As If We Never Existed At All

One of the striking aspects of a recent massive landslide in northern Washington is the fact that changes in water level (apparently eroding the strength of soil) along with construction efforts and very light seismic activity combined to create a landslide that appears to have wiped out many of the local traces of human presence [1]. It was as if the town that was destroyed never existed at all. What was a rapidly growing suburb of Seattle now faces a great deal of destruction and difficulty, along with the death and disappearance of many people who were only in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, our thoughts and prayers and concerns are with such people. Nevertheless, there are also many lessons that we can learn and reflections that we can make about the ease by which our development and our efforts can simply vanish even in a world where surveillance is great [2] and where we are supposed to have a massive anthropogenic influence on the world at large (usually thought of as being an influence for evil, despite the fact that it is our place to have proper and restrained dominion over the physical world around us).

The fight of mankind against oblivion is by no means merely a contemporary struggle [3]. Great cities have long been lost in obscure places like Andean Peru or even Cape Breton Island [4], forgotten because of massive demographic changes, neglected by the forgetfulness of those who do not want to admit past glories of others, and obliterated by massive environmental changes like the destructive effects of deserts and floods and reforestation, to say nothing of warfare and manmade destruction. The glories of Ankgor Wat were turned into a hazardous minefield, for example, by the barbarians of the Khmer Rouge. Even a couple of centuries ago, poets commented with smug irony on the folly of Egyptian pharaohs like Ramses II to proclaim their everlasting glory amidst their often forgotten tombs and buildings, where the forces of oblivion were so powerful that even the massive and powerful Kingdom of Assyria was thought to be a biblical myth for centuries because its destruction had been so great.

It was during some random reading as a college student that I became aware of the 15th century realm of Mwane Mutapa, the Shona name for the “Lord of Ravished Lands,” a chieftain who reigned after the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe. It is unclear, of course, if he was bragging about ruling over lands that he had ravished to take over for his empire, or rather lamenting the decline of civilization from the age of Great Zimbabwe with its massive walled cities and wealth to his less refined empire. Both interpretations are possible, since the written records of the age are, to put it mildly, rather scanty at best for that part of the world. All too often the same is true for us. Are we the lords of lands that we have ravished, or the successors of ruined kingdoms whose lost glories we lament and try to emulate as best as we can [5].

One struggle we face in common with all civilizations of any kind at any time is the problem of memory. Though we all know that we will die eventually, and that our realms and people will not only advance but also decline as well, we seek to be remembered for all time for our deeds. We build massive cities and other structures, we write, we carve creation, all seeking to leave a sign that we once existed on this earth and that our words and deeds and lives are worth being remembered and honored by those who follow us. We cannot coerce others to remember us after we were gone. We cannot guarantee that others will care about the works of our hands in the face of shifting regimes and worldviews and fads of culture. All we can do is do the best that we can and leave our lives as a legacy in the hope that we will not be consigned to oblivion.

[1] http://www.nbcrightnow.com/story/25072764/how-did-the-snohomish-county-landslide-happen

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/vanishing-act/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/how-do-great-civilizations-get-lost/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/non-book-review-lost-world-of-the-golden-king/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/can-contemporary-china-learn-a-lesson-from-1421/

[5] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/imitatio-imperii/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to As If We Never Existed At All

  1. Pingback: Damnatio Memoriae | Edge Induced Cohesion

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