Small ruinations.

Driving between Gambier and Delaware--and, really, between Gambier and any other small town in Ohio--one happens, as a matter of course, upon innumerable ruined structures. As I drove along US-36 today, I rued the fact that I didn't have my camera with me (and thus can only offer you a two-year-old Iowan picture from the mystery trip I told you about in early January as a placeholder until I can get you some genuine Ohio gloom and ruin), because the ruins were everywhere.

I probably passed fifteen crumbling structures in the course of my peregrinations around mid-Ohio yesterday: whole houses being engulfed by weedy exoskeletons, barns crumbling apparently under their own weight, sheds missing glass panes or whole windows. Often, these structures are immediately adjacent to occupied houses; they're also often still in use, particularly if they're barns. (The barn in this picture, for instance, was in the middle of a field and was open to the hot Iowan air on all sides--and yet it was still housing a couple of apparently functional tractors.) Outside one collapsing barn, for instance, I saw a mule grazing; outside another, yesterday, a herd of cows. For me, the most melancholy of these structures are the small houses that seem simply to have been abandoned.

When I had my first campus visit, a day-long trip from Cornell up to the university where I taught for the next year, I took along my then-somebody. (Isn't that a term worth cultivating? My excellently badass friend coined it for me today, and I felt illuminated. A somebody. Its simplicity relieves all my nomenclatural concerns: "This is my somebody." And should things go sour? "You used to be a somebody.") When the lunch and visit were over and we met up again for the drive back to Ithaca--and what a lovely summer evening that was, a terrible heatwave having just broken, the humidity less oppressive than for a week previous, the sun hanging high and clear after days of haze--he suggested that we take the backroads home, instead of the thruway. I acquiesced and made some remark about the farmhouses we'd be likely to pass, and how many of them would be the kinds of places that could just use someone with some good money to bring them back to life. He, as was his wont, instantly read some sort of bourgeois blindness into my comment and responded, "Or maybe they should just be left alone. Things don't always have to be all fixed up."

I bristled because I knew he was wilfully misunderstanding me, and I thought back to that conversation a lot as I drove home today. Here's the thing: it's entirely true that not everything decaying or falling apart must necessarily be made pretty. And sometimes ruins are provocative, worth contemplating as aesthetic units in their own rights. The Romantics knew that meditating on ruins and fragments could lead, for good and ill, to an experience of the sublime. Witness Fuseli's despairing artist.

But I'd argue that some ruins are simply and finally (rather than elevatingly or edifyingly) sad. They're sad to me because they persist, stubbornly and deadly, where something once lived; they're sad because they might stand no chance of ever living again; they're sad because no one seems to care enough to destroy them altogether. They simply blend into the landscape, little by little, as vegetation rises up to enfold them. It doesn't matter what they're made of, or what they were used for; glass, stone, steel, wood, aluminum, and brick all fall prey together, sometimes at haphazardly uneven paces that bring a roof's supports down before the roof itself has started to go, or that leave a whole structure (I see this all the time) listing at a crazy angle, its rectangular solid gone trapezoidal.

In a sense, I suppose that I have the psychological equivalents of those ruins, or of the mysterious mounds in the field across the highway, and that I pass them by every time I make the mental commute to an ongoing, living structure, whether it's one that's already inhabitable or one that I'm building, bit by bit, block by block. I don't need them all to be rehabilitated; in fact, I need few, if any, of them to be rehabilitated. And I suppose the safest, easiest thing is to let those falling structures go, let them get engulfed little by little, rather than to stir up, for the sake of some ideal finality, what might unexpectedly get sharp and hazardous, angry and resurgent.

What this line of thinking puts me in mind of (besides To the Lighthouse, which I continue to hope you'll read, and whose middle section I hope will make more sense the first time around than it might otherwise, in light of this post) is the movie Morvern Callar, a film I first saw with my anti-bourgeois then-somebody, probably a month before our inconclusive confrontation over restoring rural ruins. Morvern Callar is one of the favorite movies of a dear friend of mine, who was seeing it again (for the fourth time, if I remember correctly) the night I first saw it. It's a movie I haven't gone back to since that night, in part because it worked on me so viscerally; it's possible that I've never identified with a character on screen the way I identified with Samantha Morton's Morvern. As she reached her way through the movie's opening frames, grasping and tracing and stroking the off-screen events that had put her on the floor of the apartment where we found her, I felt along with her--so much so, and in such a literal way, that had someone touched me in my seat, the jostle of worlds might simply have overwhelmed me. She is left with a ruin at that movie's outset; theoretically she could have sought some sort of rehabilitation of that ruin, which is what all the narrative's initial vectors seem to suggest she should do. And yet. And yet. Once that ruin hits the landscape, in spectacularly understated, gloriously underjudged fashion, she constitutes herself into a structure entirely other than that which we might have anticipated. And that move struck me, and strikes me, as a thing of grave beauty, and courage, and abandon.

source for today's images: 1) me (or my OhioanIowan friend; I can't remember which of us, and I'm not trying to steal credit where credit's not due me); 2) the wacky wild Wikipedia.