I’ve always had an infatuation with the ancient world. My earliest childhood memories are faded and grey, but I can still remember scrutinizing books about the Parthenon, Tintagel, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I never cared if these places were real, or if they still existed, I just cared about the history that was interred with their architectural bones.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with the buildings themselves. Mossy stones and broken arches make for interesting photography, but I’m more enamored with the idea of the people these places represent. People who lived lives that would seem alien to us now. People with struggles and challenges like we’ve never known, that have somehow been truncated to a few pages in a text book and a Wikipedia article. People who would be confused and angry that we waste time on things like Facebook status updates and just how hairy Snooki’s baby really is. These places echo the souls of the people who built them, lived in them, and died in them; whose memory is only maintained by a select few who care enough to think beyond the present.
My recent trip to Ireland brought my obsession to a head as I was surrounded by broken skeletons of castles, churches, and things unidentifiable after the ravages of nature and time. I’ve been longingly staring at the pictures of these buildings, dreaming up stories about their denizens, imagining who and why and how they lived.
But interesting history doesn’t need to come from thousands of years ago. There are hundreds of things woven into the banality of our everyday lives that we don’t see because our receptors are pointed inward, not outward.
I work in what, on the outside, appears to be a normal corporate park. The buildings are plain and brown, a hold-over of contemporary mid-century design. The boringly named “Corporate Drive” is in Landover, Maryland; a place that many locals would regard with disdain, or at the very least, indifference.
This is the kind of corporate park that is a tangible of the cliche: “sign of the times.”
The parking lots look like this:
and like this:
Garbage is strewn about everywhere; the result of a landslide of diffusion of responsibility that comes from the thinking, “well there is already trash there so it’s OK if I throw mine here too.” A fetid swamp pools just off the sidewalk that would probably be a pristine pond if not for disgusting human intervention. In the middle of this swamp floats an algae covered, half-deflated basketball. The back end of a Safeway shopping cart sticks out of the green muck like some iceberg forged in the fires of the industrial revolution.
It’s the kind of place that makes you feel sad for both nature and humanity.
I walk about a half a mile to our client’s building from my normal office twice a week. This walk isn’t lonely; I’m often dodging people coming from the Metro or heading to a nearby deli for lunch. Most keep their heads down and ear-buds secure, and react awkwardly and sheepishly if accidental eye contact is made. Short of some aggressive geese and tenacious plant life, it’s about as uninteresting a walk as you might expect.
But on my way back from the client’s office last week, I took a different path. A path I’ve never walked before, behind buildings I’ve never been in, past people I’ve never seen.
When I climbed an old concrete-and-wood staircase behind one of the corporate offices of Giant and Safeway (they share a building? WTF?), I found what appeared to be a gate to nowhere.
As soon as I dismissed my thoughts of Narnia, I tried to figure out just what the hell this thing was. It had gates like you’d find surrounding (protecting?) a dumpster, but there was no way a dumpster would go behind this gate, as it led to a 6 foot drop off. As I illegally opened and moved the gate out of my way (what? the padlock was rusted to all hell, it only took like three kicks to open it) I saw what was on the other side:
A pillar. No, a series of pillars, all overgrown with ivy and lichens and vines galore. They were blanketed in the kind of growth that looks like nature is really pissed off.
I moved around the side of the gate to get a better look and saw at least four of these pillars. About six or seven feet tall, made of poured cement, they stood there as a monument to something long gone, to a time when it was possible to cross this creek and see the other side of the world.
It didn’t take me long to realize this had been a bridge at some point. My mind flashed back to a time when these wetlands were actually beautiful; free of trash, with clean waters and little ducks swimming all happy-like. I imagined employees taking breaks and hanging out on this little causeway. I imagined them finding some peace from a hectic work schedule in the forested wonder just beyond their cubicle walls.
The odd thing is, this bridge clearly did not fall apart from age and mistreatment. There are no broken stones or chunks of concrete in the water below, no signs of damage to the pillars or the entrances on either side. Someone, at some point, deliberately had this bridge removed, for reasons unknown (or at least unknown to the current building property managers, when asked).
Unless the accumulation of trash, run-off from the nearby Metro maintenance facility, and pollution from the even more nearby i-495 freeway had poisoned the ecosystem and ruined the serenity of this little bridge. But that’s not possible is it? We’d never destroy the innate beauty of the natural world in the name of progress, would we?
I found an image of the bridge still intact in 1993:
But the next record in 2002 shows only the pillars:
In less than ten years, the bridge is gone. I guess I’ll never know why it was dismantled, or if anyone really got to enjoy it when it was there.
At least it can live again here on the internet, if only for a few minutes while you read this.