The searing heat has abated a bit, but it is still summer-warm and sunburn-bright around here, and just down the hill they – the noisy kids, the sulky-surly and conspiratorial teens, the plus-size families – continue dunking and diving at the swimming hole in the millstream, and it is, in all senses of the term, “picture perfect.”
This spot has been drawing people to it since there have been people in these parts, and for the past century it has been more than merely a place to cool off in lieu of a public pool – it is the site of a rite of passage. Your formative years have not been properly spent if, at some time during them, you and your friends (or, if lucky, this year’s current forever love) did not come here as soon as school was out, sneaking away from parents or chores or summer jobs to spend some time there in daylight and, even better, starlight. It is a place where history, tradition, memories and community flow and converge into something akin to a work of art.
In terms of American iconography, this is a picture-perfect place. How much more like 1950s Mayberry, or, say, mid-19th century Hannibal, Mo., could this spot be, resisting, as it does, the passage of time and the vicissitudes of persistently decaying civilities in the United States of the early 21st century? Swimmin’ hole, playin’ hookey, the first stirrings of the power of the body and sexuality; an experience unadorned by modern conveniences or technology or even supervision, and yet all peaceful and harmonious: the stream rushing and hissing ceaselessly down from the mountain and splashing over and between rocks, forming pools of varying depths, and around them shelves of stone, flat and layered and bleached by the sun, on which bathers lounge, or gather to exchange intimacies, or show off for the person they wish to impress.
But, even more, and easily in keeping with the scope of our explorations here – arslocii, placeness as art – the millstream scene is picture perfect because it is straight out of a picture, or as if it were set up and readied to be made into one. The quality of the light, the way the figures compose themselves on the perches, the way muscled skin looks doused by the pure water, the dappling of light as it passes through the trees lining the waterway – as you stand on the bridge road overlooking the spot, it is impossible not to think that you’ve seen this all before: in a fine work by an Impressionist painter, like Cezanne, or in a painting by Thomas Eakins (which, except for the nudity and homoerotic overlay, is nearly a dead ringer for what you see in the stream on any given overheated day).
Life and art and place have rarely so picture-perfectly meshed. Which came first: the painting or life? Which engendered the other? When the painting and the reality have equal existential weight, which is the more real? Which is the more art? Does art define the place, or vice versa?