“We build too many walls and not enough bridges” – Isaac Newton
“Something there is that doesn't love a wall” – Robert Frost
“As far as death is concerned, humans live in a city without walls” – Epicurus
“Wal-mart... do they like make walls there?” – Paris Hilton
The stucco on the retaining wall in back of my house succumbed to 40 years of NJ weather – particularly winter ice – and detached itself from the blocks beneath. As the stucco was embedded in steel mesh lath, it came off in a huge sheet of alarming weight and size. Once it was down I had to break it into manageable pieces with sledge hammer and wire cutter. I finished the re-stucco job yesterday (the dark patch is still wet in pic). The stones in the photo, plus others out of frame, are for a buttress or two like the ones already flanking the stairs; I plan to add them in order to help delay a repeat of the event.
|Remains of Nineveh wall|
People have been building walls for about as long as they have been building anything. I don’t mean walls that hold up a roof. I mean exterior structures intended to keep something out, keep something in, or both. A brush kraal surrounding huts, for example, keeps wild animals out and domestic animals in…or at least it reduces the number of intrusions and escapes. My retaining wall keeps dirt out from where I don’t want it. Far more often, though, walls are there to block people. People being what they are, as soon as any of us acquires something worth having, others will want to take it away. Walls are the first line of defense, whether of a private estate or a whole community. The earliest cities in Mesopotamia had them. By the time of Assyria’s ascendency many were truly formidable. Nineveh had a 6 meter (20’) high stone wall topped and backed by a 10 meter (33’) high and 15 meter (49’) thick mud brick wall. Much of the wall, especially the stone, survived 2700 years until it encountered modern explosives: anti-government forces currently occupying the site in Iraq intentionally blew up large parts of the wall earlier this year. [Shameless self-promotion: Dressed to the Nineveh, one of my short stories, is set in ancient Assyria.] Some walls protected whole territories, most notably China’s Great Wall and the much shorter but still impressive Hadrian’s Wall.
In an older blog Ghosts of Dwellings Past I wondered how private permanent homes affected the relationship of individuals and their immediate families to the community. How were sensibilities altered by private space? A similar question applies at a more social level to a town wall, for all the while a wall keeps others out it very much keeps the insiders in – even if, in principle, they are free to walk out the gate. It causes the insiders to pile atop one another more tightly than they otherwise would, it requires them to make arrangements for basic services (above all, water and sanitation), and it requires public arrangements for settling disputes. It requires a polity. This is so even at the level of a few houses in a kraal but is emphatically at the level of a town or city. How much did walls promote a sense of community early in history and prehistory? How did they shape civilization? Perhaps they were every bit as important as the agricultural revolution on account of how they affected the minds of the people within them.
It may seem that we no longer bother as much with walls, but we do. Modern firepower diminished the effectiveness of walls as defenses against armies, so we don’t use them as much for that purpose, but they still have a function against the less well-armed. For 28 years the Berlin Wall did the job for which it was designed: not perfectly (some 5000 made it through, over, or under) but it didn’t have to be perfect to be fundamentally effective. So too with prison walls. Walls to stem immigration at the borders exist, are planned, or are subjects for debate in various countries including the US. Do good fences make good neighbors? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But they aren’t disappearing anytime soon.
My wall, meantime, has no role in holding back outside hordes, armed or unarmed. It holds back dirt. In this it ultimately will fail. But I trust that after my repairs the failure will be long after I’m gone