Whence Beautiful Places?

Barn and redbudsA couple of weeks ago, I found myself standing in the Spring sunlight at a farm in northern Mississippi along with a few other people. The matter at hand was whether the site, containing a modest ranch house, a wood barn, a line of very old osage orange trees, and a dirt road was eligible for the National Register. If it was eligible, a major road project would have to be re-routed to avoid it. But even then, because the new road would be a limited access highway, the property owner would be forced to either build a new road to access some other highway or not have any way to get to his property. So the two choices before us seemed to be demolition or abandonment.

As a Christian, the concept of man’s stewardship of God’s creation is very important to me. This place exemplified stewardship, showed the tending and keeping of generations of farmers. There are wild places with an untamed beauty, and there are urban places that show man’s creativity, and then there are rural places like this one whose beauty shines when man struggles to live with nature, to both adapt to it and bend it to his needs.

“Stewardship” is not in the National Register guidelines, however–how could such a subjective concept be? After looking at everything, we all decided that the property didn’t meet the requirements for listing on the National Register. But we all just stood around for another hour or so, talking in the sunlight, looking at the redbud trees popping with color, the blue sky beyond, the red dirt of the road, the stand of trees, the deep swale of swampland sinking off in the distance. We all agreed over and over how beautiful this place was, what a shame it was that it was about to be destroyed. I felt we all realized that the questions we were asking about the site were the wrong questions. I wondered why our society–the one we have built, that I have participated in–is so willing to destroy this kind of beauty. Mississippi’s history is primarily rural, and I have observed that the Mississippians who seem most Mississippian to me are those who live in these kinds of places–they have a genius for creating them. And yet we break apart our rural places with as little thought as we might to cut up a watermelon.

Osage Orange TreeAll of us out at that farm were just doing our jobs the best we can within the system we have. But as I’ve pondered it, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with my part in the process. I have no answers to what we could have done differently to protect this place; and that’s the problem. We’ve created a system we call “Progress” that includes only tangible things: roads and buildings and infrastructure, which are all important. But they are not the only things of significance in life. I question why our culture is the way it is, how we all came to be such willing participants in it, and whether we can ever change it without doing even greater harm. Beauty is truth, John Keats told us, truth, beauty. I guess it depends on how you define beauty.



Categories: Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, National Register, Urban/Rural Issues, Vernacular Architecture

5 replies

  1. Excellent post, even though it makes me sad for the farm. I agree, some places seem to just an “indescribable-uncategorizable” beauty.

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  2. I remember being touched by the rural places of my childhood. Visiting my grandparents was quiet and serene, but I didn’t think that there could actually be a place for anyone other than those who grew up there (read, “It’s just for old people”). I think a lot of these places are lost because of thinking just like mine.

    I grew up in town and assumed that’s where I would remain because that’s what everyone did, but by God’s grace He put me in the country. I am not of this place, but as I learn about those who worked and farmed here before us, I am amazed at how quickly and deeply that connection to a place can be made. Of course, there is no physical representation of the history of this place, no centuries old barns, or even historic landscapes. The beauty we have is in learning and dreaming and living for the centuries to come. While that is not isolated to rural properties, I had never known that kind of beauty before I lived here.

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    • I don’t completely understand why or how the break between generations and their connection to the land came about. I think one significant but subtle change has occurred in the way people refer to rural properties. From my reading in older documents and letters, many people would say “the Oakley Place” or the Malvaney Place” but I don’t hear that word “place” used much that way anymore, except by older people. Now I hear “he owns some land out in the country” or something similar, reducing it from the status of “place” to simply “land.” It’s much easier to consider land a commodity to be bought and sold than it is a place.

      That may just be generalities, but it’s how it seems to me.

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  3. While I will to a large degree (5 on your rating scale) agree with your rant against Dick Moe and his op-ed piece and so many things about the National Trust in general…one thing I do like is their “This Place Matters” campaign. I believe that the reason we love the architecture and spaces and rural landscape of the past is because it is a Place that matters and we feel compelled to save it for future generations.

    http://www.preservationnation.org/take-action/this-place-matters/

    I know coming late to the posting, but my 2 cents for the day.

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    • That’s a good point and a weird coincidence because today while clicking around on Flickr (which was totally work-related because I was on the National Register photostream) I saw the National Trust’s photos with people holding signs “This Place Matters” all over the country. I thought that was really effective in showing the range of places, from grand to simple, that people love and care about. So, yes, score one for the National Trust!

      I’d say this comment gets a Negativity Rating of 1. I’ve become such a bright ray of sunshine :-)

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