by ilene - July 12th, 2010 10:46 pm
Courtesy of James Howard Kunstler
On a hot Saturday in mid-July in my corner of the country, when everyone else is cavorting on Million Dollar Beach at Lake George, or plying the aisles of the home Depot, or riding their motorcycles in faux-outlaw hordes, I like to slip away to the neglected places where nobody goes. I seek out the places of industrial ruin – there are many around here in the upper Hudson Valley, and they are mostly right along the river itself, because there are many spots where the water tumbles and falls in a way that human beings could capture that power and direct it to useful work.
I always bring my French easel, a wooden contraption ingeniously designed to fold up into a box, to which I have bolted on backpack straps. To me, these ruins of America’s industrial past are as compelling as the ruins of ancient Rome were to Thomas Cole and his painter-contemporaries, who took refuge in history at the exact moment that their own new nation began racing into its industrial future.
I’ve been haunting this particular site in Hudson Falls, New York, all summer so far. Originally called Bakers Falls, it evolved over a hundred-odd years into an extremely complex set of dams, spillways, intakes, revetments, channels, gangways, and hydroelectric bric-a-brac all worked into the crumbly shale that forms the original cliff. From a vantage on the west side of the river, you can clearly read the layered history of industry as though it was a section of sedimentary rock from the Mesozoic.
One thing above all amazes me about these American industrial ruins: they’re not really very old. My grandfather was already reading law and drinking beer when some of this stuff was brand-new (or not even here yet!). Unlike Rome’s long, dawdling descent from greatness, America’s industrial fall seems to have happened in the space of a handclap. I suppose it was in the nature of the fossil fuel fiesta that these activities could only last as long as the basic energy resource was so cheap you hardly needed to figure it into the cost of doing business. Which is not to say that the human element didn’t change, too, since obviously it did – as America went…