Sunday, November 27, 2016

Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here

by Jeffrey J Cohen and Julian Yates

Dear ITM Readers,

Below you will find an account of our recent pilgrimage to God's Ark of Safety in Frostburg, MD. Anyone who has traveled Interstate 68 has spotted its scaffolding, looming over the highway, and its cheery if faded blue sign announcing the erection of a modern ark.

We are writing a book together called Noah's Arkive: Groundless Reading from the Beginning Until the End of Time. The project examines how versions of the Noah story circulate around the imagination of climate catastrophe, from ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary envisioning of sea level rise. In the course of writing the book we hope to visit a series of replica arks being built around the world, including this famous one in Kentucky and this infamous one in the Netherlands

Let us know what you think. This blog post is the book's official embarkation (though in fact we've been working on it for a while). 

-- Jeffrey & Julian 

“Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!”

Because we are building an ark, we traveled to western Maryland to visit an ark being built.

Frostburg MD is a city of the road. In 1806 Thomas Jefferson approved the construction of the National Pike (now US 40) to enable the easy flow of goods to eastern markets. “Mount Pleasant” grew as a waystation for travelers, tourists and itinerant laborers. Over time the dirt track widened and was paved with asphalt. Mount Pleasant became Frostburg, taking its name from Meshach Frost, builder of its first house and hotel. The C & O canal was cut nearby. A railroad constructed. Stagecoaches gave way to automobiles and freight-laden trucks. Frostburg grew. The discovery of coal led to a boom, beautiful homes, a stately hotel. But times changed. Routes changed. Frostburg shrank. The houses and stately hotel are still there but a walk down Main Street is now met with some lively storefronts, some boarded windows, signs welcoming bicyclists, and posters that plead “Don’t Frack Frostburg.” The little city remains tied to the road, but Interstate 68 now bypasses Main Street and most vehicles do not stop.

On November 16, 2016, we headed to Frostburg from Washington DC by car. The journey takes a little more than two hours depending upon traffic and traverses varied terrain: urban expanses of impressive density to sprawl, to farmland and undulating hills; blue portion of a liberal state to its purple middle and red edges; rapidly changing, racially and culturally diverse areas with numerous recent immigrants to majority white communities established in the early 1800s and smaller now than in centuries previous; centers of finance and government to towns that depend on tourism, agriculture, resource extraction; East Coast to near Appalachia. The passing miles yield glimpses of differently paced cycles of economic flourishing and retraction, as well as discontinuous histories of challenge, resistance, reduction.

It’s easy to miss the ark. Or, more correctly, it’s easy for those seeking the ark to over-anticipate its appearance, to want its immensity to loom above the city. Traveling west, you pass the structure quickly on the right as the highway skirts the town. The road bends and there the ark is, fractionally behind you: perched high above the road, which keeps on going, leaving the red steel beams to your rear view mirror. ”Noah’s Ark being Rebuilt Here!” announces a blue billboard. Yet its location when you exit the highway is difficult to find. We back-tracked to reach the site--small roads and sharp turns, no pedestrians, just the occasional passing car. We drove by modest houses, then a stretch of much larger ones, built on former farmland. Up a steep hill, and we arrived at a sign mounted upon immense steel beams announcing ARK OF SAFETY. The sign reminded us of those we had passed along the way that declared HONDA or FORD, and our suspicion that the congregation had repurposed a defunct car dealership to house their place of worship was later confirmed. It also struck us that to find this ark you have to know your way, possess local knowledge -- or use Google maps, which includes the Ark of Safety as a site of possible local interest.

