By Walt Garlington
(Note on letters: Certain Old English runes have been lightly used throughout the text to help the reader experience a bit of the beauty of the Old English culture from which the South’s own culture largely springs. Those letters are as follows: Ash (Æ, æ), pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’; Eth (ð) and Thorn (þ), both pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘the’.)
Christianity is waning in þis unfortunate union of States; even so, we remain a very religious people. This can be seen plainly in our worship of the metal beast, fire-breathing, smoke-belching: the motor car, automobile, truck - it goeð by many names. For him we have sacrificed a great deal in lives, beauty, wealth, and more. Few dare to speak an ill word about this worm, this dragon, yet we desperately need to blaspheme against him lest we rain down even more destruction upon ourselves.
The car has brought horrible disorder to our towns. We no longer build them for the sake of man, but for the sake of our god. Trouble was bound to come.
One problem resulting from this madness: The car has become a bottomless money pit: ‘The cost of owning a Ford Escort - one of the cheapest cars available - is over $6,000 per year’ (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck [hereafter DPZS], Suburban Nation, 2000, p. 56). It makes saving money for large purchases difficult, especially buying a home (p. 56).
But more significantly, it has torn apart the communal fabric that the home was once a part of. Traditional town design has characteristics that foster healthy community life: ‘Each neighborhood has a clear center, focused on the common activities of commerce, culture, and governance. … A local resident is rarely more than a five-minute walk from the ordinary needs of daily life … [N]umerous paths connect one location to another’ (p. 15). Buildings and districts have mixed uses, unlike the single-use zones (commercial, residential, etc.) so common today (p. 16). And important buildings are placed in prominent locations: ‘schools, places of worship, and other civic buildings … . In this way, the city achieves a physical structure that both manifests and supports its social structure’ (p. 17).
All of þese features help keep men in regular fellowship with one another, promoting virtues like kindness. But the characteristics associated with suburban sprawl (the offspring of car worship) undermine these traditional features to such an extent that virtues are not simply weakened but that vices become commonplace: ‘rudeness and aggression’ (p. 61), ‘maladaptive behavior’ (p. 61), ‘road rage’ (p. 62) - all are accepted as part and parcel of the Age of the Automobile without so much as a second thought about them.
None of this should come as a surprise: ‘Given that most time in public is spent driving around in isolation chambers, it is no surprise that social critics are witnessing a decline in the civic arts of conversation, politics, and just simply getting along’ (pgs. 62-3). The car is not wholly to blame for this, but it nonetheless has made its own rather sizeable contribution thereto.
And just as our view of man changes when we get into a vehicle, so too does our view of the landscape around us. We become unable to notice the small details that adorn the world - the sights, sounds, smells that bring joy to the heart or provoke contemplation in the mind - when we are driving hither and yon, boð because of our speed of travel and because of our watching for hazards on the road. This warped mindset is epitomized by the Virginia Department of Transportation Regulations (8/95 edition, table A-3-1), which designated trees as ‘Fixed and Hazardous Objects’ (quoted in DPZS, p. 16), and further asserted, ‘every effort should be made to remove the tree rather than shield it with a guardrail’ (quoted in DPZS, p. 16, footnote). For the driver, the tree ceases to be a source of beauty or of food, or a link between our forefathers, ourselves, and our as-yet unborn descendants. It is instead a danger to him and his prized rolling cage and so mustn’t be allowed to remain.
Sacrifices for the God
If individual trees must be removed for the safety of car and driver, how much more ought to be offered to allow the widest, freest range of movement for our machines? Forests, farmlands, mountains, wetlands, homes: Ungrateful man, hold nothing back; roads must be built.
Already close to 13 million acres have been given over for paved roads (entry entitled ‘Road’ at the Open Source Ecology web site, 2011), an area of land roughly the size of West Virginia, but the god remains unappeased. What can slake his thirst? A human life?
It is here that we see just how close to the demonic spirit of some of the pagans that we have come. In the united States alone, 3,546,441 men, women, and children have died because of car accidents from 1899 to 2011 (Wikipedia entry entitled ‘List of motor vehicle deaths in U.S. by year’, 2013), almost three times the total number of united States war deaths from the War for Independence to today (Wikipedia entry entitled ‘United States military casualties of war’, 2013).
This comes to an average of 31,385 souls perishing every year. About as many lives were lost once in the Battle of Chancellorsville during the War (as any good Southerner calls the War between the States) or in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II (Wikipedia entry entitled ‘List of battles by casualties’, 2013). These soldiers gave their lives for their countries, a tragic yet noble thing. For what great cause do we sacrifice so many lives in auto crashes year after year after year? Convenience? Status? Joy rides? A house in the suburbs?
