by Sarah Powley
In the fall, when my father raked the leaves, he’d mound them up in the backyard in an area where he also incinerated garbage. His children (four of us) danced around the cauldron in the dusk, pagans entranced by the burst of flame, and then (I think I remember), we roasted marshmallows in the afterglow. What I remember for sure is burning my notes from 8th grade Ancient History, feeding the pages to the fire in grandiose gestures of defiance. I’ve been sorry ever since—and the teacher I became is horrified.
It had to have been in November or December of 1957 when this happened. The Ancient History class had ended the previous spring, but I was still nursing a grudge against the Greeks and the Romans and the teacher whose demands on my time had filled a loose-leaf notebook. Yes, it would have been November or December. The last raking. The oaks this time.
I am raking leaves myself today—maples, ash, and redbud—moving foothills of them into the street, forming neat hedgerows along the whole expanse of our double lot, exhausting my arms and back, but satisfying my need for order and accomplishment. No burning these days. Instead, the city asks for leaves to be raked twelve inches from the curb. I enjoy amassing them precisely so that the inevitable slide of green, yellow, orange, and fire-red stays within the mandated border.
My husband and I put barrels out when our kids were little. No burning, but no orderly mounds, either. I remember our girls at five and eight: my husband would pick them up, use them as human tamps to compress the leaves in the containers. Much squealing, much wiggling in his arms. “Again, Daddy! Again!” they’d scream, and he would oblige, hoisting them high and lowering them into the leaves until his arms grew tired and the thrill abated.
When our daughters were a little older, we created enormous leaf piles in the front yard. The girls never seemed to tire of backing up all the way to the edge of the yard where the earth falls away into a ravine and then running pell-mell into the mountain. We heaped the leaves again and again for these gymnastics; afterwards, the yard was sprinkled with the confetti of the crushed ones, the aftermath of celebration.
My across-the-street neighbor is raking leaves today, too. He’s using a blower to organize his collection. Stray leaves two-step between our hedgerows or skid up the center of the street in a procession, like seahorses on parade. I pause at the mailbox, put my hand to my waist, do a side bend for relief. He pauses, too, by his mailbox. “This gets harder every year,” he says to me. “Yes, yes, it does,” I agree, but I think I have the more difficult job for the bigger yard, the more trees. Yet, what do I know about his infirmities? For some years now, he’s worn a mask when he rakes, and he moves, it seems to me, more stiffly than he used to.
Today, pulling the rake against an avalanche of leaves in the driveway, another memory surfaces. After the girls had gone off to college and into their own lives, I began taking my high school students to Russia in the early summer and hosting Russian students here in the fall. The Russian teachers stayed with me. One year, too busy with the exchange to rake, I let the leaves accumulate in the driveway until they were more than a foot high. The teachers were eager to help with the clearing, found delight in raking fall to the curb. Novelty was involved—a real American experience. But raking wasn’t unknown to them. Grabli, they told me gleefully, was the Russian word for rake. Later, when I was in Russia, I happily used one myself to clear winter debris at a teacher’s dacha. Novelty was involved—a real Russian experience.
My rake grabs the leaves deftly this afternoon, leaving swathes of myrtle abruptly exposed to the light. I will use the blower afterward to clear the bits of broken leaves, these present-day remains reminiscent of confetti but evoking nowhere near the elation of those jumping days. Years ago, we ripped out the yews that were here against the house and replaced them with the myrtle and a serviceberry. I’d had to arm wrestle the branches of the yews to lift them high enough to extricate the sodden, layered leaves that the wind had packed underneath. A blower might have worked, but blowers were beyond our reach then.
There were years after that when we raked alone together, my husband and me. He’d start at one end of the yard, I at the other, and we’d meet in the middle, done in, but satisfied. Some years, when the wind was blowing, we’d be side-by-side, raking in the same direction, taking advantage of the tailwind. He covered more ground; I’d have to hustle to keep up. He was more thorough than I, the scientist in him approaching the task with deliberation, patience, and steadiness. He took charge.
I didn’t imagine age would take charge of him.
Or of me.
I can still squeeze behind the generator to handpick the leaves that cluster there, but I’m winded afterward from the contortion. I can still climb down into and out of the window wells six feet deep by the side of the house, though recently my husband, recognizing that he will not be the one to clean out the window wells, bought me a ladder for this purpose. I prefer, for now, my own exit route up the railroad ties that line the wells. But these wells are why I stopped using the blower we eventually bought. Too much of fall ended up at the bottom of the wells, making more frequent descents necessary. More chances of my own fall.
My youngest grandson is eight, soon to be nine. During these Sisyphean assaults on the yard, I’ve been plucking specimen leaves to add to his collection. Linden and cottonwood a few weeks ago; today, mostly maples—the glory of fall. He has his own school notebook to keep: common name, scientific name, location, date. A classic record of time and place.
