Alternative Presents

Hi there again,

Thanks again to all those who have been reading and supporting this blog via twitter. It’s really growing on me, this whole writing ‘thing’, to the point that I am finding it quite hard to switch off actually! So much to say and so little time to write…

I am cooking up a couple new features to the blog, which I will share in good time but I think I can safely reveal that I am preparing an interview series with former colleagues, friends and peers from my professional and academic past to check in on what they’ve been doing but also to bring some new ideas and perspective to the Australian design world. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some fantastic people in the past either at the Bartlett or at Columbia, and I am really looking forward to sharing their work and views with you. How exciting.

I suppose this post also falls in the ‘innovation’ category as well as I intend on sharing a memory today of an extraordinary experience I had. It was not so long ago (maybe 5 years), and it was an extraordinary collision between world views, values and perception of time. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

It was summer and I had planned a trip with my best friend Chloe to the US. Chloe is always up for an adventure and is an incredibly adaptable person, so I was not too alarmed by the fact that I had designed an itinerary through the US that included spending quite an extensive amount of time through the Midwest. People usually refer to the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas as the ‘fly-over’ states, but I spent a lot of time there in my childhood (my mother is from Iowa) and I have quite a few friends and family in this part of the world.

A little flashback, my mother grew up in a humble town of 5,000 called Coin, Iowa. Dominated by the agricultural sector, Coin was a farm town strategically placed along the railway to expedite the transportation of corn and soy beans to the big smoke (Omaha) for processing and distribution. Omaha was actually the epicentre of this agro-industrial complex as a hub for aggro-industrial business headquarters and the meat-packing industry.  Contrary to what I thought for a long time, the vast expanses of corn and soy beans in the Midwest are not for human consumption at all. A farmer might have a little patch of sweet corn for personal or local consumption, but the vast majority of crops in this part of the world are grown for cattle. Talk about a resource-intensive industry…

The story of small farm towns like Coin is not a pretty one. With the consolidation of farms and the increasing mechanisation of agriculture, many farmers have had to sell out to Del Monte and others, resulting in the virtual abandonment of these small towns. It’s a sad sight, empty houses, ghost-like main street, and decaying signs referring to a function past, when the town was booming and teeming. It’s a brutal reminder of the ‘brittleness’ (to quote Richard Sennett) of not only our cities, but our towns as well.

So our trip was planned for us to experience some of this past, a sort of pilgrimage to my mother’s side of the family who’d called this heartland home for a couple generations at least. We visited Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and ended up in Southwest Missouri. Springfield to be exact. There has been a myth going on that Springfield is the hometown of the Simpsons (but there are several dozens of these throughout the US) but I can tell you for sure that it is the hometown of Brad Pitt and Kathleen Turner. Talk about a claim to fame!

Springfield is not exactly the most exciting place in the world, it’s largely been shaped by the automobiles and its streets are lined with strip malls locals consider as places. There is virtually no civic architecture and very few ‘walkable’ streets (in the sense that the streets actually have sidewalks). What is interesting about Springfield to my mind is that it is located very near one of the many Amish settlements in the US. There are others in Pennsylvania and in eastern Iowa, but Seymour, MO is a little bit of a centre for all things Amish.

It’s quite hard to get to know Amish people as they’ve made the active decision to withdraw from modern life and live as if frozen in time, somewhere in the 17th century. They’re incredible humble and hardworking and lead a simple, secluded life. You can tell when you are approaching Seymour as the horse-drawn buggies become more and more frequent.

Photo credit to: KCZooFan,

It’s also hard to get photographs of Amish people. Many won’t allow it, which, to be honest, makes a lot of sense. They haven’t shunned 300 years of technological development to pose happily in a photo for us to take home. I actually would question the whole premise of the Amish project if they were willing to give in so easily. Having said that, they do tend to hire cars and drivers to drive into the city for medical appointments. I suppose we can all tolerate a bit of inconsistency.

The reason I bring this up is that my aunt had gone to school with an Amish girl, all those years ago. She remembers that the Amish school was too small at the time to accommodate all their children, so Mary Schwarz, was sent to the normal neighbourhood school until a new wing was built on the Seymour Amish School. The Amish actually do their schooling in some low-German dialect which is specific to their culture. Fascinating.

So my aunt had a connection within the community and she was keen to see whether Mary was still around. So we entered the local ‘general store’. No air conditioning, because no electricity. It was like walking into the past. Literally. We ask the girl at the till whether she knows someone called Mary. She hesitates, she wasn’t sure, she said, she thought Mary was her aunt, but she has not seen her in such a long time she couldn’t tell us for sure. Last she knew Mary lived down the road, so we could go have a look and see whether we find her.

So we drove down the road for a maximum of five minutes and came across Mary’s house. It was simple, unadorned and sturdy. It seemed like it had been there for centuries and like it would continue to be there long into the future. As we stepped out of the car, Mary’s husband steps out onto the porch. He’s not used to seeing cars, let alone seeing cars drive up to his house. My aunt asks whether Mary still lives here and he calls Mary out to the porch. Within seconds, my aunt and Mary had recognised each other, there were hugs and tears, it was quite amazing.

We were invited into the house, a VERY rare occurrence for non-Amish folk. It felt like I had walked into a living museum: no TVs, no paintings, just flowers from the garden. Beautiful handmade furniture (actually there is a store in London on Marylebone High Street that sells Shaker furniture in a very similar style). We’re invited to tour the garden, where the Schwarzes have a stable. We’re led to the cellar where Mary cans and stores food for the winter, including stews, jams, honey and other durable goods. It’s a organic/locavore/foodie dream. All locally grown, all prepared within a 200 m-radius of the house. Just amazing.

We’re introduced to the 8 of 16 children who are still at home. The other 8 are happily married and have children of their own, somewhere else in Seymour. Before we leave, Mary stops us and hands us a lovely handmade card on the back of which she scribbles her address. ‘Write me’ she says, as we head back to our 21st century demon of a Ford Taurus.

We were seriously shaken by this experience. It put into sharp perspective what ‘progress’ was. It made us all long for a simpler life (for about an hour or so after we left). It also gave us an insight into the people who came to the US in the 17th century in search of a more just and peaceful life, away from religious persecution. It was also proof that the ‘present’ and ‘future’ mean different things to different people. How utterly mind-blowing.

We continued our tour of the US and headed back to London in time to start our final year, but I had held onto the card with Mary’s address. I thought that I might just take her up on her offer and write to her. So we started this epistolary relationship with a woman from an alternative present. We wrote about the city and travel. We wrote about our plans for the future. She wrote about her family and Christmas celebrations. She wrote about new arrivals in the family. It’s not like she could imagine what London was like, or even fathom the reality of our lives, but we were communicating in a medium that was accessible to her, with pen and paper and therefore she willingly engaged with us. She asked us: ‘What is a city?’, ‘How do you get around?’, ‘Do you know everyone in London?’. Amazingly refreshing to be honest. Candid questions that came from a place where the urban did not exist as a concept.

I stopped writing when I left London in 2006. It’s a shame really, because that was a truly unique relationship that would be hard to rekindle. I am sure I have her address somewhere. Perhaps I should write to her from Sydney. I wonder whether she knows about Australia.

One Response to “Alternative Presents”
  1. my husband and I truly enjoy your website and feel you should have way more subscribers than you do! incredibly good job and maintain working!

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