The Old Canal

The temperature’s been below freezing here for the last week.  At times well below freezing.  Even at low-altitude Burlington there’s a dusting of snow – frozen crystalline rime – but more important, ice.

Ice on the barge canal is almost thick enough for skating.  If it stays cold, maybe by Sunday.  For now, it’s Black Friday.  Did I mention the barge canal is a Superfund site?  Full of coal tar from back in the day.  OK for skating though; there are worse destinations on Black Friday.

There’s a rail siding across the canal and yard mules from the Vermont Railways yard line up a train.  The sun, now low over the Adirondacks, flicks light between the cars of rolling stock.

Remember Buy Nothing Day?  A decade ago well-intentioned, anti-materialist lefties urged us to take one day away from commerce.  Some still do.  They’re quainter every year.  Slightly less quaint was Mike Lux of American Family Voices, who emailed me via MoveOn Wednesday, urging me refrain from shopping not on Black Friday, but on Thanksgiving Day.  He’s neither anti-materialist Freegan nor American traditionalist, but asks us to spare the low-wage workers forced away from their families.  Fair enough, but it’s come to this?  We fulfill our ethical consumer quota by not shopping on Thanksgiving?  Sets the bar kind of low.

Nice try, Mike.  I know you mean well.  I’m not sure there’s anything to prevent Corporate America from profaning rituals, sect or secular, if there’s profit in it.  I know it won’t be stopped by an online plea for goodwill toward one’s fellows.  What the hell do you think holidays are for?

Not all Corporate America’s fault.  Not only do we participate, we instigate.  It wasn’t corporations that decided we liked the reception better than the wedding, that First Communion or Bar Mitzvah cash gifts are more eagerly anticipated than rituals of sacrifice or scripture.  We always wanted dessert first.  I’m surprised it took this long for the retailers to give it to us.

I bought nothing today, aside from half a grand’s work on the car.  Another week’s wait this time of year won’t help anyone, symbolically or otherwise.  So I get to have it both ways, stimulating the economy but not giving in to crass holiday sales.  It feels neither good nor virtuous.  Just a bite in the wallet’s general area, not sure exactly where and afraid to look.

In the actual, rather than merely cultural, wasteland flora and fauna abound, despite the toxicity.  Like the stores, it’s crowded.  Before the ice formed, beaver swimming the canal at dusk would come and check me out, see if they could get me to jump by slapping the water with their tails.  I stay away from the canal in the weeks of high summer; geese are territorial with their nests and young, the insects pestilential.  Workers come periodically in the warm months, to take samples from monitoring wells around the site.  And people live on the site in tents in summer.  Hard enough living rough without jerks like me traipsing through, so I stay away to give them space.

Once part of the industrial waterfront, sickened by its industry, the barge canal has been allowed to lapse back into something – not natural (it will be several centuries before it can fit that definition again), but some sort of post-industrial wilderness.

For reasons, I don’t understand, I’m drawn to abandoned places at the margins of things. I started visiting the canal gain when the leaves dropped; not only were the tents still there, but more than before.  I talked with some of the residents.  One of those short conversations with little said and no information exchanged, but a relationship is clarified.  Now when we see each other, we just nod from a distance.

It’s about space, whether the downtown shopping district or the Superfund site along the old canal.  Who controls it, what purposes it’s to put to, how do we share it?

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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