In your wanderings, you will inevitably come upon an old building that makes you want to look around, maybe take a few tentative steps in one direction or another, shield your eyes against the sun. You know nothing about this overgrown spot, but it gets you nonetheless. You become curious and explore. There are stories here, and people, generations and heartache and suffering, winter mornings with steam rising from someone’s coffee mug, mundane tasks and small joys—there is too much to understand, but enough to know that this is an enduring place.
Decay is gradual but always faster than seems possible. A house is abandoned, and it only takes weeks for vines to sneak through the splintered wood of a window frame or for a seedling to take root in a clump of rotting leaves in a gutter. Roof shingles blow away, window panes crack. Paint flakes and wood turns gray. At some point, the resulting ruin is no longer an eyesore and becomes picturesque instead. Later, it returns to being an eyesore. Perhaps someone eventually initiates the process of reversal and gives the building a new purpose. As geographically remote as a site may be, people can be drawn to it over and over. It could be for practical reasons (a spring, the soil, good pasture) or for sentimental ones. Often it is an ancient pull.
Here is a girls’ boarding school in ruins, its sturdy French design holding out against the seasons on an Ozarks hilltop. Miles east, set back from the road in a wide valley I’ve never been to before, a boxy church suddenly comes into view. I’ve seen the building in photographs and it always seemed half-mythical to me, but here it is. Now, as I am standing close to it, the stories become overwhelming, and I escape to the adjacent cemetery. And a bluff overhang on the Buffalo brings out even older stories. There are no human-built structures here, but the slow work of the elements has created a shelter that has been attracting people forever. The water running over the rocks nearby seems to hold their quiet voices.
On the hike back, another chorus emerges, retelling the longest-lasting story of all: The 13-year cicadas of the Great Southern Brood have completed their final molt and fill the valley with their eerie courtship songs.