Written by Ian Fenner
for Prof. Roy Cartlidge
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said “The only constant is change”. While I can’t comment on the circumstances under which he spoke or wrote those words, I can say that it is perhaps the most simplistically true group of words ever to be assembled. It is applicable to almost any situation; for example, as I write this, I am sitting on a train that is moving at upwards of 80 miles per hour. Naturally, the scenery outside the window is going by rather quickly, and the only thing I can tell you for certain about what I see out the window is that it is changing constantly. But this is a fairly pedestrian application of the phrase. The following story is not strictly about my own experience. I was there, but a lot of what I took from it were thoughts and feelings I experienced vicariously through others, particularly my father.
A few months ago, my father, my brother and I embarked on a great pilgrimage. Instead of going to Mecca, however, our journey brought us to Southern Ontario, specifically an area known as Essex County, in which lies our family farm, as well as Windsor, Leamington, and numerous other towns which have recently been in the news because the local industrial base has all but evaporated. The main purpose of this expedition was to go to the family farm; our trip by train took us through Toronto to London, Ontario, where we stayed in a hotel and drove to Essex County the following day. This sounds like a simple plan because it was. The trip was not complicated by any event; in fact, it went very well. The trip simply took on a heavier tone after we had left London, driving towards the farm. Over the course of the drive towards Essex, my father began recognizing an increasing number of landmarks and locations, as he spent a great deal of time in the area as a child. The reality, however, is that the things and places he recognized are far from their glory days.
Near the farm there lies a railway embankment which, forty years ago, was a busy main line linking Detroit and Windsor with Niagara and Buffalo, as well as other points East. With changing economic realities, the line became increasingly less busy and less viable and, a couple of days ago, the tracks were ripped up and the right-of-way abandoned entirely. In Leamington, it was announced that the Heinz plant which, for over a century, made tomato products such as ketchup and tomato juice, would close, costing hundreds of jobs and likely the town’s economy. Windsor and Amherstburg, which have long benefitted from their proximity to Detroit’s auto industry, are now cursed by that same proximity. With the decline of North American brands and the ensuing plant closures and layoffs, these two towns have become extremely quiet, even ghostly. This is without even mentioning the condition of Detroit, where my father also spent a significant amount of time as a child. In addition to all this, most of the people he remembers from his childhood at the farm have long since passed away, and those who are left are elderly, in poor health, or both. Suffice it to say, the drive back to the hotel in London was a quiet one, except for my ten-year-old brother occasionally asking why everyone was so quiet.
I think what gets to my father most is that the things that have changed seemed so unchangeable. Forty or fifty years ago, suggesting that the North American auto industry would sink and take the economies of entire regions with it would have been preposterous, even laughable. The reality, however, is not nearly so funny. What bothers him more than anything is not that things change, but that things can change where they are least expected, and where the change means the most. The railroads, auto assembly plants, food processing plants, forges, refineries, and countless other corporations, institutions, and people which seemed indestructible proved to be just as fragile and finite as everything and everyone else on Earth. The people and places that we think will remain unchanged until the end of time do unconditionally have an expiry date; it’s only a matter of how far in the future that date is. In short, the only constant, the only thing that can truly be relied on day in, day out, is change itself; that nothing will forever be the same as it was yesterday or last year. Everything must eventually undergo some kind of transformation, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, but everything must eventually change.