AGE AS AN ARCHIVE
In youth we learn; in old age we understand. — Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Age is an archive of history, wherein ancient trees and forests have much in common with historic buildings and cities. Both have humble begins—a tree seed; a single, small building. Whether a forest or a city, each becomes progressively older as the ever-newer components are added in time and space until the beginning passes through time into antiquity.
When you plant a melon seed, it germinates, puts down roots, send up shoots, and grows into a vine that adds flowers, which are pollinated by bees. A flower, having served its purpose, withers, but the birthplace of the flower commences to produce a fruit. The fruit, in turn, grows, and in so doing goes from unripe to ripe to overripe. Our task, yours and mine, is to pick the fruit at exactly the time of its perfection. Wait too long, and the melon returns to the soil from whence it came. This is one cycle of aging.
I represent another phenomenon in the cycle of aging, a corollary of which I see in my garden. Spring is the time when the plants of my garden are young and soft and tender, their leaves a new bright green, burgundy, or gentle silver. By summer, the plants are mature and their leaves are often coarse and dull, with simple holes and creative lacework eaten into them by myriad insects, pill bugs, and ever-hungry slugs. With the arrival of autumn, the leaves begin to wither in hot, drying winds. But it is the cold north wind of approaching winter that causes them to break loose their bonds and joust and bounce their way to earth, where they disappear into the unknown from whence they came, into the atomic interchange of soil, which they will enrich with their passing.
As a babe, I, too, was tender. My skin was smooth and soft, filled with the elasticity and possibilities of life. In adolescence, my skin was taut and supple as my strong muscles worked beneath it. Then came mid-life and my skin began to change. It lost some of its softness, pliability, and smoothness as years of working in the hot sun and freezing cold, in the humid forests and dry deserts began taking their toll. And now, as I approach my seventy, the skin on the back of my neck has become leathery from decades of exposure to the weather, that of my arms is no longer drawn so taut, and an amazing variety of little beings—from warts, to brown spots, to moles, like animals in a zoo—are taking up residence over my body as my skin ages.
To me, watching my body age—as I now must—is the most profound, concrete example of cumulative effects, a lag period, and a threshold. I say this because, like most people, I was unaware of the long-term effects of my youthful actions that would be visited on me as my body aged. All those years that I seemed immune (as I saw myself at least) to the effects of sun and wind on my skin, gathering day by day over months and years in the invisible present until the time arrive when the cumulative effects emerged from the unknown lag period and showed themselves on the quality of my aging skin. Only now do I understand that the wisdom of old age cannot "cure" the ignorance of youth. Put differently, every abuse of our bodies is added to a tally sheet, the balance of which we must all pay, at times with interest. True, I am showing my age, but what about a building? How does it show age?
Like an old tree that has craggy bark and broken limbs, a wooden building in the country begins to turn silvery and to crack with sun and wind if boards are unpainted. With cracks, come broken pieces through which the storm winds of winter can blow their chilling breath. Through the long count of years, it might sag a little because of loosened joints that allow it to creak in the wind, giving it a sense of life and foreboding to the imagination.
I remember one such building: an old, faded barn whose paint was peeling and whose roof was tired and sagging. Its door was ajar and its windows, long devoid of glass, gave it the appearance of a haunting stare. I was thirteen years old in 1952, and relegated to a boarding school in Switzerland. Every other week, I had to go to the orthodontist, which necessitated my walking from the boarding school into the village, passed the old barn, and back. It was quite pleasant walking to the village in the morning, but the trips home at night were another story.
The graveled country road to and from the village lay though vineyards, where in summer there hung such an abundance of plump, sweet grapes ripening in the sun that it seemed the vines would surely rip loose from the great expanses of heavy wire holding them in rows like soldiers. But with the full moon of winter, peering knowingly through its halo in the silent fog, casting just enough light to suggest what might be, yet not enough to show what really was, my imagination ran wild. For then, the vines, with their naked, twisted skeletons hanging in rows, look like ghouls with contorted arms outstretched in crucifixion.
The suspense of the whole, dreadful trip was heightened as I passed the old barn, from whose dark hulk issued little moans and sighs like breathing. Passing the barn at night under the very best of circumstances gave me goose-bumps all over, but my hair fairly stood on end when, as happened now and then, a pair of cats decided to fight just as I was sneaking—as quietly as possible—past the sullen outline around whose groaning frame swirled the fog.
Suddenly, out of the gloom, a cat growled and screamed its anger, then another, and the barn seemed to writhe as though the fog's probing fingers were tickling it as the cold north wind began to blow. I, in turn, was instantly airborne, my feet barely touching the gravel, my lungs burning with fire as I sped into the night, pursued by the panic of my imagination.
The aging of a building in a city is somewhat subtler, both within and without. What kind of changes might take place as a building marks time?
First, let's look inside:
the electrical wiring ages with the building, not only in real time but also because technology has resulted in a new and better kind of electrical wire, which will be improved again sometime in the future
the plumbing system of old-style pipes that rust have been outdated by plastic pipes that do no, and eventually will be replaced again by some other kind of pipe
the lead-based paint that required turpentine to dissolve has been replaced by a water-based latex paint that easily washes dissolves in water
solid wood construction gave way to plywood; then to chipboard, waferboard, and laminated beams
wear caused by many years of human use becomes increasingly obvious, such as nicks in doorjambs, scratches on floors and walls, smudges about light switches, discoloring of paint, and so on
Now let's look outside:
continual change that takes place in the surrounding area, such as growth in the population and its accompanying buildings and infrastructure as the town grows
changes in the architectural styles of buildings
changes in human values, such as the shift from solidly designed and constructed buildings to those designed with planned obsolescence in our disposable society
So it is the cycle of aging advances the notion that to exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to be endlessly entrained by time, the conveyor of age. The phenomenon of aging is equally true for a fine cheese, the excellence of a vintage wine, the historical record of a building, or the veneration of a tree. There is a caveat with trees, however.
Many people think that a large tree is necessarily an old tree, but that is not always true. There are circumstances under which a tree can grow fast, reaching great size, and still be young in years. A truly "old" tree is old in years, hence physiologically old, not inevitably large in size. This confusion between size and age reminds me of an incident that took place some years ago. I led a group of people up to a rocky knoll on the slopes of Mt. Rainier in Washington State. When we arrived, I stood next to a tree whose top I could almost look over, and said : "Folks, welcome to the ancient forest." The people just stared at me, and then started laughing because we had been walking through towering Douglas-firs and western hemlocks, only to come upon this puny, stunted forest. They laughed until I pointed out that the big trees through which we had been walking were merely 250 to 300 years old, whereas the stunted forest was at least 600 years old.
As great size gives the illusion of old age in trees, I have seen the illusion of age simulated with jewelry by adding fake patina in order to create an aura of mystery, the echoes from a distant past and, perhaps, a distant land somewhere beyond the horizon of imagination.
AGE AS AN ARCHIVE IN "EVERYFOREST"
All endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time. — Mitch Albom
I spent part of October 1992 in Japan, where the Shinto priests invited me to visit the Grand Shrine of Ise City. Shinto, in its broadest sense, refers to indigenous Japanese spiritual culture. When used in the narrow sense, it refers to the rites offered to deities or "kami," primarily those of Heaven and Earth listed in classical Japanese works of the ancient period. The facility used for the performance of this worship is called a "jinju" or shrine.
That Nature and natural phenomena are revered as deities is a result of the Japanese view of Nature as a kind of parent, which nurtures life and provides limitless blessings. In keeping with this view, Shinto shrines all over Japan are surrounded by luxuriant groves of trees. Backed by the Shinto view of untouched, natural scenery as sacred in itself, the "forests" surrounding the shrines are an important element of each shrine. In addition, the priests of olden time planted cryptomeria trees within the Grand Shrine. Today, these trees are not only 500 years old but also each tree has its own 500-year recorded history.
I tell you about the cryptomeria trees because they are revered for their written history as much as for themselves as living beings, and therein lies a critical similarity with a historic building in a city—namely, its recorded history, as well as the memories passed from one generation to the another through the corridors of time. In fact, the cryptomeria trees are so loved by the people they pick pieces of bark off of them as a remembrance, much as a mother clips and saves a lock of her baby's hair. The people were taking so much bark, the priests had to place protective, wooden "girdles" around each tree lest the people pick them bare. How tragic it is will for the people when their sacred trees die. How tragic is it when an earthquake or fire destroys a revered building of ancient origin that has for centuries guarded human memories.
The flip-side of the age-related coin is that some archives of history, without pedigree or voice, are valued primarily as a commodity, like the old piñion pine forest in the vicinity of Taos, New Mexico, which the indigenous Pueblo Indians had long used for both food (its seeds) and firewood. When the Spanish invaded the area in the 1500s, they also began using the old pine for food and firewood. With time, it became tradition, as it long had been for the Pueblos.
At length, the Anglos invaded, and the overall population grew. Since old piñion pine was the best firewood, everyone wanted an equal share. In recent years, however, there has been a great influx of retired Anglos from Texas and Southern California, most wanting their "fair share" of the firewood.
The result of this continual and growing onslaught on the slow-growing, centuries-old piñion forest is its imminent demise, because there is relatively little of it left. Along with the biological decline of the old forest surrounding Taos is the rapidly growing problem of air pollution from the continual increase in wood smoke.
The people of Taos, by ignoring the reciprocal nature of their participation with their surrounding landscape, are seeing the cultural ambiance of the town's setting fading into history through a rapid growth in the human population, increased cutting of the old piñion forest for firewood, increasing air pollution from burning the firewood, and the loss of its ancient forest by clinging to the tradition of cutting it down for winter's fuel.
In this case, its seems the old piñion forest is an abstraction to most people of today, with the possible exception of a few Pueblo elders who collected piñion nuts from certain trees throughout most of their lives and so became acquainted with the trees as personalities, much as the Japanese have with their cryptomeria trees. Yet, these piñion pines, unlike the cryptomeria trees, had no written history, only memories held in the minds and hearts of a few Pueblo elders.
Now, let's visit briefly with the giant sequoia trees that inhabited scattered areas of central California on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, some of their seeds germinated and grew until they fell with age or were cut down early in this century. Although giant sequoias still live, they are not so old; one tree, the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, was estimated to be 3,800 years old in 1968. It would have germinated 1,832 B.C. and would have been 132 years old when, tradition says, a people called the Hyksos came from the east and conquered the Nile Delta at the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty in Egypt. The tree would have been 632 years old when the Trojan War was fought in 1,200 BC and 1,056 years old when the first Olympic games were held in 776 BC. When the Great Wall of China was built in 215 BC, the tree would have been 1,617 years old. Thus the tree would already have been 1,832 years old when Jesus was born.
There is another tree, named bristle-cone pine, which occurs today only on high peaks from Colorado to southern Utah, central and southern Nevada, southeastern California, and northern Arizona. There was a bristle-cone pine in Great Basin National Park that was over 5,000 years old when it was cut down about 1990. If the bristle-cone had been exactly 5,000 years old when it was cut, it would have germinated in 3,010 B.C., and would have been 1,010 years old when the pyramids were built in Giza, Egypt and the Semites conquered the Third Dynasty of Ur at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, forever ending Sumerian rule. The tree would have been 4,785 years old when the American Revolution began and 4,797-year-old when the Constitution of the United States was written.
On the 13th of October this year (2006), the wheel of age will turned again, and I will be 68 years old, a senior citizen now eligible for social security and Medicare. And the bristle-cone would have been 5,015 years old, if the person who cut it down would have had the wisdom not to. Just think what these historians of ancient times could tell us if we could converse with them and they with us?
While we can't speak with them per se, they have a language through which they converse with us; that language is their growth rings. Each year, a tree develops two growth rings, a light one in the summer and a dark one in winter. By counting the pairs of rings, a tree tells us its age.
Trees also tell us about changes in weather patterns through the analysis of their growth rings. When years are wet and the temperature mild, their growth rings are relatively wide, indicating good years. But when summers are dry, their narrow rings tell us about drought. What a story a 5,000-year-old tree can tell.
In addition, charcoal in a growth ring tells us about fire; certain irregularities indicated that a bear stripped the bark in search of the nutritious cambium (the tree's living tissue), which the bear than scrapped off with its lower, incisor teeth; holes and dead areas of the rings speak of injury and insects. As well, arrowheads, having become embedded in a young tree a century or more earlier, are today found buried deep within the wood, and by counting the rings backward, starting with today, the tree tells us in what year the arrow was shot.
This is only part of the story a tree can tell. So it is fortunate that a few ancient trees are protected in National Parks and other places. But trees secreted in the memories of people, such as the piñions that sustained the Pueblo elders through the decades of their lives, are not protected because memories are seldom deemed of sufficient merit in our competitive, economically driven culture to warrant honoring and protecting a potential commodity for its historic and/or sacred value, despite the fact that doing so would be a wise, long-term, economic and spiritual decision for future generations.
The foregoing statement is especially true for those old forests around the world that the timber industry views as a windfall profit because they have no investment in them other than their conversion into products and money. There are, nevertheless, many valid reasons for saving the old in both forest and city.
AGE AS AN ARCHIVE IN "EVERYCITY"
A community's history must be passed from one generation to the next if the community is to know itself throughout the passage of time. One landmark of that past resides in historic buildings. Moreover, an area can be designated a historic district when enough old buildings reside therein. In both cases, the buildings record a snapshot in a particular era of the community's history, each of which is woven into the march of time. As well, artifacts from those who went before are housed within a museum maintained by the historical society, the caretaker of shadows from bygone days.
In this sense, it is no small irony, writes James Howard Kunstler, that during the greatest era of prosperity in the United States, the decades following World War II, only the cheapest possible buildings were constructed, including civic buildings. To understand what he means, compare any richly designed post office or city hall built at the turn of the twentieth century with today's dreary, unimaginative, concrete-box counterparts.
Kunstler's point is a good one. When the United States was a far less wealthy nation (by monetary standards), things were built to endure because it would have seemed immoral, if not insane, in our great-grandparents' day to throw away hard-earned money and honest labor, as well as wasting valuable resources future generations would need—something guaranteed to disintegrate within thirty years.
The buildings erected in those earlier days paid homage to history through their design, including elegant solutions to the age-old problems posed by the cycles of weather and light. They paid respect to the future because they were consciously built to endure beyond the lifetimes of the people who designed and constructed them. Kunstler accounts for this continuum of past, present, and future in what he calls "chronological connectivity."
Chronological connectivity, says Kunstler, is a fundamental pattern of the Universe: "an understanding that time is a defining dimension of existence—particularly the existence of living things, such as human beings, who miraculously pass into life and then inevitably pass out of it." It puts us in touch with the ages and connects us with a sense of eternity; it connects us with our place in the humanity's story and so indicates that we are somehow part of an organism that is infinitely larger than ourselves.
The notion of chronological connectivity suggests that the large organism we help to create even cares about us and that we in turn must respect ourselves and all life that will follow us in time, just as those who preceded us, respected those who followed them. This notion is important, asserts Kunstler, who practices no formal religion, because it puts us in touch with the holy, that which is at once humbling and exhilarating. Connectivity with the countries of the past and the horizons of the future lead us in the direction of enchantment, grace, and sanity.
But if the continuity of a community's history is disrupted, the community looses its place in its own story and suffers an extinction of identity. Then, having lost touch with its story, the community begins to view itself and its landscape not as an inseparable extension of itself, but rather as a separate commodity to be exploited for immediate financial gain. When this happens, community is destroyed from within because trust is withdrawn in the face of growing competition from increasingly transient members and/or outside "predators."
We have rejected both the past and the future since 1945, says Kunstler, a repudiation that is plainly manifest in our graceless buildings, each constructed to disintegrate within a few decades. This consciously built-in decline is euphemistically termed "design life," which may last fifty years. Since today's buildings are expected to serve only our era, we seem unwilling to expend money or effort for either their beauty or their service as storytellers to the generations of the future.¹
Nor do we care about those elegant solutions to the problems created by the cycles of weather and light; after all, we have such technology as electricity and central heating. Thus, many new office buildings have windows that cannot be opened or virtually no windows at all, further isolating people from the flow and ebb of Nature, such as the weather. This process of disconnecting from the time continuum of the past, through the present, into the future and from the cycles of weather and light diminishes us spiritually, impoverishes us socially, and destroys the time-honored cultural patterns we call community. As an Army major at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, put it in reference to the electronic media, they are about "now, now, now, with all the depth of a credit card." Unfortunately, the same can be said of most modern planners and so-called "developers. "
No community today is untouched by the interplay between its traditional self (the richness of its original story based on social well-being and effectiveness) and the greater, more expedient industrial-commercial society (the "Wall Street" story, which is focused solely on quantity, efficiency, and money). It's hardly surprising, therefore, that conflicts over the value of place arise with increasing frequency between those members of a community who hold the traditional values of life-long residents and those who hold the "modern" values of an increasingly transient population. In this sense, many communities are in transition between sets of values, which must be carefully assessed in terms of both human attitudes and the ways in which land is used.
There is today an exploding need to find a common language and conceptual framework of mutual understanding about the sense of place and its historical significance. I say this not only because of what we, in the present generation, have to lose but also because of what future generations have to lose if we, who will become the stuff of antiquity in that distant time, are not mindful of the legacy we pass forward. In addition, I am watching the sense of community being lost as citizens become increasingly reticent to think in terms of maintenance. We Americans seem eager to build, but then begrudge providing the dollars necessary to maintain our highways and schools, let alone our downtowns, which we effectively abandon in favor of ever-newer, isolated, "disposable" shopping malls and housing developments.
One of the reasons so many townspeople are reluctant to spend money on maintenance is their lack of long-term commitment to the town wherein they reside while earning a living because they plan to move somewhere else upon retirement to spend the rest of their lives. With such thinking, why would they be committed to spending their hard-earned money on maintaining a place they are eagerly planning to leave?
Be that as it may, what we neglect—we lose, be it a house, a street, a downtown, or community itself. Communities are not made to be disposable; they are not designed in terms of planned obsolescence. This could be partially remedied if each member of a community would tithe a percentage of their time to do something that would improve the quality of their community.
Tithing a portion of one's time is the beginning of recognizing the difference between real wealth and money. Conventional money knows no loyalty to a sense of place, a local community, or even a nation, and so it flows toward a global economy in which traditional social bonds give way to a rootless quest for the highest monetary return. The real price we pay for money, the real cost, is the hold it has on our sense of what is possible—the prison it builds around our imagination. We forget that money is an artifact that we conjured, designed, and assign value to. The irony in our forgetfulness is that money is now leading us around like a bull with a ring through its nose. Perhaps it's time to figure out where we want to go and the real value of getting there, and then created a monetary system that serves people, rather than a deity to which people are subservient.
Although people and corporations say they are competing for resources and markets, they are in reality competing for money, and in so doing are using resources and markets. "A more fascinating aspect of money," remarks author Caroline Myss, "is the fact that it can weave itself into the human psyche as a substitute for the life-force." An astute observation because we make our private thoughts into public declarations in the way we spend money, just as we do when we speak or write.
In sum, age, in a city, is the archive of history that survives in the creations of the human mind and heart, the artifacts that withstand the ravages of time and thereby safeguard the inspiration that gave them birth in the human psyche.
WHY SAVE THE OLD?
Humanity's search for meaning in life is paralleled by a search for its beginning—the first thought, the first human word, the first culture, the oldest building, the most ancient script. All of these things act to help us countervail our sense of frailty, vulnerability, and mortality as we face the uncertainties that daily beset us because they help us to visualize our place in the chronicles humanity's journey through time.
Another way we face the unknowns of life is to leave a legacy by which we are remembered. To an architect, that is a building; to a planner, a city; to an author, a book; to a film director, a motion picture; to an artist, a painting or a photograph; to a citizen, it might be a tree planted in memory of a loved one. Whatever it is, it is meant to carry some part of us, some concrete evidence of our existence, into the future and thereby tell our personal stories throughout the ages as time wends it way into the unknown and unknowable.
And there is yet another reason to save the old in both forest and city; that reason is to teach each new generation about the basic principles upon which their modernity is based, lessons (both positive and negative) that are fundamental to their social-environmental sustainability. Although language is the ultimate conveyor of knowledge and the principles envision by humanity, it is also the oldest artifact in the human psyche—the single, tangible link to the far memory of our species. But language to most people is an abstraction that needs to be augmented by concrete examples of the idea, thing, image, or function expressed by words; therein lies what is perhaps the greatest value of saving the old—the ability to see, touch, smell, and, at times, even taste whatever it is.
The Value of Saving Old Parts of a City
A forest, especially an old forest, is the classroom for learning about Nature's biophysical principles as functional elements of design. The city, on the other hand, is the practicum in which we humans learn how to apply the biophysical principles, and through our application, to test our understanding of them.
To this end, I will list the reasons for saving old forests and contrast them with the borrowed ideas in a city. The reasons to save old forests are: (1) they are unique in time and space; once gone, they are irreplaceable, (2) they are a living library in which we can study the biophysical principles of Nature's design elements that are govern Everyforest and Everycity, (3) Nature's biophysical principles function perfectly in old forests, whether or not we understand them, (4) the living trees archive their knowledge of the past, which we can read, but only it the trees remain in Nature's living library, where they will become even more valuable for the education of future generations because they are continually recording environmental history, and (5) an old forest is a metaphorical mirror of what it means to be separate individuals and simultaneously a universal people.
Old forests are unique in time and space; once gone, they are irreplaceable. As well, old cities, or parts of cities, are unique in time and space; once gone, they too are irreplaceable—as well every archaeologist knows. That is why so much effort has been spent over many decades to find and excavate ancient cities of all cultures and preserve their detail, as much as humanly possible, in order to learn more about our collective story woven into the chronicle of humanity's journey through time.
I write this with a great deal of humility because I have been privileged to visit many cities in North Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. Some were exquisite and left me in awe of the potential majesty residing in the human imagination when its bent is to create beauty in composition, form, and function that will delight throughout the ages. Other cities I found to be a relative hodgepodge of unplanned pieces stuck together over the decades. Nevertheless, each had its own lesson to teach; each was a facet of the human jigsaw puzzle of which I am a piece, and each had a memorable part that left an impression in my psyche. I am a richer person for having visited so many villages, towns, and cities because I have found a part of myself in each of them and have been blessed accordingly with a greater vantage then I would otherwise have.
How long, I wonder, will the mystery and the lessons enshrined in old cities and parts thereof be able to resist the onslaught modern "development" that summarily razes the old and in order to replace the thoughtful creation—the legacy—of bygone people and years with the imagineless, ticky-tacky creations of today's money chase. As with the vanishing, old forest, I feel a growing sense of impoverishment as historic buildings and areas of cities are allowed to fade unrequited into the unknown, forever lost to the impatience of today's hurry, worry society.
Old forests are living libraries in which we can study the biophysical principles of Nature's design elements that govern Everyforest and Everycity. As a tree's physiological age is marked by the passage of years and the accrual of age-related characteristics of trunk, limb, and crown, so those few buildings of today that are noteworthy display the gathering maturity of architectural design. I say gathering maturity because they are not only more creative and daring architecturally but also more closely aligned with Nature's biophysical principles in order to withstand earthquakes and other cataclysmic events.
The first architectural endeavor of a hominid was to find a suitable cave in which to live. (A hominid, hom•i•nid, is any of the modern or extinct primates that belong to the taxonomic family Hominidae, Hom•in•idae, of which we are members.) I say suitable cave because it had to be secure against cave bears and saber-tooth tigers, among other predators. It had to offer sufficient protection against inclement weather, and thereby retain heat for its inhabitants. It also had to be large enough to house a number of individuals and still be within a reasonable distance from water and a goodly supply of food. Survival dictated that each generation needed to pass to its offspring what it had learned through trial and error about the important qualities of a good cave. And so the rudiments of language came into being though an urge to communicate, to share with one another life's inner, private experiences of thought-the fertile bed of germinating ideas.
By two million years ago, an archaic species of human, known as Homo erectus ("erect man"), had developed the physical organs and mental capacity to string together three to five words at a time. This early language might have consisted mostly of simple nouns, the names of tangible objects, rather than abstract verbs and adjectives. By 400,000 years ago, the extinct early people of the Neanderthal Valley in Germany (Homo neanderthalensis—ne•an•der•thal•ensis—the suffix ensis means "belonging to") could do much better. And so a spoken, human language was gradually born.
Language guides thought, perception, sharing, and our sense of reality by archiving knowledge. Knowledge, in turn, is the storehouse of ideas, and language is the storehouse of knowledge. Language allows each succeeding generation to benefit from the knowledge gathered and compounded by generations already passed. It is a tool, a catalyst, a gift from adults to children. By means of language, each generation begins farther up the ladder of knowledge than the preceding one. In this sense, each building has, from the first cave inhabited by a hominid, been a functional text in humanity's architecturally library of time. Each structure is thus a volume in the library, and language is the librarian that guards the knowledge harvested and stored through the ages. That language is the librarian makes sense because, according to an Italian proverb: Words are feminine, facts masculine.
In March 1964, I sat on a large piece of ironstone in the Nubian Desert of Egypt within sight of the Nile and about 100 miles north of the Sudanese border. As it turned out, another man—a Paleolithic man—had also sat upon that same piece of ironstone thousands of years before as he chipped hand axes. One of his finished axes lay at my feet. Picking it up, I discovered the tip was broken, and I could almost feel his frustration at breaking the tip just when he thought he had a finished implement.
I felt, and still feel, a kinship with this artisan of antiquity because I know that today I somehow stand on the shoulders of what he had learned and passed on to his children, who learned more and passed it on to their children, who learned still more and passed on to their children, until, somewhere in time, when enough knowledge had been accumulated, the first "free-stand shelter" was born in the mind of one person.
