The Past, Hardship, and Buildings

3/28/18 Wednesday

As I mentioned in my earlier entry, there’s something about old buildings.  Old buildings, still in use or long abandoned, standing tall or graceful or crumbling into mud and dust.  Something about the past that pulls on me in some difficult-to-define way.  Perhaps it’s just some romantic nostalgia for a time I daydream about but never had to live through.  Maybe it’s the yearning for a time before rampant pollution and overpopulation, a time I imagine as more free and full of possibilities, with clean air and abundant wildlife and no humans for miles in many parts of our country.  I know those are fantasies, for the most part.  Life 100+ years ago was hard for the vast majority of people.  Options were limited, travel all but impossible save for the very few. 

The hardships people lived through also holds some allure for me.  Not that I necessarily wish for hardships, but there is absolutely something about hardship that forms and shapes a person.  When I read real life accounts of people who lived decades or centuries ago, I often imagine myself living in those times, wondering what kind of a man I would be, how I would meet those challenges.  Wondering if I would opt for a life of difficulty if it meant freedom to wander, to make my own way in the world, to explore beyond the far reaches of "civilization".  I don't pretend that living in a van is in any way like living in a long-ago time of freedom & hardship, but at my hope is that I'll feel like I'm free to move, mostly unencumbered, to places that are still lonely and wild.

So, back to buildings… as I said before, I’ve always had the strong sense there are countless stories these old buildings could tell.  Stories of the people who built them, lived in them, worked in them, died in them, left them in the dust as they set out for a better future, abandoned them in a desperate escape from some impending danger, left them and never gave them another thought. Many old buildings were built for completely utilitarian purposes, to serve as simple shelter or storage for goods and livestock.  Even those I find beautiful in their simplicity.  The style and design commonplace for the times, built to serve a purpose… and that’s all.  I appreciate that kind of honesty and austerity. Likewise there are some old buildings built opulently and indulgently, as symbols of prestige without a single plank or brick out of place, devoid of any semblance of modesty or simplicity. These are interesting too, if only to appreciate the engineering and craftsmanship.  They don't grab me the way the simple buildings do, though.

There was a time many years ago, when I lived in a house that wasn’t very old, but was left unfinished, abandoned for over a decade by the family who’d lived in it for years.  It sat nestled amongst towering oak trees in a small valley on a piece of property settled by my then-wife’s parents back in the 70s.  The land was (and still is) breathtakingly beautiful, with seasonal creeks running in the winter and spring, a pond on the plateau above the cleared living spaces, wild animals tip-toeing along their trails in the forest above and below the house, sunrises peeking above the hills to the east and setting over the wooded canyon to the west.  The house was large, designed in a grand fashion and executed by a builder who, though very skilled and experienced, implemented some features that were grand in their conception but somewhat flawed in their execution. Impressive nonetheless.

When we moved in, there was no electricity, no hot water, no indoor bathroom, and no refrigerator.  There was, however, a beautiful antique Wedgewood stove in the kitchen, connected to a small chimney and totally functional, if a bit dusty and rusty.  We cooked on that stove for a time, splitting wood into finger-sized pieces and filling the room with the smell of hot iron and wood smoke.  This life was far outside any previous experience of mine and a bit intimidating, but my wife was old hat (she grew up living that way) and was happy to guide me through the process of turning the clock back as it were, and living much the way the old-timers did.  We read by kerosene lamps at night (antique ones, with beautiful ornate designs on the bodies and delicate glass shielding the flame), went to sleep not long after the sun went down and woke just before the sun came up. 

That house was full of stories, and I was lucky enough to hear many of them from the original inhabitants.  When I visit genuinely old buildings, I can feel their countless secrets, locked in the timbers and floorboards, never to be told.  I want to know them.