And make no mistake: This is a sacrifice, in the most concrete, real sense of the word. We know thousands of people will be killed or maimed each year due to car wrecks. But we do not repent; we change nothing, stay the same course. Truly we are blind and deaf and hard of heart! We shudder at the mention of nations offering human sacrifices to Baal or some other deity, but seem not to realize that we are doing the same thing. ‘Wherefore say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Ye … lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood: and shall ye possess the land?’ (Ezekiel 33:25, King James Version (KJV) of the Holy Bible, 1972)
And yet, we find our master still ill-pleased. He must have more, more than earth and the things of the earth, more than human life itself. He must have our spirit, too; he must have our traditions. Reckons Dr Russell Kirk: ‘Mr. Ford altered the world irrevocably. … Kirk would write in his book The Conservative Mind that the automobile was a mechanical Jacobin, overthrowing dominations and powers, breaking the cake of custom, running over oldfangled manners and morals, making the very air difficult to breathe’ (The Sword of Imagination, 1995, p. 48).
Here are some of those very lines from The Conservative Mind (Kirk, 2001): ‘The automobile, practical since 1906, was proceeding to disintegrate and stamp anew the pattern of communication, manners, and city-life in the United States, by 1918; before long, men would begin to see that the automobile, and the mass-production techniques which made it possible, could alter national character and morality more thoroughly than could the most absolute of tyrants. As a mechanical Jacobin, it rivaled the dynamo. The productive process which made these vehicles cheap was still more subversive of old ways than was the gasoline engine itself. Henry Ford, the Midas of velocity, swept out of memory the simplicities of his boyhood; and, growing old, he sought a refuge within the brick walls of his gigantic open-air museum of antiquities, a man of physical forms astonished by the influence of gadgets on ideas. The mass production methods of which he was the most eminent exploiter were accomplishing more to alter human nature than even the steam engine had done, dissolving pride of station and family. “It destroys the social prestige of traditional occupations and skills and with it the satisfaction of the individual in his traditional work,” Peter Drucker says of the assembly line and the new-style industrialism. “It uproots—quite literally—the individual from the social soil in which he has grown. It devaluates his traditional values, and paralyzes his traditional behavior” (pgs. 373-4; quote of Drucker from The New Society: The Anatomy of the Industrial Order,
, 1949, p. xvii). New York
We have offered him all we have to give. Our lord is sated. Praise ye the lord! Praise to our god and king!
What Has All of This Got to Do with the South, Anyway?
From the first, the South has been an agrarian society (e.g., John Crowe Ransom, ‘Reconstructed but Unregenerate’, I’ll Take My Stand, 2006, p.12). But that farm-mindedness has been so mercilessly battered since the end of the War, when industrialism began to be imposed on her (Andrew Lytle, ‘The Hind Tit’, I’ll Take My Stand, p. 202), that we now witness the disgusting spectacle of Southern States competing fiercely with one anoðer for auto factories to locate within their respective borders. Imagine! Brothers fighting one another for the privilege of drinking the cup of poison! ‘And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force’ (The Gospel of St Matthew 11:12, KJV).
The railroads the Southerner could tolerate: ‘It was confined to a certain track and was constrained by its organization within boundaries which were rigid enough to become absorbed, rather than absorb’ (Lytle, p. 236). Thus, the railroad did not much harass ‘a family’s privacy’ (p. 236), but the motor car certainly did this, and a great deal more. ‘The good-road programs drive like a flying wedge and split the heart of this provincialism—which prefers religion to science, handcrafts to technology, the inertia of the fields to the acceleration of industry, and leisure to nervous prostration’ (p. 234).
Until recent times a Southerner has never had as strong an appetite for the latest machines and gadgets as his
New England cousins (Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Southern Review, VI (July 1869), p. 109, quoted in Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay, 1989, p. 138). This is especially true of driving machines, for Southerners have always been a people partial to the horse. Colonel Richard Taylor makes this point with good humor as he recounts the struggle of teaching Southern soldiers how to march during the War: ‘Straggling was then, and continued throughout to be, the vice of Southern armies. The climate of the South was not favorable to pedestrian exercise, and, centaur-like, its inhabitants, from infancy to old age, passed their lives on horseback, seldom walking the most insignificant distance. When brought into the field, the men were as ignorant of the art of marching as babes, and required for their instruction the same patient, unwearied attention’ (Destruction and Reconstruction, 1998, p. 29).