It’s easy to wax poetic about this kind of pilgrimage experience, to give in to a certain touristic drive to narrativize epiphany and encounter, to hang out with an ethnographic desire that never quite materializes. Truth is we were apprehensive. Donald Trump had just won a contentious presidential election on a platform of exclusion, containment, and wall-building. Much support for his vision of an America made great again derived from those distant from what his campaign derided as “the bi-coastal elites,” many of whom imagine a national community that is open, itinerant, cosmopolitan. Trump had significant support for his vision among evangelical voters. And there we were, two academics heading off to see this stalled project of an ark, started 40 years ago as part of an evangelical congregation’s desire to be, to grow, to become. We were worried about what we would find, worried that we would be all condescension, all knowing smiles that might really just be raised guards against a worldview that comprehends everything in advance, including us. Who would we be made out to be by and through the encounter? And who were we, really? What were our intentions? We knew we wanted to visit the ark, but why we had that desire for encounter was difficult to articulate.

There’s so much talk these days about respecting the metaphysics or ontology of other forms of life--animal, plant, let alone human animals who belong to particular ecologies, locales. What then of the closer to home metaphysics of this evangelical ecology that grew up in situ, in Frostburg--very precisely in Frostburg, a city given to itinerance, to roads, and even, come the coal boom, to a routing of matter so that this capital might flow elsewhere, a flow that the anti-fracking signs on Main Street now seek to stem? We have to take seriously the story the congregation broadcasts to the world through its blue highway billboard: “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here.” For they share and do not share this here with us. Both they and we are building arks. Their sense of here might not be ours, but we did not want to re-write them according to our world view. Neither did we want to be scripted into theirs.

Like it or not, their ark arrests. Respond to their sign. Get of the road; search for the structure; park your car; and you do feel like you have arrived. But what is offered here, in Frostburg, is not a destination. It’s more the point at which another kind of journey might begin. What then does it mean to stop at this site of a landlocked vessel, being built here? What exactly would we encounter at this half built, some might say half-baked ark?

We are not sure that we rose to the occasion. But we did, we think, allow this visit to become an occasion for emergence. Of course, the ark helped.

Perched on the hill above the small city, it all looked a bit disappointing. Lock your car at the almost empty lot, look the congregation’s car dealership converted to a place of worship in the eye, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was some wild goose chase. No one about. Just the wind. The sound of crickets in grass that was just days past the need for mowing. Clean, cool air.

What beckoned at first was the steel beams, and then, when we climbed the hill, the concrete. The expansive slabs shaped in an immense rectangle and the long rows of bases for buttresses that do not yet exist seem almost a Fountains Abbey here in Frostburg. These concrete squares offer the shape of an ark to come. Not an “authentic” ark, whatever that would be, but a Noah’s Ark in prospect, adapted for the nearby congregation. Laying a foundation according to the dimensions God delivers to Noah in Genesis but adding an extra floor, this ark’s engineer assumed a cubit must be 18” in length, making the concrete outline extend about a football field in length.

Truth is we were impressed by the scale of the endeavor, a little overwhelmed. This ark in process, whether or not it ever finishes, has already created a strange little ecosystem: a lively home for insects, squirrels, birds; a field full of weeds and wildflowers, gone to seed; on one side, an indentation of matted grass and mud, with dried algae suggesting that rainwater pools, lingers, evaporates. We felt something like wonder, something marvelous, even if it was unlikely we would agree to miracles (the Ark’s website announces two of them). It was under the sign of this wonder, wide-eyed and canny, that we would speak to one of the faces of the ark--the man who, so we would learn, had poured all that concrete, far more than is visible to the eye (that is how foundations work: they compress, harden, render themselves invisible even as they subtend). Our wonder, we hoped, would afford a shell of protection for us but also a space of shared affect and sympathy.

There was movement at a nearby building. Actually there wasn’t. But we spotted a red station wagon and an open door. What happened next is hard to describe because it wants to be easy to describe, wants to fit into an expected narrative. We met Pastor Spence beside a metal building that last winter’s snow had collapsed. He and a fellow congregant, whom we never met, were removing ceiling tiles and some wall boards. His black jacket was white with dust and he was wearing a protective mask over his nose and mouth. We had written to Pastor Spence twice before our visit to Frostburg, introducing ourselves and hoping he would be willing to speak with us about the Ark of Safety, but our requests had gone unanswered. We thought it might be him at the door but we were not fully certain. We caught his attention and told him how impressed we were. He took the mask from his face and placed it above his head, thanked us, did not introduce himself or ask our names. But we talked. He spoke of laying the concrete foundation years ago, the amount of labor required. “I was an engineer at GM,” he told us. “I drove here to build the ark.” The ark was Pastor Green’s vision, he emphasized, not his. He had inherited the project from a man now absent.

