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Friday, November 26, 2010

Ruin Criteria II: Vegetation

One of the most important aspects of a ruin is its vegetation. Ruins are the result of conflicting forces: the force of man, building structures and defying gravity, and the force of nature, eroding and returning things to equilibrium. Even a structure that is first destroyed by human force undergoes a transformation at the hands of nature. I suppose this is not an ironclad rule, as buildings become ruins immediately following their destruction; but until nature has had time to encroach, the ruin is not really complete. Florence Hetzler writes as much, saying that 
"The 'ruining' may be started by human or natural causes but the maturation process must be done by nature in ruin time. Otherwise there is only devastation and there is no unity forming the ruins." ("Causality: Ruin Time and Ruins" in Leonardo 21:1 (1988) pp51-55.) 
Christopher Woodward devotes a section in his wonderful book, In Ruins, to this topic. He points out the conflict between archaeologists and ruin-lovers. Archaeologists try to clear sites of their destruction vegetation. Woodward writes that 
"I want to tell them that a ruin has two values. It has an objective value as an assemblage of bring and stone, and it has a subjective value as an inspiration to artists. You can uproot the alder tree, superintendente, erect more fences, spray more weed-killer, excavate and polish. You will preserve every single brick for posterity, and analyse the very occasional discovery of a more ornamental fragment in a learned publication. You will have a great many bricks, but nothing more."
  He quotes Shelley who credited the ruins of Rome as the inspiration for Prometheus Unbound, and presents some examples of the artistic inspiration that Shelley derived from ruins:
"Never was any desolation more sublime and lovely. The perpendicular wall of ruin is cloven into steep ravines filled with flowering shrubs whose thick twisted roots are knotted in the rifts of the stones...the tick entangled wilderness of myrtle & bay & flowering laurustinus...& the wild figs & a thousand nameless plants sown by the wandering winds [forming a] landscape like mountain hills intersected by paths like sheep tracks."
Woodward finishes by stating emphatically that "If the archaeologists had arrived before Shelley there would be no Prometheus Unbound."

This obsession of ruin lovers is somewhat of a fetish. Gustave Flubert wrote in a letter:
"I love above all the sight of vegetation resting upon old ruins; this embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man the moment his hand is no longer there to defend it, fills me with deep and ample joy." 
In one of the many fascinating anecdotes in Woodward's book, he describes a study by an English botanist, Flora in the Colosseum (1855). The study found more that 420 species of plants growing in the Colosseum, including trees, 56 types of grass, 41 types of peas, and many wild flowers. He writes that 
"Some flowers in the Colosseum were so rare in western Europe that the only explanation for their presence was that nearly two thousand years before their seeds had been scattered in the sand from the bodies of animals brought from the mountains of Persia or the banks of the Nile for the gladiatorial games." 
The botanist concludes that the plants, "tell us of the regenerating power which animates the dust of mouldering greatness." 

When it comes to the life of a ruin, there are two potential routes: if the building is actively destroyed, there is a period in which it is a ruin before nature invades. However, if the building is abandoned, then as nature moves in the building becomes a ruin. In the latter case, it is clear that invasive flora is a critical part of the ruin. In the former case, the vegetation still plays an important role, turning the site from a place of horror to an area with hazy memory, where the terror is less real and more distant. In a sense the vegetation helps with the healing process. In most cases, people prefer to see a ruin encrusted with vegetation than one that remains stark and real. Only when we wish for ruins to serve as a memorial do we keep them unencumbered by plant-life.

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