Thursday, September 06, 2012

Beauty and utility

In a few days I will return to the village of North Easton in Massachusetts. I have lived there for nearly half-a-century, and in all that time the place has physically changed very little. Indeed, it hasn't changed a heck of a lot since it was established as a living community for Ames shovel factory workers in the late-19th century.

Oh, some changes yes. Vastly more traffic using Main Street to get to the new bedroom communities for Boston that have engulfed outlying regions of the town. The mom-and-pop grocery store, drug store and 5&10 have disappeared. The standard two-story workmen's houses of the late-19th century have acquired extensions and upgrades, but the look remains remarkably constant. In compensation for any modest aesthetic deterioration, estates of the Ames family have been opened up for public pleasure. All in all, the village has survived the assaults of modernity wonderfully well.

If North Easton has been a 19th-century fossil suspended in time, Ventry, here in the west of Ireland, where we have been living part time for 40 years, is a tape on fast-forward, 400 years of progress in 40 years. When we arrived, electrification and indoor plumbing were just taking hold. Hay was cut by scythe and raked and piked into cocks. Only the post office had a telephone. Automobiles were few and far between and tourists almost non-existent.

Now, just a few decades later, the old damp homesteads have been abandoned for new, comfy houses with all the mod cons, silage is cut and wrapped by big mechanical combines, every family has a car, or two, or three, and there's a telephone in every pocket. Huge coaches full of tourists roll through on their way to the spectacular scenery of Slea Head. The transformation has been breathtaking.

Which poses for Ventry the dilemma faced by many such places in the world: How to accommodate modernity without losing the things which make a place unique and livable?

The mountain helps. No matter where you are in the parish, Mount Eagle looms above, a presence that cannot be ignored, cannot be modernized. The mountain broods, as it has for millions of years, and in its brooding instills in the people who live on its flanks a certain stillness, a contemplative consideration of the past, a certainty of permanence.

Of course, not even a mountain can resist the transgressions of 21st-century technology. If Mount Eagle had seams of coal, or gold ore, there are machines that could turn it into a slag heap. But Mount Eagle is sandstone. Its saving grace is that it is useless. And because the mountain is useless, the parish is useless. For anything, that is, but beauty.