Backing Away From The Uncanny
On January 3, 1777, not too long after General George Washington crossed the Delaware – pausing only to plant his boot on a gunwale while his portrait was painted – he and his troops engaged, defeated, and captured the British troops at what is now Princeton Battlefield Park in Princeton, New Jersey.
Today, a towering Ionic colonnade stands on the north side of the park. It was designed by Thomas U. Walter, who later went on to design a minor structure called the United States Capitol. The colonnade was originally the facade of what must have been the very impressive residence of one Matthew Newkirk, a Philadelphia merchant, and served as the grand entrance to his home from 1836 until 1900, when the place was torn down due to – if one interprets the plaque correctly – insect damage. The stones of the colonnade were then transported and reassembled as part of Mercer Manor, which was built on the site of the original 18th-century William Clark house that bore witness the Battle of Princeton. Mercer Manor burned down in 1957, and the portico was moved to its present location in 1959. Such history in those stones! An inspiring structure, which I and my friends paid homage to on many an evening by smoking pot and lying on our backs upon its marble flagstones, watching the stars wheel above its Ionic columns.
It’s difficult to convey the scale of the thing, but one remembered outburst during our visits was “Man…this was somebody’s porch!” The floorspace of the flagstones equaled any apartment I’ve lived in since. The fluted columns soared, topped by worn but still intricately worked capitals, and the surreal nature of its columns and stones perched there on the field, bereft of their original context, made for many a night’s fine conjecture. They are ruins, not quite ancient, but old enough. And behind them, somewhere among the pines, in a place not precisely determined by history, is a grave purportedly containing 25 British and 15 American soldiers.
Daylight photographs don’t really convey the scene, especially on a clear night with a good moon. The field of former battle is about 200 acres, bounded by a mixed forest of pine and deciduous trees. On the south side, across the road that cuts through the field, there are asphalt paths that lead to various points of interest: the Clark House, where General William Mercer died; the Mercer Oak, beneath which he lay wounded during the battle, recently felled by wind and replaced with a sapling cloned from its dying branches. One night, on one of these paths leading from the field into the forest, a friend and I were presented with a choice.
Fog was not unknown on the battlefield. It wasn’t terribly far from Lake Carnegie – an artifact of wealth, like the portico, created, donated by and named for the steel magnate – and that night mist ringed the field, hanging low to the ground and rising into the bounding trees. I don’t know exactly what it was that prompted our trek from the north side of the field to the south – perhaps the suddenly creepy vibrations of the mass grave somewhere behind us as in the pines as we sat upon the steps of the portico, perhaps that need for movement that sometimes comes upon the stoned – but we had to move from the stones and across the field in the dark, crouching down when cars would pass along Princeton Pike, lest one of them be a police car, spearing a spotlight out across the foggy field seeking interlopers after the Park had closed at sunset.
I remember it was a good moon, so our journey was well-lit, and the light also set the fog at the edges of the field aglow. After spending some time beneath the Mercer Oak – gnarled and windstruck, supported by arboreal steel struts in a vain attempt to preserve the presumed historicity of the tree – we loped south across the field, shoes damp with dew, eventually intersecting with a path that took us away from the William Clark house with its after-hours parking lot lighting. That path took us to the edge of the forest. There, we encountered a barrier of mist: opaque, solid, as clearly delineated as any wall of stone or plaster. Where the asphalt path entered the forest, moonlight ceased to penetrate, diffusing into a flowing barrier that mingled with the leading edges of the leaves.
Any reader of fantasy or science fiction recognizes such liminal places. They are the backs of wardrobes, tesseracts, wormholes, split infinities, the big bow-wrapped box that the Doctor has put beneath your Christmas tree. My friend and I stopped there in the moonlight, looking into the mist. “Do you see that?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I see that,” he said. A couple of beats.
“Do you…should we go in there?”
All of which, of course, bears with it the import and freakiness of a stoned state of mind. But in that moment, the instant of asking the question, there was encapsulated a stoned grandiosity, a metaphoric significance. It looked like a portal. It felt like a portal. We could walk in, and perhaps find ourselves on an asphalt path of Princeton Battlefield Park, in the forest at night, enveloped in moonlit fog. Or: we could be anywhere. We might walk into the forest on the night of January 2, 1777, before the battle, surrounded by troops making preparations, and be stopped by gunpoint and demands of accounting for our names, accents, and strange dress. We could end up in another place entirely, some other world, bearing only vague geographic relation to 20th century New Jersey.
In that moment, my friend said, “No, I don’t think so,” and I agreed, and we backed away, walking north across the battlefield to the safety of the portico, and as we did, our paranoia shifted from the fear of otherworldly or -timely transportation into something like fear of dogs in the forest, or police along the road, or some other mundane nonsense. We returned to Mr. Newkirk’s portico, seeking the kind of touchstone familiar to people who alter their minds for the course of an evening: home base. Even the unknown soldiers’ graves were a comfort in the face of the formless mist.
Years later, I asked my friend if he remembered that night, in the way that I did: a chance presented to venture forth into something that might, to our minds, have proven to be truly remarkable, adventurous, unknown, and impossible. He did remember it, in the same way – we were sympatico, back then – and he wondered, as I did.
What would have happened? Probably nothing. A couple of stoned dudes wandering in a foggy moonlit forest, digging the vibe. But. But.
Over twenty years later, I still think about it. What if that was it? What if, that night, through some peculiar alignment of moon and mist, aging stone and burial ground, an opportunity had been afforded to us? What if we looked at that opportunity, and saw only dim fog, and fear, and backed away?