That’s one of my all-time favorite book titles. It’s taken from Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America (1964).
I want to say something about it. Not the book, actually, or this clever installation (see below) by David Brooks at Storm King Art Center titled “A Proverbial Machine in the Garden,” but about the phrase itself and what it evokes for me. Why I am drawn to it. The hold it has over me.
I don’t want this to be academic and theoretical, but personal and grounded in my peculiar life experience.
Finally, (for anyone who stumbles across this blog), I want to try something. I’m going to write this in installments, editing and republishing this post an indeterminate number of times. So if you (my exceedingly hypothetical reader) are so inclined, circle back at some point and see where this goes.
When I was a boy, my first cousin and I, often joined by friends, would occasionally walk the old railroad tracks leading south out of tiny Louisville, scramble over a fence that was supposed to keep boys from doing exactly what we were there to do, and then pick our way carefully across an abandoned trestle over the Ogeechee River and its swamp, in eastern central Georgia. The trestle had been built a century earlier by the Louisville & Wadley Railroad, a so-called short-line track between towns just 10 miles apart. Here’s a map from 1879, when the railroad had been in existence just seven years:
Here’s a picture of the trestle as it crossed the Ogeechee River in past decades:
And here are pictures of the old train on the L & W, which we ourselves never saw in operation:
Because when we were boys, in the early 1970s, the trestle looked sort of like this, as it carried us above the swamps, through the treetops, across the river, and on in the direction of Wadley:
You can imagine, I suspect, how enthralled we were with that trestle. Once we clambered over that fence, we knew that we had it to ourselves. It was an immense playground just for us. A world apart. When we stepped out onto that first railroad tie, straddling nothing but air, the land falling away, we might as well have been in a different universe. We might as well have been the heroes of our own fantasy novel.
The ghostly echo of that old train’s whistle filled the air.
And what did we do? You can imagine, probably. We walked the tracks, careful to step over the gaps where wooden ties had rotted away. In summer, we jumped from the trestle into the river, if the water was high enough. Afterwards, we sat in the sun and waited for our underwear to dry, so that we could dress and return to civilization. We talked about things that boys talk about. We captured gentle kingsnakes as they sunned themselves on the trestle, and probably we kept an eye out for poisonous water moccasins on the branches of trees below us, taking potshots at them with my cousin’s .22 rifle.
Always, at least for me, there was a certain quality to those adventures. How do I explain this?
When you grow up in a small town in the defeated, either reviled or pitied South. And when your parents and their parents and their parents and their parents before them had all lived out their lives and died their deaths in that very town. And when for the entirety of your short life you had been told story after story about, well, your father’s father, early on a Sunday morning, from his back porch, shooting dead your mother’s grandmother’s insolent, cock-a-doodling rooster; or about your great-great-grandfather fighting with Lee at Gettysburg; or about the dry-goods store that your maternal and paternal great-grandfathers co-owned; or about the time your father’s father insisted on riding in the back of a Savannah streetcar with his black legal client; or about that day when the telegram arrived with news of your uncle’s death at Saipan in the Pacific. And when every square foot of that town had meaning for you: here’s where we sledded during that freakish snowstorm, and here’s the massive shrub where you used to hide during kindergarten recess, and here’s the low-hanging tree branch that enables you to climb to the roof of your grandmother’s barn, and here’s the part of the field where you saw that teenage boy and girl having sex, and here’s the old grocery store where the diamond from your mother’s wedding ring fell between a crack in the floorboards …
When all of that is in the very air that you breathe, everything is pregnant with meaning and haunted by the past. It’s a cliche about the old South, I know that, but that does not make it untrue. I always felt that I was both in the moment and out of the moment. I was the person living my life but I was also, always, an observer of myself living my life.
So on those occasions when we retreated to our own private world, we were stepping out not so much onto a derelict trestle as into the past. Into an era, say, when our great-grandparents could buy a ticket to ride the train to Wadley, maybe just for the day to visit friends, or maybe to board the Central of Georgia train to Atlanta, and from Atlanta to New Orleans or Chicago or New York. Do you see? At those moments, we were boys having fun, but we were also actors in a drama that had started long ago and would (we thought) continue after we ourselves had abandoned the trestle and this earth.
You may think, surely a 12- or 14-year-old boy did not have such thoughts. But you would be wrong. Feeling is thinking, too, and even if it’s only now that I can articulate all this, I know that I felt it at the time.
So how does this relate to “the machine in the garden”? Look back at Marx’s subtitle: “Technology and the Pastoral Idea.” What is pastoral? It’s based on the Latin word for shepherd, and it refers to a genre of literature about and an imaginative conception of life in the unspoiled, idyllic countryside. Imagine a meadow full of perfectly white sheep, with handsome shepherds singing lovely songs about the flawless girls that they love and want. Imagine a world with no politics, no disease and hunger, an Edenic paradise where “work” is trying to compose poetry in the shade of a tree growing beside a cool-running stream.
Into such a world comes the machine. You see where this goes.
So the “machine in the garden” is partly about the loss of an idyllic world. The spoiling of the unspoiled. It suggests that the past is at odds with the present and the future. The progress of time is a descent, a fall. It ends in yearning, in hearkening back to something that cannot be recovered. (See my earlier post “The Past.”)
Only — and here’s the thing — in our case, as we frolicked on that trestle, even the machine had gone. Time had overtaken even it. The train that had once run back and forth from one tiny town to the other …
was no more. And around the wooden pilings and the iron rails grew vines. Nature was taking it back.
So here’s where I stop for now: the brilliance of David Brooks’ piece is that over time, that tractor will rust and disappear. Time is not linear, folks. It’s circular. The phrase should read “the machine in the garden in the machine in the garden in the machine in the garden” and so on ad infinitum.
One question for me, and maybe for you, is whether it’s comforting to acknowledge (or to invent?) the circular nature of time, or simply distressing. Maybe the question could be put this way: Would you rather live just in this moment, or always in at least two places, the present and the past (which will, on my construction, itself become the future).
We hopscotched down the trestle, back toward town. Our hair still wet. A kingsnake coiled around my cousin’s arm, its tongue tasting the air. Following the path that had once brought Billy and Julia, Alec and Pearl, in their black suits and ankle-length dresses, back home just in time for a cold supper in the twilight of their era.
So long, see you tomorrow.