Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Thoughts of Home on September 11

A few days ago, Clara and I discovered the Kenilworth Common, a local nature preserve occupying land set aside for the public under an eighteenth-century enclosure act. The common was once open heath land, suitable for grazing sheep, but over the past century it has become an English woods of beech, oak, and sycamore, with little or no undergrowth except occasional glosses of holly and ivy. The main path slants upwards from Forge Lane and Finham Brook to Common Lane, running between high wooded embankments. It’s a beautiful place, and well-known among local naturalists for its populations of native butterflies and reptiles.

Unfortunately, it’s also full of trash—empty potato chip packets, candy wrappers, plastic shopping bags, crushed beer cans.

If you look carefully at the exterior photograph of the Chapel of St. Mary Magdeline at Guy’s Cliffe below (click on any photograph for an enlargement), you will see that the windows facing the courtyard are filled with clear glass. This is because, in 1974, a gang of teenagers broke all of the eighteenth-century stained glass with stones pried from the courtyard. (The offenders were apprehended and got off with a fine of £3 each.) The south-facing windows of St. Nicholas church in Kenilworth are also filled with clear glass—the original medieval glass was smashed during the English Civil War and the Victorian glass was shattered by a Nazi bomb during World War II.

Will reports that someone in school asked him, “Why are you spending a year in a shit hole like England?” I’m glad to find that, for Will at least, one of the early consequences of our stay in England has been a deeper appreciation of his own home. He told us that Northfield is one of the loveliest places in the world. I’m happy that he’s had the opportunity to travel, to see so much more of the world than most people see—that he’s climbed fells in the Lake District and explored ruined chateaux in the south of France—but I’m happier still that in the end the place he loves the most is the place he’s from. If he doesn’t think his home is a shit hole, he’s unlikely to treat it like a shit hole—to fill the woods with litter, to spray graffiti on the walls, to smash the windows, to cause irreparable damage through hostility or neglect.

(Photograph: detail from the stained glass windows of the First United Church of Christ in Northfield, Minnesota. A youthful vandal threw a rock through one of the windows several years ago.)

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