Buildings and Ruins as Physical Sources of Memory
Today I as I was walking along the road in Clonakilty, Ireland, I noticed how I tend to stop and gaze at the old crumbling walls or abandoned structures along the road. I always feel a little embarrassed when I do this, like I’m revealing my foreignness by showing interest in these sights which are so common in Ireland — but today I realized, it’s not just a tourist’s voyeurism that makes me so interested in these vestiges of the past. And it’s not that
“Even the most detailed historical tome must decide what information to keep in and what to leave out. To a cat, the complete lack of details about smells in our history books would be baffling!”
there aren’t many examples of empty buildings back home where I come from, although there aren’t. I gaze at these structures because I know they hold memories of the past and I want to know what those memories are.
If Walls Could Talk…
There is nothing so intriguing as an abandoned building right? I mean, kids love to explore their secrets and make up (mostly scary) stories about how they came to be. But this fascination is not just juvenile — as usual, kids are picking up on something that affects us all, but which we adults have been taught to ignore. Old buildings and ruins don’t just represent memories of the past, they hold them for us. Even if there is not a soul left alive who remembers what happened in and around a building, the structure remains as a link to those memories, as a reminder that something happened involving other members of our own species, if we could only understand their language.
And perhaps some day we will. The laws of physics tell us that even stone is not as solid as it seems, but made up of atoms and molecules that respond to the environment around them. Do they not then respond, in some infinitesimal way, to the sound of human voices? The heat of human bodies? What would they tell us about these things if we had the tools to measure them? How many people lived there? What their language sounded like? Maybe even what they said?
Old structures are like stones — as they age, the weather wears them down, small plants grow in their cracks, lichen or moss attaches itself to their surface. Many ruins are indistinguishable from rocks to all but the most practiced eye. And stones, strata, and fossils have told us much about history, both ancient and recent: what the weather was like 200 million years ago, and when the asteroid hit, for example. Of course there is carbon dating, which takes us back long before humans had a place on this planet, but there is also tracking. Maybe it is dramatic exaggeration, but can’t a tracker follow an animal across a rocky surface, noting small clues that would be indecipherable to the inexperienced?
Stories are always fragmented. Even the most detailed historical tome decides what information to keep in and what to leave out. To a cat, the complete lack of information about smells in our history books would be baffling. Historic accounts are regularly assembled through incomplete sources such as diaries, receipts, and letters. How then is the story told by a building any different, if we have the tools to read it?
There is so much that is unknown about the past. In Ireland I drive daily by ruined buildings that have no plaque explaining how they came to be that way, and I have yet to discover a comprehensive directory of abandoned buildings in Ireland. Likewise, in California, there are less ancient, but equally mysterious farm-houses and barns long the Interstate 5 that were (I assume) abandoned when the freeway came through. If I had the resources, I would hunt down the people who know the history of each of these structures and record it in a historical atlas. But I don’t, and probably never will. These places held parents, children, pets, heirlooms — which have disappeared for all intents and purposes to the random observer walking by. Who tells their stories? Except the structures they left behind.