On Waste Lonely Places

· Earth Initiative, Essays · , ,

by John Landretti

I have gone into the waste lonely places
Behind the eye; the lost acres at the edge of smoky cities.
—Theodore Roethke

I live in an old neighborhood near a small downtown, just beyond the reach of the last parking meters. Any of the houses here would look stately and haunted perched on a hill somewhere, but as it is they’re all serried together down the long city blocks: most gables and bay windows look out on the bay windows and gables of one’s immediate neighbor. I’ve given up a country view for convenience; the university where I work is just a half-mile away—and five hundred feet up—at rest on a stack of sea bottoms some 350 million years old. From that height the view affords a wilderness of hanging valleys and dramatic clouds that typify the Finger Lakes region of central New York. But at my home in the lowlands, where I occupy a second-story flat, I must content myself with a more modest vista: that meager scrap of landscape as seen from a small window in the back bathroom. You work with what you’ve got. Using the toilet as a chair I’ll occasion- ally ponder that unextraordinary horizon of roofs, wires, and trees. The best viewing occurs at dusk, especially after a rain, when the sky is red and newly washed, when the clouds reflect on the wet glass of old garages and in the watery sheen of gardens.

Years passed by before I realized that the awe I sometimes felt among grandeur (the peaks of mountains, say) was really no different from the awe available to me in places as prosaic as the view from a bathroom window. It all seems to be a matter of keener seeing, of opening oneself to a degree of perception that Rilke suggests is not simply an aesthetic consideration, but an issue of personal responsibility: “All this was mission./ But could you accomplish it? Weren’t you always/ distracted by expectation, as if every event/ announced a beloved?…”

I certainly know that hindsight marks me as distracted, a person so given to introspection that I’ve slid through countless days announcing beloveds left and right. To be sure, nobody could possibly devote all attention to every thing encountered—we would go mad—but it could be argued, sucessfully I think, that as a nation we Americans trend too far in the other direction, toward inattention, and if this is taken to be true we might do well to reconnoiter our aesthetic prejudices, especially those that shape our definitions of what we call “ugly” and even more so, “mundane.”

As a boy I believed the only sights that deserved my undivided attention, simply because they were places, were those bastions of grandeur, our national parks. A national park was the high art of topography. Its purpose was to inspire and edify, the way we’re told that a symphony is supposed to foment our finer sensibilities. This I learned from the adults that populated my childhood, well-meaning small-town folks who once or twice a year approached national parks the way they might attend a big-city concert: dressed for the occasion, they bought tickets and arrived with programs and an air of reverent uncertainty. Meanwhile the rest of their world, all those rural and urban scrapscapes that circumfused their days, received for the balance of the year that glazy attention usually given to music at supermarkets.


At The End Of Each Spring in my old neighborhood, many of the families used to load up their cars and head west. Yosemite, Death Valley, Yellowstone—all through the summer and until the leaves dropped, they rolled out of the suburbs toward the geysers, the mesas, and peaks. During this collective absence I ran a profitable traffic in yard work; on those lonely afternoons of high summer I’d watch my reflection pacing a lawn mower in their vacant windows, and I’d wonder about the world they were bound for. What were they seeing and feeling in the presence of those topographical icons? In our kitchen my mother kept a nature calendar; occasion- ally I’d touch the picture (a split-rail fence before a mountain, a whale breaching at dusk) as if those images alone could charge my blood with a moment of “real” living.

When the families returned, their cars were always dusty, the windshield plastered with stickers. Though the children had a lot to say, I can no longer recall their stories. What stays in my mind is the parents, how so many those people returned spent of language, how wearily they unpacked their luggage. Far from revitalized, they shuffled with the slump-backed, longthroated look of citizens returning from exile. While the wife implored after the kids, the husband would take me aside and press some cash in my hand—often with an appreciative, if perfunc- tory compliment, one that rarely followed any sort of inspection.

How was the trip, I’d say. Some husbands murmured about the expense while others said “Fine.” A few winked and told me to stay single. Many simply rubbed their faces and said they were glad to be back.

When I finished college I went west myself, finally passing through those majestic places encapsulated on the bumpers of my neighbors’ station wagons. Now and then I traveled as a hitchhiker, musing over land- scapes the whole way; headed nowhere special, I was pacing on a continental scale. At first I made a point to tramp through every national park in my path. A time or two I got into backcountry, but most often I simply glimpsed the grandeur from the edge of a park road, or the lip of a scenic overlook. Usually I shared the view with a host of other tourists, and I recall—of the more congested overlooks—that as time passed and more people arrived, these crowds always seemed to enact a common dynamic: they became a sort of microcosm, one that in a curious way acted out the whole of our moiled and imploring immigrant history.

