top of page

Past lives

Cincinnati magazine

June, 2000

There is an image I forever see when I think of the vanished place that was New Burlington, Ohio: in the driveway of a house, a young man is whipping the horse that is pulling his carriage. Inside the house, a young girl named Sarah, wearing a long calico dress, runs down the hallway, jumps the back steps, and flees into the orchard.

The young man, until recently, was the girl’s fiancé. But, then, Sarah’s best friend, who lived three houses to the north, became pregnant—by the same young man. According to the austere social customs of the early twentieth century, the young man was required to redeem the fallen girl, and so he did. He became her fiancé.

The horse, however, obeying his own customs, continued to turn in at Sarah’s driveway, and for some weeks this painful ritual reenacted itself. It was spring, the soft petals from the fruit trees fell profusely around her, and she wept as if her heart could never be repaired, which was, indeed, what she thought.

It was more than a half century later when she told me the story, and her sadness in telling it seemed to be as palpable as when she first discovered it. She asked that I not tell it then, and I did not. It was a little tale made for moral instruction, almost too perfectly rounded. But it has remained with me ever since, not the tale itself, but the woman’s ineffable sadness. It mirrored an essential sadness of the remote and nameless dead, and it reminded me of the difficulty of ever truly recording anything.


Even the people of New Burlington themselves wondered about the apparent folly of me recording their modest ambitions. In my peregrinations, I had left yet another newspaper, having been instructed that my paragraphs must be relegated to no more than nineteen words. Soon, my editors seemed to be telling me, we would communicate with a nod, a wink, a grunt. But I was young, and I had words to squander. I wanted to take them out on a lonely stretch of metaphorical highway and see what they would do.

I had read a newspaper article about this place, being flooded for the new Caesar Creek Lake. What, I wondered, was it about, having your own flood announced ahead of time? Having to find a new profession, I wondered if the dying village could resuscitate me. I pondered form, the messy arrangements of compiling and writing a book. I filed essays to eastern newspapers and magazines.

The people of New Burlington thought that I was doing a thesis, for a college degree of some kind, or perhaps a government report. For where, otherwise, their bemused posture suggested, was the story?

I thought I knew, but the craft of writing a book was new to me. What was I doing? Driving into New Burlington that first time in the summer of 1970, I could have been an explorer finding a lost island, an uncharted valley. New Burlington was exquisitely perfect, a place off the map where custom seemed not to be observed as it was elsewhere. Even gravity, as evidenced by the tilt of the overpowering cornfields, was suspect.

The road wound to a rise, houses infrequent and natives heavily outnumbered by livestock. And then I descended into the trough that was New Burlington itself, a tiny village in the forks of two streams, surrounded on all sides by cornfields so rich they seemed to be forests. I imagined the stalks climbed by spike-wearing timbermen, the ears chainsawed off, thundering to the floors of the field.

From that moment, the imagery began.

At night, in the deeps of the summer, there was a rustling when there was no wind, as if the fields could move. In August, a mist hung over the streams, and the humidity warped my books. The village disappeared before my eyes, house by house. Forlorn cats slinked through the abandoned orchards, yowling. Even the village’s loneliest man, the gravedigger, seemed lonelier than usual. Sometimes I saw him in the nearest town, sitting on the streetcorner, as though even the presence of strangers was a solace.

Once, when I drove by his house, he motioned to me from his porch. He had a guitar, and he sang some songs he had written himself. I remembered one of them:


Bury my money with me

When I pass away

Don’t spend it on a tombstone

Don’t buy me a bouquet ...


Did the others think he was somehow emblematic of the engineers who were taking their land, thus burying their entire village? Or was his loneliness merely the result of his friendless profession? Or perhaps it was merely because, as he himself acknowledged, “I am a peculiar fellow.”

And so I worked in the hay fields, cut firewood, helped make syrup. I sat on their porches in the deepening twilight. Assured, by now, that I was harmless, they invited me in. They began to reveal themselves, little by little. At a birthday celebration, a resident told me of the meanest woman in the township: “One day,” he said, “she found a possum eating eggs in her hen house, and she retch in there with her hands and she just squoze that possum.”

The farmer who was celebrating his birthday shook his head sadly. “It just goes to show you,” he said. “You live down the road from somebody all your life, and you never know they squeeze possums.”

I liked their drollness, the understatement taught by the capricious seasons, which instructed country people as to their tenuously proper place on earth.

Some of them forgot that I was taking notes. This is the insidious nature of the nonfiction writer, who hangs about until he becomes part of the wallpaper. It was in this moment of oblivion, of course, when Sarah told me about her first boyfriend. Before long, I knew—whether I wanted to or not—when the postman had stayed too long on his route, who liked watermelon preserves, and that old Mr. Hartman made his own license plates, by hand, matching the lettering perfectly, and was never apprehended by the authorities.

