What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allure of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.
Rebecca Solnit, discussing what attracts us to ruins, in A Field Guide To Getting Lost (pp. 88-89). I’ve always been fascinated the cracked sidewalk and the plants that grow in those cracks. Even there, we can see nature undoing what we have so recently done, despite our efforts to hold nature at bay. And this does hold a certain fascination.
My brother once gave me a framed copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, which he’d typeset in one of the classes he was taking at library school. It still sits on my desk at home. This is certainly part of the fascination with ruins: the desert sands overtaking a powerful man’s great work, the thought of everyone’s eventual end.
I think there is something else that fascinates, though. Ruins capture, almost overwhelm, the imagination. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by an unknown past when I walked through the ruins of Ostia Antica or Chaco Canyon. Ruins are invitation to hear stories you don’t yet know. As I stepped through the hushed ruins, I could almost hear them whispering those stories to me: story upon story upon story, waiting to be discovered. You can make up your own stories up—as Rebecca Solnit did in the ruins of the hospital that inspired her meditation on ruins—or you can seek it out. I think both are valid.
Ruins are inviting and fascinating because they tap into the deep human need for stories. Our efforts at preservation are an attempt to preserve what Solnit calls grandmother sources: the stories that we don’t already know, that don’t fit into the grand narrative, that offer different and valuable perspectives, that ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past.
Perhaps these forgotten stories are a part of what Solnit means when she speaks of “the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.”