Lost Spaces

I suppose one of the differences between villages and towns is the way in which they regard empty lots. A city, of course, sees a vacant lot (depending on location) as a bunch of potential bucks. A town sees a vacant lot as a potential tax base, business opportunity, or nuisance that someone really ought to clean up--at any rate, a sort of underachiever in the real estate business. A village, on the other hand, sees a vacant lot a little differently: "Oh --that was Murial Finnerty's property, you know, Jerry Bolton's wife's grandmother, old Fred Purdy's second daughter, died just after the war, belongs to that Paul Arcand fellow now, he's waitin' on gettin' the next lot to build a coupla houses."

My particular beer-and-pretzelish burg is presently on the cusp between village and town. Actually, that's not quite true; we're on the cusp between village and suburb, an odd state of affairs, the inevitable result of the opening of both the big four-lane highway into the city and the new sewage treatment plant. The boonies are being massively developed. But more than that, infill is taking over all the vacant lots in town, the outsized back yards, the bits and pieces of empty land that, for the last howevermany years, have been keeping the joint adequately supplied with milkweed, Queen Anne's lace, asters, and black-eyed Susans.

The only people who ever really used these spaces were kids: especially the kids in the 8 to 12 age bracket, too young to be playing hackysack downtown with their peers, but old enough to be out from under parental eyes for a Saturday afternoon. The kids made bicycle paths that wandered through unmowed fields and neglected pine copses. Kids created and maintained the path out to the mall, one of my favorite walks. They know this landscape, they and maybe some of the oldest people. To the rest of us, it's just waste land.

I was thinking about this as I drove out to Canadian Tire by the back road, the one that goes past the place where the railway station used to be. That land's been vacant since I don't know when--I'd have to ask one of the older people when the station closed. Probably at least 40 years ago. There's not much left but one derelict storehouse, an abandoned loading platform, and a bunch of rusting rails. Just past the station, there are the ruins of a barn and house fallen in on themselves and an abandoned car salvage yard. We are not talking picturesque here.

Other spaces are there for less obvious reasons. They were cleared for some particular purpose--sometimes, perhaps, because in 19th-century villages, people really did need pasturage. Or perhaps they were cleared just to have some open space. Once these places stopped being used, people kept the land cleared for no very good reason, except that land going back to woods really does look pretty scruffy and unrespectable for a few decades. It's not that these areas are historical; they have no particular interest. But they are the village history.

Now, I am not a bug for local history; oh, I respect it well enough, but it doesn't turn my personal crank. I don't even know exactly how old my own old house is, much less who built it or occupied it in its earlier years. But there is something about these small half-wild spaces around town that fetches me strongly. I love the path out to the mall; I hope nothing happens to develop that vacant space. Ten years ago, development got rid of the old path the kids and I used to take to the babysitter's, a path lined with wild apples, overlooking spacious backyards that could have still been in the last century, with a horse grazing loosely by a cedar rail fence. When that area turned into neat bungalows, it was a small death. I get that same feeling about the old railway yard, a sense both of openness and timelessness. I don't especially want to explore it, but I would surely hate to lose it.

Why is this? What is there in these places that appeals so much to me?--and to others, because I know that other people feel the same way. Maybe it's partly the sense of spaciousness, of a time more leisured and less driven than now. There's a sense of placidness and connectedness in these spots; you wonder how many generations of kids have made paths through the long grass.

Maybe it's the sense of gentleness you get in these places, where a gazillion very small lives are getting on with their quite ordinary business. These are quiet places. But quiet isn't the same as tame: I have a sense of half-wildness, of sneaky freedom. Here there are milkweed pods just waiting to be burst. Here, there is at least some of the messy diversity blasted (with the help of pesticides) out of more respectable monocultural lawns. Here there is a soft whisper, quite out of human reach, as the wind fools around with the poplar leaves.

But for me, it's more than that. I am aware of the fact that my own soul has its deserted back lots, its empty and apparently useless spaces--spaces created by the past but lying fallow now. Some bits had been fruitful once, just as my own wilderness back yard used to have a huge and productive vegetable garden, but had fallen into disuse and chaos. There's always a reason why this happens, this passage from fertility to fallow: it may be problematic, but it may also be a necessary state of affairs, for a while at least. Some bits are merely playfully messy, marked with kids' bicycle paths and tree forts. Some bits were. years ago, dug over and sown with salt, and it may take a long, long time for them to recover. Some bits, on the other hand, are simply slovenly yard-keeping.

What I do know is this: that just as God strolled through Eden in the cool of the evening, enjoying all the beauty and fecundity he had made, so God strolls through my own vacant lots and pasture lands, knowing them far better than I do or ever can. I have to trust that. I have to trust that God is looking around my own unknown and unexpected interior the way I look at the gentle, old, forgotten space where the train station used to be: not with an eagerness to see what's wrong but with a willingness to see what's there, the right, the wrong, the problematic, the productive. God does see me truly, and accepts me as truly, knowing better than I do how I have got to where I am now. After all, maybe God sees me more clearly than I do. On second thought, drop that "maybe".

Please God, let us hang onto our vacant lots; we need what's in them, all the wildflowers and strange and lovely vegetation. Neat and productive is good. To an extent--but not too far.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Fri, 27 Oct 2000
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