The Vanishing Point

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The sidewalk is empty. I’m alone. The doors are shut, the windows closed. I can hear everything, but there’s nothing to hear. The birds are quiet, the leaves are gone. It’s wonderful, it’s nothingness.

The sidewalk runs on into the horizon, converging on the vanishing point, from which I can see no further. What happens when you reach the vanishing point, I wonder? Do you cease to exist, multiply into infinity? I’ll probably never know. With each step, it moves away from me, taunting me.

A van glides down the wet pavement, breaking the silence. It sounds like someone is peeling off a bandage. I kick a puddle and watch the drops fly through the air.

There’s little culture here, nothing much to see. Culture, I suppose, is in the dull, mechanical repetition of life inside your home, the home identical to the all others on block. It’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or The Glenn Beck Radio Program. It’s a Microsoft Xbox controller or a Stouffer’s Family Size Lasagna Italiano in the oven.

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The sidewalk brought me here, to this quaint scene of Middle America. From the semitas of Ancient Rome to a life as a flâneur – a gentleman of leisure – in ol’ Gai Paris, I walk, timeless, ageless, endlessly in my quest for the vanishing point. I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it all again before I die.

I travel, on average, 3 miles an hour. The speed limit for th cars is 25 miles per hour. I watch the van, a red Ford E-Series, disappear in the abyss of the vanishing point. I imagine a loud tearing sound, like thunder. It’s another piece of cultural ephemera, gone in but a pinprick of light, just as the chariots and carriages that preceded it.

When Europeans first arrived, America was – believe it or not – startlingly devoid of sidewalks. So they built some, first with wood, then gravel, brick, and – finally – cement. As our great country urbanized, we kicked the peddlers and protesters off the curb with laws and ordinances, decreased the width of the sidewalk to make way for cars. Jaywalkers were outlawed, kids shooed into the backyard.

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The streets were dangerous, the sidewalks too close, and the stores too far. The sidewalk, that great carrier of civilization, emptied out.

Except for me.

Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic. People still walk their dogs, after all.

I turn the corner, the vanishing point momentarily withdrawing from view. I expect to see it again, but I’ve hit a dead end. The sidewalk stops abruptly in front of the wide, green lawn of a spacious suburban home. Is this, my friends, the vanishing point? Have I, in fact, reached my destination?

For a moment, I cease to exist. Orange light pools in the spot I once stood.

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Dickeyville Grotto

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The sun was blood red over the Mississippi. It gushed upon the horizon, purple and orange. A cold breeze from the north weaved its way through the husks of corn drying dead on spindly stalks. Alternating rows of crops and grass repeated ad infinitum across the hills.

I was somewhere in Wisconsin.

We took a left on Great River Road. We passed Sunset Lanes, a bowling alley that looked like small airplane hanger, the parking lot packed with American trucks. A brown barn with antique gas pumps out front advertised itself as a flea market. Above a dingy, nondescript repair shop stood a water tower with the town’s name, “Dickeyville”, emblazoned on it in thick, black letters.

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Old homes and squat motels lined Main Street. Here was a gas station, there a diner. We turned the corner, the sun low, the shadows long. Two kids rode their bikes up the empty, cracked sidewalk. A steeple poked into view, the tiled, angular spire piercing the dark blue sky with startling ferocity.

Something unusual caught my eye. A grotto, a cave, next to the church. A man-made stone building bedecked with bits of seashell, shards of tea cups, a petrified tree trunk, and all bound together with poured cement. It leaped forth from the ground in a profusion of organic shapes, as if it might slither into the ether at any given moment.

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The handicraft of Father Mathias Wernerus, an immigrant, it’s part ode to religion, part ode to patriotism. He spent roughly a half-decade of his life affixing the stones, inspired almost undoubtedly by Father Paul Dobberstein’s famous grotto in West Bend, Iowa. There’s a shrine to Jesus. A shrine to Mary. A shrine to Christopher Columbus. His fervor knew no bounds. Stone rope unites Wernerus’ creations, entreating you to stroll through his imagination.

Warnerus’ final vision is smaller in scale than Dobberstein’s work, but no less impassioned. It’s the masterwork of an artistic savant, bursting with childlike enthusiasm. Mary is in in the main grotto behind glass, the entryway to her shine resembling the open maw of a primordial monster.

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You can’t help but ask: why? Why build such a monument in an out of the way town in American’s heartland? Wernerus once believed his grotto was destined to be a great tourist attraction. But did he build it in search of glory? Or a feeling more divine?

Dobberstein was inspired to construct his grotto after a bout with pneumonia. Wernerus, strangely enough, died of pneumonia in 1931.

He’s gone, but because of his grotto, never forgotten in Dickeyville, Wisconsin.

