Welcome to the Pasture
Introduction and Acknowledgements
Some of the most profound ideas that influence one's life ironically become abandonware—Heideggarian “potatoes in a cellar” (more on that reference later)—sitting inert on a computer hard drive or in the back of your subconscious, disturbing you like a fly you continually swat away but are too lazy to catch. Such objects are waiting to be rediscovered and refurbished like an abandoned building—ignored, forgotten, but conspicuously jutting out on a main road or in the centre of a gentrifying neighbourhood, with potential for new uses. What follows is the distillation of a sack of mouldering potatoes: a philosophical drive that has propelled me through life, from childhood to present, to see the beautiful—or at least the interesting—in the ugly things of the world. Much of the philosophy of this work is filched from my 2013 dissertation, whose title is very, very unsexy. Haunted Landscapes simply has a more accessible tone than Refuse to Relic: Neopastoral Artifacts and the Phenomenology of Environment in American Modernist Poetics—a title that sounds as though it was created through an academic jargon generator.
While it takes the form of academic scholarship, this work might be considered a theoretical exploration on the topic of ruin, waste, refuse, disposable things, etc., and the human drive to find something valuable, something compelling, in what might be categorized as… well… garbage. It is an exploration of how the past itself becomes either refused or archived, and how even family histories, those stories we choose to preserve in formaldehyde (photos, letters, written accounts, oral histories, artifacts, mementos), are read through the same lens that we might read, say, an old piece of farm equipment overgrown with vines decaying in a field; a piano quietly decomposing in an abandoned house littered with old toke bottles left by curious teenagers; a dollar store Easter basket, owned by a grandmother, left to collect cobwebs in a basement but curiously never discarded; an old shoe, lost in childhood on an excursion, rediscovered as an adult while wandering a field. What follows is a philosophical discussion that is at once research-oriented, artistically driven, and historically predisposed. That historical component derives from a self-history. After all, we are all products of our time and place, and my place was on a farm with depression-era and World War 2-surviving grandparents, one of whom was a “repurposer” (to euphemize the occupation of “junk collector”), the other of whom was a borderline hoarder.
My grandfather worked at the township dump. He wasn’t a garbage man. He was more a curator of the things people didn’t want anymore. People would go to my grandfather every Saturday with the boxes of their pick-up trucks full of stuff, and my grandfather would help them sort and organize it, decide in which pile various things should be archived. He liked to bring some of those things home with him, and my grandmother, although a hoarder of more domestic things, would give him the dickens (an endearing old-timey expression she would use) for the junk that was accumulating on the farm property where they lived, and where my dad grew up, and where I grew up. One of my favorite spoons came from the dump. It was a mock-silver thing with the head of Bugs Bunny on the handle. I always had to eat with that spoon when I visited my grandparents.
Grandpa was an expert at rescuing defective and discarded things. He wasn’t an expert at fixing them. For a while, my older brother drove a recycling truck and rescued discarded things. A bad back ended that profession. And for a while, I got paid to study the aesthetic merit of discarded things at the graduate level, and can now be addressed as “doctor” for doing so. (I didn’t get paid very much.)
Part of that project involved taking pictures of things that have been discarded, or waste material that has been put on display or allowed to quietly linger on a front lawn, and sometimes I exhibited those pictures so that scholars and aesthetes carrying red wine and musing earnestly with hand to chin could evaluate the aesthetic merit of what I had appropriated. One of those images, published in The Torontoist, was literally a collection of plastic piss jugs. It was all an academic satire. Later I sat in a room in front of a panel of four distinguished members of the academic community and argued for two hours about why my point of view about piss jugs being beautiful is correct. It all went according to plan, and when it was all over, they said “Congratulations Dr. Douglas,” thereby confirming that my point of view on piss jugs being beautiful is indeed correct. For all my trouble, my point of view was to be bound in leather and placed in the archives of the university, and there it sits, like potatoes in a cellar. I had a choice of the colour of leather.
Suffice it to say that my photographic philosophy evolved not only from my rural upbringing, but also from the haunting obsolescence of the pioneer cemeteries, vanished villages, decaying farmhouses and rusting machinery that decorated the backdrop of my childhood. Many of these formerly bustling villages and commercial centers—Glenwillow, Walkers, Macksville, North Ekfrid, Napier—could now be classified as “ghost towns,” perhaps liminally so, because there are a few lingering residences and signs of growth, new houses springing up here and there, renewing the space like the remnants of horse-drawn farm equipment overgrown with vegetation every spring. Ghost towns like Napier are a palimpsest. Dare I compare tiny ghost towns such as Napier to a small-scale version of Rome? If you've ever visited Rome, you will see how the ancient ruins of the Colosseum and the Pantheon (etc.) remain important focal points of the city, even though (or because) they are ruins. In a similar way, diminished communities like Napier are not “ghosts” in the sense that they’re dead. Growth has sprung up around the preserved decay. There is a living community there, and that community is growing, albeit slowly. The remnants of those old buildings—the churches, the schoolhouse, the mill, the general store—are artifacts belonging to a past that materializes—fades in—from the background. They are family histories that become reified once you stop and take the time to reflect. It’s the picture of your great grandparents in whom you see a facsimile of yourself that existed 100 years ago, and who influenced, as a ghost whispering from the past, who you have become.
“Anecdote of the Jugs” was published in The Torontoist (March 28, 2011) and filling Station (issue 54, 2012); it was also exhibited in Toronto at Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity Symposium (March 2011), at More Please: Explorations of Excess Free-Exchange Conference at the University of Calgary, Alberta (March 2012), and at the Canadian Pop Culture Conference in Niagara Falls (May 2013).
My grandfather died of prostate cancer. Seventeen years later my grandmother died of breast cancer. Ten months after that my uncle, who took over the maintenance my grandparents’ house, died of a rare and aggressive form of appendix cancer. When all were dead I was free to rummage through my grandparents’ house like a relic hunter. In the cellar sitting beneath a shelf of hundred-year-old preserve jars, and leaning up against some toppled and rusty chairs, old car tires, furnace piping wrapped in asbestos, surplus fire bricks, an incubator for chickens and rabbits, wooden planks and an old misshapen metal baby carriage was my first bike, one that grandpa had rescued from the dump. It was fifties-era, honeydew green with fenders. Only it didn’t have a banana seat. I remembered it having a banana seat. And the training wheel that used to fall off as I cycled up and down the gravel road at age six was nowhere in sight. When I was fifteen years old I would cycle up and down the same gravel road in the dead of night, returning from town or from a friend’s house. Sometimes as I was cycling by a farm property, I would hear the jingle of a dog chain approaching like lightening, which was a signal to me that it was time to cycle faster. Back then, dogs roamed free, kind of like cats still do today. All those memories associated to cycling, the farm, my first bike, the freedom of growing up in the country, my pre-internet existence, wandering and exploring roads, forests, and neighbouring ghost villages (of which there were many). There those memories sat, among preserve jars and car tires and rusty chairs and asbestos-wrapped furnace piping and surplus fire bricks and an incubator for chickens and rabbits and wooden planks and an old misshapen metal baby carriage, like potatoes in a cellar.