Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
When I return to the landscape of my growing up years, making the five hour drive from my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the gentle farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I drive by the farm where I grew up without stopping. I do not turn in the lane once shaded by a canopy of catalpa trees or pass by the rock garden where the “Slow Children at Play” sign my older sister painted so many decades ago once stood among the hostas. It could as easily have said “Slow, Children at Work.”
My grandfather, Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), was the third governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Pro-Statehood Party. When I was little, he used to say it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a sardine in the big blue sea. It was a reminder of how good we had it on our little island, and a warning against leaving it in pursuit of a bigger and impossible dream.
This is a place many say no longer exists. Headlines read, “Paradise Lost: Inside the Burned-out California Town Destroyed by Deadly Fire,” and “‘There’s Nothing Left of This Town,’ Paradise, California, May Never Come Back From the Ashes.” It was a small town; few knew it. It is not an overstatement to say the wildfire put it on the map the same day it wiped it off.
“Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it is a virtue always.” I repeat this maxim to my students, and it runs through my own head with even greater frequency. It comes from Good Prose, a guide to writing and editing excellent nonfiction, co-written by Tracy Kidder and the late Richard Todd, who passed away on April 21.
A few years ago, I made an impromptu road trip to a Canadian ghost town called Bradian. Tucked into the Chilcotin Mountains about five hours north of Vancouver BC, Bradian lies at the end of a forbidding 45-mile dirt road and was deserted in 1971 after the local gold mine closed. Despite its near-total inaccessibility, Bradian has become a strangely coveted object since its abandonment. The town has passed from one owner to the next, each with their own ludicrous plan for its empty streets: a retirement community, a sketchy immigration scheme, a drug smuggling operation. And as if rebuffing the unwanted advances of a long line of suitors, the town has foiled every attempt to claim it. (It’s currently on the market for $1.2 million.) Writing about Bradian for The Common in 2017, I saw its bizarre holdout as a parable for the tug-of-war between human conquest and the natural world, a reminder that not everywhere should be subject to the drumbeat of development.