Belonging to Ruin
Listen to a related podcast here.
Quarry House is all walls and rafters—no roof, doors, or windowpanes. Concrete crumbles along edges and in corners. Iron hinges cling to rotting wood frames, swinging easily at the slightest touch. There are missing sandstone bricks, like lost puzzle pieces, in places acutely vulnerable to gravity—the undersides of arches and chimneys, the outer edges of walls. Snow blankets the interior of the house as thickly as it does the exterior.
Aside from a few iron fixtures, the bricks and the concrete that binds them are all that remains of this structure. While time has dislodged stones here and there, the house stands remarkably solid. Its walls are a tight geometrical patchwork of sandstone prisms: recalling shapes like squares and rectangles, trapezoids and triangles. In human hands, this otherwise nonsensical mineral motley found form, logic, and purpose as component parts of human homes.
Quarry House was built by immigrants who saw beauty in straight edges and right angles. Uncertain of what the weather might bring, they set about assembling four walls, a roof and two doors. They gathered and rearranged nearby resources to fit their designs: harvesting Nugget Sandstone in Red Butte Canyon, cutting Douglas fir on its north-facing slopes, and drawing water from its creek. When the house was finished, the settlers lit its two hearths and set to work shaping stones that would lay the foundations for many of the city’s original buildings: Fort Douglas, City Hall, and the Salt Lake Temple.
To the pioneers that built this place, the contemporary view from the foothills on which Quarry House sits would be foreign. Yet, they might recognize the imperial grip of the structures dominating the landscape as the culmination of their collective vision. For in the valley below, an urban machine extends its reach into canyon after canyon along the Wasatch Range. Heedlessly, it hums. People, goods, and services move as if mechanically toted on invisible belts that connect homes to neighborhoods, schools to box stores, mines to plants to warehouses to retailers.
Less discernible in this modern configuration of space, however, are the many debts it owes to its surroundings: the materials that give its people food, water, shelter, and energy seemingly without limit. On a clear day, one might not care to wonder how the machine keeps running–the cycles of carbon extraction and emission it all depends upon.
Atmospheric carbon behaves like a hearth stone exposed to fire: it traps solar heat and then releases it gradually over time. And so here, and elsewhere in the West, things are warming up, drying up, and burning up: parched riverbeds bear long stretches of cracked earth, peeling at the edges; exposed mineral stains on rocks show alarming disparities in reservoir levels; wildfires scorch the land with apocalyptic ferocity; while forests grow sickly, wildlife go hungry, and agricultural fields lay barren.
Ruins are the idle remains of lost plans. Contradictory tales of caution and longing churn around the weathered bricks and fallen debris of ruined dwellings, temples and towns. They tell us origin stories and collapse stories; they represent an ideal and its failure.
Americans say the democratic ideal was built by immigrants, brick by labored brick; they also say the ideal was ruined by immigrants—different ones, of course. Not the hardworking souls of Quarry House, but illegal aliens with criminal motives—murder, arson, and theft. To the xenophobic citizen, a white immigrant might readily undergo naturalization; a brown immigrant threatens the existing social order with collapse.
Ruin disrupts distinctions—between inside and outside, us and them. A crumbling wall is easily trespassed. With few obstructions, weather, plants, animals, and people might move across these indistinct borders. Atmospheric carbon transgresses borders, too. It ties the hearth to a planetary system, the local to the global. Its effects are as intimate as they are far-reaching. Our responsibilities exceed national boundaries.
Us and them tales run deep. Humans use them to build identities. Yet, survival has always been collaborative. We depend on human and nonhuman forces—climate, geology, plant and animal life. A home is not just a haven from the world’s weather, but the necessary gathering place of diverse elements and beings.
Consider the abundance of materials and organisms dwelling in and around Quarry House. There are winged maple seeds, acorns, lichen living in the pores of stones, cement dust, decaying wood, rusted hinges and nails, sprigs of sagebrush, an old tin can, fragments of sandstone bricks, grass, snow, and soil; there are also temporary human dwellers: students, hikers, carousing teenagers.
Resources assemble to form havens. In the context of migrant aid work, they offer asylum–safety, shelter, a place to belong. There are canned goods, water bottles, and blankets; wellness kits with toothpaste, shampoo, tissues, and coloring books; there are places for gathering with sofas, aroma therapy, and plants; there are the backpacks and plastic grocery bags in which things are carried; there is heat, light, and laughter; there is more than one language spoken, one faith practiced, one origin story told.
Migrant resource centers take part in networks of organizations, which offer medical, legal, housing and career services. Some fight for labor rights. Some strive to ensure that utilities reach both citizens and non-citizens. Some place bottles labeled el agua in remote deserts and organize search teams to look for missing persons. Resource centers might take many different forms, yet they all function as gathering places in inhospitable landscapes. They offer care through collaboration.
In 1969 the state of Utah designated the Red Butte watershed a Research Natural Area. Today, Quarry House is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and cared for by the horticulturalists of Red Butte Garden. Yet, it exists within an imperfect system–a fence-line now encloses the historic site. Rather than a pervasive public ethic of care and cooperation, conservationists must at times depend on walls.
The pioneers of the past, like today’s immigrant communities, came to the Salt Lake Valley to escape ruin, both social and environmental: persecution, poverty, exhausted ecosystems. Mistakenly, those early pioneers laid the foundations for the same systems they left behind—of extraction and emission, of accumulating waste. At one time, teams of oxen overgrazed the foothills, lumbering deforested sections of the canyon, and sandstone tailings polluted the creek. We all live with their legacy.
Yet, ruin also opens possibilities. Environmental change invites communities to form new coalitions—of unfamiliar ideas, practices, and people. Human visitors to Red Butte Garden often encounter Quarry House by chance. They feel drawn to what is present and absent, to what it suggests, or allows us to imagine. Amid the indistinct forms of ruin, we might gather to revise our thinking.
The most fully intact features of Quarry House are its two hearths—one in each room. Beneath a crumbling chimney, which they share, rests an assortment of hearth stones. Perhaps they are not the same stones the pioneers first set there; anonymous others have since replaced and rearranged them. Nevertheless, this motley bed of stones still beckons passersby to gather—in a house with no roof, doors, or windowpanes.
~Taylor Cunningham (Spring 2019)
To explore related Sightlines, follow this route.
For further reading:
DeSilvey, Caitlin. “Observed Decay: Telling Stories with Mutable Things.” Journal of Material Culture 11, no. 3 (2006): 318-38.
Ehleringer, James R., Lois A. Arnow, Ted Arnow, Irving B. McNulty, Norman C. Negus. “Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area: History, Flora, Geology, Climate, and Ecology.” Great Basin Naturalist 52, no. 2 (1992): 95-121.
Halverson, W. Dee. “The History of Red Butte Canyon.” Red Butte Garden. 1995. redbuttetraining.jimdo.com.
Lowenthal, David. “Past Time, Present Place: Landscape and Memory.” Geographical Review 65, no. 1 (1975): 1-36.
Lund, William. Engineering Geology of the Salt Lake City Metropolitan Area. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Department of Natural Resources, 1990.
Overpeck, Jonathan & Bradley Udall. “Dry Times Ahead.” Science 328 (2010): 1642-3.
Rykwert, Joseph. On Adam’s House in Paradise: the Idea of the Primitive Hut in Architectural History. Greenwich, CT: Museum of Modern Art, 1972.
Utah Geological Survey. Accessed March 6, 2019. geology.utah.gov.