On day 3, the writers traveled throughout the Susquehanna Valley and engaged in Deep Mapping, an exercise that Robert Brook describes as making "a map of place that shows what makes up that place, and indicates the forces that create the tension which generates the energy of that space (positively and negatively)." After returning, the writers went to a poetry reading at the Stadler Center
Journal 3: Reflect on the Deep Mapping excursion and the Stadler Center reading. Is there a common element that you find useful in terms of the production of your portfolio, your education about the Susquehanna and writing, and your intellectual life?
I think it's too early in the program to say what I'm finding useful in terms of production of my portfolio. We've hardly even discussed the portfolios, and I can't decide which project I'm going to pursue. (I was pretty set on #2, but the poetry reading reminded me that I came here more to do #1, so now I'm torn.) But in terms of my intellectual life and my education about the Susquehanna, I'd say what I find most useful (and often, most interesting) are the stories about how people have interacted with – anything. With each other, with the river, with concepts, with culture, anything. I think that's why I find pocket groups, like the Bloomsburys or the Preraphaelite Brotherhood so fascinating – both are an intense collection many interactions. In such groups, the writers and artists interact with one another, both intellectually and very personally, with their environment (London for the Bloomsburys, “nature” for the Preraphaelites), with the ideas they are exploring, and with the culture around them (even if they are often trying to form a sort of counter-culture).
Reflecting on it more, I suppose all people interact in some way or another with these various things, but groups of artists tend to leave behind the most discernible traces. So when we began to talk about such layers of interaction with the river, I was fascinated. The coal miners and loggers and farmers and town loyalists living along the river aren't a specific set of people trying deliberately to leave a historical trace (at least, not outside of their monuments). Instead, the history of human interaction with the river is much longer, and much more layered than individuals or even small groups can be. I find the interaction of all these different threads of human experience, moving throughout history, incredibly complex. After all, it's so much bigger than I am, as just one individual. How could I comprehend and write about it? The tour yesterday helped show me all the different, surprising stories that, at least individually, I can try to comprehend, or at least interpret through my own experience. (After all, despite being a Pennsylvanian, I did feel profoundly foreign in these coal towns – like a tourist gawking at poverty.) But despite my sense that the experience of the Susquehanna region is somehow beyond myself, I know that I am here, experiencing it right now, so instead of remaining intimidated, I need to try and write.
Our multi-layered excursion was appropriate for our multi-layered approach to landscape, and sticky, tired, and seasoned with Susquehanna culture was how we returned after our trip around the area. I gained some great first-hand information and impressions of a few river towns and the surrounding wildlife. I was drawn to civilizations more than the wilds (for once), and the more run down the better. I really like the juxtaposition of these utterly decomposing towns - junked-up, rugged, gritty, yet with the memory of something warm underneath – against the dark, lush, and exploited landscape. Ashland especially; a wooded ridge along one side of the stained main street, the houses not even a block deep, just the burned-out facades on main street and occasionally another fixer-upper stacked behind them, a level above. Victorian wrap around porches complete with Playskool slide, satellite dish lashed on the railing, spoon wind-chime and 30 year old peeling paint. It was cultural layer upon cultural layer in these places. I’ll take that, in all its ugliness, to an up-overnight, franchise-laden development any day.
It would be a lie to say I was looking forward to the poetry reading after a long day of “deep-traveling”, but it turned out to be a good experience. Of the poets who read, I most enjoyed Erinn Batykefer. I was unfamiliar with her work before today, but I found it very engaging. It evokes that car-crash response; as each line progresses, you don’t want to hear that anticipated carnal combination of words, but then again you do, and you’re pulled forward by this perverse type of gory momentum. I was partial to “Dog Skin”, drawn in by its visceral language, but as I saw that all of her poems utilized this type of raw, teetering on violent diction, the style almost lost appeal through overuse, rather than establishing itself as a beloved trademark. Almost. I’m still deciding.
Perhaps a lesson from today is that experiences like our trip and the poetry reading allow us to take home more than the beautiful or the historicized or the glorified, they enable us to take home the real. Getting more than the text book version means getting the uncomfortable right along with the cushy stuff. I think this is especially important when it comes to writing. The rose-colored glasses need to come off, stop fitting things into tired narratives and predictable genre. I want my portfolio to do this; to examine the good with bad, without saying this is the good and this is the bad. It’s never that simple, but it’s an easy way out to make it that way when you’re writing. Authenticity. That’s what we got a dose of today, and that’s what we’ll keep getting throughout this institute. That’s a huge thing I strive for in my writing. I want it to sound good, I want it to bite, I want it to ring, but I also it to be authentic.
First, a small anecdote on getting lost: The summer after my sophomore year, I drove back and forth from Danville a few evenings to attend an ESL tutor training. On my way back to Lewisburg one night, I took a wrong turn; instead of taking Rt. 45 straight back I found myself driving along Rt. 11, following the northern branch of the Susquehanna River back to 15. I had never gone that way. Rather than becoming upset about being lost like I normally would have, I felt comforted by the sight of the Susquehanna next to me. It was familiar and it was home, so I couldn’t be too far off my intended path. Quite often, being lost becomes the perfect opportunity to explore and discover. It might sound cheesy, but it’s definitely true.
We didn’t get lost today as we had a trusty tour guide (Professor Ben Marsh of the Geography dept. here at BU). But already, in only our second full day in the Institute, we have seen and explored so many dusty corners of the Susquehanna Valley: Sunbury, Shamokin, Bear Valley, Ashville, Mount Carmel. We took the time to stop in small towns that I wouldn’t have normally. In fact, we traveled on roads I probably never would have taken, and I suddenly feel like I never want to drive on an interstate again (if I can help it).
