Friday, April 9, 2010

Forgotten places, too

I found these 1940s fragments in an empty lot while walking my dogs.
(LaGrange, Georgia—April 2010)

What was that in the blog title about places?

Whenever I find old-fashioned plants just growing alongside the road (or in any other unexpected place), I look around for signs that people once lived near those plants. For example: daffodils aren't native to North America. All the daffs here—especially the old-timey varieties—were brought here by the first white settlers.

So when I'm hiking through the woods, across a pasture, or down a country road and see a big clump of happy yellow trumpets waving at me, I know they didn't just sprout legs and mosey on over to their current location. Somebody planted them in a deliberate, thoughtful manner, just to add some beauty and color to the site.

That somebody was likely a woman.

Whether they stayed on the same farm all their lives or traveled from place to place with itinerant husbands, so many of our grandmothers, and their grandmothers many generations before them, loved flowers. Even those women who knew they might not stay in one place for more than a season or two often brought with them the bulbs and rhizomes they'd so carefully planted, tended, and then dug up to store when it was time to move.

Nearly all women back then tended vegetable gardens out of necessity, and we can only imagine the back-breaking work it took to grow all the produce a family would eat—fresh or canned for the winter—for up to a year. What a treat it must have been to add something to the yard solely for their own aesthetic pleasure. The flowers were their own private artistic expression in a culture where art of nearly any kind was usually frowned upon, dismissed as frivolous, a waste of time, only for the wealthy. Monet and his watercolors lilies and irises had nothing on these women.

Many of the houses, the places where these women lived, no longer exist. From the busy four-lane state highways, we might spy a lonely, lopsided brick and fieldstone chimney here and there, barely visible through the trees. Or on our walks around the city or through the woods, we might stumble upon century-old bricks and huge rocks arranged in a square or rectangular outline, the remnants of a foundation or a walkway to a house that has been torn down much longer than it ever stood.

The rocks and bricks and the plants are still there—some will always be there, others until the bulldozers come to scrape them under and away to make room for the new subdivision or strip mall. If we look closely among the weeds and dig a little under the surface of the soil, we'll find fragments of dishes or glassware broken long ago.

What did people do with their refuse before curbside garbage pickup and landfills? They certainly didn't have as much of it as we generate today—they had fewer material things in general. Food scraps were used in every conceivable way so as not to waste what could be eaten later; manure was used for garden fertilizer; clothing and household goods were mended and used again until completely worn out.

But it was different for dishes in this age before Super Glue. A broken plate, bowl, or jug was just that, and couldn't be repaired. Most farm wives swept up the shards of pottery, glass, clayware, or china and then threw them under the limestone pillars on which their houses sat; others left them in a designed site at the edge of the property, where neither farm animals nor small children were likely to cut themselves on the sharp edges.

On my walks, whether out in the country or here in my small Georgia town, I watch the ground for these colorful souvenirs of a time—and a way of life—long gone.

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