A 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.
All 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.