Indeed, when one contrasts the beauty and majesty of the horse with the demonic appearance and sound of the motor car, the modern Southron ought to reproach himself most severely for preferring the latter to þe former. What lifeless car or truck could have inspired the spirit of Virgil to write his Third Georgic? Or Tolkien his legends of the Rohirrim? Is it not loathsome to think of our forebears - Washington or Lee or the Holy King Ælfred - going about field and town in Humvees?
The ancient Greeks had a ritual in which a rider would leave his horse-drawn chariot while it was in motion, abandoning it to the will of Poseidon, who would decide whether it crashed or not (Michael Crudden, tr., ‘Hymn 3: To Apollo’, The Homeric Hymns, 2008, pgs. 30-1 and note for lines 229-38, pgs. 109-10). Hopefully we are not very far from the day when we can, if we so desire, send our horseless chariots clattering toward some abyss, to be doomed or spared by the providence of the Blessed Holy Trinity.
We will know þæt we are coming to our senses then, and when, to paraphrase a living Southern agrarian, David E. Rockett, we begin tearing up our great paved roadway deserts to bring forth life from the earth once more (conversation with the author, 2012).
Would it be very practical to abandon the motor car at present? No. Is it needful to do so withal? Unquestionably.
‘TEKEL; Thou Art Weighed in the Balances, and Art Found Wanting’ (Daniel 5:27, KJV).
Wendell Berry asks many searching questions in his little book Life Is a Miracle (2001). Here are only two, but þey are profoundly relevant to the subject at hand: ‘If regression really is a possibility, then should we not watch for the signs of it? And should we not attempt to subtract regression from progression to get at least an approximate notion of net gain or net loss?’ (p. 90) When it comes to automobiles, it seems that no one has taken the time to check wheðer the benefit of convenient travel outweighs the physical and spiritual carnage that has come along with this. It is no great leap to say that in our present usage of them, cars are a blight, destroying more than building up. It behooves us, then, to find a way to make them unnecessary for day-to-day living.
Better town design, wherein farms and schools and churches could be reached by walking or by riding a two-wheel saddle - this would be a good start. Incorporating a trolley system (taken over and closed by large car, oil, and tire corporations decades ago to create a need for their products [Richard Aleman, ‘Plutonomy’, The Distributist Review, 2012]) is worthy of consideration in larger cities. Learning to ride a horse and encouraging one’s town government to consider adding horse paths where prudent would be good works as well.
Nevertheless, þis work is not chiefly written to point out solutions to the problem of cars; rather, to waken the South and other likeminded folk from the spell of the magician-priests who belong to the cult of ‘science-technology-and-industry’ (Berry, p. 33), to awaken them before the last of the roots yielding to the beautiful tree of tradition their life-giving sap are cut in a confused spasm of worship offered to the dreadful gods of this our darkened age.
Aleman, Richard. ‘Plutonomy’. The Distributist Review. 9 December 2012. http://distributistreview.com/mag/2012/12/plutonomy/ Accessed 30 Jan 2013.
Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Berkeley, Ca.: Counterpoint, 2001.
Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.
, Ny.: North Point Press, 2001. New York
Holy Bible. King James Version.
, Tn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1972. Nashville
Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. 7th ed.
: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2001. Washington, D.C.
--. The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict.
, Mi.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. Grand Rapids
‘List of battles by casualties’. Wikipedia. 24 January 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_battles_by_casualties Accessed 29 Jan 2013.
‘List of motor vehicle deaths in
by year’. Wikipedia. 24 January 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year Accessed 28 January 2013. U.S.
Lytle, Andrew. ‘The Hind Tit’. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.
Baton Rouge, La.: Press, 2006. Louisiana State University
Ransom, John Crowe. ‘Reconstructed but Unregenerate’. I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.
Baton Rouge, La.: Press, 2006. Louisiana State University
‘Road’. Open Source Ecology. 30 September 2011. http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Road Accessed 28 January 2013.
Rockett, David E. Conversation with the author. 30 September 2012.
Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War.
, Tn.: J.S. Sanders & Company, 1998. Nashville
The Homeric Hymns. Michael Crudden, tr.
New York, Ny.: Press, 2008. Oxford University
military casualties of war’. Wikipedia. 22 January 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_casualties_of_war Accessed 29 January 2013. United States
Weaver, Richard M. The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought. Eds. Core, George and M. E. Bradford. 1st ed.
: Regnery Gateway, 1989. Washington, D.C.
For Further Study
Bess, Philip. Till We Have Built
: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Jerusalem , De.: ISI Books, 2006. Wilmington
Walt Garlington is a small craftsman living in
, and serves as editor of Confiteri. Swartz, Louisiana