Northstar

Jamie Lyn Smith

I remember when Hall Road lost its darkness. It was around 1990, after a mall went in on the north side of the state capital. Before that, the edge of our nighttime sky was pitch black, inky as squid. It was so quiet that we could sit on our porch on Hall Road and listen to music drift over from a bluegrass festival a mile away. The cicadas sang along. The porch swing creaked. The stars pressed against our faces. We did not know it would be the last August we would see the Perseid showers, that by Labor Day, the trees on the horizon would turn a maroonish, grimy red and it would never really be dark outside again.

***

Growing up, I did not see Hall Road the way I see it now. I dreamed of other roads. Broadway. The Pacific Coast Highway. Lombard Street’s pastel stucco buildings framed by the window of a San Francisco trolley car. Beale Street. Peachtree Boulevard. Route 66. Hollywood and Vine. Off I went to all those places, and many more. Eventually, Hall Road became a place to long for, not a place I longed to put behind me. But that would take a long time. Ultimately, the lights of other places would shine too brightly. The streets I was so eager to see teemed with people I did not know, who did not care to know me, and I returned the favor. I left New York in 2009, forsaking its 24/7 clamor and glamor for the solitude of rural Ohio, its wildness, nights that are dark and quiet. Now, the last remaining thing I still had to love about home—its wildness—was moving beyond my reach.

***

When I drive from Hall Road to the state capital, I still frequently see large herds of deer, red tail hawk circling over the tall grass marshes and surrounding wetlands. But untamed time is limited. This land was annexed—unwillingly—from the township by a group of developers with political ties and deep pockets who rezoned it for “improvement.” Their idea of rural improvement involves building an outlet mall that sprawls across the drained remains of the wetlands and offers minimum-wage retail, hospitality, and service sector jobs. They’re calling it “Northstar”—one of the few remaining celestial bodies you can still see in what remains of our darkness on Hall Road.

I see men working feverishly at Northstar’s construction site. They are laying tile, leveling ground, installing water lines. Even on the coldest days, with wind chill dipping twenty degrees below zero there were neon-vested crews in work coveralls pouring diesel fuel on the treads of a Bobcat. I sat at a stoplight waiting to turn onto the interstate and watched them light the oil afire to thaw the wheels. Black smoke billowed out of a ball of flame and the wheels began to grind, slowly, while the men cheered. Such is the urgent pace of their ministrations.

Soon the subdivisions and traffic and acres of asphalt parking lots and fast food eateries will displace the whitetail and strutting tom turkeys. By next Christmas, Northstar shoppers will enjoy punching each other in the face on Black Friday, jostling in line for a discounted flat screen television, and brawling over parking space, proving that both Joni Mitchell and Sam Walton were right.

***

Northstar’s light had already turned our horizon a deep hue of rusty orange the afternoon I drove up Hall Road and noticed a rust-eaten yellow bulldozer parked at the crest of the hill. Beside it, a line of mature trees lay felled on their sides.

There were many maples, some of them three to four feet in diameter, over a hundred feet tall, dead. Their sap once sweetened the air during spring thaw, and I loved the music their rattling seedlings made when the wind combed through their branches each fall. No more.

Worst of all, a stand of slow-growing shagbark hickory lay flattened. A few marigold—yellow leaves still clung to their dull, steel-colored limbs.

Black walnut, poplar, wild plum, oak, elm—all dead, or dying. These trees towered only that morning. For as long as I could remember, these grand dames canopied the road I where I grew up, where my family has lived for the past seventy years or so, the only road I have ever called “home.”

I flagged down a passing neighbor and asked what the hell was going on.

“Township got a grant,” Norm told me, “from that Rural Improvement Coop or whatever it is they call it.”

“They’re ruining everything,” I wailed. “Look at all those trees, gone—”

“Settle down, girl,” he said, patting me on the arm. “They’re just paving the road.”

What worries me, I thought, is why?

This is, after all, what the township calls progress. Grant disbursements awarded them the opportunity to widen the road, install better drainage, layer it with chip-and-seal. I’m wondering who’s at the root of it; there is a lot of money being poured into improving a one-lane wide, dead-end dirt road.

This sort of fortuitous “rural improvement” is rarely impetuous or civic minded and has a tendency to coincide with expedited building permits that bypass the normal process of public review at township meetings. These rural improvements tend to foreshadow the sudden sprouting up of subdivisions with names like “Otter Run Estates” or “Deer Hollow.” We’ve seen this play out before; a few months ago in a neighboring township there was an attempt by a wealthy property owner to shut down his neighbor’s 100-year-old pig farming operation because he was “shocked, outraged” to discover that he could smell manure in the confines of his luxurious McMansion on days when the farmer hosed out the hog barns.

