Ruins of Tomorrow

Letter to America by Ryan Irwin

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By the time my wife’s cancer got bad, my stories about the Perfect Spot were familiar.

 
My wife learned about her cancer the day after Governor Cuomo shut down non-essential services in New York. She was two years from 40 at the time. I’ve buried most of my memories from that day, but I remember that I had to share the news with our nine-year-old daughter. We sat on the couch together and cried, and as our tears dried, she looked into my eyes and asked, “Dad, can we go to the Perfect Spot?”

~

That name came from a book about a father and a daughter who walked together in the wilderness. A year or two earlier she had discovered the book in the public library. Like the protagonist in that story, my daughter plopped down in place after place before proclaiming to have discovered perfection atop a hill near our house.

I have never asked why she picked that hill. The view, I assume. We live outside Albany, and when you look west from the Spot, you can see the Helderberg escarpment on the horizon. It’s gorgeous. There is also a very attractive oak tree on her hill, and my daughter liked to lean against that tree as she looked upon the escarpment.

By the time my wife’s cancer got bad, my stories about the Perfect Spot were familiar. My daughter knew that a lake once covered this land and that people had arrived when the lake evaporated. She understood that the Kanien’keháka and Muh-he-con-neok people had changed the terrain slowly over many years, hunting the deer and turkey we still saw in the sand dunes.

She also knew that Europeans came in the 1600s. The Dutch traded with locals and farmed by the river. Then the English arrived, and people traded and fought and intermarried for another century before the Kanien’keháka and Muh-he-con-neok retreated beyond the escarpment—the first of many retreats. My daughter and I talked a lot about colonialism.

In the 1700s, the English built a road through the dunes. It took them from a fort on the Hudson to a fort on the Mohawk, giving us an excuse to talk about rivers and waterfalls. The road became a railway in the 1800s—one of the country’s first—so we mused about steam power. George Washington said that our Perfect Spot was ugly, but we agreed that he was elitist. Herman Melville characterized this place as desolate, and we were pretty sure he was elitist too.

~

From the couch in our house, you need about 20 minutes to get to the Perfect Spot. As context, our home was built by a pig farmer when people rode horses—it is an old house—and it is surrounded by a neighborhood of modest postwar homes that abut a nature preserve called the Albany Pine Bush. The Perfect Spot is inside the preserve. I remember being nervous the first time I took my daughter there. The trailhead is under a canopy of enormous locust trees, nestled between two derelict homes, and you can’t see where the path goes from the road. 

However, when you emerge from that canopy, everything is different. I think that is why my daughter was drawn to this place. The world behind was green and manicured because of chemicals and expectations; this place is brown and wild. The air is hotter for reasons I don’t understand and the sky looks bigger without telephone wires crisscrossing.

You hear the insects before the sparrows. The nearby blackberry bushes are entangled by bittersweet vines. Pitch pines and oak trees are scattered over the grassy dunes. The landscape looks otherworldly. And the Perfect Spot awaits down a sandy path marked by palm-sized red signs nailed to weather-worn wood posts. You need only turn left and walk.

Everything feels right at the Perfect Spot. The oak tree offers just enough shade. The wind rustles the leaves overhead. One day, my daughter and I see a bald eagle in the distance; another day we see two deer in the tall grass. We don’t see many people. When we do, they keep their distance, glaring wearily from behind masks, fearful that we might breathe the same air.

This land is public because it protects nature from the suburbs. It is common ground. Someday soon, my daughter will learn that Vladimir Nabokov studied butterflies in these fields before writing Lolita. I’m not ready to explain Lolita to a nine-year-old. Nabokov discovered the Karner blue here in 1944, and that butterfly’s brush with extinction—because of the neighborhood that surrounds our house—saved this place from a thing called development.

~

As the weeks turn to months, I start wondering how much truth my daughter should know. The pandemic drags on. Her world is so small. After the double mastectomy, my wife starts chemotherapy, which leads to radiation. I’m not allowed in the hospital, so I wait in the parking lot while she meets her oncologists. My daughter and I retreat to the Perfect Spot more often.

She always looks west to the escarpment. The sunsets are beautiful. As the months slip away, my eyes start drifting in other directions. In the east there is a kettle of vultures swirling above a mountainous landfill. The facility is adorned by fences, bulldozers, and a gigantic American flag. This planet’s largest Walmart sits in the landfill’s shadow and its roof is visible through leafless trees in the winter. There is a shopping mall too; you can see its walls in the distance. For some reason, the sound of unseen automobiles fills the air when you look away from the escarpment. Not far from where we stand, I-90 intersects I-87.

Could I buckle under the weight of too much truth?

In the spring, one of my students tells me that she is going to write a thesis about this place. She discovers that the city began dumping its trash onto the pine barrens shortly after Nabokov’s last adventure here. Soon afterwards, officials sold the surrounding environs to investors who promised that shopping centers would bring taxable property to the land, which is why our aging farmhouse is surrounded by so many cheap cottages.

When the pollution became unbearable, the new residents protested, and the New York State Assembly intervened in the 1990s, proposing an agency to manage the land that I-90 and I-87 bisects. The mayor complained and a compromise was forged. The result was a preserve. Now the landfill’s profits pay for the trail that brings us to our Perfect Spot.

My neighbors think that the preserve is the triumph of nature over development—that Nabokov’s butterfly adorns banners in the mall because the conservationists won. But that is not the truth. There are no environmentalists on the board of the Pine Bush Commission. This land is managed by political appointees from either small or big business, depending on the party in power downtown. As my student shares these findings with her classmates, the local newspaper announces that the Karner blue thrived during the pandemic—and that the mall will raze part of the preserve to build a Costco. The status quo is working, they say.

~

This morning, I walked to the Perfect Spot for the first time in several months. My wife’s doctors used the word remission recently, and I cried again. From atop the hill, my eyes settle upon two red-tailed hawks dancing together on the wind. I tell myself that they are in love. The oak tree rustles. My daughter is listening to music alone in her bedroom. Someone honks a horn in the distance. With my back against her tree, I turn toward the escarpment, and I hum a Woody Guthrie song I didn’t know I still remembered.

 

 

Ryan IrwinRyan Irwin is an associate professor of history at the University at Albany who writes about ideas, culture, and U.S. foreign relations. He is the author of Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order (Oxford, 2012).

Header photo by Matt Tilghman, courtesy Shutterstock.

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