We were interested and Pastor Spence warmed quickly to the narration of ark stories. He told us how a construction team from Winchester had to erect the metal frame since no one in his congregation was licensed to do so. We remarked at the amount of labor that must have gone into to getting this far. So much time, so much pulverized stone, so much metal. Pastor Spence emphasized how deep the foundation plunges, invisible concrete set as anchor for a structure yet to arrive, a vision not yet made solid. The ark had to be checked and approved by an engineering firm, and its metal scaffolding was pronounced secure--safe beyond what any final building would require. It had cost a lot. But such is life. We don’t know the circumstances that followed after the completion of the concrete base and the partial metal frame, but work on the ark stopped a decade and a half ago and has yet to resume.

To what does the phrase “God’s Ark of Safety” refer? Not to or not only to this beached ark, beached to begin with, by design. It refers also and always to the congregation itself, whose ark idea this skeletal construction enacts. For what else is a congregation than an ongoing convocation, a shared conviviality?

We asked Pastor Spence what the people living nearby thought of his Ark. He spoke offhandedly of struggles with homeowners: a few nasty phone messages, demands that the steel structure be demolished, embarrassment at this white elephant, fears of devalued property. Arks are as likely to attract derision as they are to cultivate wonder. Would they prefer a vacant lot? Pastor Spence remained cheerful, but not exactly hopeful. As we wandered the site we had noticed places where the concrete was deteriorating, its steel rods exposed. The beams are covered in rust. Ruination is a form of renewal, maybe, but that process also crumbles dreams. Or maybe not. Maybe there is in revelation and grand visions and majestic arks a coldness or a closedness that an unfinished ark rebuffs. This modest ship that was never meant to sail possesses an intensity that a larger architecture might not be able to hold. Well that is our extrapolation. But this sense of productive incompletion as somehow generative runs in parallel with Pastor Spence’s own buoying sense that this ark endeavor, this refuge in Frostburg, had traveled the globe as story, bringing thousands of people to God and even curing the sick.

Pastor Spence had recently visited Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky. He spoke with wonder of that ark’s situation, its scale, its monumentality. He was proud to admit to crying when he first glimpsed Ham’s achievement: rounding a hill and beholding a fully realized vessel built to a 24 inch ell scale. Since we seemed interested, he offered that his own congregation had gone about their own project backwards. The Ark Encounter had taken only six years to design, secure necessary land and funds, and then build. The Ark of Safety had been embarked upon without a plan for raising the money needed for completion. We felt bad. We interrupted. We attempted to reassure Pastor Spence of what had already been accomplished. Funny, this rush to sympathy that did not allow the man quite to finish what he was saying or thinking. But arks do that. All that labor, all that time and money, all that good will--who would want to think it had all gone to waste? Not that that was what Pastor Spence might have been saying.

In retrospect it seemed to us that Pastor Spence had learned to dwell alongside the ark in its incompletion, and that dwelling as a neighbor to a project forever ongoing was at this moment enough. From time to time though (as if he felt it necessary to invoke some future in which the ark might be fully realized) he spoke of investors from distant states who might underwrite the project, if only they could find the time to visit Frostburg. But then his story would become local again. Just as the project was about to float upon liquid capital pouring in, the narrative would turn to the congregation and their lives here and now, with the ark offering a rather modest future. What does it mean always to be working at ground level, aspiring to a view from its highest deck, but suspecting that an such a view will elude? And there is so much of the ark below ground that you cannot see. Forever anchored to a hill in Allegany County, unfaithful to the rules that God delivered to Noah, this ark is not the vessel of Genesis. Pastor Spence assured us that he believes in the literal truth of the bible, the Deluge as historical fact, but his structure is tied to its local origins, the product of Pastor Green’s revelation. The congregation is not building Noah’s Ark, but rebuilding it, building it again, in this this new time and place. The Ark of Safety, Pastor Spence stressed, has extra “nonbiblical” space for his community, four floors rather than the Noachic three. They want room within to meet, to pray, to work. An auditorium. Some offices. Elevators at each end for ease of access. We could almost envision those partitions and this inhabitance as he gestured towards the skeletal steel structure, four storeys tall. “It was never meant to float,” he said. This ark is a house, not a boat. It doesn’t necessarily expect catastrophe and it is not being built against global flood. It is for them, for anyone who exits the interstate, and who decides to remain here.

“Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!” It’s easy to accustom yourself to that gerund--look, that act of building is so permanent a condition that it’s not actually happening any more. Most cars pass the weathered sign and the ark’s steel frame and continue to Hagerstown or Cumberland. Some people stop, drawn by what they have noticed or by internet sites that detail the strangest roadside attractions you might glimpse as you travel the US. As we ate lunch in downtown Frostburg and filled our notebooks with what was already becoming a memory of a visit, an encounter reducing itself into narrative, we asked someone at the restaurant about the town’s relation to the Ark of Safety. She related a different origin, heard from a friend, involving a man who sold a vision of an ark as a trick to take the money of others and then vanished. She did not know if that tale was true. She did not have an opinion on the ark itself. She was just reporting what her friends who had lived in Frostburg for a long time had told her. These competing local narratives will not add up to a settled story.

Pastor Spence narrated a miracle to us, an event that unfolded in the time of Pastor Green, the man who first dreamed the ark. A traveling salesman arrived in Frostburg driving a fancy car, wearing a $500 suit, intent on selling the Ark of Safety congregation a security system for their worship building. Pastor Green listened patiently to the pitch, noting how the salesman wiggled uncomfortably in his chair. He asked the man from out of town if he had a back problem and if he could pray for him? The salesman was not interested. “I’ve listened to you talk for an hour about your security system,” said Pastor Green, “Let me tell you about mine for a few minutes.” And so he did, and he prayed, and the man was healed. Pastor Green suggested that the salesman donate a security system to the congregation--which he did. The salesman stopped traveling. He stayed, became a friend, opted for the ark, a different itinerary or state of itinerance. Pastor Spence told us that he had just come across the congregant’s x-rays last week in the building he was now working upon. Because the man did not want them returned he threw them in the trash.

Parables want to be read. Actually they don’t. They prefer to be enacted--or re-enacted as if for the first time in the lives of those who receive them. So, as writers now, this is what we received. It was perhaps too easy for us to render this little story an allegory. A traveling salesman who sells security systems becomes secure in the Ark of Safety. His changed body speaks his conversion and he stops moving (no more life on the road, no more writhing in his seat). The Ark of Safety, an ark in progress, is its own system of security, foundation. Doubled in its reference both to the ark and the congregation, it takes up a relation to the world premised on a profundity of faith that means something, that gives shelter, that encloses. Recognize that and you would have to stop. Park your car. Not move on and decide to join the rebuilding here. Of course you too would eventually toss away the image that shows the old, faulty support systems, the skeleton before it was properly aligned. X rays and their filmic remains are useful. They diagnose. But maybe true security lies in a different sense of system, a different way of understanding and responding to what goes unseen, a different sense of being in the arkive. X-rays that are not wanted enact the closing off of one security system and the adoption of another.

But what else would we say? We are interested in arks less because of what is stored within them than because of what they discard or exclude, the stories that do not make it aboard, everything left to the rising water. The salesman was captured by the vision of an ark at hand aspiring to a greater ark to come. We dwell with the concrete support for the unbuilt ship, the part underneath the ground that you cannot see, with the strange little eco-system, if not security, that this unrealized ark allows rather than the revelation of some completed structure, some future that may or may not arrive.

