Friday, June 8, 2012

My Top 10: On Beauty and its Discontents, Part 2

When I first learned that I had the opportunity to leave Western Mass, I felt relieved and reluctant; even though I did not have much to leave behind, I felt connected to something. What could I take with me, and what did I have to leave in Amherst? What had I learned from my rural experience?

As I mentioned in the previous post, in spite of its beauty, Western Mass can be an unsettling place to live. I have come to attribute this discontent to my previous experiences in cities. The differences between the transient experience of city life and the staid experience of rural life are jarring.

Within my first weeks and months in Western Mass, I felt the need to escape. I craved the experience of the “time—space compression.” As David Harvey defines it, “the overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.”[1] Harvey suggests that this experience “is challenging, exciting, stressful, and sometime deeply troubling, capable of sparking, therefore, a diversity of social, cultural, and political responses.”[2] To a degree, the “time—space compression” is lessened/absent in a rural area. I felt trapped in a place where the passage of time was clearly discernable and the experience of space was expansive, yet limiting.

For many reasons, I felt a sense of relief the moment I drove onto 91-S to leave town. I went months without driving over 60 mph. My life was literally going slowly nowhere. Other times, I drove about seven miles east of Amherst to RT 202. While you cannot drive terribly fast on this winding climb, the payoff is a view of the Quabbin Reservoir.

In the 1930s, four towns in the Swift River Valley were flooded to create the largest man-made public water supply in the U.S. Covering 39 square-miles this eerie Reservoir provides drinking water for Boston. Before I knew the story of its creation, I drove to the Reservoir for its beauty and sense of expansiveness; for once, I could see beyond the hills. But, after learning of its inception, I drove to the Reservoir to view the “creative destruction” and annihilative power of modernity. I needed evidence of modernity. Yes, I saw modernist architecture at UMass everyday. But, I read the campus layout as the product of a disorganized and poorly funded state university.

While my conclusion about rural discontent reinscribes a nearly unavoidable dichotomy between urban/rural (excuse the academic jargon), it appears that my experience of rural life as confining, suffocating, and inescapable contrasts with the sense of possibility, reinvention, and freedom one finds in urban life. I craved the modern/postmodern life I had known; it was time to return to the chaos.

[1] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltc., 1990), 240.
[2] Ibid., 240.

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