Friday, November 25, 2005
Recent history — My impressions of Carlisle, As The Mosquito Saw It
I offered to help proofread the Mosquito's new compilation, "Carlisle, As the Mosquito Saw It," because it seemed like an easy way to be helpful. I enjoy proofreading, and as a member of the Mosquito's Board of Directors, I felt obligated to lend a hand.
The project comprises 30 years of town history, dating from the Mosquito's founding in the early 1970s to the present. The editors divided the manuscript up by decade for proofreaders to review. My assignment was the 1980s. I hoped to get through it quickly and efficiently. I didn't think about what I might learn, and I certainly didn't expect to find myself almost moved to tears in the process.
But a lot happens to a town in a ten-year span. I spent three days immersed in the years 1980-1989 as portrayed through a series of carefully selected sample articles and clips from the Mosquito. This is the only decade from the book that I've read thus far, so I can't compare it objectively to any of the other decades covered, but as I read it I felt as though I were witnessing a microcosm of small-town evolution. In the ten years of material I read through, a new building rose on the school campus; the old fire station was torn down and in its place the police station was built; the new fire station took shape; the town's first elderly housing complex was built; and Diment Park the tot playground where, as a parent, I've spent a significant portion of the past three years sprang out of a rocky hillside. In fact, going by the playground's official dedication date, Diment Park and I share a birthday: October 23. Who knew?
And those are just the infrastructure changes. At the same time, kids graduated from high school; crimes occurred; elections transpired. Staff writers explored issues of all breadths and magnitudes, from whether a new development should be named Eden Valley or Palmer Way to how celebrations of Christmas have changed during the life of one 80-year-old Norwegian immigrant. And people died: not a lot of them, but perhaps it is the small number that gives each death such gravity. Some lived well into old age, their obituaries reflecting the years of effort they contributed to community life; another was tragically young. A lot happens to a town in a ten-year span.
Weeks after I turned in my edited copy, I found myself still ruminating on why the experience had felt so poignant. For one thing, the format of the book — a series of generally unrelated articles, very different from the dense paragraphs and sculpted transitions of a more traditionally structured history text — seems so much to mirror real life. On one page, townspeople vote for a new school building; on the next page, two brothers show their chickens at a 4-H fair. The content careens from startling — a police officer detains a suspicious vehicle on Lowell Street and subsequently finds a dead body on Litchfield Drive — to mundane — seventh-grade essayist describes all the wonderful things about his science teacher.
A few small clips caught my attention without commanding extensive reflection, like the reference to Eastern Equine Encephalitis in 1983; I didn't even know it had been identified as a disease that long ago. In 1981, a single paragraph describes the Carlisle Land Trust's purchase of the Bates dairy farmland with a plan to sell it as a small number of housing lots, which is of particular interest to me because my husband and I live on one of those very same house lots today. I noted with amusement that the middle school has never — not once in 30 years — put on a play that was anything less than stellar, magnificent, unique and brilliant in its every nuance. And in the very last segment of my editing stack, the year 1989, I found an article about the planned development of the Swanson land into 42 buildable lots, which cites a concern from environmentalists about a blue-spotted salamander living on the terrain of what is now Tall Pines. I wonder if it's the same blue salamander, or an ancestor of the blue salamander, whose presence on the Benfield property is causing similar vexation today.
Just as Thornton Wilder showed in Our Town, small communities are complex organisms. It is a mistake to romanticize the town, viewing its past through a misty pastoral lens. Concerns about building a new school auditorium in the 1980s turn into concerns about building a new water treatment plan in the 2000s and will turn into something else by the next time the Mosquito publishes a history book. Reading history provides a sense of mortality and a sense of timelessness simultaneously. We will always have complicated decisions to make regarding town infrastructure and tax money. We will always have utterly magnificent (according to reviewer after reviewer) seventh-grade plays. And, with any luck, we will always have blue-spotted salamanders.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito