Our theme for the month of March is “cities.”

I’ve already been cold for days when we make our descent. It’s a slippery kind of cold, not like slime, like silk. 

It smells, unsurprisingly, of basement. It’s Seattle’s basement, where the busted-up, unused things get tossed. 

The city of Seattle has a basement for several reasons. Notably: it slopes. The main streets pull away from the bay—like someone scrambling away from a spider on the kitchen floor—cornered against the tall forest. Today, it tests your calves and breaks, but it used to be worse. 

The city of Seattle formed as a delta as rivers of westward-bound hopefuls spilled out at the edge of the continent. There, right on the flood-prone sand, they built. And they dug—latrines and garbage pits, etc. The stench would have been lethal. It was a mess before the accident in the glue factory started the fire.

The story goes that, in June of 1889, the fire chief, looking down the hill at the hungry flames, decided to push the fire down into the ocean, sacrificing a significant portion of the homes and businesses that composed the budding city of Seattle, rather than allowing the fire to threaten the forest. If the forest survived, they could rebuild.

And that’s what they did. But this time, the leaders of the town convinced the residents to agree to a rather impressive feat of engineering. 

To alleviate the risk of flood, town leaders proposed that business owners construct buildings of two or stories. Over the course of several years, rock and dirt from the hills beyond Seattle would be brought in to raise the level of the streets so that second stories would become ground floors. The process would be gradual, with life and trade continuing below the increasing street level while sidewalks were built and roads filled in. 

Eventually, the underground world was closed off from the stories above as first floors became basements connected by eerie subterranean walkways. As Seattle came of age in a new century, its basement became a true underground—home to illegal gambling, prostitution, speakeasies, and opium dens. In 1907, the underground was closed for fear of the bubonic plague. 

And life went on up top. 

Now you can walk through sections of it—odd corridors lined with inexplicably architectural features like troughs and gutters, their uses forgotten. Narrow windows that look out onto narrower walkways, rubble, and pipes. The fading floral wallpaper of a hair salon, stringy wires poking out of holes where light fixtures had been. A shaft of dusk-colored light will strike through here and there through skylights turned amethyst, blocked out now and then by dark shadows of feet passing overhead. 

Mesa Verde is an equal and opposite sort of place.

In 1906, a year before the Seattle underground was officially closed, the cliffs around Durango, Colorado, were preserved as our first national park designated for the preservation of a cultural, rather than natural or geological, treasure—the cliff dwellings. 

Mesa Verde means “green table.” From a certain perspective, the mesas of the American Southwest look like smooth mud has dried and cracked into shards. Deep channels and canyons wind between flat stretches of land. 

In the late 1100s, the ancient Puebloan people climbed the cliff face and began to build dwellings in outcroppings. At first, they built small, tight rooms for grain storage. Then they built homes, multiple stories connected by ladders and the dimples where pestles ground corn and fires burned. 

And life went on up top. 

The ancient Puebloan people farmed the mesa and slowly expanded their vertical settlement for about a century. And then, without explanation, they were gone. Disease? Conflict? Disaster? Theories abound. 

The cliff dwellings, made from reddish clay would almost disappear into the shadow of the cliff face and it’s the craggy stubble of evergreens. But windows and doors, lines only human hands cut, stare out cold, dark, and empty. 

I saw Mesa Verde for the first time when I was about ten. I think that’s where I started to love ruins. 

But if you think about it, ruins should horrify us—grim testaments to our permanent impermanence. We can make things that outlast us and forget us. Not just that—a testament to the hollow, hungry reality that whatever we make can suddenly be gutted, the story in it can shrivel up and rot away like fruit gone bad from the inside. 

And when we whisper to each other in the dark, shivering in the cold under the streetlights of a city so full of hubris and/or concrete that we cannot imagine it like Mesa Verde or underground Seattle, “I’m afraid sometimes that I’m going to ruin what we have,” part of us picks that word on purpose. 

Because rational, necessary endings seem mostly survivable. Things end. 

But what if, because of something we say, or do, or forget, or discover, whatever we treasure is hollowed out and paved over? What if the ruining tears through us like fire, washes us out, and something nasty and twisted moves into the grimy cavity. What if it all ends and empties for no perceivable reason at all? And life still has to go on up top. 

We can’t stop building. We’re like ants and bees that way. So we go on, building ruins-to-be on ruins-that-were either because we look at the chipped teeth of wood, stone, and steel and think “yes, but I’ll be different,” or because we look around, as enchanted as we are sad and curious and think, “there’s enough that’s human that remains in the end to make it worth it.”

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