The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started