....Hill's dream had passed, and now, but for the museum, monument, and the ruined rock walls, the desert slope was as vacant as ever."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

The Maryhill Museum in Maryhill, Washington was built originally as a mansion by Sam Hill. Photo by "Cacophony" at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Maryhill, Washington

What happens to our plans, our dreams, and when we realize them, our creations?  I have been thinking a lot about his as I have been writing these posts in this blog.  LHM's account in this chapter of Blue Highways about Sam Hill and his ideas have brought these thoughts back to me recently.

I have to frame this question by first asking: What's the point?  What's the point of creating things, especially if they will end up like Sam Hill's vision of Maryhill, Washington?  He had great plans.  Plans that were, as LHM says, "some shrewd, some cockamamie."  He put his plans into effect.  He built a large "castle" for his wife.  He hoped to build a settlement that made use of what he thought might be the perfect meeting place of aridity and humidity for an agricultural wonderland.  Instead, the settlement didn't happen.  The climate was not right for agriculture after all.  His wife didn't want to go anywhere near Maryhill.  All that is left, according to LHM, are a few buildings, a ghost town, and a facsimile of Stonehenge up the hill.  What was the point of that?

What was the point of the great civilizations whose remnants are crumbling under our feet over the millenia?  The Hittites and Babylonians.  The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians.  The Mayans, Aztecs and Inca.  The Cahokia Mound Builders, the Chacoans and the Mesa Verdeans.  The Mongols and the early Chinese empires.  What was the point of their civilizations if now all that is left is what can be saved through archeology?

Percy Bysshe Shelley summed up the hubris of pride and of civilization in a memorable way in what is one of my favorite poems of all time, Ozymandias.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Rosalind and Helen, a modern eclogue, with other poems

I am but a bit player in these things, but I have been realizing that even my small contributions to our current civilization are but tiny blips that will burn briefly and then die.  Living in the present, it is easy for us to believe that things that we produce are timeless - our writings, our art, our music.  Yet only a fraction of the literature and art that has been produced through the millenia of human existence has survived.  How many wondrous works of art might there have been that we have missed?  How many amazing pieces of literature have been lost over time?  What lost symphonies or masterworks of song have had their notes briefly sound and then disappeared?

As I write these lines that will be saved electronically on the internet for you to read, I am conscious of a number of things that could happen.  They could be lost due to a catastrophe with the server.  I could run into dire straights and find that I cannot pay my bill to keep my account on this provider.  As we move forward in time, perhaps the provider might not survive and go out of business, taking my posts with it.  As we move forward through years, decades, centuries, how do we know that the internet will survive beyond a brief flowering?  How will we know that our civilization will survive - civilizations up to now, even those that seemed in the midst of their greatness to be guaranteed to last forever, eventually fall and die away.

So why do I, the Sam Hills, the architects of civilizations dream and create works that will eventually dissolve in the relentless march of universal time and movement?

I can only answer for myself.  I wite these posts because it pleases me.  I also write the occasional poem, make Facebook posts and dream of writing a book someday because it is my one little sound in the vast cacophony of the universe, my one word in the encyclopedia of creation, my one spark of energy to add to the immense energy of the wider cosmos.  Of course, I would love for my creations, for my small part to play in the ongoing history of humanity, to last and have some relevance.  But that is just my bit of hubris.  What I create may be relevant or not, but eventually my creations will disappear and my voice will fade.  Just like Maryhill, the great civilizations, and all our arts, literature and music will eventually follow Ozymandias and crumble forgotten into the infinite and unrelenting cosmological desert.  Other towns, civilizations, arts, literatures and musics will follow and in their turn disappear and be replaced.  And that's just fine, and just as it's meant to be.

Musical Interlude

I had a hard time picking this song.  I looked up music that might have something about Ozymandias, and though Jefferson Starship, the Sisters of Mercy, and Qntal all had songs with that name (and I am really partial to the Jefferson Starship song), I kept coming back to this song by Midnight Oil, even though it really has nothing to do with what I'm writing about.  I even went to songs about time's passage, and looked briefly at another song I like, Steely Dan's Black Friday.  But this kept popping back in my head.  So, if it's supposed to be in this post, it will be in this post.  And I think it can fit, because when all is said and done, isn't life and all our creations like a dream that will one day fade and end?  Enjoy Dreamworld!

If you want to know more about Maryhill

Maryhill Museum of Art
Maryhill State Park
Sam Hill's Stonehenge
Washington Stonehenge
Wikipedia: Maryhill

Next up: Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington