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A Sense of History

>> Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I think I've mentioned before that our house was built about 1831.  Our Village was developed because of the Erie Canal, which ran right through the heart of it.  Our house was undoubtedly part of the Village's big growth spurt, since the original canal was completed in 1825.  It's old.  I love that it's old.  I love to flip through our abstract of title, and wonder about the people who have owned the house before us.  At some point I'll find out more about them.

Erie Canal Village, long ago

In the grand scheme of things, though, I kind of have to chuckle when people exclaim about how old our house is.  For the U.S. it's a respectable old age, but I've lived in much older.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I were itching to do something different during our junior year.  So, with the help of our history teacher, we developed an exchange program between our school and York College for Girls, in York, England.  (Sadly, YCG has now closed its doors).

The father of my exchange family was a Canon at the York Minster, which is the big cathedral in York.  The house they lived in was just across the street from the Minster, and it had been built around 1250.  No, that's not a typo.  That house was old.  When they first told me when the house had been built, I remember being surprised that they even built houses back then, or at least that they built them out of something other than reeds and thatch.  (Hey, I was only 16).

See that little stone house on the right hand side of the photo?  That's the one.  Here it is from the opposite side:

My room for those few months was that little window at the top on the right, and looked right at the Minster. You can imagine that my understanding of what constituted an "old" human structure was quickly redefined.

But then I went on a tour of the basement of the York Minster.  If I had thought the house was old, I was even further surprised to learn the history of the Minster itself.  Back in the late 1960s, the central column of the Minster was found to be sinking at an alarming rate, as the old English oak that it had been built upon had begun to rot.  In excavating under the central tower preparatory to injecting new concrete supports, they discovered an archaeological treasure, including the foundations of several churches that had previously stood on the same spot, and a stretch of old Roman road littered with some Roman artifacts.

I'll blog about the good ghost stories I learned about both the house and the Minster relative to that Roman road sometime soon.  For now, I'll just throw it out there that the house is referred to in some historical records as "the plague house."  Great start to a ghost story, right?

Ever since that time in England when I was a teenager, I've been fascinated with the passage of time, and how some of humankind's handiwork survives and stands for hundreds of years, and other bits are built, used, abandoned, and decay.

Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire

We tend to think that what we build is permanent and indestructible, but it's amazing how fast nature will reclaim something once it's abandoned.  Even our house is a good example.  When we bought it off foreclosure it had stood empty for about a year.  It had been winterized so no pipes had broken, but stray cats had gotten in through the basement and done all sorts of damage, and a fine layer of mold and dust covered every surface in the house.  It would not have been long before the damage started to affect the house structurally.  Houses and other buildings need constant care and maintenance, or else they quickly wind up full of vines, trees, squirrels, snakes, and all sorts of living things.

Ruins along the Erie Canal, Memphis, NY


I'm surely not the only one who is amazed by the concept.  Fascination with decay has been documented for a very long time.  For example, "The Wanderer" is an Old English poem preserved in an anthology known as the Exeter Book, which is a manuscript dating from the late 10th century.  "The Wanderer" itself dates from sometime before that, possibly as long ago as 597, although its actual date of origin is debated.  The poem is narrated by a warrior whose king is dead, and who is paddling the seas in solitude while reflecting on what he has lost.  Translated, one excerpt of the poem reads:

A wise hero must realize
how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

Clearly, people have long contemplated the ruins of human habitation.

Dunnotar Castle, Stonehaven, Scotland

The British Isles are full of layer upon layer of history.  All of Europe is, for that matter, as are other areas of the world that have long been populated.  Many of the areas of Ireland and the highlands of Scotland are full of abandoned structures, very slowly decaying.  Ruins are one of the reasons I love Ireland and Scotland so much - even ruins of castles seem to stick around for a mighty long time, and I can think of few things I enjoy more than exploring them.  As you can tell, I tend to take pictures of ruins, both because they're picturesque and because they capture my imagination.


Sherkin Island, Ireland

Godstow Abbey, Oxfordshire

In the northeastern US, however, things seem to get re-consumed by the wilderness very quickly.  Part of that is surely our building materials.  Simply put, wood rots.  But I think our wilderness just seems more eager to take things back unto itself.  I'm sure there are many good scientific explanations for that eagerness (types of plants, amount of rainfall, etc., etc.).  But to me, I find ruins like those my husband and I stumbled upon on Sunday to be a constant reminder of the hardship people endured while creating the structure and infrastructure we now take for granted.  Ours is not a natural environment that readily gave up its hold.

Ruins along the Erie Canal, Memphis, NY

I love art and architecture and love that examples are preserved for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.  I would be heartbroken if the York Minster and that little house next to it were allowed to crumble, and feel that way about many of the places I have lived and loved. I was also overjoyed to learn the old Erie Canal aqueduct had been reconstructed, so that it once again reflected the former glory of the Erie Canal days.  

But there's also a part of me that likes to hope that all the stuff we build and all the damage we do to our natural environment isn't really permanent.   I find ruins to be a refreshing reminder that the wilderness would be happy to take it all back... if we let it.

8 comments:

Woodswalker February 9, 2010 at 5:07 PM  

Beautiful photos of those ruins in the British Isles and along the Erie Canal. Did you take the British ones when you were there in high school or have you been back?

I love to walk around long-derelict houses, wondering about the lives that once lived in them.

Woodswoman Extraordinaire: February 9, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

I feel the same way about derelict houses, and I tend to want to rescue them. They seem lonely!

I have been back to the British Isles a number of times - I can't seem to stay away. I spent my junior year of college at Oxford and traveled all over Ireland and Scotland then, and have been back to Ireland since. Most of the photos are from my time in college.

Sneaksleep February 9, 2010 at 5:58 PM  

Well *that* post certainly brought back a flood of memories. :) I love old things and ruins too (as you know). Wait until you travel to India--that place has some OLD structures!

Ellen Rathbone February 10, 2010 at 11:04 AM  

What a beautiful post! Not only do we share a keen interest in nature, but also the British Isles and old ruins! You've inspired me to go through some old photo albums with my digital camera and do some historic posts.

Take us travelling with you again!

barefootheart February 11, 2010 at 12:12 AM  

They really do have a different sense of time over there, don't they? Very enjoyable post! (P.S. for the way nature recovers her own, you might enjoy The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. I liked it.

Anonymous February 12, 2010 at 9:48 PM  

Loved your blogs this week!
Check out the old Memphis map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memphis_NY_1874_Sweet%27s_Atlas_map.png

Eutychus2 February 13, 2010 at 10:54 AM  

Woodswoman
I just arrived on your site .... I am a history buff/and love nature and creatures. We see remnants of the Erie Canal every time we visit my daughter/family on the way to Syracuse N.Y. A couple of years ago my wife and I were vacationing in mid/southern Ohio and actually visited a small burg and part of the Erie Canal also. Keep up the good work, I think I'm really going to enjoy your site. My wife is convinced I read too much to, but maybe one day I'll write a 'best seller' and see if she complains then!

Woodswoman Extraordinaire February 14, 2010 at 9:38 AM  

Sneaksleep - I can hardly wait for a trip to India. We should plan one! When budgets allow...

LN - I shall certainly delve into the photo albums for more posts on travels. In these winter months when there isn't much growing outside, they shall at least provide something to write about. Thanks for the idea!

Barefootheart - I just picked up The World Without Us. Looks fascinating!

Anonymous, love the old map. It doesn't show these buildings, but it's fascinating to look at old maps of what once was where.

Eutychus2 - Welcome! It's great to have you here, and I don't think it's possible to read too much. :)

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