The poetry of decay

Crumbling garage March 2014There is no shortage of old, decaying buildings here in The Country North of Belleville (as Al Purdy called our part of the world in one of his most famous poems). On many of the back roads, and even the front roads, you will see old barns and sheds, and sometimes houses, some of them dating from pioneer times, that are gradually wearing down and falling apart – some rather majestically, and some in just kind of a slow, quiet, wistful way.

While I’ve always been interested in these ghosts of buildings past – I wrote at length here about one of the more eye-catching ones, the hollow building up on a high hill on Tannery Road a little east of Madoc – they seem to have caught my attention a little more of late. I find myself stopping to photograph them as I drive around central Hastings County, not quite knowing what I plan to do with the photos. These decaying buildings speak to me somehow. Perhaps they speak the poetry of what once was. Or of the past meeting the present.

Maybe I have poetry on my mind tonight because I have just come home from a couple of hours spent in the company of a poet. Kath MacLean, whom you can read all about here, was the latest speaker in the always-excellent Friends of the Tweed Public Library Writers’ Series. MacLean, who lives in Edmonton, will be spending the next few months as writer in residence at the A-frame cottage that none other than Al Purdy (and his wife, Eurithe) built down in Prince Edward County. The Friends took advantage of her temporary proximity to Tweed (our area) to invite her to speak about her work. Which she did, most eloquently, as she read some of her wonderful poems.

There are several running themes in MacLean’s work, but one of them is ghosts – and maybe that’s another thing that made me think of the decaying buildings of central Hastings County tonight.

Now the shed, or garage, or whatever it is, that you can see collapsing in the photo at the top of this post is perhaps not what you would call a “historic” building. It’s kind of hard to tell how old it is; it could be anywhere from a century to just a few decades in age. But because I drive past it every day travelling to and from work, I’ve basically been watching its collapse in slow motion. The photo at the top I took a year ago, in March 2014; here is how it looked just a few days ago:

Crumbling garage April 2015

I have to say I’m kind of surprised that the roof hasn’t completely caved in. It has seemed to be on the brink of doing so for ever so long, and with this past winter’s heavy snows I was sure it would. But while it’s in dire shape, it is still a roof, after a fashion. Not a very straight roof, but at least it’s still there.

Once upon a time, when I was kid growing up in this same Manse where Raymond and I now live, I knew the people who lived in the decaying house that’s behind this decaying garage. One young man, a little older than I, sang in our choir at St. Andrew’s United Church. He was soft-spoken, a nice chap. When I drive by the abandoned house and the crumbling garage, I wonder what happened to him – where he is now, what profession he chose, whether he by any chance still sings in a church choir.

I guess it’s the human factor that ultimately speaks to us when we consider crumbling buildings, isn’t it? The people who built those buildings, who used them and lived in them. Even if those people are still alive, they no longer live in or use these places; and so, to these places, they are ghosts.

And for those of us who drive by and observe this sometimes splendid, sometimes almost imperceptible decay? What is it to us?

Well, I can’t answer for you. To me, it is a kind of silent poetry.

14 thoughts on “The poetry of decay

  1. It may not be “historic”, but it sings with history. More questions than answers with this one. Even in the second photo, the red in the protected spots is still so nice; shades of “Hematite Road”, no doubt. A beautiful little building, I can just imagine how the old boards must feel to the touch.

      • I think that Essex County could be an inspiration for a colour palette too. Although it’s pretty flat (actually very flat), the colours, any time of year always amazes me. The flatness and being surrounded by water plays funny games with light sometimes. It’s difficult to describe!

      • Perhaps you could just pass on my brilliant idea to those nice folks at Benjamin Moore. I would be happy to accept a commission as paint-colour consultant! I’ve always thought that the job of naming paint colours is probably the best in the world.

  2. There is a house from Marblehead, Massachusetts that was dismantled and shipped to Yarmouth, NS in the 1760’s. Technically it still stands, though it won’t survive much longer. It breaks my heart to think that it stood for 250 years but will finally fall in my lifetime. Its a crying shame. It was brought by an individual who was part of the New England Planter migration – the people who took up lands just after the Acadians were expelled. The history associated w/ the house is amazing….its too bad it couldn’t be saved.

    • Oh, Mark, that is heartbreaking. If you have pictures of that house, I’d love to see them. (You can email me at Marblehead is a great historic place; to think of a house that old, with so much history, having been moved (with such a huge amount of work!) that far, all those years ago – and now falling into ruin… It shouldn’t happen. Sadly, it does.

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