Trees and Children
The house didn’t look like I remembered it and neither did the rest of the neighborhood. Of thirty houses on the street, only two had familiar names on the mailboxes out front. The field where I played baseball every summer day was covered with houses and trees even taller. The sand pit at the end of my street was forested over, as was the football field. Where I used to throw the long bomb as a young quarterback, there were trees twenty feet high or more. A lot of time had passed since my boyhood.
There were no children on the street at all. I repeat: no children. When the McLaughlin family moved in fifty years ago with six (and two more still to come), the street was crawling with kids. On a Thanksgiving Day forty years ago, a car would have to wait as boys interrupted their tag football game, and reluctantly but respectfully moved to both sides of the road to let it pass. There would be waves all around because every driver knew every kid by his first name. There would have been smaller kids on bicycles just off the pavement. Some would have had training wheels bolted to each side of the back wheel and each of those younger ones would be closely watched by an older sibling hovering close by. I saw no dogs either. Evidently, leash laws were being enforced, though they never were when I lived there. Dogs used to roam freely and each knew by scent, sight and sound who lived in the neighborhood and who didn’t.
Aside from the old couple going into what had been the McLaughlin house at 25 Euclid Road, I saw not a living soul. Little was left of the neighborhood I remembered. Little was left of the American culture of the 1950s and early 60s either. The addresses were the same, but the way of life was fundamentally different.
What used to be the Oblate Novitiate up the street is now the Oblate Infirmary and Patient Residence. There were no young men there studying for the priesthood anymore, just old priests waiting to die and be buried in the old cemetery behind. I drove around the grounds and peeked in the windows at white-haired old men, many in wheelchairs, eating Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria. One of my earliest memories was of the older Novitiate - a multistory brick building - burning to the ground one evening. The next year, the Oblates rebuilt a low, sprawling replacement building on the site because, in the late fifties, enough young men still wanted to be priests. Now, though there are plenty on other continents who want to be priests, few in North America (or Europe) do anymore.
I drove back to Lovell on Friday and it was a beautiful day. I got out the four-wheeler and explored near Shave Hill where I used to hunt nearly thirty years ago. It had been logged over a couple of times, and a half dozen homes had been built in the vicinity. I was looking for a gravel pit that was still active back then, but I had a hard time finding it. It had grown over with birch and poplar fifteen feet high and thick enough that I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it. Again I was reminded how much time had passed, even when I hadn’t been paying attention.
I recalled a day about twenty-five years ago driving through the middle of Lovell with an old man. He pointed to a pine grove across from the golf course and told me he used to gather hay there when he was a boy. I was a young man then and I was amazed at how much things could change in one man’s lifetime. Since then, that pine grove has been logged hard, twice. Now, young trees are growing up again.
Forests rejuvenate in well-understood, predictable ways. You don’t have to tell a tree how to be a tree. Humans, however, are more complicated and not nearly as predictable. It troubles me that new humans were absent in my old neighborhood where they used to be everywhere. New trees are growing where they should, but humans are not.
It’s not a good sign. Something’s wrong.