I wrote the following poem, which is titled “The Mill,” on May 4, 2004:
The old mill burned down last night.
You could see the flames from far across town.
It was really quite an awesome sight.
The firemen were helpless, just standing ’round,
while that eyesore burned down.
Built in eighteen ninety four,
they made shirt collars and fancy pressed cuffs there.
It had survived countless floods and storms,
but last night it disappeared into the air,
with not a timber spared.
The mill had been closed for years.
Fashions changed, starched collars became obsolete,
one by one all the jobs disappeared.
By the late ’40s, the shutdown was complete,
and they blocked off Mill Street.
But folks wouldn’t stay away.
It became a place where hoboes crashed and drank,
sometimes dying there, old, spent and gray,
in death, as in life, lying there, foul and rank.
The old mill really stank.
Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.
Teenagers found the mill next,
swarming toward it like waves of horny bugs.
Teachers and parents alike were vexed
as we went down there to make-out or buy drugs
from unsavory thugs.
Yes, I went down there a lot.
I was there yesterday, as it comes to pass.
Terre had scored some really fine pot.
We held hands and giggled as we smoked her grass,
then doused the mill with gas.
This was a completely fictional character study (of both a building and a boy), but it has gained a new resonance for me, based on this week’s Hidden in Suburbia adventures.
A few nights ago, I set out on Trusty Steed, planning to explore and photograph an area around an active cement plant and its quarry. Unfortunately, before I could even get the camera out, I was spotted by some of the plant’s employees, so I quickly pedaled on, looking for a new adventure, away from prying, police-calling eyes. I decided to ride up to a new housing development that sits mostly atop what used to be one of the better backwoods biking plots in my area, trying to see if I could locate any of the old trail heads behind the development.
With a little bit of poking around, I found a solid trail that dropped steeply down the slope, through the woods, toward the industrial areas I’d photographed a couple of weeks ago in Part Four of this series. It was a good riding trail and I was able to work up a decent amount of speed as I rumbled down the hill. As the slope began to level off, there was a sharp turn to the left, which I successfully navigated . . . only to find myself pretty much smack in the middle of what appeared to be a large, active, multi-person camp in the woods.
The one thing I don’t ever, ever, ever like to find in my suburban woods explorations is other people, since odds are that any other humans (especially adult humans) that I encounter in the woods are not likely to be taking photographs, nor are they likely to want to have their photographs taken. So without missing a stroke, I pedaled through the camp, put some distance between me and whoever was in the vast network of tarp tents in the clearing, and powered down the hill to the point where the trail disgorged into a particularly swampy stretch of abandoned dirt road that I’d ridden and photographed last month.
The reeds in the abandoned road had grown taller than me since I was last there, so there was no way I was riding through them. I shouldered the bike and started pushing my way forward through them, knowing I had maybe 200 yards to advance before the muck and reeds gave way to a paved road in front of an old mill building.
I couldn’t really see much in front of me due to the tall reeds, but I did hear noises from up near the mill, and as I got closer to the pavement, I could see some trucks and other vehicles in the road. Now, normally, I would have turned and gone another direction, but given the choice of surprising whoever was living in the tarps in the woods, or surprising whoever was in the trucks in front of the mill, I decided that the latter group was the safer bet.
When I cleared the reeds, I put my bike down and walked it toward the trucks. When I passed the first truck and had a clear view of the area, two things surprised me: (1) most of the vehicles were Town police and fire vehicles, with policemen and firemen in them, and (2) the mill was gone, with a pile of burnt rubble on a slab where it used to stand.
Oh boy . . . here I was walking a bike, coming out of the woods (likely private property), strolling right into a crime scene (had I come at it from the road over the railroad tracks where people were supposed to be, I’d have seen the yellow tape barrier), looking, no doubt, like a perpetrator returning to admire the scene of his crime, especially since I had photos of this very mill, before the fire, saved on the camera in my backpack!
I decided that confident obliviousness would be the best approach to defusing the situation, so I approached the nearest fireman and asked what had happened, made appropriate clucking and “oh, that’s a shame” noises, then slowly, casually, saddled up and went on my way, as though nothing was wrong. I then rode back home via an odd route involving lots of turns, looking over my shoulder at each intersection to see if the police were following me. Twice, when I looked back, I actually saw patrol cars . . .
So I must admit that I experienced a deep sense of personal relief after a quick Google search revealed that three teenagers had already been arrested for burning the mill to the ground. They used a bottle of gasoline with a rag wick in it. Two responding firefighters were injured as a result of their actions.
Once my sense of relief passed, it was replaced with a feeling of sadness, both for the building, and for the boys who burned it. I suspect they acted with the same degree of unthinking nonchalance and lack of concern for consequences that the protagonist of my poem did. There was probably a girl to impress in the story, somehow. That’s a pretty endemic mental state for adolescent boys, and it’s never a good thing when you inject fire into that hormone-addled mindset.
I wish these boys had shared my adult respect for these old buildings as objects to admire from outside, rather than as things to actively enter, violate, and destroy. Nature will do that eventually, so there’s no need for us to hurry that natural process along. This senseless act of destructive acceleration is going to have life-altering consequences for the perpetrators, though hopefully they’ll learn the lessons they need to learn, be given the chance to make some serious acts of restitution, and be able to move on with their lives.
Likewise, here’s hoping that the injured firefighters recover quickly and fully. Bless them for their work.
Last night, I went back to the mill, this time approaching it via public roadways. The firetrucks were gone, and an amazing amount of progress had been made in clearing away the debris. I got close enough to snap a few photos, then turned to head back out via the only paved access point. As I saddled my bike, though, I felt a heavy rumbling in the ground, and looked up to see a fast-moving freight train approaching me from the south.
When the train reached the at-grade crossing, I was essentially trapped on that short strip of pavement in front of the fallen mill, with the tent-dwelling woods people and a quarter-mile of muck blocking the only other escape route. It was kind of a creepy feeling, since it represented the sort of improbable combination of unrelated factors that script-writers use to build suspense in horror movies. I was glad to wave goodbye to the train and head back up the hill to home once it had passed.
You can see the before and after photos of the mill by clicking on the photo below, which will take you to the annotated version of this week’s Hidden in Suburbia installment. (It’s a short one, since I didn’t care to snap the compound in the woods). Or, as always, you can just view the slideshow by clicking here.
To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.