I rented a car yesterday to drive from Birmingham to visit my mother-in-law. Selma’s about 90 miles from B’ham and the fastest way to get here is to go on I-65 down to Clanton and then cut across southwest, on a small country road. It has always been Sherod driving and I didn’t have to get to Selma at any particular time. On my own in this part of the world, I drove slowly enough to enjoy a sunny winter’s afternoon. The countryside is quite lovely and the glimpses I caught of daffodils and crocuses filled me with elation. As I came to one curve in the road, an old property caught my attention and I had to come back to try to take what pictures I could with my iPhone.
I love these drives more and more. I find buildings and structures that have been in a long, slow process of decay compelling as I glimpse them along the roads. There are lots of them out in these parts of the countryside. I get the sense that what went first was the fluff—all the trappings of purposes imposed on wood and iron and tin and brick by people. There are years, and years, and even more years, of being exposed to the elements, being stripped down further and further to the essential. The sagging when a structure no longer has the strength to stand up for that which others intended for it. The deep, rich colors that come from that strange combination of addition and subtraction—veneer is stripped bare, grit and grime and life gets blown and blasted into what used to be impenetrable.
Perhaps what I am most aware of is the resistance of what has been built up, what has been created, even if by human hands that know mainly about folly, to go back to the dust. Perhaps all those trees and minerals and dirt first accepted (really, did they have any choice?) and then embraced the transmutations required of them, all the ways they were cut and hammered and forged into edifices far beyond their individual possibilites. Once this new future was embraced, no matter how beyond them it was, there was no going back. I get the sense that all these places that served their purpose and now exist only occasionally, when someone drives by and sees them, will quietly, stolidly, stubbornly, rebel against the notion of once having been something and now being condemned to nothingness. So they endure. The tilt happens ever so slowly and with a grace that only comes with time. All the way to the very end, the bitter and maybe glorious end, they insist on giving witness.
Marguerite Duras, who wrote Hiroshima Mon Amour, is a powerful writer. My favorite of her books: The Lover. It has one of the most magnificent lines imaginable. Yesterday as I tromped around, looking at this abandoned place on the side of the road, I kept repeating it:
I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.