I’m not writing anything serious or even structured tonight, because I’m in the middle of reading (and delighting in) N. K. Jemison’s The City We Became, but am not ready to write about it yet. I have been thinking about the metaphor, the abstract concept, that Jemison makes concrete and tangible (as happens so often in fantasy) in The City We Became. It intersects, I suspect, with many of our lives and resonate with our experiences. 

There are no spoilers in any of this, so you may read fearlessly (Brecht, I see you!) Jemison starts with the idea that places have personality — more than zeitgeist, they have an almost unconscious vibe that is grounded in location, riveted into buildings, flavoring the very air of a place. What would happen if that unconsciousness actually attained consciousness? If a city like New Orleans gained more than an amorphous sense of place, but a real self-knowledge? 

What if it happened in New York?

In 2017, Kim Stanley Robinson published another great New York novel, New York 2140, which I  reviewed before. Well, N. K. Jemison also reviewed it (I suspect she got a lot more readers), and one of the things she felt that the novel lacked was a feel of what New York City authentically is. And, while this is purely conjectural, I suspect that Robinson lurked in the back of Jemison’s mind while she wrote The City We Became. Because it’s part love letter, part pushback, and in all, a passionate appraisal of what New York is — all of it, in all its ugliness and grittiness and grandeur.

I’ll have more to say about it next week. But while I’ve been reading and enjoying the book like I haven’t enjoyed a book in a while; you know, the kind that pulls you into a universe and keeps you there until you wake with a start and realize you’ve just ridden 45 minutes on a stationary bike when for a whole month of yesterdays you’ve thought you were ready to die 15 minutes in? While that kind of uncanniness has been happening, I’ve also been thinking about place, and how much change a place can take before it starts being something irrevocably different. (This is also a theme Jemison treats, so you have that to look forward to.)

I live in the Shenandoah Valley. I’m a tiny blue dot in a red sea, which is pretty amusing when Trump fans accuse me of living in a bubble: I do, just not the one they’re thinking of. And I love my home. I love driving the back roads and knowing the fences that delineate the pastures were set around 1820 and many haven’t changed since. I stand on rich earth in my garden and feel centuries of people who stood here and looked at these mountains, navigated this river in shallow gundalows, bringing lumber and produce to Georgetown, then breaking up the rafts, cashing in, and walking home. There’s a deep sense of place here, a feeling of history — some of it horrific, some not so.  There’s a lot about my home that’s wonderful….and a lot that isn’t.

My old house was built by enslaved people. All around, those fences were laid off by enslaved people, most of whom were probably buried along them because the white folks rarely would entertain setting aside valuable farmland for “servants” to be buried. After the Civil War, the Klan operated here (I have the photos to prove it). The area was solidly Democratic until the 1960’s, when it swung hard right and stayed that way. There’s poverty that would make your skin crawl not a mile from where I write this, and people who would look at J. D. Vance and see him as an effete poseur, although those aren’t the words they’d use. Mountain people, rednecks — some of them friends,  some not. Moonshine, drug use, hunting out of season: we’ve got it all, and yes, if you want to fit in, you’d better know how to code-switch.

There’s also kindness here, and good manners (despite Trumpism, there’s still a consistent “yes, sir, no ma’am” ethic that tends to prevail). Bluegrass was born here, it’s the home of great cooking, and the barbeque is the stuff dreams live on.

Because it’s beautiful, and not too far from DC, a lot of people want to live here. I mean, a lot of people. Housing in my area rivals Northern Virginia prices, and builders can’t slap the houses up fast enough. Every few months I’ll drive down a road I haven’t driven in a while and be shocked to see a new development in progress. For the past 40 years, the planning departments of our local counties have asked citizens what they want, and the biggest ask is that the area’s character not change. And slowly, it’s been changing. Sometimes the most vehement anti-growthers are the folks who have just moved in and only now want everything to be the way it always was: picturesque and historic, just so long as GrubHub delivers and the schools are good. 

Change is accelerating now. My home is being gentrified. Local people are being priced out, or are selling their modest parcels of land because, damn! $12,000 an acre? You can’t farm on that, son. At that price, a developer will snap up your 20 acres and, next thing you know, they’ve torn down the old house, and they’re laying out new roads and taking plats and persuasive arguments to the Board of Supervisors.

Everything changes. And the Valley has resisted change for a long time, so it’s painful. I think that’s true everywhere; some places grow, others decline. There’s a lot about growth I don’t like, and a lot about sitting still that’s actually worse. As gentrification progresses and the roads fill with traffic and every year more farmland is taken up by houses that aren’t made to last 30 years, if my home achieved consciousness the way Jemison’s New York does in The City We Became, what would it look like? What would your home look like?

While you’re pondering, here are a few photos from a 12-mile kayak trip I did on the South Fork of the Shenandoah last Friday. Tune in next week for something more literary.

This was at an old stopover for the railroad, a place where the steam engines could pause and take on water.

I couldn’t take any photos when the water was running fast. The river is low right now….

….which means dodging a lot of rocks. Or capsizing. So I was busy.


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