Many of us have seen photographs of "ghost towns," most of them out West, where they flourished during the heyday of mining or cattle ranching, but subsequently lost their economic vitality and now are reduced to empty buildings. These are the kind of places that can give one the creeps, if we meditate on the sources of community vitality.
When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had the occasion to drive through Centralia, a town in the anthracite belt that had been depopulated over almost a quarter-century because of an unquenchable mine fire. At different spots, you could see vents drilled into the mine to ventilate the exhaust gases in the hope of preventing explosions or cave-ins. It was as unnerving as if one walked across a long-ago battlefield and found no bodies, but discarded weapons and ammunition. Even in this desolation, Centralia still had a few diehards, mostly older folks whose families had lived there for generations and who preferred to stay on familiar ground.
"A Dirge for Maxwell" in Tangled Woods and Dark Waters is an account of how a diehard community loses its vital ésprit as the result of a series of disasters. Maxwell continued to be a vibrant community through two World Wars and the Great Depression. It comes undone as its textile mill loses ground to foreign competition. A rail disaster starts the town on an inexorable slide that, over a decade, drains most of its life-force.
In my old hometown, some of the ambitious could find the means to hang on, by getting a job at the state department of transportation office, or by running a successful business. Most of those of us lucky enough to go to college left and now return only for high school class reunions, or to visit the graves of our parents. In the last years of my father's life, he became increasingly puzzled at why so many of us left. What he only admitted reluctantly was that he had declined several promotional opportunities with his company, opportunities that would have taken him to Jacksonville, Atlanta, or Charlotte. He passed on these chances because my mother only felt at home in the small town where she'd spent her whole life.
We need both kinds of people – the movers and shakers, and the stabilizers – to have a healthy diversity of lifestyles in our land. The sad fate of Maxwell is a parable for the progressive loss of that diversity.