The Duty to Ruins

The picture to the left was taken in the ruined hamlet with the improbable name of Doodletown, in Bear Mountain Park, Rockland county, New York state. Far from the main road, this strange place existed until the mid nineteen-sixties, when it was bulldozered to the foundations. Intact are the graveyards, of which there are three I believe. Herbert Graveyard is the one in the photograph; it’s a quiet, peaceful place bordered by a rusted fence and trees strung with vines. A deep fall of leaves crunch underfoot, a few birds – hawks of some kind, keening from above.

I’m not often drawn to graveyards – I prefer places where the living have been and left their mark. I am used to wandering around big damp castles full of fine tapestries and furniture – always of an improbable smallness. I’ve even been to Skara Brae, the preserved remains of the stone-age village in the Orkneys, but there is so little of Doodletown left among the brambles, that the graveyard feels that much more important, the only visual record with the names attached, bar a few signs the ‘friends of Doodletown’ society have put up.

In The Book of the Alter, the valley of the seven winters has a graveyard for the Spanish, later Mexican and American settlers.  While I’ve never seen a New Mexican cemetery, I have a reminder from this foray into the mountains of what age does to tombstones, and information on what tombstones looked like before precision machinery carving. I know that in New Mexico, old graves probably don’t have the photographs and cameos that are to be found on modern Spanish graves, although part of me wishes that I could put them in the valley graveyard – the eerie reminder of the human life now gone beneath the earth.

Likewise in the novel, the ruins of two old settlements remain, though I am permitted to make them as great or as little as I wish. One is a Pueblo Indian village of adobe, the other a town much like Doodletown, slightly unlikely to have ever succeeded.  I think often of how much more detail I need to research to do them justice.  I really hope to get out to NM some time to witness these sights. That, in my opinion, is any writer’s duty, to witness life and put the unspoken down in the best way they can.

This was how I felt about Kilea, in writing around the ruins of villages in the Highlands of Scotland. Cleared for the settlement of profitable sheep after the decline of the clan system, some houses remain under moss, or on the moorland, their thatch roofs long gone, any evidence of their human owners – little they must have had – long gone. I lived above one such cottage – a cattlefield wreck full of nettles and the wind. It was one of the few markers between the six or so families who lived on our little clump on the hillside, and the village of Portree far below across the bogs. The world is full of these emptied places, and the temptation is to fill them with warmth and family life, though the truth may be far more stark, and lonely, and unknowable.


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