Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Unscrambling the Egg

Two items in the Tucson paper yesterday served as wistful vignettes on the inevitable march of the universe toward increasing entropy. On the local scale:
A historically significant U.S. Magnetic Observatory building that was supposed to be left standing in Udall Park while others around it were demolished was mistakenly taken down [to make room for a new sports field].

The gaffe by a city contractor leaves only four of the original 15 buildings standing.

The mistakenly demolished building dated to the 1920s, a little later than some of the turn-of-the-century buildings on the site. But it was more important for historic research than some of the others that were saved, according to a historian who lobbied to preserve the site.
And at a larger scale:
Construction of two miles of border fencing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area will resume following Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's decision Monday to invoke a waiver that exempts border fences from any law. ...

Home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and the last remaining free-flowing river in Arizona, the San Pedro has earned international recognition as a rare treasure. In 1988, Congress established a 40-mile stretch of the upper river as the nation's first Riparian National Conservation Area.

There's no going back for either situation. People can construct a building and, if it manages to hang around for at least fifty years while remaining a pristine example of a distinctive architectural style and/or housing a significant event or person, we can protect it through historic preservation. But if we demolish it, even inadvertently, we can't rebuild it and have the same significant, historic building. At best we can build a replica incorporating some original materials. But the thing created, once destroyed, cannot be perfectly recreated with its history intact. When the continuity of the timeline is disrupted, history stops.

A bulldozer through an old frame building. A fence through the center of an ecosystem. The San Pedro River will continue to flow, but now it will be around permanent vehicle barriers built of train track. A 12-to-14 foot high fence will cut through two miles of the most important riparian area in the border region, including the ranges of the mountain lion and the jaguar.

Granted, ecosystems are different from historic buildings. We talk about preserving the integrity of historic structures and areas, knowing that true restoration isn't possible after something is destroyed. With nature we have more wiggle room for do-overs--water can be made to flow again, plants to grow--but the disruption to the land mammals whose territories will be impacted by the fence may be a hell of a challenge to overcome. Of course, that's precisely the intent behind the border fence, the disruption of one specific land mammal's migratory route.

Two eggs scrambled, one small and one extra large in the grand scheme of things, both decisions in response to the pressures of an ever-burgeoning population.

Tucson is bursting at the seams and has chronically overcrowded soccer fields. So we shrug apologetically as we erase history to fill an immediate need. We went through this at a larger scale in the 1970s, demolishing acres of historic neighborhoods in order to build an ultra!modern downtown Tucson that promptly turned into a ghost town and has been the subject of attempts at revival for close to thirty years now. Before that, the remains of the Spanish colonial convento built in the 1800s were bulldozed to make room for... a landfill. Now that property is in the process of being restored, albeit with the completely new construction necessitated by the total destruction fifty years ago. And opinion is hotly divided over whether such a reconstruction should even be attempted, given the complete lack of an original structure beyond part of a building foundation. That's how thirsty we are for historical continuity here, having finally recognized the magnitude of what we didn't just lose but what we willfully discarded all those years ago in the interest of what, at the time, seemed like a really good idea for the present.

People are streaming north across the Mexican border, impelled by poverty at home and the promise of jobs in the US. So we shrug apologetically as we disrupt an entire ecosystem for the foreseeable future to fill an immediate need. Maybe the fence will slow the flow of migrants and stem the tide of trash and waste left along the trails trampled in their wake. Will that be the tradeoff for the San Pedro? A fence will stop jaguars and deer in their tracks. I'm not convinced it will stop people who are desperate to get to the other side. Even the Berlin Wall, with its no-man's-land and razor wire and machine gun emplacements, couldn't stop everyone who was desperate to chase the hope of a better life. When that fence came down, the surrounding city eventually flowed back together across the scar it left, but it took several years for the two different environments created by the wall to finally re-mesh. Now Michael Chertoff will build his own fence in defiance of laws and biologists telling him it will have dire long-term consequences. We can't know what the next generations will have to do to repair them, or the lengths they'll want to go to undo something that they may find mind-bogglingly short-sighted.

Human agency does not stop and time is linear; decisions resulting in material change can't be reversed. We need to think very carefully before cracking the shell.

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