There it is, still standing, a vestige, sturdy and upright beyond all odds, remarkably vertical despite the forces of horizontality, concocted of sinew and bone as any other living thing but built of natural stone or manmade versions thereof – a singular wall or, perhaps, a forty-five degree angled pair of walls forming a kind of solidarity for the ages. Time was when there was more to this, when its solid mass made its structure less visible than now. Such remnants, considered ruins, sit in isolated overgrown places: open meadows or wooded lots, near abandoned train tracks, in brownfields. They stand as reminders of what once was or what might have been. They are in slow demise, left out to fend for themselves – abandoned, both structure and site.
Confession time: ruins speak to me. There is something about a partial built structure, in combination with nature on the ascent, that excites something primal in me. It is not only the aesthetics of it, the textural interplay of hard and soft, or grays entwined with greens, or straight and sharp edges in counterpoint to curves and wiggly organic lines – it is all of that and more – and there is some energy felt, too, rather than merely visual delight. Ruins are like a breach or tear or glimpse into other time periods – a kind of limbo of unclarity where convergences of past, present, and future gather. And it is uncertain, for an instant, as to which one you are occupying. I am not a science-fiction aficionado. For me, ruins represent time travel in real time. They provide one of the few instances when we are made aware that there was something before us and our here and now.
Such partial structures are often walls, masonry walls. The most beautiful are stone or brick. Occasionally, there is one of cinder block. Rarely are they wood, since wood doesn’t stay self-supporting for very long. Often, they are house walls, sometimes with chimneys. Others are former buildings of commerce or industry. Occasionally, they are false starts, buildings unfinished as opposed to structures in aging dismantle. They cling to life, they are fighters: against the elements, against human whim and greed, against physics and even probability. They are survivors.
When I first met my life partner, it was because of a ruin. I was in upstate New York, in the woodsy rounded mountains of the Catskills. I had walked through a thicket the day before and spied a ruin, cloaked in its site as they often are. In the morning’s bright light, I wanted to test out my new camera, but headed out hastily in search of the hidden treasure, forgetting the camera. I doubled back, almost at a trot, and literally bumped into this guy who (apparently) had followed me into the woods. We started talking, I explained my mission, he enlisted, we walked together to find the crumbled structure. I photographed the site from various angles, we walked more; in fact, most of the morning, and watched a deer amble across our paths, mere yards ahead – it was the most silent of moments. A deer and a ruin – it was magic and it was fate. Ironically, those pictures never “took” but something else did that day.
It is said that fairies live in the woods. Maybe they inhabit the ruins of man. And maybe their gentle spirits enliven and protect them and infect us, those of us that find them. The partial structures suggest something other than what we witness on a daily basis: that land is to be “improved” and used and modified. Sure, there was once some structure on this piece of ground, but it has been given back, rejoining nature in a dramatic tango, a creative tension and parity. Excuse me, could I cut in? Maybe it has something to do with life, an all-at-once illustration of growth, change and death found in a ruin and its site.