12 September 2007

Erasing the Stone Tape

"The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time."

--Willem de Kooning

Once upon a time, a sturdy house sat overlooking a creek in Pittsboro. Sandwiched between the public buildings on West Street and Pittsboro Elementary School road, it was roughly a three acre slice of 19th Century Chatham county. Built around 1838, it was originally known as the William Hardin Home. When I first saw it, it was called the old Rectory, and its date with oblivion had been set.

In 1946, however, it was the setting for a treacly ante-bellum tale of ghostly lost love. The 26 April issue of The Chatham Record recounted the story told to them by W.B. Morgan:

"The daughter of William Hardin dashed joyously down the steps of the new mansion high on the hill. Down the steep, winding path she ran, pausing for a moment to wave to someone below. The moonlight splashed on her golden curls and her full white dress, fashioned in the ante-bellum style, appeared to float about her as she ran to the boy who stood beside the big stone at the door of the spring-house. The boy, Phillip Jones, a successful young Chatham County planter, seemed in the grip of some mysterious, unreal force as he watched the lovely girl. 'Why you're just like an angel,' he said. 'Promise that you will always stay the way you are tonight!'

'I promise,' she answered shyly.

Suddenly her hand fled to her left side and she swayed for a moment, and Phillip in alarm moved to steady her.

'It is nothing,' she said quickly, 'Perhaps I ran too fast to meet you, and then, too, I'm so happy to think that I, Helen Randolph Hardin will next month, June 1839, become the wife of Mr. Phillip Jones.'"

I would transcribe more, but already have tunnel vision from this syrupy mess. It's just not worth full-blown diabetes. For your sake as well as mine, I'll hurry through to the end: the girl dies in her sleep that night from a heart attack, presumably brought on by having to deliver such lengthy exposition. The lad, grief stricken, sees her luminescent apparition coming to meet him as he waits to keep their appointment by the creek the following night.

The article goes on to cite Scotland Scurlock as a later witness of Ms Hardin's phantom. Scurlock told William E Brooks, a later owner of the house, who was also able to find collaborative accounts of this haunting, though he himself had no direct experience.

You and I, dear reader, can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of this reputed local haunting. Even if unimpeachable witnesses testified to seeing something float down to the creek and vanish on those moonlit nights in June, it is beyond reason to call that strange vision the persistence of Ms Hardin's earthly personality.

But let us, for the sake of argument, or for the sake of blogs needing posts, stipulate both: a young girl died, and her ghost was seen.

A generally accepted theory (reserving all rights, of course--there are many who consider any such theories to be idiotic) of explaining such repetitive, non-interactive "hauntings" is called the "Stone Tape." Essentially, it allows that, for whatever reason, our environment is capable of "recording" highly emotional events, and "replaying" those events under similar atmospheric conditions. Was there something about the Hardin House, or the creek, still extant, or the rocks and water that define that creek, that could have somehow captured the movements of this girl? Could her unfulfilled desire have made such an impression?

(We would do well, at this point, to remember Charles Fort's take on such explanations: "I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.")

In the 1990s, the Hardin House, by then known as the Rectory, was bought by RAFI. Their worthy goal was initially to restore it to use as their offices. Too late they realized the impossibility of ever making the structure compliant with ADA requirements. They graciously offered the house free to anyone willing to move it. My wife and I toured the house, admiring the broad wall planks and floorboards. We went underneath and marveled at the enormous white-pine sills, just as we had the wood pegs that held the ancient roof together. We couldn't move the house, despite our efforts, and it was dismantled. Months later I saw pieces of it for sale in an Asheville architectural antiques store.

In a way, it was just as well. The house was so clearly part and parcel of the land on which it was situated. To move it, though the more desirable option, would have obliterated that context. It's gone forever, not to be retrieved.

And I don't doubt that, because the environment was so profoundly altered, Ms Hardin's apparition ceased to manifest itself. Even ghosts must sense when they're not wanted.

We imply permanence by saying that something is "written in stone." But headstones, and stone tapes, can be erased. Because this town, this area, and its inhabitants have traditionally only been "land rich," we are forever trading our magic beans for cows. What little historical and natural assets we have continue to be devalued and sold off, because we have neither the will nor the resources to preserve them. I wonder, as the bulldozers and backhoes ply their trade along the 15-501 corridor, what other tapes are being erased as I write, and as you read. Many of us know the price of what we've sold, but few know the value.

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