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From Savannas To Suburbs

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(Original photo by Tambako The Jaguar.)

Imagine, if you will, our ancient ancestors prowling the arid savannas of Africa in search of prey. Their eyes dart across the thick, wild grass, their hands firmly clutched around their spears. Just then, a cheetah ambles into view, bold and fearless in its countenance. The men, quiet and steady, fix their gazes on their target.

Now fast-forward to 2014. A man or woman not unlike ourselves prowls their lawn in search of weeds. Our imaginary person is wearing gloves and holding a bucket, tearing out dandelions and crabgrass by the roots. Just then, a squirrel ambles into view. A dog barks.

“Shut up, Jake! Hey!”

Perhaps the parallel sounds strained to you, but some believe that the American preference for wide, grassy lawns is genetically hardwired into our brains. Somehow, some way, it reminds us of the savanna. Not that there’s any proof. It’s just conjecture.

Still, whatever the case may be, Americans do possess a preternatural affection for their lawns, especially our front yards. We dote on our grass, shower our little patches of lawn with more chemicals than Rob Ford, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan could consume in an entire year. All told, the lawn care industry is worth tens of billions of dollars. It’s big business, whether you live in Maine or Arizona.

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Weep for the beauty he has wrought with his mower. (Original photo by heipei.)

If you grew up in the suburbs, chances are you had at least one neighbor that was nuts about their front yard. It’s inevitable, almost.

In my neighborhood, that person was Jack. He lived across the street a couple houses down. He was that stereotypical old dude that gave candy out to kids and had a niece’s nephew or something that worked for NASA. He was quite popular with the kids on the block.

But woe to the poor adolescent soul that messed up as much as a blade of his grass. Forget the wife and children. His lawn was his true love. He’d actually go out – believe it or not – with scissors to even out the stray blades. You’d see him there in his polo shirt and khaki shorts with a magnifying glass checking for imperfections. The guy was cuckoo for graminoids.

I  know I was on the receiving end of at least a couple stern talking-tos from him whenever my football landed on his lawn one too many times. “You’ll wear out the grass,” he’d say. “Try and keep your football from landing here, please.” He took a deep, paternalistic pride in the unnatural softness of his lawn. Touching his grass was like petting puppy, and it was green almost to a fault.

Not that he spent much time admiring his immaculate lawn. No, his job done, he’d retire to his garage, where could lounge amongst 100 pound bags of fertilizer and admire his various insecticides.

Because, of course, you never hang out in your front yard. You just don’t. It’s a showpiece for your neighbors to marvel at as they drive to and from work or the store. You might spend untold hours mowing your front lawn and treating it with toxic chemicals, pruning every last bush, but if you want to barbecue or have a party, you do it in your back yard.

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The products needed to maintain a “healthy” yard illustrate the artifice of the American lawn. Runoff from lawns is a major source of water pollution. (Original photo by Kit Reynolds.)

Parisians, smug and superior in their Frenchness, don’t understand the American obsession with front yards. Dig this: in the Paris suburbs, the houses are practically built on the street. The space saved goes into the backyard, since – you know – that’s where you’ll actually spend most of your time outside. Imagine that. Even the English, whose stately countryside manors inspired the American yard, prefer modest, comparatively tiny front yards.

So why are we so doggone fixated on huge, extravagant front yards?

Certainly, it helps that America is gigantic. There is plenty of space for big front yards and big back yards. Perhaps we like our front yards because it reminds us, collectively, of the bountiful spaces of our country’s rural heritage. Your house is set in the middle of an expansive property, and it’s all yours.

Except that, apparently, rural yards typically looked like shit, muddy and littered with broken farm implements. We didn’t have time back then to a mow a stinkin’ yard. There were cows to tip, corn whiskey to drink. That we’d try to recreate an idealized version of our past that never existed strikes me as a standard American trait, and makes it – for me – the most plausible explanation.

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Of course, this is how we imagine our farm would’ve looked like. (Original photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli.)

At any rate, the front yard was permanently encoded in the American landscape when local governments began enforcing mandatory setbacks for homes. As we developed the outskirts of America’s big cities, these new zoning laws pushed homes away from the street, ostensibly provide a buffer against the urban chaos surrounding us. Landscape luminaries like Frederick Law Olmsted (the man behind Central Park and Biltmore) saw this new space in the urban tableau as an opportunity to export the placid ideals of the parks they were busy designing to America’s doorsteps. They encouraged us to plant grass on our new yards and routinely “shave” it because that’s what they did in the English countryside.

Who were we to question the English gentry?

In hindsight, the fussy Olmsted probably wasn’t that different from Jack. I can picture the two stalking the savanna together, dressed as natives. They toss their spears at the cheetah and miss.