We’ll see where this volley lands. For now, my neighbors are all talking about what an improvement the pavement will be over that dusty dirt road, how it’ll drive up property values and be a feather in the cap of the township.

I disagree. For some, the road to hell may be paved with good intentions.

In my opinion, it’s simply paved: I prefer gravel. It keeps out the riffraff.

***

The week after they felled the trees, the township workers dug a ditch and tore out the elderberry bushes to the north end of Hall Road. Those elderberry blossom fist-sized clusters of flowers in May, and by August their branches sag with fruit, deep purple and sour-sweet. The berries make excellent jam, pie, and cough syrup. The switches make strong baskets. The leaves contain cyanide, in case I need to poison somebody. Glancing at the bare ditch and the wilted branches, I was riled up enough to jest that I had a number of candidates in mind.

Within days the bulldozers also claimed the mulberry trees near the county line. Mulberries offer a rich, purple dye for clothing that in ancient times was prized so highly there were laws declaring it could only be worn by royalty. They are a superfood of sorts, rich in vitamin C, easy to dry and savor all winter, or press into a superb wine. I pick my mulberries the old way, the way my mamaw did. I lay old sheets on the ground and strike and shake the branches with a pitchfork. If the berries are stubborn, I’ll climb the tree and jump on the limbs. Plump, purple-black berries rain down in a gale of twigs, leaves, and ladybugs. Now those berries are gone for good. In their place, a steep ditch: muddy, flecked with gravel and bearing the scars of the backhoe treads that tramped something delicious and wild into something civilized and barren.

All this carnage, I thought, for the sake of a drainage ditch?

I realize I’m being a bit dramatic.

But to a certain extent, my life is at stake here. Or at least, life as I wish to live it.  Hall Road is the artery of my open-air market. The land on either side provides me with deer, turkey, rabbit, pheasant, squirrel, walnuts, hickory nuts, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, chicory root, burdock, plantain, morels, puffball mushrooms, apples, mulberries, wild grapes, chestnuts, comfrey, birch bark, ramps, red clover, yarrow, cattails, and—most precious of all—what is for me the ideal balance between idyllic rural solitude and the good company of few neighbors.

When I saw the trees, hundreds of years old, felled by the good hard shove of a piece of heavy equipment I stood weeping hot tears, staring at the uprooted majesty flanking the roadside.

I felt cold flecks of snow pelting my cheekbones.

***

Until Northstar, Centerburg, Ohio—my hometown—was a bit of a holdout against the encroachment of the beige-vinyl-siding clad malignancy of Columbus’s suburbs. Local farm families have withstood numerous attempts to buy out the hundreds of acres surrounding town, saving us from a number of big box stores ‘“retail opportunities” and “development initiatives” that promise to improve our quality of life by eradicating rural culture altogether.

So far, no one’s selling. But Northstar is near enough that property values are already rising. I fear that before long, I will wake up in the middle of a subdivision.

I have good reason to fear.

Last summer I accosted a speculator, a man driving at a crawl along our road.  He had a video camera pointing outside the passenger window, capturing footage of the fields on either side of my house. I asked him why he was filming my yard and he told me it was none of my business. “It’s a free country,” he said.

“I’m going to have you arrested if you don’t leave immediately,” I replied.

He said he worked for a land acquisition company, but refused to give me his business card or tell me its name. I turned my camera on him.

“It’s a free country,” I said, snapping away while he berated me. I took a photo of his license plate, and several shots of his vehicle while we argued. He pivoted his video camera towards me, and I asked him if it was recording. He smirked and nodded.

“Great,” I said, “FUCK YOU. Get the hell out of this township. Ain’t nothing here for sale.”

He lowered the camera and called me a bitch, flicking his cigarette at me.

I felt a momentary satisfaction watching him drive away. But he and I both know whose days here are numbered.

***

At night there is a pale mandarin glow at the horizon, where light seeps up from the city that won’t quit metastasizing subdivisions, outlet malls, drive through food franchises.

It is the Northstar rising, adding its blazing fire to the night.

Someday, here too, streetlamps will outshine the stars.

Author Portrait

Jamie Lyn Smith is a native of Knox County, Ohio. An alumnus of Kenyon College and Fordham University, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Pinch, American Literary Review, The Low Valley Review, The Boiler and Barely South. She is the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship from The Kenyon Review, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. She teaches Creative Writing at Bluffton University in Ohio, and edits Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal. (Photo credit to Erica Hardesty)