Looking around my own home, I realize that I had, for a moment, sat on a stool in humanity's library of the ages on that day in March 1964. With this realization, I contemplate the eons of human striving for survival, knowledge, and self-expression that went into the creation of the language that in turn made the first freestanding shelter possible. Today, as in the time of humanity's collective far memory, that sense of self-expression is intended to shape Nature in order to fulfill a human desire, whether embodied in an implement with which to perform a task or in a beautiful building as a metaphor that expresses the meaning of one's life. The innate drive to create the condition that we want seems to be a trait common to all of humanity and causes our species to appeal to Nature for "mercy" on the one hand, while simultaneously attempting on the other to mold Nature in a way that creates an outcome that is both predictable and in our favor—be it a hand ax or a safe, secure, beautiful building to stand as a personal legacy that, in serving others physically, serves us emotionally.
Because ideas (like those leading to the chipping of a stone hand ax or the creation of a magnificent building) evolved over millennia with thought and language, it seems to me that ideas belong to everyone and are meant to be free. It is for this reason that I say old buildings and old parts of villages, towns, and cities are of such great value. They are the libraries of the past that teach of architectural foresight and creativity, such as the brave thrusting into the unknown world of consequences that created the first arch, the first dome, the first vaulted ceiling.
Clearly, pioneering creativity is beset with errors in understanding, interpretation, judgment, and application, but without errors, nothing is learned. Nevertheless, it is errors that contemporary building codes were devised to correct, errors of structural weaknesses born of ignorance and the "shortcuts" of those who placed economic "efficiency" before structural "effectiveness." Without retaining some of the old, however, the language of the new could not arise, for there would be nothing concrete from which to learn, nothing to inspire alternative designs, and thereby correct old design flaws.
In 2004, Tammy Stehr, my neighbor a few houses away, wrote the following letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Corvallis Gazette-Times:
I keep hearing that Corvallis High School should be torn down and replaced with new construction because it's old and worn out. This attitude, sadly, reflects the culmination of decades of mindless consumerism. It's the ultimate expression of a "throw-away society," where the old, the worn, the shabby is simply tossed rather than reused and recycled. …when the car tires wear out, you replace them; you don't throw the car away. When the roof starts leaking, you repair or replace it; you don't bulldoze the whole house. When a button falls off your shirt, you sew it back on; you don't shred the entire garment.
Even shiny new schools and houses often have mice, but you evict them and plug the ingress points; you don't sue the contractor. … Wiring wears out, plumbing breaks down, door knobs fall off; responsible people get things repaired rather than throwing up their hands and expecting someone to hand them a replacement … which ultimately will have the same problems, by the way! …
Buildings far older than CHS [Corvallis High School] (and less well-built!) have been responsibly and creatively rehabilitated across this country and elsewhere. (Their charms support a multi-billion dollar tourist industry in Europe and other regions.)
Finally, as I understand it, school board members are actually stewards of the public resources the taxpayers have paid for. Wouldn't good stewardship involve maintaining … [as well as planning and constructing buildings] for the long term, rather than letting them deteriorate to the point that total replacement seems even remotely reasonable?²
Regardless of what the townspeople wanted, the old school was demolished, and a large, archival touchstone form many people—myself included—disappeared into the netherworld. After all, I graduated from the old school fifty years ago, in 1956.
There can be an additional learning curve derived from old buildings. They are purposefully set ablaze and used by firefighters as a practicum, a concrete experience through which to learn the art of controlling and extinguishing unwanted fires that can threaten life and limb, home or business. Through this exercise, fire codes coincide with building codes in creating the safest possible structures. This, too, is part of the architectural library, and language is still the librarian guarding the knowledge stored therein.
Nature's biophysical principles function perfectly in old forests, whether or not we understand them—and the same can be said for "Everycity," as these few example illustrate:
Time and weather erode buildings, just as they do rock in creating soil.
Gravity's tug is as irresistible in Everycity as it is in Everyforest.
Termites and carpenter ants devour untreated, wooden foundations of buildings the same as the do fallen trees.
Lightening strikes tall buildings as it does tall trees, but tall buildings are grounded, whereas tall trees are not.
Sewers overflow when clogged, just like streams and rivers.
Ice storms break limbs and topple trees in both cities and forest.
Tornadoes cut their destructive paths through cities, as well as forests.
Neither forest nor city is a stranger to fire; whereas fire's role in a forest is both destructive and creative in designing and maintaining a viable forest; in a city, it is simply destructive.
While these things may seem obvious, the outworking of Nature's biophysical principles is probably understood with greater clarity in forests, where they have long been studied through observation and experimentation, than in cities, where they have not. Although it is perhaps easier to accept their function in forests than in cities, because we humans have less investment in the former, we are, in the end, no more in charge in one than we are in the other, something we are loathe to accept in either.
