Walls

Something there is, that does not love a wall….

Something, perhaps, but not humans. We love walls from Pyramus and Thisbe to Wall-E. We are the only large apes on the planet who build walls, as if we were frustrated ants or bees. Very strange, no doubt, in the eyes of an elk, salmon, or wolverine. Wolves, bears and rodents, on the other paw, probably spend quite a lot of time on boring winter afternoons thinking about how to persuade us to build their winter dens for them. Beavers no doubt think we’re the kitten’s mewl when it comes to building—there’s probably an entire graduate-degree track at Beaver U dedicated to studying and adapting human wall-building to beaverish agendas.

We are emperors of walls. Perpendicular walls, sloping walls, circular and spiral walls. Pretty walls, just for the hell of it. Protective or proprietary walls; dividing and guiding walls. The Great Wall of China, monument to a costly failure. “Chinese walls”—a set of protocols designed to protect the confidentiality of lawyers’ clients. Walls of thought built atop foundations of belief laid down by our ancestors, often centuries ago. Walls of strict discipline, erected to prevent the next tsunami of emotion from overwhelming our fragile hearts.

We love building walls! Take a stroll through Vancouver’s Yaletown, lifting your slack-jawed face in wonder to the tops of the steel, glass and concrete canyon walls, thirty or more storeys high. Not so high as Dubai’s wonders of the new world, of course, but then, construction on the planet’s highest erection has perforce been stopped. It seems our species had to play Jenga to a hundred storeys or more in order to manifest an obvious truth: building must end somewhere up in the uncertain air. One would think humanity had learned that lesson in biblical times: what was Bab-El, after all, but a set of over-reaching walls?

Will Yaletown’s toilets still be working perfectly in 2060? Will the fabulous sheets of glass still be up there as windows, or down on the street in shards?

Stroll with me a moment down a Nicaraguan street of walls.

It is the Latin custom to wall off family life from the street and neighbors, creating a convivial courtyard where one instinctively relaxes in the safety of home. Walls create privacy. In a Nicaraguan beach town, however, nearly half the walls are vestigial, never rebuilt after the wallop of a tsunami, the howling hurricane, or the terror of terremoto (earthquake). At the picturesque sight of a pretty bit of surviving wall, still idiotically in place decades after being struck by a “natural disaster”, we, the very animals who have lifted wall-building into a fine art we call architecture, understand, without a word being spoken, why the culture of Nicaragua is moribund. Fighting for its last breaths, it is unable to defend itself without walls.

Nica walls

For Nicas, at best it is a time of love among the ruins. Fractured gates, roofless houses, and broken walls are everywhere, taken over by rampant bougainvillea, feral cats and half-wild dogs. The streets are littered with awkwardly hand-lettered signs tacked haphazardly to what is left of the gates. “Se Vende” For sale. What am I bid for this fine ruin? As one frequent (Canadian ) visitor says, “I love it. But the country’s a disaster.”

Much of the time, it’s too hot in Nicaragua to think about re-building, even if you could lay your hands on enough materiel for the project—problems Canadians have seldom had. Nicaragua’s heartbreaking history of exploitation and chicanery has accustomed Nicas to the sight of tumbledown; they will be less surprised than we when economic and social walls begin to fail.

Let us aspire to a Nica level of graciousness in the face of downfall and disaster—like them, let’s not forget the civility and conviviality of courtyards, galleries and gathering places. More than that: when walls fall, let’s use all that privilege we’ve enjoyed all our lives as a so called First World country to re-build only useful walls, using two tools that will prove essential to recovery from cultural and economic disaster, flexibility and transparency.

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