Each town we visited buzzed with its own brand of life, and when we took the time to stop in each place, we realized this humming was particular for every one. Towns that had formerly looked identically bland became fascinating. I have a newfound interest in monuments after today…each one shows in some way not only what is important to the town to commemorate, but also how they chose to do so.
And I guess there were also the “ugly” parts, but I love those, too. Ugliness is a part of it all, which is something we seem often to try to forget. When we attended the poetry reading later this evening, I was skeptical about how I could connect it with my experience earlier in the day. Yet, as Erinn Batykefer began to talk about butcher shops and carcasses, I remembered a small dialogue between my companions earlier when we were visiting Centralia. Ben warned us about the trash, some of which contained human waste (I’ll let you use your imagination here), as we slowly edged down a dirt slope leading to openings in the rocks below that emitted steam. We all cringed at his warning.
“Oh Ben! That isn’t exactly very poetic, is it,” one person laughed.
But then another responded thoughtfully, “Well I don’t know. It actually could be quite poetic.”
I think what I’m learning from these days is how much can be found in the ugly or seemingly dull that we normally overlook…
The best poem of the night was from a river. But more on that later.
Before the river wrote to us of its loving indifference, we examined the remnants of American feudalism. It was strange to drive past duplex after duplex and imagine the foreign serfs who lived there once, and farmed miles into the earth for their overlords. There is chill quality to places that were not built by the people who want to live in them, as if the bones of the company houses are as indifferent as the river. Gardens and rocking chairs and rusting wind chimes have civilized things a bit, so perhaps I am only reading what I expect from an old coal town. Still, it is hard to think that the city planner who put five churches along one street ever imagined going with his children to one of them some morning.
Why should that trouble me, I wonder? In this love letter from the Allegheny, the river warns a poet of it savage impartiality, it utter divorce from human intent. Investment, it repeats so often, is not in its nature. Perhaps there is my answer: perhaps it should be in ours. People want to make a place their own, to their own tastes, even if they do it poorly. A town that spring up out of the earth in the space of years, well, that is no new thing. But these towns were company towns, made for the company alone with the unconcern only shareholders or acts of nature can attain.
I saw houses in reclamation. Like the biting water that runs out of a mine, human interference chips away at the acidity streets gridded to an owner’s convenience. Houses are claimed and reclaimed with bright shutters and window boxes. Paint peels up at the corners of things. With time, and luck, the edges of history soften until its rust settles to the bottom.
That rust washes up against cars and chain link fence. But, even as the town subsides back towards the pit mine, I think: people going on about their lives is a great filter for human toxicity. \
During the Stadler Center reading, Katie Hays read a poem that was inspired by the idea of perspective and the number of first-person perspectives there are in the world. In the production of my portfolio, my education about the Susquehanna, and my intellectual life, I am becoming more aware of my wholly unique perspective. My preconceptions deeply affect the way I see and experience the world because meaning is not defined. My beliefs, my values, my past—all of these elements that make me who I am influence what I write about, how I use what I learn inside and outside the classroom, what I take from each excursion, and most importantly, the meaning that I derive from all of it.
Today, we hiked through the forest to get to an area facing a humongous mountain that had been stripped for its coal. Long before my eyes would behold this natural wonder, coal miners worked on the sleek black surface of the rock harvesting a resource that would provide them with the means to live. Going to that location was just another day of difficult and dangerous labor, and from their perspectives, coal meant life—it was food, water, housing, and education for their kids. For me, coal means something completely different; it’s just another resource like water, wood, and steel. (As someone who has grown up in cities and commercialized suburbs, the hike was a feat in itself.) But when I reached our destination and saw the grandeur of the mountain, I felt like I had finally started to find my footing in a cultural landscape beyond mega malls, skyscrapers, and all the things that don’t mean anything in the wilderness. I will never be able to know how it felt to live the life of a coal miner, but for those couple minutes that I was able to stand on that sloping ridge, I felt connected to a community so different from myself. In those few moments, I felt part of a greater whole.
Perhaps each excursion will not be quite as rewarding or unusual as the one through the coal cities of the Susquehanna Valley. After all, how many towns do you know of that have a perpetual fire burning underground? But every experience in life is a process of discovering meaning in the world that has personal significance, and boy, have I got a lot of discovering left to do.
The extent of the cultural implications we saw yesterday extends far beyond the surface of what we saw. Not only does the physical landscape of the communities experience growth in relativity to the landscape, growth in terms of the natural and the artificial, but the mental landscape and faculties shift and bend as well. Time, then, adds its own changes in manifestation that recreates the stratus effect seen in the exposed tracks of the sides of ridges—layers build upon layers, sometimes imperceptibly, but ending up somewhere quite different from their origins. Thinking the way we think seems natural to us, as though we could not have thought of our experiences in any other light, until we are exposed to the differing environments, showing other methods of interpretations and adding even more layers to the topography of our minds.
Everything is connected. The idea behind the flapping butterfly, or a ruthless industrialist, maintains that the effects of every action, of every choice, range far beyond that of our own perspectives, of our own environments. Decisions we make, a single statement we say, can stay with a person for the rest of his life, whether they were of consequence at the time. The stains of thoughtless choices permeate the landscapes of our minds and those of others and even onto the physical landscape. The Susquehanna River takes disparate elements that enter into its body, regardless of the intent behind them. It nourishes the ground, the game, the people with the fruits of the actions of others, reflecting what we have done, can do, will do. Sometimes it tries to help remedy the effects it carries, and at other times, it leaves the stains for us to recognize, for us to take into account, for our futures.
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