Jenny Morber is a science writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Slate and elsewhere.
Wherever I go, I find the abandoned places: a nuclear cooling tower, a failed island resort, a crumbling three-bedroom cabin overhanging a pebbly shore. I scour online lists of dilapidated buildings. I take my kids to run through empty forts. More than once I have asked my husband to turn back to a deserted gas station or vacant home as we sped down a country road. We have explored lighthouses and sheds and mills and someday soon I hope to hike to the remains of an old plane crash.
Maybe it’s an odd hobby, seeking out and photographing empty spaces, but I find them beautiful. Vines cover swimming pools like lace. Paint curls in Fibonacci spirals. A still-made bed moulders. Thick steel doors rust into gorgeous filigree. There are patterns only time can create.
I like decay, and I am not alone. Search “abandoned,” “deserted” or “decay” on Instagram and you will find dozens of accounts devoted to abandoned places, some claiming more than half a million followers. An app for smartphones – Abandoned – uses GPS and user input to flag structures nearby, offering ratings and comments. On blogs and forums, people share excitement and compare finds. Some call these images “ruin porn” but my explorations feel as porn-like as enjoying a mountain hike. Must everything pleasurable be porn?
Critics say people like me exploit abandoned structures for amusement while ignoring the uncomfortable economic and human realities of their existence. But I say, isn’t it easier to ignore something in the absence of images? To document a need is to begin to address it. Do we exploit nature with our photographs?
When I was little my parents would take me after work hours to explore new-home construction. Here, they would tell me, will be a bathroom, this is the living room, a closet, these risers will be stairs. The unfolding structure fascinated me. I collected bent nails and bits of wood to make into sculptures. I avoided the litter – drink cups, greasy burger wrappers, cigarettes. Adults are like gods to children, but what kind of gods bury their trash in the backyard? Framing mistakes, uneven concrete, snack bags; adults, I learned, cover things up.
But a deserted building shows its bones. It is what happens when no one is looking. Small roof leaks grow into holes. Foundation shortcuts create cracks. Metals rust, wood warps, mortar crumbles. Pipes reveal themselves as insulation falls in pillows. One coastal home I visited was made almost entirely of shells. When we care about a thing enough we build it in cement and stone. I expect the massive concrete cooling tower will endure for decades.
Every place has a story. Did the person who spent a last night on the cabin’s now mouldy bed know it was a last? Did they comfort a frightened child here, two heads on the pillow? Are there memories of quiet mornings listening to water lap the shore? I could not help but brush my hand along the fabric and imagine how it must have felt when the sheets were new. I could not help but pick up a stone and wonder if they had walked over it.
In Silence in the Age of Noise by explorer Erling Kagge, he describes the beauty he found deep in the underground sewers of New York. That tunnel wilderness he says, “possesses its own beauty, a negative beauty – by virtue of all that is not present.” Abandoned spaces occupy this kind of negative space. The beauty of an empty room feels like the beauty of a canyon or cliff. Silence in a space once filled with voices feels more profound. Even the children grow quiet, almost reverent, as we move through the shells of places once inhabited.
We are, of course, thinking of death. Not necessarily our own, but the inevitable death of all things. It is impossible to ignore time’s flow in an abandoned space. Like a yellowing snapshot, decay represents both past and future. You see what was. You see what is becoming. I find the reminder reassuring. There is less pressure on today when inevitably tomorrow brings change. So I pause. I claim for myself a moment. I consider my past and my children. I acknowledge my own decay. I am glad to know it can hold beauty.
So much of our work is to maintain. I think this is because we build dead things; they do not self-sustain. Leaves blown into a ballroom remind me that they are not invading, but restoring a vacuum after an unnatural absence. We struggle for order against this kind of chaos. Decay feels like an unravelling. It is not.
We humans are the destroyers. Here I sit in a box, surrounded by a yard covered in prairie grass and a few sparse trees. We have erected a fence for our dog, an animal created (and abused) by humans. I drive a car that runs on stuff sucked from deep inside the Earth. I tap out these words on a device full of metals extracted by mining, melting and poisoning, assembled by armies of people and flown to me. On larger scales, our wastes pollute air and water. Everything we build is on top of something else. We consume.
But how quickly nature works when we are gone. There is perhaps nowhere better than a deserted building to understand life’s resilience. The forest overtakes our work, always. How beautiful is the green moss that covers concrete. How assuredly grasses and vines creep in. Water pools in low places, runs along creases, dripping, feeding seedlings, lichen, trees, mould, insects, spiders, spores. Squirrels nest. Birds bring seeds. Ice cleaves stones and salt dissolves sea walls. It is a glorious reclaiming.
This decay comforts me. If we manage to destroy ourselves, Earth will heal. I have read early colonial descriptions of North American wilderness and it is not a land I recognize. I have never seen herds in the millions, or skies so full of birds they block the sun. But I can imagine them. I see the decay of our structures and it makes me happy. Maybe our folly can end well, after all, if we just leave things alone for a while.