Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York
When All Times Become One Time

Civilization and Its Contents

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  (Isaiah 58:12) 

Sometimes I like to ride with the windows down in my car, even on an interstate highway.  Usually the road noise, the wind, and the traffic, all combined with a superficially uninteresting bit of highway, would be plain annoying, and so I screen it out in an air-conditioned, music-filled mobile cocoon. Not today.  Finding myself alone and with a weekday off, I drove to the Cabelands Section of the Eno River State Park, for observation, exercise, and solitude.  Entering my car, I decided to be attentive, to try to notice and experience everything along the way.  It's amazing what you take for granted.

I cannot even leave the subdivision without being thankful for a multi-layered fabric of built environment.  What was once farm and forest is now underlain by a web of water and sewer pipes and power and telephone lines, graded and shaped to accommodate roads, curb and gutter, sidewalks, and signage.  Houses have been built, rebuilt, and improved, lawns put in and maintained, parks laid out and schools built.  Parents walk kids to school and stroll babies on sidewalks.  Dogs walk masters.  Cats prowl and scowl at passersby.  One man has been building a wrap-around porch on his home --- for the last eight years.  A bicycle reclines at the corner of a lawn where it dropped its last passenger.  Life has grown from the dirt up, imperfect and yet communal.  A once undifferentiated landscape of pines has become a human habitation, cultured and full of human life.  I find myself marveling and being thankful for all the people involved in making such a place, for the families represented here, for the community that has developed even if it is not what it could be.

On the highway, it's a sensual assault with the windows down.  Tractor-trailer trucks are incredibly noisy neighbors, and yet I consider what the transport of goods on a modern highway means, as in jobs and fresh produce and other goods.  Even to begin to tell the story of highways and their thousands of miles of concrete and asphalt is to wonder at the investment they have been and yet the freedom they have brought to us.  Even the strip shopping centers are evidence of commerce, of jobs and livelihoods. While the weeds in the median and adult video store may mar the landscape, there is much good in what I see, much to be thankful for.

What I am really celebrating is civilization.  Go to any third-world country and you see the many de-civilizing impacts of war, disease, governmental corruption, and poverty.  Many things work here. Many things don't work there.  Civilization, as bent as it is by sin, still has many contents.

One of the ways in which I begin to appreciate God's provision in community is through this kind of attentiveness, and thankfulness is a way of recognizing that God is the source of communal life, of civilization itself.  James Howard Kunstler says that "[a] community is not something you have, like a pizza.  Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover.  It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies --- which is to say, a local economy."  I don't know about you, but when I think of economy, I think of money.  And yet Kunstler's point (and the rare attentiveness I had today) remind me that "economy" is about more than economic wealth.  It's about human capital, social investment, and spiritual commitment, about people who pay forward to next generations, about a community that transcends time and yet binds itself intentionally to one place.  It's a neighborhood.  My neighborhood.

Even in a natural area like that surrounding the Eno River, I cannot escape the pull of community.  The 91 acres on which I walked today provided a source of livelihood for John Cabe and his family, remnants of which (a mill) you can still see.  He gave the land to the next generation as a park.  A deepwater pond on the site was actually a early 1960s quarry from which granite was removed to build the nearby Interstate 85.  We move freely through Durham on a road we owe, in one sense, to McCabe. He has both a legacy in the built and natural environment.  He believed in his community.

Jesus said that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt. 6:21).  Civilization --- a local economy --- is dependent on people who are attentive and thankful, postures which cause us to treasure what we have.  And if we treasure the places we inhabit, we'll also find our heart is in them. Even its lost corners, broken sidewalks, and aimless wanderers can be healed by a people who care and by a God who makes all things new.