Be that as it may, the abiding question is: How do we better accept and apply what we have learned about the systemic outworking of Nature's biophysical principles in forests to the design of Everycity, where such a great diversity of monetary capital is at stake, to say nothing of human lives? Here, I must point out that the question extends beyond the problem-solving scope of engineering; it requires the interdisciplinary, systemic thinking that crosses all bureaucratic and political boundaries for the betterment of Everycity for all generations.
Live trees archive their knowledge of the past, which we can read, but only it the trees remain in Nature's living library, where they will become even more valuable for the education of future generations because they are continually recording environmental history. Each building is unique in that, like a book or a painting, it is a physical manifestation of the designer's insights, as well as their knowledge of those biophysical principles that will allow the building to survive the rigors of time. In this sense, each old build is test case that chronicles the effects visited on the structure by the stresses of weather and longevity, which may include the effects of an occasional earthquake, thereby compounding the building's value, from a knowledge point of view, the longer it stands.
An old forest is a metaphorical mirror of what it means to be separate individuals and simultaneously a universal people. Whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, we need one another. To illustrate, consider the large, old trees of an ancient forest. Each signifies primeval majesty, but only together do they represent an ancient forest. Yet, we do not even see the forest for the trees.
If we could see belowground, we would find gossamer threads of a special kind of fungus stretching for billions of miles through the soil. These fungi grow as symbionts on and in the feeder roots of the ancient trees. Not only do they acquire food in the form of plant sugars through the roots of the ancient trees but also, being conduits, they provide nutrients, vitamins, and water from the soil to the trees and produce growth regulators that benefit the trees. These symbiotic fungus-root structures (called mycorrhizae) are the termini of the threads that form a complex fungal net under the entire ancient forest and, as evidence suggests, connect all trees one to another.
Like the ancient trees, we are separate individuals, and like the ancient forest united by its belowground fungi, we are united by our humanity—our need for love, trust, respect, and unconditional acceptance of one another. As I look around the world, I see many wondrous people in a great variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, each of whom seems somehow separate from the rest.
I also see, however, that we must share our feelings with at least one other person to find value in life. This tells me that, when all is said and done, we need one another because we grow out of the varied soils of culture and are thus united by the hidden threads of our common human needs. If, therefore, we lose sight of and touch with one another as human beings, we will find a diminishing value in life. And our common bonds will progressively erode into ever-increasing fear and separateness.
Fear and separateness (which spawn destructive environmental competition and political wars) is a choice made in secret in the human heart and acted out in the collective of society. Love and sustainable community (which foster trust, respect, and mutual caring) is also a choice made in secret in the human heart and acted out in the collective of society. And every one has an equal choice, an equal vote, if you will. With my choice, I influence the politics of life by how I behave. With your choice, you do the same. Every choice counts, like every vote in a democracy, and in the end, the majority will rule.
The parties are fear and love. The candidates are separateness (the incumbent) and sustainable community (the challenger). How you choose in the privacy of your own heart will determine how you behave in public and will in turn influence the options we ensure for the future, our collective legacy to the children of today and of tomorrow.
As an old forest is a metaphorical mirror of what it means to be separate individuals and simultaneously a universal people, the same can be said of a village, town, or city because each person performs some kind of function that complements someone else's, that complements someone else's, that complements someone else's again, that forms the strands of an interdependent web of services that, in the collective, becomes "Everycity." The physical infrastructure is merely the fixed points that produce known landmarks around which the human web of service providers move in making their appointed rounds as they tend to one another. With the possible exception of some crimes, I can think of no employment that does not serve someone, somewhere, somehow within the confines of a city. We are, therefore, individuals in our lives and universal in our living.
Unless our minds and our hearts are set on a path humble enough to maintain a reciprocal partnership between an ecologically sustainable forest and a culturally sustainable city, each succeeding generation will have less that the preceding one, and their choices for survival will be equally diminished. The choice is ours, as the adult trustees of the social-environmental living trust. And we are limited only by what we think we can or cannot do. The consequences of our motives, thoughts, and actions we bequeath as circumstances to the "voiceless" children of today, tomorrow, and beyond. How shall we choose?
The preceding discussion of architecture and history is based on: James Howard Kunstler. 1996. Home From Nowhere. The Atlantic Monthly 278:43-66.
Tammy Stehr. 2004. Don't throw away good old buildings. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. February 23.
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.