The Third Aside: Civilization (A Free Write)

While writing my piece on Hangzhou, there was a third aside I deleted. The piece was growing very long, and I already ramble. I decided to put that rambling here – give it space to breathe and be a larger reflection.

It has to do with the grandiose idea of civilization.

In one of my earlier pieces on Dujiangyan, I pointed out that the dirty city brushed right up to the protected mountain, that there was this clear break between what was old and protected and what was new and expanding. In Shanghai, all the parks are hemmed in by city. In Hangzhou (and I’ll note it again when I write about Leshan), off the coast of West Lake I could see the skyline, again pushing right up against the protected line.

It got me to thinking about the spread of people, and the growth of our cities. It’s vital that we protect history for future generations, so that they might reflect on old techniques and beliefs, and see what progress (or regress) we have made throughout the years. At the same time, we must grow and move forward, and the technologies of the future will need breathing space of their own. Ultimately, we have to walk this line of preservation and evolution.

We are not kind to history, or at least we were not kind. The Turks used the Parthenon as a munitions depot (which is how part of it got destroyed), the French chiseled graffiti into the ancient Egyptian ruins (If I remember correctly, I translated one piece as “Jean-Pierre was here. It’s too hot.”) The Pyramids were stripped of the outer stone to use for other buildings (that’s why the one Great Pyramid has only the smooth top). Mao ordered the destruction of temples when China renounced religion. Old buildings get torn down and used to build new buildings, old temples get buried, tombs disappear. We can’t keep track of all that we have built, destroyed, and rebuilt. I don’t suggest that we try.

Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to suggest countries don’t develop at the cost of losing their history. When China built the Three Gorges Dam, they did so through the forced relocation of millions of people, the destruction on whole cities, and the drowning of swaths of countryside. They needed power, and they wanted a port deep inland. So at what point to we tip the scale in favor of development over preservation? The Keystone oil pipeline in the States is another example – we don’t want to destroy a pristine environment, but we also need oil. Which is more important?

I’m still working on my theory, but I feel like we need to practice what I am going to call “responsible destruction.” If we try to save everything, we will never build anything new. If we only preserve our history, we will never develop a future. However, we cannot build a future at the cost of history. For me, this debate turns to a storm of contentious questions. Who gets to decide what is worth preserving? What happens when we ignore future implications for immediate gain? How much is enough? How much is too much?

And what about my feelings, when I look at beautiful mountains hemmed in by smog-choked high rises? When I reflect on what the Leshan Buddha sees, I realize his horizon has only grown more clouded as the city across the river grows and the factories churn out more bad air. I feel the need for civilization to press onwards and upwards, and I lament that we’re destroying beautiful things as we go. We preserve but a sliver of what was, and I don’t know if that’s enough.

We keep growing in size.

I remember my childhood in Indiana. I remember when the man who owned the woods where I ran my dogs sold the land to a developer, who in turn developed the land. The trees came down, and a subdivision went up. The homes put up fences and banned trespassing, and so I could only walk my dog on a leash on the road. I drove by them in later years, those houses. I was still angry. I felt like a part of my life had been destroyed. But then again, where are new families supposed to go? And what do you do with land that you don’t use?

This is not an easy thought process. I felt a certain revulsion seeing the cramped city held at bay from a single green space. It’s the same revulsion I feel for Reagan, who said “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” What a horrible notion. I know that if they weren’t protected, the beautiful places of the world would be full of houses and stores and more of the same things we have in our everyday lives.


Ok, it took free writing all that to get to this point: The reason we preserve, and need to preserve both natural and historical sites is to break us out of our everyday lives. We walk Civil War battlefields out of respect for the dead, and to remind us that we are not a country free from strife. We save what mountains we can so we may climb them and look over the world and be taller than our houses and skyscrapers and feel our individual smallness, our collective greatness. And we save our history, even if it’s just in pieces, so that we can feel the difference in time.

Those who have no history cannot lift their heads above the needs of the moment. History is what allows us to look to the future!

Unfortunately, my marvelous revelation doesn’t solve the city encroaching on historical sites/ national parks conundrum. I’ll walk around in that circle later.

Excuse me, but noodles are calling.


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