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02 January, 2015


First there is a building, then there is no building, then there is* -Donovan (If he'd been an archaeologist)

The ebb and flow of humans on the land fascinates me. Most people see the forest and figure it's always been there, big trees out beyond civilization's paved domain, wild lands untouched, or at least not covered with buildings. Even for those who recognize second or third growth and know that there's not really any "pristine" anymore, stumbling onto the wrack of some past society's highest tide comes as a surprise.

But I should let that tidal metaphor alone, because a lot of the stuff left behind by retreating humans in this part of the world comes not from moderate daily motion, regular as the moon and achieving balance over time. True, people have walked all over this landscape since time immemorial, but until the past century or two they just didn't create that much trash for archaeologists to find. Twentieth Century Homo sapiens, though, they created a splash, a flood that reached just about everywhere in the blink of an archaeologist's eye. For enough generations that we don't even think of it anymore, this has been because of cars and the places we need to go in them (including trailheads and campgrounds tucked in the wilds), but the underlying source of this inundation of landscapes by metal and concrete lies in the resource extraction economy that the Territories and then the States relied on so heavily.

I don't have to get metaphorical or writerly about it, because the language is right there. Men seeking minerals and timber experience boom and bust; only to someone with a drawn out sense of time does it look like an ebb and flow. Discover gold, and there's a Rush.

Hidden in the forest was a lumber mill.
By the same token, when the trees are cut or the ore peters out--or larger economic forces make the investment unwise or untenable--people tend to walk away without delay. Often quite suddenly, but usually not before removing whatever's useful, to the point of prying up the rails and ties and loading them onto the last train out. Scavengers continue to pick at it for a while, but the forest eventually cloaks even big mill buildings and then takes it's sweet time devouring what's left. A place where hundreds of people lived and worked populated by animals, train whistles replaced by bird calls.

That is, until the trees get big enough to harvest. Then it may turn out that that mill is a historic site, or at least an archaeological ruin, and someone like me gets called in to be the ironic bureaucrat. A plan to cut down trees may be complicated by the presence of an archaeological site composed of the remains of: a timber mill. The place where thousands of acres of clear-cut were sawed into boards and shingles may have, in the years since falling silent, have developed a patina of historic significance that merits its protection from: a timber harvest. Yep.

Or maybe not. Not all old stuff is meaningful. Archaeologically speaking, the place I've pictured above does not have much potential, especially considering that you can go back into archival sources and get orders of magnitude more information about what happened there than you can from the few artifacts left behind. People only lived there for a decade or so, their household trash was hauled somewhere other than the place where the trees were cut, and much of the area was tidied up with heavy machinery after abandonment. Other than agreeing not to knock the building down unless it becomes clear that there's imminent risk of it falling down (maybe on a litigious history buff), the landowner didn't have to alter his plans much.

As long as the mill walls stand with no trees around, the mill lends scale to the few other remains of this former town: a few houses along the road, the concrete bank vault sitting alone in someone's yard, and the building down the road that used to be the school. Trees are more likely to grow back than this particular town, but for the time being you can drive by and marvel at the vine-covered walls. Just don't go crawling around too close, because it might fall on you, or you might drop into one of the deep concrete caverns.

* I wrote about this place previously in a post called "Swallowed." You're welcome for me not calling this one "Regurgitated."

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