From GENE LOGSDON
I was sort of shocked by an ad in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine which I read regularly. It showed photos of a magnificent new high rise apartment and the surrounding skyline of the city, also magnificent. The building’s form was awesomely grotesque with the floors seemingly piled on top of each other rather haphazardly, not stacked straight and square, jutting into the sky as if in a careless, random flirtation with the natural environment. Most of the walls were glass which added to a feeling that this was not a building at all but just a dream of a building. I am sure the whole affair was a triumph of architectural design but instead of being awed by it, I felt fear and discomfort. The building looked like it was going to topple over in the first strong wind. In fact the whole scene suggested impermanence and instability to me. My main thought was wondering where all the power came from to energize those zillions of electric lights sparkling unnecessarily across the cityscape.
As I studied the photos, my agrarian upbringing struck me with renewed conviction. City splendor means nothing much good to me, even though I am a peasant with lots of higher education. I am not at all comfortable with cities or being in them. To me they are the final heartbeat of a civilization reaching climax and about to crumble. Walking on sidewalks I feel exactly as I would feel walking in a volcanic crater about to erupt again. All those years I walked the streets of Philadelphia, I tripped the lights fantastic only to earn the money that a poor farm boy needs to escape to the quiet green fields and the smell of curing hay in the barn. I never put my full weight down on the pavement. But I did learn the source of the city’s charm. I would stop every morning in the heart of Philly and buy a sweet roll at a little Greek bakery. One week, traveling, I missed my appointed round. When I returned, the ancient grandmother of this family enterprise looked up at me from behind the counter as I paid her and asked— remember this was in a city thronging with eight or nine million people—: Where were you last week? That’s how I learned the peasant and pleasant truth about the big city. It is held together with local roots nurtured by a network of old country villages from which it sprang.
Why is it that no matter how far I strayed into academia and big city life, the yearning for the farm environment, as rough and crude as it sometimes was, never left me. The sound of hens singing in the barnyard, the sight of cows and sheep grazing in the pasture, the smell of spring stirring in the woods, the creak of the windmill outside my bedroom window, fireflies aglow over wheat stubble, — these things were ever present in my mind and when I would encounter them during forays into the countryside, I would be overwhelmed with nostalgia. A farm boy friend of mine in Texas and a well known writer and musician in his own right (Joe Dan Boyd), happened to email me on this very subject, even as I was writing about it. He wondered if it were “ancestral mind” at work, and used phrases like “genetic predisposition” to explain it. I think the other part of it is environmental. The years from birth to adolescence are surely the most influential time of life, and if the child spends that time on a farm, the sights and sounds and smells weld themselves to the psyche even if the experiences aren’t always pleasant. It is amazing to me how many famous writers and singers try to flee their “ancestral mind” only to be drawn back to it for the creative energy they need to write or sing.
It is interesting to study the stark ruins of ancient cities in North Africa and note that around them, there are peasants drawing spiritual and physical sustenance from the land that when it was neglected, spelled the end of those ancient great metropolises.