We are surrounded by the contemporary chrome and tinted glass trappings of modern life. Everything from our offices to our homes is brand new, smartly styled, and crisply efficient. And that, at least to a point, is certainly agreeable. Yet at the same time, we are attracted to older, more comfortable,
[quoteright]Many, for example, have known the special warmth and peace to be found in a relaxing visit to the historic restored homes and elegant gardens of Colonial Williamsburg. And who wouldn't enjoy spending a nippy windblown winter evening in a rustic cabin in the woods snuggled in front of a blazing fireplace?
That the human spirit is drawn to things grown softly seasoned with time is undeniable. The appeal may be the outer manifestation of an ancient inner need, or merely the requirement for an occasional steady anchor-hold where one may pause for a mental breather — nevertheless, it is there.
Consider the routine chore of buying apples. Most folk patronize sterile computerized checkout supermarkets for their apples and, as a result, receive convenience and fruit — nothing more. Buying apples, to me, is an annual ritual, as comfortable as a well-worn wool sweater, that consumes an entire brisk fall afternoon. It requires a leisurely drive along uncrowded roads that gently meander and roll through pastoral Maryland and Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. Fading oak and maple leaves burst with spattered patches of crimson and orange. Corn shocks proclaim summer's weakening grasp; crisp air summons fall.
We wind through an orchard that hugs the hills like a spotted patchwork quilt and stop at a weathered gray barn with a crumbling stone foundation. Inside, newly harvested fruit is sold by friendly proprietors who know the earth. The sweet and spicy smell of brewing hot-mulled cider is in the air. Sunlight slices between the barn-board slats and splays in bright stripes across the baskets of red, yellow, and green apples arranged in neat rows on the worn plank floor. A solitary honeybee buzzes about, gently inspecting the wares. Overhead, just beneath ancient hand-hewn beams, a red horse-drawn sleigh rests in a loft.
Here, I am aware of a feeling of solitude, of warmth, and of the peacefulness and security of a past simpler life. A well-scrubbed country breeze flows through an open window that beckons back beyond the orchard and over a sloped meadow. Bags rustle and customers chatter. We buy Yellow Delicious apples — my favorite. But more importantly, I absorb — free for the taking — a feeling of tranquility and well being that will carry me through whatever the coming week has to offer.
Why do mature, softly seasoned surroundings impart such peace of mind? What instantly transforms our moods from overwrought to serene? I have no answers. The phenomenon is certainly recognized, though, by all creative artists seeking to sell their work to a harried public. Glossy bookstore calendars, gallery prints, and expensive coffee-table photo essays abound with renditions of deteriorating log cabins and abandoned wooden fishing boats decaying in the marsh grass. No one (salespersons excepted) photographs new homes or gleaming fiberglass cruisers rolling off the assembly line. I have never seen an Andrew Wyeth painting of a thermoplastic milk bucket resting on a stainless steel shelf. No — right or wrong — the new invokes haste, complexity and stress; the old recalls a slower pace, simplicity, and inner harmony.
Even the countryside teems from mountain to seashore with an unending display of picturesque cottages, silos, shanties, and piers in varying states of delightful disrepair for the anxious tourist to visit, photograph, and absorb the good feelings they seem to radiate.
Have you ever thought this curious? Why don't we see bright new barns, smartly trimmed workboats moored neatly in their slips, and freshly creosoted pilings jutting from tidal estuaries? Surely these things must be replaced or refurbished occasionally. Yet in my frequent journeys through western Maryland farmlands and Chesapeake Bay waterfront communities, I have never seen a new corncrib, pier or crab shanty. The same semi-dilapidated relics are there, year after year, throughout the decades, apparently steadily disintegrating, yet never collapsing.
This situation is so prevalent in fact that I have come to imagine it to be the work of a clandestine guild of benevolent and highly skilled craftsmen. Plying ancient, painstakingly learned secrets, guild members labor diligently to transform harsh and abrupt new structures into mellowed time-worn artifacts for our enjoyment. In my mind's eye, I see these artists working under the cover of darkness and during the off-season, before the tourists arrive. With chisels, mallets, small propane torches, and various stains, this creative fellowship performs miracles in the art of reconditioning in reverse. Overnight, shiny cottages and spiffy boathouses are aged and weathered to become as one with the surrounding environment, indeed, to appear as if they had grown there.
The guild is fully aware of our need to occasionally step back from the daily hassle to regain perspective, reorder priorities, and simply relax. They know that the sight of a great gray gull perched upon a jagged piling dissolves anxiety faster and more effectively than an analyst's couch; that when one buys apples from a weathered barn nestled in a secluded orchard, one obtains more than mere fruit.
This is a silly notion I know, but I have no other explanation for the proliferation of such appealing antiquity. With the exception of the batteries in a Christmas toy, new things just don't age that fast. At any rate, it would be nice to think there was an organization dedicated to mixing a little of the old with the new, arranging pleasant surprises to sooth the frenzied soul: peace of mind around the bend, tranquility in a cove, serenity at the seashore and all.
It makes a nice balance.
KENNETH BALLIET is an engineer and spare-time writer whose work has appeared in the Mensa Bulletin and the Mother Earth News. Despite the tenor of his article, he confesses a liking for "rowdy social gatherings."
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