Friday, October 23, 2015

“O sweet and lovely wall, Show me thy chink”

“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


  1. Roger Waters is an ass, but it's still a damn good song!

    1. So it is... and nice to hear the judgments kept separate.

      Those of us with minority political philosophies have good reason to do so, of course. I'd have a pretty sparse music collection if I boycotted artists who didn't share mine. I wouldn't have had many dates either.

  2. You did a good job on the wall. One or two things in life are always reliable: change and entropy. I guess how we deal with both defines us in some ways. I'll admit I deal with them in various ways and to various degrees. Some change and decay I expect, the ones that take somebody else's expertise at times frustrates me. I guess it depends on the situation and what's at stake.

    The Robert Frost poem is interesting, one neighbor wants to keep rebuilding the wall, and the other not so much. I guess as humans we build mental walls around us as well to some degree.

    1. It's hard not to like Robert Frost.

      As for entropy, to stir in more metaphors, lately I feel in a Late Roman Empire phase. You know: receding back toward the core at Constantinople. Occasionally I reverse the decay in a spirited push-back, but never regain all of the ground that was lost in the last pull-back. The good news, I guess, is that the Empire went on like that for a very long time. But eventually for each of us it is 1453.

  3. I like your idea that walls are as key to the development of civilization as farming and government. It makes sense that the walls would be the key to group folks together and that would force them to work together to achieve that common goal.

    I also agree that walls are also a tempting target. Obviously if someone went to the work of building a wall in the first place, they must have something pretty good on the other side of it. I'm guessing that is why the dirt keeps trying to invade. You have something it wants.

    1. Walls were very effective before cannons, and weren't useless after their arrival. They slow the attacker down at the very least.

      I suppose you're right about the dirt. It just needs to be patient.