Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Pleasure of Ruins

Archibald Mill ruins, on the Cannon River, Dundas, Minnesota.

Traveling up the Ohio River to Cincinnati in the late 1820s, English traveler Fanny Trollope found the scenery beautiful, but a trifle monotonous. “Were there occasionally a ruined abbey, or feudal castle, to mix the romance of real life with that of nature,” Mrs. Trollope wrote, “the Ohio would be perfect.” A few years later, American writer James Fenimore Cooper began a long sojourn in Europe with his family, and his daughter Susan was impressed by how full Europe was of monuments of past ages, from the crumbling temples of Greece and Rome to the castles and cathedrals of the middle ages. She, like many American travelers since, was impressed by how old everything was, and how durable. Returning to America, she was disappointed in the fugitive nature of American civilization: it seemed temporary, disposable. Looking back at the antiquities of Europe, Cooper wrote: "How different from all this is the aspect of our own country! It is true that our fathers, with amazing rapidity, have changed a forest wilderness into a civilized and populous land. But the fresh civilization of America is wholly different in aspect from that of the old world; there is no blending of the old and the new in this country; there is nothing old among us. If we were endowed with ruins we should not preserve them; they would be pulled down to make way for some novelty."

Susan Fenimore Cooper was a remarkably farsighted woman. In the 1850s, she was calling for historic preservation and environmental conservation, years ahead of her fellow countrymen and women. Her classic Rural Hours (1850) is the first book of nature writing by an American woman, and was published two years before Thoreau's Walden. It's a remarkable journal of her observations of the natural world, the seasons, and the human changes made to the landscape of her home in Cooperstown, New York. Her writing is lovely and perceptive. Here's an excerpt from her journal entry for Wednesday, October 4, 1848:

Sky soft, but cloudy. How rapid are the changes in the foliage at this season! One can almost see the colors growing brighter. The yellows are more decided, the scarlet and crimson spreading farther, with a pink flush on many trees where yellow prevails, especially among the maples. Still there is a clear vein of green perceptible; not the verdure of the pine and hemlock, but the lighter greens of aspens and beeches, with some oaks and chestnuts not yet touched. Indeed, the woods are very beautiful today...

She could be writing about this very morning.

The ruins of Kenilworth Castle, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England (December 2006).

America is, as Cooper and Trollope observed, singularly lacking in ruins. As Cooper said, we tend to tear things down and build new things, never allowing ruins to accumulate and give a sense of antiquity to the landscape. In England, I walked nearly every day around Kenilworth Castle, one of the most famous ruins in the country. It was begun in the eleventh century and not fully abandoned until the nineteenth. The longest seige in English history took place here in the mid-thirteenth century, and in the seventeenth century the forces of Oliver Cromwell toppled one of the walls of the Norman keep.

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England.

In the 1940s, the English novelist Rose Macaulay wrote a large book called The Pleasure of Ruins, in which she discusses the historical, aesthetic, moral, and emotional value of ruins. She had just lived through World War II. Her own home was ruined in the Blitz, and the ruins of London lay all around her. Ruins inspired her with sadness, anger, and hope. It's difficult to visit the ruins of Coventry Cathedral—firebombed during World War II–without feeling all of these things.

On Good Friday, I wandered around the fire-blackened ruins of the old cathedral as dusk fell, then went into the new cathedral, built in the early 1960s, to hear my wife's choir sing Herbert Howells' motet, "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing," written after the death of John F. Kennedy to honor the fallen President:

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble even in its ruin.

How moving it was to hear to those words at that time and in that place—on Good Friday, in Coventry Cathedral, standing resurrected among the ruins of the past.

If Mrs. Trollope were traveling down the Cannon River today, she would have the pleasure of passing the ruins of the Archibald Mill in Dundas. The ruins of mill, one of Minnesota's most important flouring mills in the nineteenth century, are for sale. I hope someone will buy them and continue to preserve them so that future generations can experience the pleasure of ruins.

Update: The Archibald Mill is one of Rice County's listed properties on the National Register of Historic Place.


Jim H. said...

Train tracks used to cross Washington Avenue in Minnespolis, not far from where the Metrodome now sits. Traffic on Washington went under the tracks through an ancient wooden viaduct. The structure was an intricate latticework of large, rough timbers. It was elegantly practical and had stood for hundreds of years. It was removed in the 1980s without so much as a peep from the historic preservationists. It wasn't a cathedral or a castle, but it had been a vital cog in the great wheel of commerce.

I miss the old Washington Avenue viaduct, though I understand why it had to go.

Christopher Tassava said...

I love ruins, too. I grew up in an old, dying copper-mining town (equal parts Welsh, Italian, and Finnish) in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I have strong, happy memories of clambering around the decaying foundations of old mine buildings, which had - ca. 1910 - dominated the area where my family's house stood. I just assumed that every place had so much cool "old" (1910s) stuff to climb on and fall off.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .