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Love of the Land: A Visit to Sharpsville

June 26, 2017

Dedicated to the Class of 1967
Earlier this year I had occasion to change where I live in the city of San Francisco. For the ten years or so of getting my doctorate, I had lived cheaply in one of the least desirable neighborhoods of the City. Now, while getting myself back into some sort of decent physical shape and planning the next move in my career, I had taken a job in a warehouse and I realized that I was making enough money to move to a better neighborhood. I found a room in a Victorian, two blocks from the Park Panhandle and within walking distance of the lower Haight. If you are from San Francisco, you understand that this was quite a find. If you are not, you will have to take my word for it.
The point is that while I was congratulating myself over my good fortune, I fell into a study, thinking about my love of the city, and then of Northern California, and to love of the land in general. And as soon as I began to consider this, my mind turned inevitably to my birth state of Pennsylvania.
What is it, this love of the land, this mystic bond that is instilled so deep within us and that unites us with the land upon which we were born? Certainly, it existed between me and Pennsylvania, and that from the very first. Among my earliest memories are those of how, after returning from a visit to my grandparents in Pittsburgh, my heart would lift at the sight of the Allegheny mountains in which nestled my home town. My love of Pennsylvania was a tangible thing, a part of my life which I acknowledged, recognized and nurtured throughout my boyhood and adolescence. It was one of the deep joys of my young life: taking long walks in which, as Emerson put it, I became transparent, not only seeing the land, but letting it take over my senses.
Pennsylvanians have a justified pride in the beauty of our state, especially in the autumn, but Pennsylvania usually does not in fact figure highly on any lists of “the most beautiful states.” There, California most often has pride of place with its spectacular sweep and variety. Pennsylvania has a quieter beauty, perhaps, deep and restorative, yet verdant and profoundly alive. Since the spirituality of a people and their land interpenetrate each other, it may even be thought of as a sort of Quaker beauty, as Aaron Copland understood when he chose “Simple Gifts” to immortalize it in Appalachian Spring:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

I remember one late Spring afternoon in the town of Sharpsville. This was in the early 1960s, when our society was still civilized enough to understand that education without training in music and the arts is no education at all. So, public high schools offered courses in music, art and drama as a matter of course, with full time faculty and budgeted resources sufficient to maintain these curricula.

I was a member of the both the Sharpsville High School band and its choir. In the choir, I had gained admittance to a smaller, select group—a chamber choir (not by any dint of actual singing talent, mind you, but simply because of my enthusiasm and dedication). On this afternoon, we were rehearsing for the Spring Concert. Because we were a select group of volunteers, we had to meet outside normal hours, after the school day had ended. The high school building had that special, secret quality that they take on after everyone has left: a particular kind of waiting quiet made much deeper by contrast with the vibrant, barely containable energy of adolescence that reigns during the school day.

It was the Spring Concert and so we were coming up on the close of the school year. A bittersweet time, made up partly of endings and farewells as the graduating class departed but also of rising anticipation of the freedom of summer vacation for those of us who still remained. Summer had come early that year and so we were already knee deep into June. The doors were flung wide open because of the afternoon heat, and so the atmosphere of summer flowed into the room to surround us as we sang. I remember that we were rehearsing the Kyrie from Schubert’s G major Mass, along with that old Scottish ballad:

The water is wide, I cannot get over,
Neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat, that will carry two;
And both shall row, my love and I.

Oh, love be handsome, and love be kind;
Gay as a jewel, when it is new.
But love grows old, and waxes cold;
And fades away like morning dew.

As we sang in that soft afternoon air, redolent with the promise of summer and the fading of another school year, something magical happened. It seemed that the time and the place, all of its beauties of fate and circumstance, of promise and regret, the beating heart of time and life carried on the air of that Pennsylvania springtime, was singing with us and through us. Even in that moment, as we sang, a voice within me said:

Remember this moment. For wherever fate takes you, this moment—this here and this now—is and will be one of the best moments of your life. Remember it always.

And you see that I have.

Sharpsville was exactly the sort of small American town that its name implies. And like thousands of other small American towns, it boasted a community park, located on land donated by a local industrialist towards the end of the 19th century and named for him: Buhl Park. It was located just a few blocks from my home and throughout my years in Sharpsville I would go to Buhl Park as one goes to a lover. I would go in all seasons, savoring each phase of the year’s turning, seeing already in the cold white grasp of winter the promise of spring, but content to abide the winter, watching for the coming of spring and then riding it into the brilliance of high summer, then bearing witness to the magnificent splendor of the autumn and the year’s decline. It was a deep and constant love that I had for this little park, ever renewed and perhaps the most unconditional I have ever felt. I was content just to be present in the park, to wander in it and let it reveal its beauties to me in its own way.

In the summer of 2008, my daughter Sara and I made a trip to Pennsylvania. Sara, a native San Franciscan, had always been curious about her Pennsylvania heritage, especially after hearing what I said about the state and my life there. So, we went for a week, visiting all the towns where I and my family had lived. I myself had not been back to Pennsylvania for forty years.

Flying into the Pittsburgh airport, I was struck by the way that Pennsylvania—in contrast to California—still seemed to be a landscape of settlements. Here’s what I mean: although California has its wild unpopulated regions—the Sierras, the northern rainforests, the southern deserts—in the populated areas like the Bay Area or LA, the works and activities of humanity cover and dominate the landscape. One is sometimes reminded of those worlds of Science Fiction—Asimov’s Trantor or Coruscant in Star Wars—where an entire planet is completely covered by one huge, sprawling city and nature is obliterated except for a few carefully preserved enclaves. In visible contrast, from the air, it seemed to me that Pennsylvania was still a forested landscape. Even major cities like Pittsburgh seem still to emerge out of the surrounding woodlands. It is Nature that still dominates the landscape, not humanity.

