‘Feral houses’

August 8, 2009 / The feral houses of Detroit, and the war of each against all.

Jim Griffioen introducing his photos of abandoned houses in Detroit that are becoming massively overgrown by their own gardens:

I’ve seen “feral” to describe dogs, cats, even goats. But I have wondered if it couldn’t also be used to describe certain houses in Detroit. Abandoned houses are really no big deal here. Some estimate that there are as many as 10,000 abandoned structures at any given time, and that seems conservative. But for a few beautiful months during the summer, some of these houses become “feral” in every sense: they disappear behind ivy or the untended shrubs and trees planted generations ago to decorate their yards. The wood that framed the rooms gets crushed by trees rooted still in the earth. The burnt lime, sand, gravel, and plaster slowly erode into dust, encouraged by ivy spreading tentacles in its endless search for more sunlight.

Elena sometimes describes her work in our garden as a war against the weeds. New England has recently entered that part of the summer when the grasses, trees, weeds, ornamental plants and vegetables are at their strongest. Everything is tall and competing. Cracks in surfaces are being exploited at every opportunity. The balance has tipped—there are so many successful exploits that it one can easily see by the thatches of green sprouting from asphalt, that there really are holes everywhere.

I remember walking in my neighbourhood once as a teenager and realising that rather than being the strong, permanent, deliberate pathways that divide up the landscape, roads could also be viewed as thin crusts that we try to lay down on the earth. Brittle layers that are easily broken through by roots, and rain and general shifting, unless paid constant attention by the authorities. Pathways and driveways around houses and apartment buildings face the same problem. There, we are the authorities. Constantly marshalling the forces of order, in our incessant battle with the outside.

And I think this describes humans quite precisely. Lucky though we are, in developed countries, to have our activities refined by wealth, safety and creature comforts, we’re always subject to the animal pressure of being constantly at war with our environment.

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