One of my favorite chores while traveling is studying the map: it’s important to know where you are, where you want to go, and whatever is in between. I love to study maps. Upon arrival, I use them to orient myself, to navigate my journey, to understand the lay of the land I’ve come to visit. Maps are great because they contain a tremendous amount of useful travel information – everything from routes to restaurants are coded into maps these days. But there’s more than just tourist information on a map, there’s a story. A map tells you the story of a place if you know where to look, it shows you the old part and the new part of town, the rich part and the poor part, where people live and where they work, and it tells you one of the most interesting parts of any place’s story: why here?
Human beings, though frequently illogical, do not act at random. Every country, province, city, highway, and shack in the world has a reason for existing where it does, usually related to some component of the surrounding geography. Though the reason isn’t always immediately evident, upon research, it’s nearly always obvious. I love to do the research. The siting of New Orleans, for example, was chosen based upon the area’s proximity to the Mississippi River and the Gulf as accessed via Lake Pontchartrain. A portage here significantly reduced the distance trade had to cover between the river and open water (and vice versa). So as Addie and I settled in to our stay in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, I studied the map and did the research. Why is Poplar Bluff here?
Well, it’s water and woods, fields and mountains, and trees and trade all together, and a quick look at the aerial photo illustrates perfectly how Poplar Bluff is situated at the intersection of them all. It was here that timber on the Black River met the railroad line, tracing the lowest edge of the Ozarks. It was here the goods heading into the mountains mustered. Trade is the reason for nearly every city: it’s the reason for the existence of cities themselves, and though Poplar Bluff once flourished on timber and manufacturing, the trade patterns shifted, the economies of trade changed, and the city, which now seems randomly sited, exists because there are people living here, a ghost population of the city’s founding purposes.
Change is a fact of life in human lives and human habitation. Economics and politics are constantly shifting the usefulness and meaning of where we live. The world is littered with the ruins of prosperous settlements, abandoned when they could no longer be justified. Consider the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the ruins of Mayan cities. A shift in the flow of the Amu Darya River caused the city of Urgench to be abandoned. The Armenian city of Ani disappeared when trade routes shifted. 500 years ago half a million people occupied the Indian city of Vijaynagar, now only ruins. Babylon was once the most powerful city in the world. Carthage once rivaled Rome. Angkor Wat, now hacked from the clutches of the jungle, was once the center of one of the largest populations of its time. Cities fall because of economic changes, political changes, and environmental changes. The cities that succeed the longest succeed because of the persistence of their reason for existence: New Orleans is still around despite ample reasons to the contrary because of the reason it was founded, because of the trade on the river. But still, one day, the Mississippi River will change course, shipping will travel a shorter path down the Atchafalaya, the water around New Orleans will turn brackish, and the city will fade: it’s a ghost city in waiting, a future Machu Picchu of the marsh. Poplar Bluff, too, will one day return to wild frontier.
We are all living in future ghost cities. Time marches on, our choices as individuals, communities, and nations exert influence on our homes, as does the world around us. Big cities fall, small towns blossom. Whether visiting a place for the first time or the thousandth time, an understanding of that place’s history, and why it exists to begin with, allows you to grasp that place’s impermanence, its continuous flux of migration, both in wealth and population. The reasons that cities exist are fluid, and thus cities themselves are impermanent. All the more reason to appreciate a place while you have it, while it can be justified, before the next change focuses our efforts elsewhere, and our homes are slowly left to nature, until we find them useful again.