Fifteen miles an hour

Published 10:00 pm Monday, September 15, 2014

It has been a long time since I wrote a conservation corner, a long summer. Actually, I wrote this article yesterday, but I must not have pushed the ‘save’ button, so it all got erased. Rather than edit and correct what was written yesterday, I’ll begin all over. Maybe it is an illustration of what I am trying to say in this column, which is “slow down”. I was in a hurry to get somewhere. Being in a hurry does have its costs.  “Haste makes waste,” my mother always said.

Even though this past summer was a busy one for me, with very little contemplation time, I did think a lot about this topic: ‘15 miles an hour’. This past Friday Allen and I went to the Summer Tracks concert with Tom and Shelley Dekay. Shelley asked whether I’d written anything lately, and I said ‘no’ because I was having trouble putting my thought into words. Shelley said that it would become clear to me as I started writing, and she was right. Actually, I began to explain the concept of ‘15 miles and hour to her; and, as I did so, it all became clearer to me. So often our thoughts become clearer when we try to put them into words… the gift of language.

I read or heard somewhere that it is impossible for us to comprehend our surroundings if we are moving at a rate greater than 15 miles an hour. We know that the mind can only take in so much information at a time. Our minds are bombarded with thousands of bits of information every second, way more than we can assimilate. To cope, we have invented a system of time, and order, and categories, and language, so that we can take in the information that we need to survive. But still, we can only take in so much at a time.

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When it comes to travel, we drive through the countryside and think that we are actually ‘in’ Virginia, or wherever. The idea that I have been pondering all summer is that we cannot really be ‘in’ Virginia if we are traveling at more than 15 miles an hour: we’re ‘in’ the car. Our minds cannot take in Virginia; it’s simply passing us by, like a movie.

When I ride my pony through the woods, I’m going at a rate of 10 miles an hour or less (usually more like 5 mph). When walking, it’s half that. At those times I am actually in that place, hearing the birds, the sound of the interstate in the distance, stepping in the mud and watching a slug make its way across the path. I am able to experience the journey. How fast does a cyclist ride? Is the cyclist seeing and feeling himself, watching a video of the passing landscape, or is he part of that landscape? How fast can he ride and take in the information of what he is traveling through?

I recently purchased two pieces of property: a dilapidated old log cabin in Holbert Cove and an abandoned black community church in Saluda. I bought them because no one else would, and both are part of our heritage that would be lost forever if allowed to decay further. Both represent a ‘place’ where ordinary people lived and died, worked and worshipped, a part of our history often forgotten or overridden by histories of ‘important’ people in big, fancy houses, etc.

Over and over people have asked me “What are you going to do with the cabin? Or the church?” and over and over I have to say, “I don’t know.” Let me tell you just how stupid I feel every time I give that answer, like …duh, I’m clueless.

How can I make decisions about a piece of land before I know the land? It’s the same question as ‘How could I make decisions about how to parent a child before I know what that child likes, or needs, or what talents (or fears) that child has?’

If I had had a plan before buying the cabin and the church, the plan would have been based upon what ‘improvements’ would make it more valuable, make it easier to sell; in short, about making the most money. The choices would have been made according to my vision, and my wants. Our profit driven culture has conditioned us to think about the money, the investment, at the expense of all other considerations.

But I’m still thinking, making one small decision each time I spend time at the cabin or the church. At the cabin I drink the delicious spring water, and I know that we don’t need to drill a well. I feel the breeze and know that we do not need air conditioning. I hear the creek and know that we do not need a telephone or a TV. The cabin has gifts that I would not have thought of had I not taken time to listen and feel.

The church, with its bare cinder block walls, has the most wonderful acoustics, making the sounds of a handful of voices singing actually rise up to the heavens. I watch the way people walk around the church, and where they sit, and talk, and then I know where to put the benches. In time I will know what to do with the property, but not quite yet.

I’ll need to watch and listen a little longer, at a speed way less than 15 miles per hour, before all those decisions can be made. Until then…