Imagine a scenic turnoff at the Great Divide. Beyond the pay binoculars the view is magnificent, striated with glaciers and peppered with hawks. Say it’s July Fourth, the dawn’s early light. For a while the turnoff is unoccupied, save for a few orbiting flies and perhaps a marmot at rest on the base of its elongated shadow. Then a Winnebago sails in with flapping flags. These new arrivals dock near the edge and gape from stickered windows, bringing to this solitary view a sense of wonder and privilege. Then others begin to arrive; they park their RVs and stake places along the stone fence. Kids eye one another from the safety of parental legs. Animals mull in the dust and people walk around with pop cans and cigars. Still more arrive, and eventually the little overlook becomes as crowded as a steerage deck drawing up to Ellis Island. A line of people flute the line of the fence, and as they vie for a private audience, there grows among them an air of burgeoning annoyance and polite restraint. As the group continues to swell, so does the general uneasiness. The old timers feel entitled to the spot they had claimed; the newcomers feel the pie ought to be shared. The very latest arrivals sense this, as much as they note the lack of space, and grimly press on.

The worst aspect of this crowding is not the hostility or desperation, but the collective embarrassment. It’s present in the flinching eye contact, in the contrast between the bright cheery clothes and that tight-lipped bumping around with cameras. Crowded as they are, they understand that something is amiss, that though they are physically close to the object of their journey, they remain as spiritually distanced as they were the day they left home. Despite all the gaping, the glaciers retain their cool and fragrant secrets and the hawks circle away out of sight. From high above, those turnoffs must be quite a view: each a little bump off a road where a crowd of tiny hands flail like cilia at time immemorial. It was during moments like these that I began to understand the why of that devitalized look which had marred the faces of so many of my childhood neighbors just back from grandeur.

As interactive an enterprise as I’ve found hitchhiking to be, it is also a study in solitude. Often it is life on a desert island. Check out the guard rails near Gillette, Wyoming; Altoona, Pennsylvania; E1 Paso, Texas and you will find home states scratched into the steel; you will see the hours tallied and crossed out, the names of lovers cut in with nubs of shale. This is the archaeology of the stranded. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that as the hitchhiker’s day passes, his or her life is lived out on a string of desert islands— an archipelago of crossroads and on-ramps. It was this solitary aspect of hitchhiking, more than anything, that led me to reconsider the way I measure the worth of a place.

During all that “island hopping,” with hours and sometimes days to kill in a single spot, I found myself forced to acknowledge, and later to admire, that meager terrain upon which I was repeatedly stranded. I refer to those places we pass every day: our interstate weed beds and chemical sloughs; the cinder narrows of our commuter tracks; the hard yellow fields around our tank farms; the industrial fairways and caged waterfalls of power plants; our pits of kudzu and piss elm; our dump-edge wallows with stumps and tires nested in ponds of green oatmeal. These are our other parks, our marginalized and unnoticed acres, grandeur’s doppelgänger, with a doppelganger’s disturbing wisdom and equivocal hospitality.


The Places I Came To Know best were the ones in which I found myself at dusk. I’d have traveled all night if I’d been assured safe passage, but it was too violent and unreliable a time, and so I would head for the margins, throw my hat to the ground and call it home. When I began to take these places into account, when I acknowledged that every such place was not mere background music between topographical symphonies, but that any patch of ground was special all to itself and worthy of consideration—then a curious reciprocation occurred: these places began to notice me.

Photo by Rookuzz

Photo by Rookuzz

What occurs is a kind of situational coalescence. As the taillights of that last ride grow small and wink out, the horizon gathers itself to your singular perspective. There is no grandeur to bait expectation, no promise to invite distraction, only the quiet of ditch and litter and grass and self; without preconceptions you begin to see your place in a different way, from the ground up. You warm to how consummate this place is in its becoming: the perfect pattern of stones along the shoulder; the fast food wrappers, their logos clinging just so to the sage; there at long rest in the shadows, that old trilobite of the highway, the fallen muffler. And so you become consummate yourself; instead of a face lost in an embarrassed crowd, you become unique and necessary to that moment, your perspective creating, for better or worse, this one place in the world. It is a time to whistle.


