The Cross in the Wilderness

In 2004, shortly after moving to Rochester, we learned that a husband and wife had been killed in their car when a railroad signal malfunctioned at a busy intersection. Before long a small cross had appeared by the tracks. It bears 2 names—Jack & Jenn—and is enclosed by a circle of mulch and plastic edging.

Roadside Cross

The Verdant Cross


The cross has slowly deteriorated over the seasons. In winter, it is gray and weathered, and reveals the trash thrown from passing cars.

Cross in Winter

During the summer months, wildflowers and other tenacious plants use it as a trellis. Weeds work their way up through the ground cover. The whole spot has taken on the aspect of a ruined cathedral, or overgrown graveyard, imparting a genuine sense of place to the strip mall wilderness that surrounds it.

Cross in Summer

Cross in Summer

This pergus brings to mind a number of poems, such as Anecdote of the Jar, by Wallace Stevens:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

It also partakes of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, especially as described in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, first in Demeter’s furious lamentation for her daughter:

My quick tears kill’d the flower, my ravings hush’d
The bird, and lost in utter grief I fail’d
To send my life thro’ olive-yard and vine
And golden grain, my gift to helpless man.

Then in her response to Persephone’s return:

So in this pleasant vale we stand again,
The field of Enna, now once more ablaze
With flowers that brighten as thy footstep falls,
All flowers…

And it would not be out of place in the works of Romantic landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Caspar David Friedrich.

Home in the Wilderness

Detail of "Home in the Woods 1847," by Thomas Cole

Friedrich Winter Landscape

"Winter Landscape with Church," by Caspar David Friedrich (1811)

According to historian Simon Schama, in his book, Landscape and Memory,

For someone like Cole, obsessed with vegetable theology, mortality could only be a prologue to a new life. So it is not surprising to discover that some of his valedictory crosses actually seem to be in a process of depetrification.

It’s also not surprising to find that the Pergus of the Strip Mall has embarked on a process of its own—evolving from a fresh construct of wood, plastic, and dead flowers into a circular spot of rebirth. And it may come to pass that, when the malls are razed and the cross itself is consumed by the plants, a part of Jack & Jenn will still be there.

 

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