He doesn’t yet know about eternity, universality, or cycles. He doesn’t know that the accumulating leaves are an annual reminder of our own lives falling away. But neither does he know that in the accumulation lies our own ancient histories, recorded as memories, bestowing grace upon the fall.
A recently retired English teacher, Sarah Powley grew up in Illinois and has been a resident of West Lafayette, Indiana, for over four decades. She has also lived in Wisconsin (and, briefly, in Connecticut). She enjoys walking in the woods and photographing the natural world.
by Matthew Moore
The walls of my brother’s single-wide trailer were onion-skin thin. My ear pressed against the outside, and I could just make out frontman Ohgr’s froth-flecked vocals. “Oil remove shred and tear radiation vapor/it’s the fear so unclear man in motion going nowhere.” As I listened, face flush with the psoriatic, paint-chipped exterior, particle board bursting cystic with spray-foam insulation, Ohgr’s opening lines to “Assimilate,” from Skinny Puppy’s 1985 album Bite, formed the perfect ode to the trailer’s disrepair, or what might be more accurately described as its disintegration.
For a ten-year-old who had been raised on my father’s classic rock, and my mother’s banjo-barbed bluegrass, the industrial bands that sent tremors through the trailer’s walls sounded as if they were beamed down from another planet altogether. And yet, strangely, they also registered as echoes of a not-so-distant past.
In our small town in rural Missouri, my brother’s trailer sat adjacent to our father’s garage. And if I was pelting sparrows with BBs in the pasture, or digging up grubs in the tree line, it was difficult to discern whether the sounds emanating from that side of the yard were from my brother’s stereo or our father’s labor. It struck me that industrial music involved what could be categorized less as instruments than power tools. Machine melodies, hydraulic hi-hats, pneumatic percussion, guitars shredding like bandsaws. Industrial was the music not of the amphitheater or concert hall, but of the factory. And if I detected the sound of my father’s air compressor, or nail gun, or table saw, I may have paused in wait for Ohgr’s guttural growls on “Assimilate,” or the undead paean of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula,” or the wailing, short-circuiting laments of Nine Inch Nails’s Trent Reznor.
There’s a terrible irony to living in a mobile home in the rural Midwest. Mobility, geographic or socio-economic, contends with an insuperable stagnancy. Like those brackish, inky ponds that cattle drift in and out of to anoint their hot, black fur, the town I grew up in was an ever-evaporating drop in the bucket of rural disinvestment. Trailers festered and decomposed only to be hauled away to what I imagined as some labyrinthine gravesite of modular and prefab hell. Or, like the single-wides my parents owned throughout their lives, they inevitably succumbed to a combination of rodent infestation, structural rot, and black mold that, after all recourse to repair had been exhausted, ended in a fiery send-off. Even the most mobile of mobile homes could not outrun this fate. The ash so light and nearly invisible on the wind.
The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that ruins remind us of a former “life with its wealth and its changes [that] once dwelled here.”1 However, writing in the early 20th century, Simmel had in mind those crumbling columns and fractured friezes that inspired Gothic ruminations of a modern world beholding the irrepressible return of nature and history. He could not have anticipated the ruins that were backdrops to my childhood. The graffitied carcasses of manufacturing plants, the shuttered storefronts on deserted Main Streets, shambolic trailer parks, and those rust-scabbed silos threatening to puncture the silk blue sky hemmed in by the interminable horizon. The ghostly presence of a former life with its wealth and changes, one undeniably a product of high Fordism, one that enjoyed more security, stability, and permanence. To me, the decay of a lost civilization.
As I entered my teens, even my father began to appear as a specter of that lost world. Possessing a preternatural ability to fix, mend, and repair any busted appliance, faulty wiring, or clogged drain, his insistent refrain to “let me look at that first before you toss it in the trash” was quickly becoming an anachronistic ethos. In a rapidly changing economy structured around single-use, planned obsolescence, and deskilling, his was a needlessly laborious world. Like his father before him, he took the shape of a stubborn remainder, a jack-of-all-trades reeling from what political economist Barry Bluestone, writing about deindustrialization, describes as “the memories of the post-World War II glory days” that by the 1970s were “fading fast.”2 I could not shake the feeling that his garage was the last bastion, the final outpost, in a world in flux. Inside, it glistened with grease and was gravid with grime, sparkled with spirals of metal shavings. Confected with powdery sawdust. Unnatural, caustic smells of spray paint, diesel, and sweet epoxy seductively singed my nostrils.
Witnessing the death of a small town is not unlike that stock scene in every time travel movie. The one where people, places, things, and even entire events of the future begin to be slowly written out of existence. To dissolve and disappear. When I was a teenager, I embarked on many nightly excursions to our Main Street where a fifty-cent soda machine took up residence in front of all of three brick-and-mortar storefronts, by which time all three were shuttered. In a town that has no need for traffic lights, no green, yellow, or red illuminations suspended above the only cracked, two-lane blacktop—nothing but icy blue stars swirling motionless overhead—the soda machine was a nearly blinding beacon. Visiting it was simply an excuse to tell my parents so I could surreptitiously smoke a cigarette. But, as I fed it quarters, waiting for it to spit out a can of Orange Crush to quench my tarry mouth, I could not help but peer into the empty buildings—the bank where the tellers would give my sister and I Dum Dums suckers, the hair salon where tiny women once gathered under the massive hoods of hair dryers, my grandfather’s general store, subsidized by the local VA, where we helped him stock shelves and slice deli meats.
