Once upon a time, northeastern Pennsylvania sounded day and night with the steam hiss and clamor of ceaseless railroad traffic, train whistles echoing over the hills like the mournful calls of animals lost and separated from each other in the wilderness. Along the riverbanks rose refineries built according to the cheerless, tight-mouthed aesthetic of industrial utility, hellish life forms squatting in the mud like imps with blackened windows glowing orange from the furnace fires burning within. Men and women from all around the country dressed in their finest clothes to visit the region, eager most of all to see Scranton, the Electric City, location of the nation’s first electrified trolley system. For over a hundred years it was a place of wealth and promise, until the end of World War II when the coal was gone from the hills. Like any organism whose veins have been bled dry, the body withered soon afterwards. Today it’s a place where the past always seems much closer than the future; a place where every newly planted thing must fight for light in the shadow of old, soot-blackened dreams. Victorian buildings still line the streets, bent now and frowning in broken-windowed anonymity. Boxcars stand abandoned in barren lots like the megaliths of some ancient civilization. Every now and then one of the old mines subsides, swallowing a house, a car, a person, as if the land itself seeks to remind everyone that it’s not done with them, however much they may think they are done with it. I was born into that borderland between the dying and the dead, and the living fighting for light in the midst of them. I grew up wandering that countryside of echoes and rust, rooting out the hard beauty buried along miles of coal dust and rail. My youth was spent exploring hills scarred by strip mines and covered with white birch trees that stood like skeletal fingers knobbed with arthritis as they clutched hungrily at the sky. Music, poetry, and magic do not come easily to a person living in a place like that. Those things are rare commodities that are only won by defiance. And yet, through all of that, music, poetry, and magic persist. They are in the gradation of rust on an old boxcar door, oranges and yellows and reds radiating through space like an unfolding multifoliate flower. They are in the tricycle that lies half-buried in dirt, metal frame twisted and bent like a surrealist’s sculpture of childhood. They are in the coat of wildflowers sprouting from a junked sofa underneath a train bridge. They are in the old man with broken teeth playing cover songs in corner bars. The very sadness of the countryside is beautiful, for it is a sadness that refuses to run away or hide, one that sneers through its tears with defiance. In that way the whole region is a masterpiece of resistance painted on rags. There are those who will mistake my words for being condescending or crude, but those who have seen the truest heart of that place, or the countless other world-places like it, will understand right away what I mean. Privilege breeds easy smiles, but the only things of value in life are the things that are earned. Those who smile through suffering have paid a worthy price, and in that they become works of art. Such sensibilities will be with me for as long as I live. For me, there is no beauty without a little rust, and no rust without a little beauty. The ghosts of the coal breaker boys still call out to me from the colliers, and many times in my silent hours I hear the far, far off moan of a train whistle blowing–moving away, always away from me, into that distant country I have never known, the shadow of which I will always call home.