Ruin Porn

There’s a strange and undeniable draw towards abandoned places. Ghost towns, forsaken movie palaces, swank shipwrecks, crumbling castles and the like all lure in adventurers with their promise of poignancy and a special brand of voyeurism.

                                                                ~ Melissa Breyer

Every day it seems like I’m reliving some great disaster of history — a pandemic, overt political corruption, racial oppression, martial police brutality, societal dysfunction and climate disasters. I’ve read histories of the European Dark Ages, the Black Plague, catastrophic weather, totalitarianism, various wars and ethnic cleansing.

I can’t really tell how near we are to those events today, but I keep getting twinges of fear that we’re getting close to something like that. The precursors to each historic disaster were obvious at the time, but mostly ignored or intentionally misrepresented. Even histories were written by the victors or survivors and only reflected the perspective and bias of those reporters.

Maybe that’s what has caught my interest (and others’) in old ruins. We seem to be obsessed with the ruins of the human past. We walk among the crumbling structures and imagine what life must have been like and marvel at the aesthetic or primitivity. Trips to Europe are replete with visits to old castles, palaces and churches, battlefields from ancient wars, and other monuments to historic greatness. Shrines to both current and ancient gods occupy prominence, unless removed or destroyed by subsequent deities.

You can’t live in the South and not be confronted with the real or imagined remains of the Civil War. Once, outside Atlanta, I walked through some trenches on a “mountainside” battlefield where hundreds of soldiers had rained lead down on the approaching troops. The forested slopes had been denuded by cannon fire — intentionally to improve lines of sight — and the devastation on both sides had been incredible. It made me realize that the term, “cannon-fodder” is not an exaggeration and based in reality.  

In the UK, I visited the Tintangel Castle ruins in Cornwall on a gloomy, rainy afternoon in the 1970’s. This supposed birthplace of King Arthur is steeped in the lore of Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Along with other castles in England, it brings home the practical mechanisms for living and waging war in those times. Villages were largely unprotected, surrounding lands were operated for the benefit of the king. A supreme ruler was answerable to no one, except maybe to the Church. And even that operated outside civil law and at the sole discretion of the highest-ranking church official.

Physical features told the story of the power structure — the castle had defensible walls, so all the surrounding population was dependent on it for protection; the church was the spiritual authority and, as such, had to be more elaborate and ostentatious that any other building.  The surrounding population was subservient to both the King and the church and supported them financially.

In the Scottish borderlands, we visited the ruins of Melrose Abbey, gutted by the invading English Protestant troops. The shells of towering walls and arches are still impressive, — it’s not hard to understand that the poor peasants back then would have been cowed and intimidated by the church’s show of power. Conquest required that power symbols be defaced, leaving ruins for us to admire centuries later.

In Greece and Italy, the adornments of past religious and civil dominance remain, providing a window into their centuries-old civilizations. In the Americas we aren’t so fortunate, since the Church took it upon itself to try to eradicate any vestiges of pre-Columbian civilizations, and the occupying immigrants wanted to erase native cultures. However, pyramids in Mexico and cliff dwellings in the Southwest U.S. escaped much of the intentional destruction and natural decay. Places like Chichen Itza and Mesa Verde attest to the sophistication of the civilizations we destroyed.

While working on the Navajo in Arizona, I was able to explore several ancient Anasazi sites. One, an adobe/stone house on a mini-mesa had been violently burned from the inside. Another required rappelling down a cliff on the Little Colorado River to a small rock-enclosed set of rooms. The sites had obviously been visited by others, but the sense of exploration was inspiring (and rappelling down a sheer cliff on a rope tied onto the bumper of a Volkswagen Beetle added an adrenaline rush).

On a trip to Kansas City in the 1980’s, I stumbled on to the old stockyards along the Missouri River and wandered around for a few hours. The place told the tale of massive movements of cattle from western ranches to the slaughterhouses in Chicago and back East. Large parts were unused, but a few relics of past occupation remained. Concrete had replaced the wooden structures but the mechanics of moving large numbers of big animals was obvious to see. (It actually reminded me quite a bit of the crowd-control mechanisms at Disneyland.) An abandoned office still showed tallies of animals moved, and the detritus of long-used work desks and beat up furniture.  There were signs that other creatures (birds, small rodents, insects) had now moved in.  

Through my work, I have had the opportunity to visit industrial sites, many with still-existing, older unused portions or now-defunct previous operations. At a jet engine manufacturing plant in Florida, seldom-used test platforms out in the swamps were rife with alligators and other critters. The swamp was slowly moving back in to reclaim the natural characteristics.

Mining sites are slowly disintegrating back to nature and human depredation. Old structures were stripped of wood and old metal machinery, and slowly left to the ravages of weather and time. At a few sites, it was possible to see how the mined ore was pushed through the mill, and each step of the grinding, dissolving, settling, filtering, drying and recovery processes. Wastes were generally piled up next to the structures or funneled off to out-of-the way parts of the site.

Abandoned military bases hold a potpourri of ancient, old and recent stories. At a remote hundred-plus year-old weapons bunker surrounded by marsh on an old airbase in Florida, civil war ammunition was being destroyed as modern ammo was brought in. We were cautioned not to veer off the surrounding paths, since it was not clear that all the obsolete ammo had been kept inside the bunker and may have sunk into the wet ground.

Over the years, I’ve been interested in old buildings and explored quite a few. Some were abandoned and in various states of ruin, but some have been somewhat preserved and possibly continued to be used. They don’t need to be big, complex, historically-significant places to be interesting. Crumbling barns and farmhouses as easily reveal a sense of mystery and appreciation for the past lives they represent. Oh, the stories they could tell…

As we face our own catastrophes these days, I often wonder what the future will bring. A Statue of Liberty eroding into the sea? Shopping malls eaten away by jungle? As Melissa Breyer notes, “But for those of us nature lovers, the best of this may be the simple beauty of the wild world reclaiming that which it once called its own. Eventually, abandoned structures become completely swallowed up by vegetation and the earth itself, leaving few traces of the human footprint.”

Additional information:

Melissa Breyer, Ruin Porn, June 27, 2017, TreeHugger

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