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Clio's Temple

"The circle time parade of changes" (1)

This line, from Phil Ochs' "Changes", has long been one of my favorites in summing up what life's about. Now that I'm closer to being an old man than a young man, I try to look at my life and see what's been lasting and what's been impermanent.

I suspect that many of us, remembering our childhoods, might recall a time when we thought our grandparents had always been the same age as when we first knew them. That may account for the sense of wonder we sometimes feel when we see pictures of our elders as "youngers." As we age, as we wrestle with the changes and challenges of life, as we welcome children and grandchildren to the world, how many of us can truly recapture the emotions of small children when they meet the elderly?

Likewise, I suspect that most of us remember our hometowns as permanently preserved in the amber of memory. In the rural deep South where I grew up, my hometown didn't change a lot from the early 50s until the mid-1970s, when I-10 was built, passing just a couple miles south of town. In my boyhood, the Victorian railroad station, the downtown commercial blocks, the churches as I remember them looked a lot like the pictures taken twenty or thirty years earlier. In the case of my hometown, one passenger train still made a daily stop there until 1964, after which the depot in the heart of town turned into a mostly empty monument to better days. The nearest McDonald's was twenty miles away, and didn't open until 1965. Nowadays, there is a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the interstate exit, whose square footage is about the same as the whole downtown shopping district of sixty years ago.

It does a disservice to any place to limit ourselves to surface impressions. Just as every old person was once young, everyone town in decline was once a town on the rise. In the South, railroads, cash-crop agriculture, forestry, and industries such as textiles were major agents of change in the decades after the Civil War. Such is the case for the fictional north Georgia town of Maxwell, whose sad fate unrolls in the last half of Tangled Woods and Dark Waters. A railroad and a dam across a creek, built to provide power to a textile mill, turned a forest primeval into a place that was "home" to several generations of citizens.

The demographic indices of our nation shown an increasing divergence between major urban centers, their suburbs/exurbs, and the large swatches of land in between these centers. In the former, there is progress and prosperity, at least for some; in the latter, there is often a sense of desperation as economic prospects dwindle. Small wonder, then, that many people feel disoriented and angry as hometowns once vibrant and (relatively) comfortable become landscapes of deprivation.

I'm afraid the story of Maxwell is repeated across the length and breadth of our land. This is not a good omen for the future.

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