We stood at dusk among the new construction of what will be a $4 million addition to the local school. The work site was quiet, the powerful equipment left temptingly idle to men and women—the women among us seemed significantly less tempted—of our caliber, decision-makers of the school board. We felt self-satisfied, there’s no doubt, definitely influential, maybe powerful.
To make room for the project, the school had torn down the simplest of buildings, a Quonset that served as a kindergarten classroom for 45 years. The removal of that old building, itself an anachronism, had revealed the backside of the line of houses directly to the east, houses of a different ilk than the 2-, 3- and 4-car garage structures that go up around town in varying shades of olive drab.
Our eyes were drawn to one house in particular, the outbuildings of which included a garage with an impressively sagging roof, a small shed patched with various pieces of various-shaded tin, and a lean-to chicken-wire pigeon coop. The predominant white of the buildings had grayed with time, was now bluing in the twilight. Down to the color, it reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “Pastoral”:
When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors. No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.
Someone among us brought up the word “eyesore;” I was immediately offended.
Then again, I’m offended by Williams’ title itself. “Pastoral” is a bell that startles me from my reverie. What about “the houses of the very poor” is “pastoral”? They are perhaps only pastoral as they “[please] me best of all” in my romanticized voyeurism.
So “pastoral” grates on me, makes me blush. I live in a small town that strives for—is even a sucker for—the pastoral: the corn, watered this spring by rains as regular as those of God’s own garden, stands at freakish heights for miles around, the leaves gently rustling in the evening wind as fireflies rise to intermittently light the night; then just this week, a state newspaper reveals that our lakes and rivers are among the most contaminated in the region thanks to the chemicals that push the corn to freakish heights.
I must confess I don’t know who lives in the house we were contemplating, whether Boo Radley or a darker figure, or what kind of life the person leads. Still, there’s no doubt the house-all-out-of-line has a kind of beauty to it, especially compared to the new construction that takes its cues from the rather narrow range of a suburban ideal. Williams’ poem, though uttering “pastoral,” is about taking beauty where we can find it, in the odds and ends and corners, in stasis rather than progress, in sustainability rather than freakish corn. Yet with one word, “pastoral,” it pushes us perhaps most of all to self-reflection on our own idylls.
We’ll soon have a new school building and that will be good, but we lost a homely little hutch where for generations six-year-olds held hands, sang songs, painted with their fingers, and sat in the lap of their teacher while she told stories. That may be a net loss. Or this, too, may be a “pastoral.”
No one will think this of vast import to the nation.