Essay

Beauty in Ruin

By February 21, 2020 5 Comments

It’s still there. Maybe. I haven’t been out there for some time now, but as long as that abandoned place is circled by a substantial grove it remains pretty much hidden from passers-by. Apparently, whoever owns it isn’t thinking about how much more corn he or she could grow on a homestead that has otherwise disappeared.

Friends of ours once pointed to the place as a kind of dream location–and it is. They fantasized snuggling a new house in that grove, up high enough to see for miles all around. Whoever built the place chose well. Still, this picture is 15 years old. Who knows what the place looks like today?

A close friend lived here once upon a time. The family was poor, although I’m sure the house looked better when his family called it home. I didn’t know who had lived there when I stumbled on the place, early in the morning a ton of years ago. I snapped pictures because abandoned places tell stories, even if you don’t have a clue who lived there or what the story is about.

That friend of mine was killed a few years ago in a car accident. That’s when I discovered who lived there.

Today, the house is gone. Some couple bought the acreage and put up a new one. Maybe that’s a good story.

Once upon a time, a kid needed a hoop. Maybe his mom bought him a basketball, but never thought about his not having something to shoot at. Rather than buy one, Dad said he’d make one himself, went into the machine shop, found a couple of otherwise useless iron pieces, put a spot of weld on where needed, then bolted the whole thing above a door–perfectly good rim. Don’t think you’re going to go out there to shoot threes. The whole place is gone too; the picture is also 15 years old.

Just another kind of ruin, really, an old truck parked up against one of the outbuildings, doing nothing, windows open to January. Only thing pronounced about it is the proud lettering.

Here’s another, same genre–sort of Bonnie-and-Clyde-ish–stuff left behind. Found this old abandoned guy somewhere north and east of Cherokee. It may still be there–that was just a couple of years ago. 

The hoarfrost turns this old abandoned place almost Disney-ish. So much virginal here that you have to look twice to notice the ruinous old place amid all the wedding allure. 

Once upon a time, a reservation church. Episcopal. Up there in the belfry, a bell waiting once again to be rung.

This one feels almost demonic. I think I could torch the place myself, rather than have it minister in this way to people passing by.

And this. An old school in its obsolescence still wearing a cartoon face.

If I’d tally how many shots I’ve taken of ruins through the years, I’d be ashamed. The region is full of them. But what is it with old barns, old houses, old churches, old cars? Calvinist that I am, is it some innate predilection for mutability that makes me stop and shoot?–do I take pictures like these because the tower at Babel still crumbles in me? Do I somehow enjoy rolling my eyes at human endeavor? 

Or is it the opposite? When I pull over to the side of the road, is it to lend permanence to places and things that appear to have none? Am I trying to make beautiful–to redeem–that which isn’t at all becoming? Is that what I’m doing when I reach for the camera? 

To me at least, it doesn’t seem odd or strange to be enchanted by things falling apart; such things remind us, sometimes even graciously, of our tenuous hold on the here-and-now. But isn’t it just as human to notice that which is passing away in order to keep it from the dust? 

I don’t know that any other human being has ever laid eyes on that image of the machine shop basketball hoop. I took that picture years ago. But for reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I’ve never forgotten it. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Jim, I share your fascination of and recurring attraction to the sad left-overs of once proud and resilient homes. It’s one reason I bike in the U.P. summer after summer, where such ruins are commonplace. Whenever possible I open their doors and tiptoe on creaking floor boards among the sorry, self-behind debris of home-making, ears attuned just in case the walls feel like talking.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Henk and Jim, you would love the book, abandoned planet, by Andre govia, if you aren’t already acquainted with it. In the foreword, he writes, “I am addicted to decay…..I have explored abandoned locations, from derelict manor houses, car graveyards, abandoned hospitals and much more, spanning twenty two countries and over nine hundred locations”. It is a beautiful book, filled with the decay he has recorded, often complete with left-behind furnishing that tell a partial story about the past. I, too, love to overthink who and what once filled these places, including woods and prairies and what their experiences must have been in another time. Thank you for the wondrous pictures.

  • Helen P says:

    When I saw the title of this in my Facebook feed I knew it was penned by you.
    I too am fascinated by ruins of old things. I paint in my spare time and a favorite subject is old barns, old farm houses – all containing weathered wood and tall grasses. To think of the lives, the triumphs, tragedies and love that may have existed in these places captures my imagination.
    It would be wonderful if there was a book of your photographs.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I’m fascinated – moved to a different dimension of my being? – by cemeteries with old gravestones of the dead and their messages (if still decipherable) to the living. This fascination may be akin to attraction to old abandoned ruins. They remind us of our transience, that this is not our abiding place, but at the same time, deep in the core of our being, we feel the truth of the Preacher’s words: “He has also set eternity in their heart.”

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I agree with all. There is beauty in ruin. You raise a question. If in the creation all was fresh and new, are things like rust and rot and decomposition part of the Fall? If so does that mean that in God’s coming kingdom when all is made “fresh and new” there won’t be any more of those things? Do you think God will maybe leave a few rusting tractors, weathered barns and slowly rotting trees in the woods for those of us who find beauty in them? I wonder. The cosmos would be unlivable without the “recycling” nature does so efficiently. (As in the old joke, “Where is Mozart?” “Decomposing” Then where’s that other guy?” “You can’t find him, he’s Haydn.”) Jesus’ own body is resurrected. Ours must decompose till the “trump sounds.” But don’t you love how the leaves slowly go back to provide nutrients in the soil in the autumn, and how animal and human waste nourish the soil, and how we were taken from dust and to dust we shall return? Well maybe that last part we could skip. But Friday a deer was killed and ended up on my front lawn. By Saturday the turkey vultures had started in on it. Yesterday, Monday, it was gone except for some hair if a circle. I don’t expect the system of decay and decomposition to be part of God’s kingdom. But what you have captured with the camera, James, is the kind of thing that catches my eye and gives me pleasure, just like the other commenters here. Either way, if this is part of “fallenness,” how lovely of God to let us find pleasure even in the perishing and decrepit. What a God!

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