Much of this news came from Sarah, and much of it was the news of another era. Some of the culprits had been dead for more than a quarter of a century. This was not because she was senile; she had a wonderful, colorful mind, but, plainly, she loved the past as well as the present, for, as she said, she had spent so much time there. She had a remarkable storytelling quality in which she recalled the events she had been told as a girl, but when she retold them she told them in the present tense, as if she had been present.

“Warren went away to war in early 1863,” she would begin. “There is a candy-pulling in his honor. His little sister, Lida, cannot stay awake though she tries and tries, and in the morning, beside her bed, beside the brass candlestick on the two-drawered cherry table, is a plate of taffy he has left for her ... ”


Of course, there is more to her story of Uncle Warren who goes away to war, but that is how she began, and I was never tired of listening to her, although her own family came seldom.

I stopped by to see her one Saturday before Easter. She was sitting before her window in a new spring dress, wearing white stockings. “Tomorrow is Easter,” she said. “The Resurrection, you know. People who haven’t risen on Sunday since Christmas will arise.”

I asked her what she wished for.

“Wishes?” she repeated. “I do not have wishes like I had fifty years ago. Then, I was filled with wishes. Wishes come from heat and when heat dies, so does wishing. I am so cold now, I sleep with my stockings on ... ”


I listened for what informed them, what they loved most. And when I had identified that, I pushed them for it. I thought it possible that no one would repeat their experiences. It was as if an entire culture was being eradicated in front of me, and I was the photographer Edward S. Curtis, documenting his tribe. I read that Mr. Curtis carried clip-on nose bones for his Indian men to wear, but I was determined to carry no props. If I would be the visual anthropologist of my forgotten kinsmen, I determined, they would bring their own props.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between rural and urban dwellers, compounded by—in both camps—suspicion, sentimentality, and false mythology. New Burlington was an island, but so was Manhattan. Harrison Salisbury and I had a small joke: He would call from the New York Times and inquire, “What is going on in the Heartland this morning?” As if I had just returned from some splendid archaeological dig and had much to report. He was a wonderful editor, as though any revelation from Out Here were pertinent, and the topic he left entirely to my keen perceptions. I would then compile a report for his op-ed pages, and the high curiosity of media warlords and various captains of industry would be momentarily slaked.


My manuscript, meantime, filled itself with disappearing voices and an imagery that often seemed a bit surreal, as if I were high on something other than Sarah’s homemade strawberry pie. It felt emotionally accurate, but I was uncertain. Sometimes, the voices seemed like another language, like one of those Native American dialects not written down, spoken by only a handful of very old people. What, after all, did I know? I was writing to discover what I knew. Or, rather, I was writing to discover what they knew, the people of New Burlington.

For a time, the villagers had felt safe. But America had crept up on them. The best of us—our energy to constantly make ourselves over—is also the worst of us, because we are both builders and destroyers: our neighborhoods, towns and cities, our various environments. Or as a friend transplanted from Europe to America, a place he loves, said to me, “Americans are people who embrace everything, but they seem to cherish nothing.” And so our desire to make ourselves over extended even to the tiny, inconsequential place that was once New Burlington, Ohio.

The villagers held out as long as they could. The Corps of Engineers and the power of eminent domain was not to be denied, however. Frank Lundy, hedging his bets, painted the side of his barn that faced the road and let the rest of it go. But by the time my book was published, everything was gone, including Frank’s barn. Only building foundations remained, odd hieroglyphs in the winter snowfall.

The nearby Wilmington paper continued its historic smalltown mission of avoiding significance of any kind and said nothing. The big city paper to the north called New Burlington “a footnote to progress.” By the time the lake that destroyed the village was dedicated several years later, most of my cast of characters was gone, as well. The village had largely been forgotten. Most of the pleasure-seekers, I wrote then, would have been only mildly surprised if someone had told them they were water-skiing over a town.

So what did I learn? That there may be powerful imagery in the most modest life, and the possibility of richness, as well. Power is not invariably in thought, and even if it were, imagery would still precede it. All I wished to do was set down the fading voices, and record the imagery of those obscure fields.

What, then, did I manage to get on record? The reviews were uniformly generous, but the ones I judged most perspicacious were in letters from acquaintances. “It is,” wrote my young friend, Gregory, “about truly different stuff than what goes on today. Like having chickens in your carburetor and being pissed on by cows.” My older friend, John Fleischman, wrote: “It is manure, river mud, coal oil, rust, the wet clay from grave bottoms, and the smoke of an old man’s pipe rising in placid defiance of the Methodists.” And this from my graduate school mentor, Fred Chappell: “Well, New Burlington should be filmed—in black and white by Ingmar Bergman. And not shown in New York, but only at the Wadesboro, North Carolina, Public Library ... ”


Those were the real reviews.

And the village of New Burlington?

I see it sometimes, and it could be under glass, a little museum of people and implements from another place and time. I’m there, too, but slightly to one side, my natural position, the onlooker, the interloper.

The village and its life was taken from them, and it was given to me.

I tried my best to return it.

bottom of page