The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Urban Exploration

Cities do not grow; they have to be made. Somewhere, sometime, people made all this; they made all the machines that made all the artifacts and buildings that made all the cities. And somewhere, sometime, everything made has answered to a purpose. But try this: walk, or be driven through, any section of any city – the older the better, but new will do – under the aspect of an alien or an artist. Try, if you can, to notice everything – the strange knobs and wires and pipes, the bits of metal, the shapes of concrete, which make puzzles of every structure. Who knows what every knob and lever is for? There are devices on the old buildings that are remembered only by scholars. No one comes to fix them; no one comes to check them. They gather dust, rust, verdigris, character. In neglect they pass from function to form.

It must have been bewildering for those who were part of the great world-spanning, unsleepingly active age of dawning industry – that age, in its dreams and its nightmares, so wedded to the spirit of youth and youthful strength – it must have been bewildering for them to see that the world is not, in fact, remade with every generation; to see how time has carried forward their works, made in unquestioning faith in the future, into a faithless future where they have become all they were made to supplant: not just old-fashioned and obsolete, but curious and quaint; lingering through time, artifacts, shadowy relics brought out from the strange country, the alien planet, of the past.

And it has happened. Young people armed with flashlights and cameras crawl over and among the picked bones of Leviathan-industry. This is not the archaeology of labels and measurements and excavations; not the piracy of the past that sunk shafts and cut tunnels into the buried homes of Pompeii; not the romanticism that would bring young Englishmen to Italy to watch old marble until they could fancy that a statue might drop its staff and admit it had only been pretending. They make me think instead of some medieval Italian shepherd – for such there must have been – who fell into a lost grotto dedicated to a god he never knew, never would know; who shivered and wondered at such a place, sacred to his blood though unholy to his god; who withdrew and covered it again, only having marked its ceiling with the smoke of his fuming lamp. Such there must have been; such there are.

An urban explorer seeks context, not knowledge. Among the great machines on the factory floor they only want to know what each is for, nor how they worked. They are satisfied to see the buttons and levers; they do not need to know which one does what. They are satisfied to know where to stand; they do not need to know what to do. They take the pictures for their walls or accounts; they do not need to know the names of what their pictures contain. They are not designers, planners, scientists, engineers, even artists – I do not think you could satisfactorily draw an abandonment. Only the affectless lens can capture the appeal.

I am not an urban explorer; I want to know everything. But that would be missing the point. It is not knowing, and it is not not knowing; it is not ghosts; it is not even the beauty of patination or of ruins; it is the sight, the memory of the sight, that the photograph stands in for. Our steel ruins do not reach the same part of the brain as the arts, or even the stone ruins of a farther past. They follow a different way, reach something deeper. We wander and delight in abandonments for the same reason we wander in the forest: the beauty of these gathering ruins is only the beauty of nature – another nature humanity made for itself. For the deepest part of the brain the old, abandoned factory and the dark, spooky wood have the same appeal.

When I was a child my father took me to see many old forts, too many to remember. They have run together in my mind; unilluminated tunnels branching from the lighted tourist-track; huge rooms with massive doors and the knowledge that were they to be closed you could starve or suffocate here unheard; condemned outbuildings of weather-striated concrete, darkened by late rains, overgrown and seen through screening leaves; that low fence (you know you could climb it) in front of the sight-passing vaulted tunnel, the paled and rusting sign bearing a long since indecipherable warning, the same leaves under your feet lining the floor of the tunnel – I know the urge. I was a boy, and did not climb. I am glad others have done it, grateful that they have let me share at lens distance.