It strikes me often that we don’t think in geographical terms anymore. I don’t mean that sort of abstract geographical knowledge that tells us the names of the seven hills of Rome, unless of course you’re a Roman. If you are a Roman, then the names of those hills are part of the lore of the land around you, that along with the rivers, valleys, meadows, and forests gave shape and nomenclature to everything that sprang up upon it. There was a time when we thought and spoke about the land and our relationship to it in the terms of these natural features. You lived on a certain ridge, or in a certain valley, and the road ran down along the valley to the ford, and from the ford on to the big meadow with the two oaks, and eventually intersected with a larger road that was named for the villages it connected.
If you wanted to travel you thought in terms of how many ridges you had to cross, whether there was water and a way to get across it, how steep the road was, or how muddy. And this of course was because you likely had to walk it, or sit atop some beast that was walking it. We were intimately connected to the land then, I think because we travelled slowly and personally. We felt the land, and absorbed its character at every plodding step. Today we are much more likely to think in terms of roads, and where they go. Intersections are the points of reference, and addresses the language of the machines that remember how to get somewhere when we don’t want to. On-ramps and off-ramps mark the little villages along the way between the centers of commerce. One of the most fascinating things for me is that you can look at Google Maps and zoom right in and see them there still: all the little trails that connected outposts of civilization, and took their names two centuries ago. Transpose an historical map and all the noise of our building disappears and the old roads are left there like the veins on a leaf.
We live up on Schooleys Mountain, which isn’t a mountain at all, but a great long hump of rock running eighty miles from southeastern New York to the Delaware Water Gap in western New Jersey. Near us Schooley’s Mountain Road runs down the north side to Hackettstown. Some of the old timers may remember this as the Washington Turnpike, and it was the first road west from Morristown to Easton, back in the 1730’s or so. Off to the east Drakestown Road used to connect Drakestown with Flanders, but Drakestown doesn’t exist anymore. Naughright road ran down the south side to Naughright, but there is no Naughright now. Bartley Road ran from Bartley to German Valley, and nope, there isn’t a Bartley anymore, either. But there is a German Valley, whose residents changed the name to Long Valley back in 1914, when it was considered more advantageous to be long, as opposed to German. If you keep going south you run up Fox Hill, which forms the south side of the long valley. The south branch of the Raritan flows down the valley and makes a great improbable arc to tidewater at Raritan Bay, carving out and outlining a great swath of some of the most beautiful and fertile rural land in America.
I admit it’s not easy to see it anymore. It goes by too quickly. I’m interested in it at a conscious level, and I still have to repeatedly stop and refer to maps and devices and remind myself how things are arranged. I routinely have minor epiphanies where, after traveling a road for four years, I suddenly realize that it runs more north than west! I think many of us may have lost something, in all our mobility, or at least I think I have; something that farmers likely remember. If we hiked more, or were able or required to walk the places we need to go, I suspect we’d get some of it back. It’s an intimate familiarity with the way the land is shaped, and where the roads go, and if oil prices keep on going the way they are, who knows? We may all become more tied to the land in the way that our ancestors were. If it is not as easy to just pick up and go somewhere else, then the quality of where you are now is that much more important.