We distrust our ardor for Pastor Spence’s story of the miracle, the story of an archival trace recently and conveniently vanished. The tale when we retell it corroborates too neatly what we came to Frostburg hoping to find, the confirmation of our own theory of arks. The discarded x-ray image of the converted body of the itinerant salesman condenses too many of our expected itineraries: the price of inclusion into small community, the linking of enclosure to safety, the inevitable abandonment of some objects, people and histories to the outside, movement become stasis, story become architecture, waste become wonderfully generative.

The parable proves more complicated. Its narrative arc enables the security system which faith provides to comprehend and thereby enclose the knowledge that techniques like x-rays furnish. It does not deny the unseen. The traveling salesman’s back hurt. The traveling salesman needed a home. More than that expected trajectory, however, “security” at the Ark of Safety offers alternate modes of community, belonging, and meaning that are more immediate, longer-lasting, that take less time to sell. If we are prone to distrust the ease with which we seem able to read and so rewrite this parable, it is perhaps because this parable is also a reading, a different way from ours, of programing a relation between belief and technique. Like a car, or a metaphor, parable describes a movement or transport: parabolas are curved planes, the warping of forward trajectories by gravity’s relentless, invisible pull. One arkive encloses another, comprehends it, discards its remnant (the film) but not the information or the impetus it provides. Much the same is true of our project and the reading or rewriting of the Ark of Safety that we condense into parable. Every enarkment collects its own economy of affect, wonder, and violence. But every ark is also a shared space that traverses history, collecting stories along the way, curving towards a certain predictability perhaps but never quite hitting a foreordained mark, never quite realizing a future known in advance.

As Pastor Spence remarked in a moment of complete candor, we have no idea what the inside of Noah’s Ark was like. The Genesis story yields no specifics: no arrangement, no scheme, only a reference to lower, middle and upper levels. So it is that, in Kentucky, Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter materializes the biblical narrative through complex technologies of watering and feeding that automate the labor of caring for all those animals taken aboard, a fully enclosed ecosystem. The biblical narrative offers a blueprint for a structure’s exterior and general divisions but no instructions for inhabitance. The difference we share with the Ark of Safety then is this: we too do not know what life on the ark was like. We do not imagine that we can come to comprehend how that interior should “really” be (re)built. What we do know, though, is that to fill that space, to compartmentalize its vastness and populate those chambers with these but not those entities is to decide everything in advance: to authorize a series of irreversible paths, roads without roadside attractions. A completed ark would be a disappointment, a suffocating space, too delimited, devoid of escape hatches. Refuge too easily becomes gated community (the kind that complains about nearby, unrealized arks), or a prison.

The Ark of Safety is a local ark. “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!” as the highway sign in Frostburg declares. The ark is not an allegory for anything else. Pastor Spence is a person like no other. He is not a character, or a type. Yet as we drove home we talked about Pastor Spence as Noah, in the sense of the ordinary medieval townsman who might be asked to play the role when the cycle play was being performed. Everyone knew it was really just their neighbor Joe, that Noah was a tradesman and father and maybe even a ne’er-do-well rather than a visionary, a perfect model of obedience to a distant God. That ark in the drama where he played at being Noah was a sometimes structure, easy to take apart and store, lacking in one sense of depth, but still saturated in another. That ark would be no less beautiful for all its deficiency. As we write our book and so, like it or not, rebuild our own ark, does that mean that we too are Noah, asking questions about security and itinerance and conviviality and parables as we speed away from Frostburg, returning to our respective home-base bubbles in a safe little car?

We think that it is so. We also become or come to person Noah by our undertaking to write this book. The question, we suppose, is who else shall we become?

1 comment:

medievalkarl said...

Hurrah!! A couple things:

1. Noah's ark is an exclusive place. It wants the minimal number of people to get started again. Not these arks. They want everyone. That's part of the Xian tradition of interpretation of course, but it's also a great rewriting of the basic violent fantasy of the Noah story.

2. You two are almost but not quite the mocking outsiders, also part of the Noah story! You could do something with that.