I Recall A Night In Ohio spent in the loop of a cloverleaf. The grass was tall and as I lay on my back, it rose up around me and created an intimacy of panicles and thistles that in their complete stillness seemed to touch against the stars. Meanwhile the trucks moaned around me, each executing in that curve of sound a profound change of course, from dead south to due east.

That circle of earth is named somewhere on a map; like all our land it is endowed with coordinates. Yet no traveler would have cause to set a course for such a place, and so its representation gathers dust somewhere—in a library perhaps, or among some courthouse archive—of interest only to civil engineers and road crews. Offering your attention to a waste place is like finding a book in the library, a book nobody reads. Or perhaps a book harboring a single due date, one purple smudge thirty years old. And there it is in your hand by the effortless design of coincidence. You look over its pages and before is effort and presence; whether the contents have appeal is another matter, but the book does exist and is open before you, full of its telling. And so it is with these shelves and sheaves of world that daily surround us: every rock, blade, and bottle, every leaf, an invitation to an understanding.

Keep in mind, lolling in a waste place will perplex and even disturb those who catch you at it. Once some time ago I was traveling back east when dusk came and I made camp just outside a large city, near the end of a runway. I sat in the sooty, blown-down grass and watched the jets rush through the goldenrod and lift away. Behind me was a road and beyond that the backwash of an industrial park. In the distance, lights strobed on a smokestack and powerline scaffolds marshaled along an oily black slough. I left my camp to wander along the slough. I counted box turtles, submerged appliances, watched the tiny shadow of a jet slide across the polished sludge. Meanwhile the cars shot by, one after the other, every driver glancing at me, askance. What in God’s name, they seemed to wonder, was that man doing out there without a vehicle? A few bowed toward the other lane, giving me more than enough room. It was a sobering observation, to see that there are places in our cities so completely dismissed of our consideration that when one of us finally stops to poke around, the spectacle invites puzzlement and even alarm.


In My Earliest Days as a hitchhiker, when I was still inclined to grumble while stranded on my desert islands, I found myself, one evening, waylaid on a patch of Nebraska hard-pan. There were train tracks along the road, and I remember how faraway and straight they went. Stuck for four hours, I was forced finally to give up any hope of night camped in full view of the Rockies. Wearily, I climbed the bank and tossed my hat on the ground. It was a five-star waste place, with beer cans at rest in the ditch and old cattails crippled against the sky. I chewed on some wheat bread and morosely watched as hundreds of small birds gathered on the power lines across the road. After dusk I crawled into my tent to wait out the night.

Some time later, when I was nearly asleep, my tent brightened, became a sort of nylon membrane shaking with light. I sat up, bolt straight, still half in a dream. The ground was trembling along my legs. There was an explosion and the light vanished. Another explosion, then a third. Following this came a bombardment of noise so loud and relentless that in my fright I believed the noise alone would kill me. It went on for ten minutes, a flash flood of axles and bed springs slamming down an iron coulee.

When it quieted I crawled from my tent, bewildered. I watched the caboose retreating, a speedy clickety-clack with a red light low at the terminus. That freighter must have been doing eighty. I went the five feet over to the tracks and grasped the rail still ringing and warm. From far away came a mournful whistle, then the child’s play of a passing semi. A crescent moon was just up, lifting its hooks through those power lines of sleeping birds. This is what I am, it all seemed to say; now let’s review.

I was not quick to go back to sleep. Instead I lowered myself onto the edge of that humming rail and stared awhile at the moon in the power lines. Here was not the grandeur of glaciers and massifs. But neither was it void space, a mere window blur from which to bounce a cigarette. It was somewhere, a place full of its own knowing, and it had shaken me to the core. I sat quietly for a long while, feeling the incredible reach of silence around me. It is a sobering thing, and strange, to live in a country so lathered with dreams and to find yourself in a place where nothing, absolutely nothing, is promised. I drew a breath and then for a long while looked out on all the different darknesses. By noon the next day I was among the mountains, among aspens and snow and alpine light; all that grandeur seen from a new perspective, seen walking as if walking anywhere, dazzling in its own place in the world.

John Landretti is Educational Director of RISE! an anti-poverty program in the Twin Cities.

From On Waste Lonely Places from The Future of Nature: Writing on Human Ecology from Orion Magazine. Copyright © 2007 edited by Barry Lopez. Reprinted by permission of Orion Magazine and Milkweed Editions.

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