"In the midst of life we are in death" begins the Committal service in the Book of Common Prayer. On January 6, 2005, these words struck home with particular force for those of us in the Aiken, SC area. In the predawn darkness, a locomotive was shunted onto the wrong track and crashed into a building at the Avondale Mills complex in Graniteville. The resulting chlorine release took nine lives.
The immediate effects included over 200 persons treated for chlorine exposure and over 5,000 temporarily evacuated from their homes. In the longer run, this disaster was the death blow for the Avondale Mills plant formerly known as the Graniteville Company. A few months later, the company (founded in the 1840s) ceased operations. This tore the heart out of a still-vibrant community which is now trying to struggle once again to its feet and go on living.
This incident became (in fictional form) the core of my unpublished short story "A Hymn at Noontime." As John Donne reminded us, the death of anyone diminishes each of us. Sometimes, though, the lingering death of communities is so protracted that it anesthetizes us to what's going on around us. The American landscape is littered with the carcasses of towns whose vital forces have drained away. We've all seen pictures of abandoned mining towns in the West. My father grew up in a lumber company town which has clung with grim force to life, even as its young people move away.
Even in the presence of such protracted pain, the human spirit endures. I've driven through Centralia, PA on several occasions. This well-known hamlet, victim of a mine fire, resembles a dystopian dream world. Is the progressive disappearance of our small towns a harbinger of something going wrong with our world? I don't know; I do know we are fools if we let such communities die without making some efforts to conserve what they have added to our nation.