Like the Alzheimer’s that killed my grandfather, his wasp nest brain finally crumbling in the frosty solstice of death, a degeneration eroded this place too. If his death taught me anything, it was that to lose the body of the past, the corpus of memory, is to lose, with it, the corpse itself, the body. In a way, you didn’t have to put the town in the rearview mirror to say goodbye, to bid farewell forever. All that one had to do was stay perfectly still and witness each departure. Savoring a long final drag, the black glass of the storefronts was like looking into a mirror, darkly. Those spaces that made just enough room for my childhood, and then let go. Now, as their only occupant, the image of my ghost reflected back to me.
As a result of disinvestment and deindustrialization, Bluestone notes that by 1980 “nearly 1.5 million left the Midwest for [the South]. […] fleeing the towns and cities where automobile, steel, and tire plants were closing.”3 With early acts like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Ministry, and later Skinny Puppy, at the height of the genre’s popularity during the early and mid-1980s, industrial music coincided with seismic changes to the socio-economic landscape. I can envision a younger version of my brother in the early-90s, agog with palms cupped open as if awaiting divine mana, as the industrial wave crossed the pond and then trickled down from the Northeast into the deindustrializing Midwest where my brother fed a new cassette, like a communion wafer, into the supplicating mouth of his stereo. What must have resonated with my brother were the ghosts in those machines, a music that fashioned melody from the mausoleum of manufacturing plants and factories. The sound of a labor lost. Traveling through time to get back here.
Listening outside of the trailer, I was held enthrall to “Assimilate’s” preamble of snare hits that sounded like thrashed trash cans warping through wormholes. But it was when Ohgr uttered, “Man in motion going nowhere” that I could not unhear the sound of cars and freight trucks speeding by on the interstate that bypassed us only a few miles away, across several swaths of pasture and timber. As the constant subliminal ambience of my childhood, I never fully determined if it was a sound I enjoyed or found unnerving. At the right distance, it contained an almost ethereal quality, like ghosts finally tearing free of their metal hulls, trucks chauffeuring more than just duty-free goods, but souls no longer bound to their own earthly duty. On the other hand, the passing was unending. For the critical theorist Mark Fisher, the Post-Fordist global economy that emerged in the wake of the 1970s, an economy that whisked jobs out of the heartland to be outsourced abroad, that dismantled social safety nets and industry regulation, that demanded new whiplash speeds in turnover and cycles of unemployment, the economic world became an eerie one. As Fisher writes, the eerie is an affect experienced not only in the midst of ruins, “in landscapes partially emptied of the human,” but in an economic system that becomes “an eerie entity,” one that, “conjured out of nothing,” nonetheless “exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.”4 I can remember restless nights succumbing to the unceasing sounds of diesel engines slicing through the damp, still air of the plain. How many people, I would wonder, pass through on any given day? How many even know that just a few miles away two-hundred people have made homes for themselves and lay their aching bodies down into the night? Do they wonder if some child out there in the dark listens to their transience like a droning lullaby?
If I wasn’t spying on my brother, I was playing apprentice to my father in the garage. He would delegate to me child-proof tasks—to hold a section of plywood while he drove screws into it, to slather purple primer inside an elbow of PVC, to gradually lower the drill press—tasks I managed to still magnificently screw up. He would tell me to plug my ears when he turned on the table saw. Though he never plugged his. He would tell me to hold my breath as he sprayed aerosolized primer across rusting steel. Though he never held his. When he would tell me to look away, however, as his face disappeared behind the austere gray of a welder’s mask, as sharp scintillations of blue light crackled out of the arc welder, and the heavy scent of burnt metal wafted through the open bay of the garage, I always gave in to the temptation to look. To witness what could be summoned and conjured away like lightning. To keep, every time I closed my eyes the rest of that day, the afterimage of those blue beads of light. Cold dead planets in the dark of space.
1. “Georg Simmel: The Ruin,” Octopus Press, accessed September 15, 2023, https://octopus-press.cz/en/Octopus-Press/Ruina.
2. Barry Bluestone, “Foreword,” in Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization, ed. Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), vii.
3. Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 100.
4. Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016), 11.
Matthew Moore is a first-generation graduate student at Iowa State University in the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment. As a nonfiction writer, he gives language to his experience of coming of age in a small, rural community in the Midwest where he was raised by working-class parents. Currently, he is at work on a thesis manuscript that is an autoethnographic interrogation of the regional history of his hometown, the socio-economic underdevelopment of rural America, and the resurgence of right-wing populism in the heartland.