We came to Sharpsville about mid-week. My mood as we approached Buhl Park was one of anticipation, but I was unprepared for what occurred. As we drove into the park I immediately recognized much, but also was struck with things that, after four decades, had been lost to waking memory. Oh, yes. There is a paved walkway with lampposts going around the lake. I had forgotten that. Then we pulled into the parking lot and left the car. I walked forward about ten paces and found myself facing an expanse of grassland and trees. I looked out over that lovely expanse, and my heart opened, and it was filled. I knew that landscape, knew it with a recognition and intimacy that went soul deep. And, astoundingly, it knew me.

Sometimes– if you are lucky– when you love the land, it loves you back.

Tolkien was right: time moves differently for trees than it does for us. For me the living presence of the park ignited deep resonances of memory that had slumbered untouched for decades, but what I felt from the park was a more settled recognition, as if it had been only yesterday since last I had stood before that glade, rather than four decades. Yet between us there was a communion that spanned time and space. We sentient beings who embody self-awareness are the eyes of the world. On some primordial level and in some mysterious way, that self-awareness gives the universe its being. And just as primordially, just as mysteriously, the universe knows it and recognizes it—and us. I was forever a part of this place, just as it was forever a part of me.

It is impossible to say how long I stood there, for the notion of duration does not apply to such moments, although they have a beginning and an end. Finally, the enchantment lessened and then passed. I turned to Sara, who had been standing quietly next to me.

“Did you get any of that?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied my daughter, “and, in fact, I’m jealous.”

We next visited the high school, which had been brand new when I attended, but which now, unsurprisingly, was a bit forlorn ( like much of education in general in our society). I decided to travel over the way I used to walk to school each day—it was only a half-dozen blocks or so. And on the way to my old home, something else extraordinary happened.

My family left Pennsylvania when I was sixteen. The reason was the sudden death of my father from his second heart attack at the age of forty-two. He was a striver like much of his generation, driven to pull his family into the middle class and live the American dream. Ironically, just as he had begun to make it, he died. My mother’s family had all moved to California over the years since the Second World War and so, after the catastrophe of my father’s sudden death, we too upped stakes and went west so that we could be within the range of family support in our time of trial. It was a wrenching experience on many levels, not least for me because it meant that I would have to leave my beloved Pennsylvania. It also had the effect of depositing me in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s, precisely at the epicenter of the tectonic changes that would shake our society to their foundations at precisely the time of their emergence.

Now, as I traveled the way from the high school to my home, a vision came to me of what my life would have been had all this not happened and instead I had stayed in Pennsylvania. It was not a mere imaging, but the presentation of an alternative time-line for my life, as real and as vital as living memory.

I saw myself as teaching history or philosophy in some quiet college town, perhaps at one of the Penn State campuses scattered throughout the state, or at a private college. I would have been happily married and successful in my career, garnering the respect, admiration and affection of students and colleagues that comes effortlessly to me in any time-line. On balance, in terms of material well-being and emotional fulfillment, this life would have been, quite simply, a much happier one than that which I have lived in California.

But I would have remained asleep.

My life in California has been, at times, hard—even grim. Yet throughout it has taken a course that has led to an ever deeper understanding of the mysteries of my own being. It has been an initiatory life, in the fullest sense of the words. Had I remained in Pennsylvania, none of that would have happened. Nurtured and cushioned by favorable circumstances and opportunities for the use of my gifts, I would have lived the worthy, comfortable life of an academic, with all its satisfactions– and all of its limitations. As I beheld that alternative timeline that would have been my life, it seemed I was being asked to judge. Would I prefer to have lived that Pennsylvania life? If the possibility were offered me, would I willingly trade the life I have lived in California for that other, happier life, filled with professional satisfactions and the pleasures of a loving wife, family and friends and material well-being? My response to that question took the form, I must confess, of a sort of amused contempt. Es kommt nicht in Frage.* Let the goats be goats, however well-fed. Better the life of the tiger, though betimes he knows years that are lean and hungry.**

As Sara and I took the long drive home across the Alleghenies towards Pittsburgh and the airport, I mused on all these things as I looked across that beloved landscape, and as I did so I realized the nature of the Gift.

Sometimes– if you are lucky– when you love the land, it loves you back.

It came to me then that what I had experienced in Sharpsville, the vision of the alternative life lived in Pennsylvania and the offered choice attendant upon it, were the land’s Gift to me. My beloved Pennsylvania, in showing me that other life that it would, could have given me, allowed me to reaffirm the way that my life’s course had in fact taken, and to do so with a sense of fulfillment, completeness and peace. That was the Gift. The Gift of the land that I took back with me to California.

I shall probably never visit Pennsylvania again. There is no need. My work lies before me—as it will always lie before me—and unless it is decreed otherwise, I believe that that work lies here, in California. My love of the land of my birth will remain with me always, treasured forever in a secret and special chamber of my heart. But that chamber is now sealed—sealed in wholeness and with joy.

*”I does not even come into question”

**The goat and tiger metaphor comes from the famous old Indian fable, which appears (among other places) in Zimmer’s Philosophies of India. Those who know Nietzsche will recognize that the Pennsylvania life was Apollonian, the California inclining more to the Dionysian.