Garrison Keiller once said the problem with America is that nobody wants to do maintenance.
A bridge spanning the Mississippi collapsed in Minneapolis Wednesday. Everyone seemed surprised except the engineers and the inspectors from the NTSB, who have been saying for years that a significant number of our nation's bridges -- and highways, and ports, and levees, and railways -- are in poor condition, including that very bridge in Minneapolis.
In other words, we were warned.
I'm about halfway through The World Without Us, the latest book by journalist Alan Weisman. In it, he writes, "Back when they told you what your house would cost, nobody mentioned what you'd also be paying so that nature wouldn't repossess it long before the bank... No matter how hermetically you've sealed your temperature-tuned interior from the weather, invisible spores penetrate anyway, exploding in sudden outbursts of mold... or you've been colonized by termites, carpenter ants, roaches, hornets, even small mammals. Most of all, though, you are beset by what in other contexts is the veritable stuff of life: water. It always wants in."
It always wants in. In Minneapolis, in New Orleans, in our basements every spring, the water wants in. And while we're spending $12 billion every month fighting wars half-a-world away, the failure to do maintenance here at home is taking its toll.
Today I read that federal agents for the Department of Homeland Security were patting down passengers without cause at two bus depots in Indianapolis. Last time I checked, this was illegal. Meanwhile search and rescue teams are still looking for bodies amid the submerged vehicles in the Mississippi River. And two years after Katrina, New Orleans is still waiting for deliverance.
Maintenance ain't sexy, but without it, bridges fall down, and levees give way, and freeways buckle, and subway tunnels flood, and your roof sags. And pretty soon, there's no home, or homeland, worth securing.
In his essay, "Property, Patriotism, and National Defense," (Home Economics, North Point Press, 1987) Wendell Berry writes, "I have been arguing from what seems to me a reasonable military assumption: that a sound policy of national defense would have its essential foundation and its indispensable motives in widespread, settled, thriving local communities, each having a proper degree of independence, living so far as possible from local sources, and using its local sources with a stewardly care that would sustain its life indefinitely, even through times of adversity. But now I would like to go further, and say that such communities, where they exist, are not merely the prerequisites or supports of a sound national defense; they are a sound national defense."
Bridges, levees, communities, security. Twelve billion dollars a month. Will someone draft Mr. Berry for president, please?