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Episodes: It's already gone


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 06 2018

8 min read



(Photo by Libby Hill)

On the ceiling of my childhood bedroom are glow in the dark stars, which I placed there well over 25 years ago. I've always thought they looked a little like a pirate, thrusting his hook hand into the air, cursing Peter Pan. My wife thinks they take the form of a crab. But they are their own tiny constellation, used to tell stories only we understand.

They still glow, all these years later. Not for as long as they once did, nor as brightly. But every time you turn out the lights in that room, there they are, a message left for me by a younger self who didn't realize what he was doing. I don't remember putting the stars up, but seeing them is almost as good as a specific memory. It's a reminder that at one point, I must have done it.

On this trip to my old room, my first in nearly two years, I found myself wondering how long those stars will glow. Most advice I've found online suggests that their lifespan is at least decades and possibly as long as a couple of centuries. Will they still be there to greet my children, should they ever exist? Will they greet people who have nothing to do with me, other than occupying the same room at some point in time? What message might they carry for some far future generation, to whom my name means nothing? Will they still glow when the house begins to sink in on itself, to sag and sway and collapse?


My parents' house sits atop what passes for a hill in southeastern South Dakota, which is to say that it's just high enough to look out over the prairie before it to see the other farms scattered there like marbles. When I rode the school bus, my father could see the bus coming from many miles off, thus giving my sister and I an alert as to when the bus would be there.

But what I noticed this time were the yardlights, specifically how it felt like there were fewer of them. In that section of the country, farmers erect lights atop massive poles in their front yards, and those lights turn on after a certain hour, beacons across the waving grass. The farms can feel a little like ships far out at sea, and the yardlights become signals in that endless darkness. When I was young, it felt like there were hundreds of them on a clear night, stretching out for as far as the eye could see, in every direction. Now, there seem to be far fewer, and the only notable additions are the blinking red lights that mark a string of electricity-generating windmills in the distance.

Some of this, of course, is a function of my own aging, my own brain. A place that once seemed massive seems a little smaller the older I get and the more of the world I see. There likely aren't that many fewer yardlights than there were when I was young. It just feels like there are, because I am old enough to see the past as a distinct place I cannot get back to. I am old enough now that photos of my childhood look substantially different from my photos of the present, a phenomenon I only noticed creeping up on me in recent years.

But at the same time, there really are fewer yardlights, even if it's only by a small number. The way of life I grew up with is quite literally being extinguished, and the darkness is reclaiming what little space those lights carved out for themselves. If a yardlight was a simultaneous greeting and warning -- "Hey. I'm here." -- then its absence is somehow neither, and is only noted in the memories of those who once knew where to look but have now moved on to somewhere else.

Which is to say I could not tell you where the lights that have gone out used to be, only that there once were lights and now there are not.


My father sold most of his farming equipment earlier this week, in a big retirement sale. The oldest item on sale was a tractor built in 1948, which he purchased at a retirement sale early in his farming career in the mid-70s, which still runs well and which he's put some small amount of work into restoring. The newest item on sale was a massive, sleek, space-age-y looking kind of vehicle with GPS and all sorts of modern bells and whistles, which he bought direct from a dealer.

My father seemed relieved to be done. People kept asking him how he was doing, and he seemed confused by the question. Sure, transitioning to retirement will present the same challenges it does for anybody, but farming is also exhausting, back-breaking work, a long series of gambles not guaranteed to pay off. My father had won more bets than he had lost, but gambling is always, on some level, about knowing when to leave the casino. So he was going.

I didn't feel as emotional as I expected to either. My father only asked me once if I wanted to take over the farm, and when I said no, he didn't seem particularly surprised, nor was he when my sister gave the same answer. (She might have actually made a go of it. She has his same stubborn streak.) But here, on the precipice of a bunch of life-altering possibilities, I've found myself feeling things more, and I expected to feel something at the prospect of the sale. Instead, I saw a strange continuity, a kind of hope in the idea that a tractor built in 1948 and owned by others before it landed in my father's hands might be a part of some new life entirely, like the great Robert Bresson movie Au Hasard Balthazar was reimagined as a part of Pixar's Cars franchise. This is an old tradition, and it will outlast me, so long as farmers work the South Dakota soil.

My mother tasked my wife and I with taking photos of the event, to document the slow dismantling of a way of life they had built for over 40 years. As I wandered about, taking pictures, I kept quoting my favorite line from Six Feet Under to myself: "You can't take a picture of this; it's already gone." It's said by a dead man, to his little sister, as she prepares to leave the family home for good. And, indeed, I felt like I was trying to photograph something behind reality, elusive and just off camera. But I took the pictures, because I'm nothing if not a dutiful child. And that Six Feet Under line went from a little inside joke with myself to something like a prophecy.

Because what I kept capturing wasn't a life being sold in bits and pieces but all of the people who showed up to support my parents (and, okay, maybe buy some of their stuff). Friends and family and kids and grandkid and nephews and cousins and pastors and acquaintances. My dad's best friend from high school turned up, as did a man who worked for him 30 years ago. My sister and I were there, as were our spouses, and my niece. Farm cats lurked at the edge of the trees, keeping a wary distance. There was a peace to the whole thing, an acceptance of the idea that the thing you want the picture of is always hiding behind what's in the lens, but if you know where to find people laughing and smiling together, you might catch a glimpse all the same.

My wife and I went for a drive around the countryside, looking for things to photograph, for a document of a life I no longer lead. I was saddened, somewhat, by how much the place I grew up is starting to fade from the map. People move away. The county lets whole roads be reclaimed by nature, because nobody lives down them any more. Yardlights go out.

But, still, those stars glow, fainter but still visible. There are traces of what once was, if you still know where to look. And for those who do, the traces are enough to make something new. This decay feels only like an ending to me because I remember what came before. But it doesn't take much to look at that big, empty expanse and see the possibility of something new, of making more light.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it, except when I take month after month off because I can't think of anything to write about. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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