The Ashland Waltz

In a week, the entire valley would be underwater, as had happened before. Lovecraft would say later that he was inspired by the eradication of the towns in the footprint of what would become the Scituate Reservoir, but his biographer is right: It is impossible to imagine that the flooding of the Swift River Valley to make the Quabbin did not also enter his mind. For he saw both, one already like stepping into hell, the other a few days away. He was with me for both excursions, and today I need my notes to tease them apart in my mind. Otherwise, they flow together in a flood of memories, of the things we destroyed in the name of progress and the prophecy that lay in the carnage. I think they have flowed together in Lovecraft’s brain, too, and though he is better known for the gods he created, the horror he could describe, I believe that Lovecraft wrote about the reservoirs as he did because when he saw the truth of what happened to those towns that are now lost to us, his talents, and perhaps language, failed him; and he wrote about that failure, the endless approach to oblivion, in an attempt to ward off oblivion itself.

In my early career I was a contract surveyor; having surveyed for one reservoir, I was among those hired to survey the other. I met Lovecraft through mutual acquaintances in New York City. His racism, manifest in casual remarks about people he saw when he left his apartment, unsettled me, but I was more tolerant of intolerance then—and less brave—than I am now, and I could overlook it. When he heard where I was working, he expressed a strong desire to accompany me on my site visits. I agreed to it, for racism aside, he was a fascinating man, and could pay his own way.

We were among the last to walk in the Swift River Valley. By then, the woodpeckers—the army of men with axes and sledgehammers that Boston sent to tear down the towns on the river’s banks—had already turned everything into piles of splintered timbers and broken masonry. While I ensured that the nearby forest had been cleared far back enough to accommodate the reservoir, the woodpeckers set the piles on fire across the entire valley, until it all was burning. They were very drunk and having too much fun, and the exiled townspeople who had gathered, who could bear to watch, were angry. They’ve been like that since they arrived, breaking things with tools all day and booze all night, they told us. Just can’t fathom why they have to love what they’re doing so much. They looked toward Boston and shook their heads. Lovecraft told them that millions of people there would have drinking water thanks to them. He was trying to be noble, perhaps trying to find some dignity in it. It was a bad idea. Let me tell you something, they said. Most of the people of Boston will never even know this happened, or what their thirst did to the places where we grew up. They told Lovecraft about the last dance at the town hall, which was supposed to be over at midnight, but spilled outside and went on for another two hours, of people dancing and crying, trying to say good bye. It’s a good thing most of them aren’t here to see this. And then to Lovecraft: Too bad you are.

Scituate was worse, because the people were more than angry about having to leave. A family who owned a lot of land tried to fight the government’s condemnation of it in court and lost, and retaliated by burning down one of their houses. A few others killed themselves. One man told his daughter he needed to go out to the barn, and went out there and hanged himself from the rafters. Another man slit his wrists. They could not imagine living if they had to do it anywhere else. But Providence got all the land it needed and sent its woodpeckers to clear it. Lovecraft and I were there for that. We watched a team of drunk men hack at the bottom floor of a house with axes, then pull the place over with ropes in a mass of cheers. They did it again and again. They had no idea what they were doing, but there were so many of them, and so many drunk, that it did not matter. It was a massacre. A woman sat at the edge of what would be the shore of the reservoir and looked at us.

God got it wrong, she said. First it’s fire, then water. Lovecraft this time was a victim of circumstance. The right man in the wrong place. She took him by the shoulders and said: It will happen to you, too. All of you. In time, everything will catch fire and then drown. Everything.

It was obvious she had lost her mind. Her fingers had dug far enough into Lovecraft’s shoulders that they had made holes in his jacket. For a few long moments, before I pried her off him, her face and words were all he knew.

He was quiet after that, all the way back to Providence and the train. On the platform I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was. But when I read the story he wrote later, I knew he was lying. For the towns, the fire, the woodpeckers, the men at Quabbin, the woman at Scituate, were nowhere on the page. Which, to me, meant that they were still in his head somewhere, as they are in mine, and he did not know how to get them out, or save himself.

 {Listen to the Ashland Waltz}

{Listen to the surveyor’s audio interview}

 

Excerpted from an interview by Brian Francis Slattery of a surveyor, seventy-nine years old at the time, who preferred to remain anonymous. The accompanying recording was found by Christina Crowder, accordionist, in a bureau abandoned in the woods near the shore of the Scituate Reservoir, where the town of Ashland once was. It cannot be confirmed, but it is believed to have been recorded at the last dance at the Ashland town hall.