Monday, 25 August 2008

Memory Lane

I spent the weekend in the Catskills right near the site of the Woodstock music festival. The museum at the Bethel Arts Center preserves the artifacts of that very curious event, and the ‘farmer’s market’ down the hill shows where part of that generation’s cultural expression ended up—in $18 natural-fiber whisk brooms and $5 loaves of bread.

Having been almost a contemporary of the original event (a tad too young and cut off to have heard of it, even if I hadn’t been slaving for Penn Central Railroad that summer), I recall a lot of the thinking behind the attempt to go back to the old ways, to recapture the hearty, healthy part of country living before the Wonder Bread ‘50s took over. Along with the appreciation of music, marihuana and sexual intercourse, a lot of kids from our generation had an intuitive critique of plastic, suburban life, and a fair number of us made our way into the collective farms and ‘natural’ living movement that included organic food, environmental concerns and respect for fellow creatures. It fit with the peace-loving, antiwar sentiment and the rediscovery of native American values that slowly worked their way back into the nation’s consciousness in some form.

At the food market and crafts fair, there were plenty of authentic farmers down from the hills around the town, looking a good deal like their Swiss and German forbears probably did, slightly awkward and out of place and trailing their kids through the displays of expensive artisan wares that they couldn’t afford. The post-Woodstock soap manufacturers and potters aren’t selling their goods to the few real back-country people left but to urbanized transplants and weekenders who appreciate the aesthetic and can shell out $120 for a handmade earthenware casserole.

In the town I was visiting, gay couples abound, and the locals seem quite pleased with the shot in the arm they’re bringing by setting up their home-furnishings stores and pouring cash into the old farmhouses and barns that they turn into artist studios and impeccably tasteful summer residences. My hosts, not only gay but interracial to boot, were invited for lunch by the volunteer fire department and sat around discussing water management issues with the construction workers and truck mechanics for a couple hours. So the culture has absorbed quite a bit since that much-maligned decade, and Obama could become president, too.

The museum mostly celebrates what happened at Woodstock, and only killjoys like Nancy Reagan are shown trashing it. I couldn’t help comparing the festival to other events of youthful exhuberance around the world and recalling that they don’t always end with hugs and happy memories. Someone was wise enough not to let the National Guard or other law-enforcement bodies near the place, and the Utopian chaos is a sweet memory.

Still, I keep coming back to that $18 whisk broom. I actually need a whisk broom, and seeing that useless, faux-naturelle item made me think about the economics of rural and small-town life in that hilly preserve. Anyway, it’s great to think that they’re still up there piping the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin through computers into their toolsheds.

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