There are always ruins, she said. I used to think, but not here: not in this raw country. The Indians left no real trace, and our traces, the wounds we've inflicted on the forest, are still open and bleeding. There's nothing calm or elegiac about the trash fields left by clear-cutting.
But I was wrong, though I had to grow to middle age to understand why. For one thing, the Indians did leave traces, and in fact they're still here: they just didn't leave the sort of traces I knew how to see. And for another, with enough practice you can see the present wounds as ancient tumbled temples. The space of years and the paint flaking off the white bones of the statues, the impenetrability of the old carved letters, those are accidents that make it easier to see the futility of ancient hopes. With practice, you can see the stumps and snags and quick-rusting cables the same way. The ambitions are no less forlorn and distant for having moved men yesterday instead of couple thousand years ago.
I traveled in Greece when I was in my early twenties – it was I think on my 22nd birthday that I sprang up a slope spattered with massive stone blocks to the top of the hill of Mycenae – and nothing hit me so hard in the face as a Greek tour guide, in the front of a bus, announcing with pride our entrance into the Forest of Daphne. I craned my neck: I looked everywhere, bewildered. We were swaying through a stand of sparse shrubbery and spindly second-growth pines. It was on my lips to ask, “where is the forest?” when I understood. This was the forest. And yet Greece had forests, real forests, once. And then almost at once we were on the other side of this wretched man's “forest,” driving on to the next wonder.
There are always ruins. When we were moving out of the old house, I drove to the Powell's warehouse, where they buy books in bulk, and brought in box after box of decaying books: yellowed paper, cracking spines. They bought a tenth of them, for a tenth of what I paid for them. The rest, a person could dump into a bin to be sent to hungry libraries in the third world. I dumped them there. All those books. I'm not one of those people who buys books and doesn't read them: I had read all of these, at least once, at some point in the long backward of days. They were supposed to make me wise, or at least knowledgeable. Ha.
After a month of dislocation, a month in which I've ridden my bike maybe twice, my own body is a ruin: I haul myself out of bed with an effort; I use my arms to help heave myself up from a cafe booth. It all goes to wrack so quickly.