Recently I was driving on a road that curved through trees, near corn fields and train tracks. It was lightly snowing, and it was more than 20 minutes before I saw another car. There were no birds, no deer, no squirrels—it was as if the only living thing on that road was me. It was quiet and the snow was beautiful, dusting the tops of the golden corn stalks and empty branches like some kind of frozen lace. It felt as though I had come across some kind of abandoned civilization that nature was reclaiming, and it reminded me how little the earth needs our human things, how easily so many of them go to ruin.
It reminded me too of the fish reclaiming sunken boats, all those decommissioned vessels purposefully scuttled, their decks filling with water. A National Geographic article by Stephen Harrigan tells me that it doesn’t take long for those boats to sink. After all the work building them, all those long voyages through the sea, it takes only a few minutes for the hull of a boat to disappear, to leave only the rolling white of waves where the boat had been, and then—nothing, nothing, except maybe seen from sky you’d find the barest outline of a ship, a faint ghost beneath all that water. A rusty and abandoned wreck easily becomes home to a host of creatures from fish to other invertebrates; coral and sponges will festoon the walls with color, fish will dart and weave through open doorways, through the remnants of windows now permanently ajar. The sea will cover our broken things with life.
My car traveled down that road in near silence, the kind I imagine there being right before the charges blew and those old boats sank, the kind of hush there would be again after the waters covered over the metal carcasses and the waves stopped. I imagined I could live in a silence like this, at least for a little while, with nothing but the smooth sound of wheels moving through new snow and my own chest rising and falling, rising and falling, even and unhurried.
Yet driving through that white frosted world made me wonder too whether or not there comes a point where the brokenness of the things of civilization, all that damage we leave in our wake, the junk we’ve strewn from the ocean to that junk circling just beyond our sky, may not be so easily covered over by nature as the fish do these ships. At what point is that, I wonder? How would we even know when we have finally gone too far? In Fukushima, a few years after the disaster, scores of cattle abandoned in the evacuation are still surviving, though now radioactive, while elsewhere house pets left behind are now feral and multiplying. Even here, life of a kind is thriving, eking out a space amid the ruins. Yet elsewhere a horse breeder, left with the dying remnants of his 100-year-old family business, suddenly finds himself living in “a village with no tomorrow,” as his foals grow weaker and rain continues to wash more radioactive particles down. For him, perhaps the only new growth is that of despair.
Though not always by finding themselves in actual physical places in disrepair and states of decay, it occurs to me as I drive that people can make ruins of themselves in all sorts of ways, through love, through anger, through loss. Someday, if we wake amid the ruins of our own lives, if we find ourselves in that village of no tomorrow, will we be able to point our fingers to where it all went wrong? And will we then, like that horse breeder, cling to the dying remnants of our old lives? Or will we be like that brilliantly hued coral sewing its flesh to the sunken ships, the shape of its body molded to what had once been walls, housing scores of fish, fantastic, and vibrant, and living? Will we, could we, build something new upon the wreckage?