There is an old building near where I live in northeast Washington, DC, where something is terribly wrong. Or rather, it’s not that anything is wrong or evil there. Things have simply drifted out of balance.
A building, like any living thing, is a system. In living there we shuffle things in and out of the building: We import food and clothing, furniture, everything we need to sustain our lives, and we export waste, trash, sewage, detritus, everything that would get in our way or make us sick. Every cell in my body does the same. My body, as a whole, does the same. A building is the living thing we live in, until it is not.
This old building is abandoned, which means it is being overtaken. First by entropy—the chaos that subsumes every living body when homeostatic processes cease—and then by new living things altogether. A new system invades. Jon and I visit regularly to observe the flux of this invasion, which mostly looks like an amalgamation of little deaths and little births. The building is enormous, with many stories and wings. It is or was some kind of university establishment for the religious school nearby, so we call it, ominously, the Seminary. There is a mattress rotting out back, which implies that people may have lived here once when the building was a functional environment for human bodies. But the mattress is now exposed to cycles of rain, sun, and freeze; its seams are splitting, and its edges are being eaten; and algae or moss has begun to coat it in green slime. The mattress is now photosynthetic. Its function as a sleeping-place for human bodies has died, and yet it is now a platform for organic matter, a place for things to eat rays of sunlight. In this way the mattress is reborn. Do you understand?
And so it is with the entire condemned Seminary. A wise friend of mine once reverently observed, viewing a ’50s-era Chevy pickup that had been left to rust and sprout ferns out of its engine compartment for decades, that “Nature always takes back its own.” This has become a koan for me, except that I also understand that I am nature’s own, and that the truck was as well, in all of its incarnations. We die in one form to be reborn in another. This is what Nature means.
The Seminary is preceded by a long promenade flanked by flowering pear trees and manicured lawns. Someone with a lawn mower, pruning shears, and presumably organizational funding is maintaining equilibrium here. So Jon and I proceed from the street down the promenade on foot, onto the grounds surrounding the Seminary. The effect is like traveling through time, though I am never sure whether into the past or the future; or it is like striding from order into chaos, or rightness into wrongness. The grounds here are not cared for; they are dying, or being reborn. The asphalt of the small parking lot is cracked and heaving. The ornamental trees about the entryways are long dead, skeletal, branch-tips reaching earnestly towards a sky that is somehow always gray and purplish. The electricity is still, improbably, working; a streetlamp rooted in the cracking asphalt throws a pallid, anemic glow, and strained circuitry emits an endless high-pitched whine. There is a statue on top of the peaked roof so high above our heads, and Latin carvings; they appear undisturbed from so far, but stone takes a long time to dissolve. The brown brick of the building is developing streaks, cracks, and imperfections, out of which tiny plants have sprouted from imperceptible soil.
When my friend said “Nature takes back its own,” on a surface level she simply meant that green things reemerge inexorably. The best way to detect a human system that is transitioning into a natural system is the emergence of green cells on otherwise inorganic, flat, tidy, hard surfaces. Humans build squares and rectangles of everlasting, un-living stone and iron; nature builds fragile fractal structures with solar panels gaped open towards the sky. Our abandoned skeletons grow new flesh.
Somehow, in the midst of all this transition and cellular movement, the grounds of the Seminary are always eerily quiet. The high grass-tips of the marsh nearby are riffled softly by the gentle breeze, and redwing blackbirds sound their harsh buzzes from afar; but nothing nearby stirs. There are never any other people there—people are haunted by buildings that have fallen back to nature, and avoid them—but once as we crept from the promenade onto the cracked grounds a solitary pickup truck with blacked-out windows fired its engine into a roar from its standstill in the parking lot. Whoever sat invisibly behind the wheel must have seen us arrive, and decided to leave. This is the only other person we have ever seen on those grounds. I would not go there alone.
There is a stairwell in the back of the building on its Eastern side that descends into the basement. Peering into the chipped windows of the East wing, I can see that ground level and below is full of ductwork, pipes and boilers. It was probably the heating and cooling system for the whole building, now dormant; I assume that rats and spiders make their home there now, in the unregulated cool of the cement basement. The stairwell is coated in brown and rotting leaves and the broken green glass of beer bottles. We come today to pilfer a treasure I noticed months ago at the foot of the stairs: Several abandoned stacks of plastic nursery pots, worth not much at all, but probably fifty or so of them—the kind of thing that is indispensable for growing baby plants from seed and into a useable size. It is September; I’ve had my eye on these pots for months, knowing that come the end of summer I will be sprouting little kale and broccoli plants to feed us through autumn. I descend the rotting concrete stairs delicately, accompanied by the dry rustling of leaves and the clink of glass underfoot. Jon watches on nervously, knowing my talent for clumsiness, and scanning the grounds all around us. There is nobody here. We are both nervous about taking something abandoned from the Seminary. We know that people don’t belong here, and if they did they wouldn’t be us. Who owns these grounds? Who keeps the electricity humming through the floodlights at all the entrances? Who left these flowerpots here, collecting spiders and broken glass?
Treasures retrieved, we skirt around the building to its South side, where a little broken cottage sits on an overgrown lawn. This part of the Seminary is surrounded by woods, which we will cut through to return to the road through a hole in the fence. The grass is almost knee-high, and all the windows and doors of the cottage are boarded with plywood. I want badly to break into that little abandoned house, but never will; I know that there are ghosts in there. The grounds are silent, grass riffled by the breeze. I scan the treetops, looking for blue jays and hawks.
Jon tells me later that he suddenly felt a sensation of being watched, as if there were eyes upon him, someone watching from the cottage.
“Is that a fox?” Jon asks, breaking the silence. I look to where he is pointing. There is abandoned furniture on the cottage porch, the cheap scratchy upholstered kind you might find in a college dormitory or a prison. The fox is completely motionless and silent, like everything else on the grounds of the Seminary, sitting upright in one of the abandoned chairs. The Red Queen upon her throne, contemplating her next move in a game of chess. Her vibrant fur sits close over thin flesh, a hungry fox in summer pelage, black glittering eyes gazing directly into my face. Her jaws are hanging gently open. I can see the glistening of white canine teeth, a loose pink tongue. I break eye contact. I run.
I cannot explain exactly why I ran, except that the fox was the animated spirit of the abandoned Seminary, and that it had teeth, and that in the moment I saw it I was overwhelmed by a feeling of intense malevolence, as if all the ghosts of the deaths in that place had been reborn in the body of the fox who saw me and said, silently, with her eyes, Run. Run now. I run back around the building, past the East wing, past the stairwell with its leaves and broken glass, and stop, shaking, panting, to think this through. Jon catches up with me. We decide to go back and look.
As I turn the brick corner of the building my knees are still shaking, though I still do not know why. The fox is still sitting motionless on her throne, but now when she sees me again she launches off the chair and vaults herself off of the cottage porch, and away through the tall grass. A streak of regal red through green leaves. No longer a ghost, but only a wild fox disturbed in a quiet place. She runs into the woods. As we follow her on the way back to the road we see her in the distance, through the trees, motionless once more. Watching us. She watches us all the way back to the road.
The nursery pots are not mine. Nothing on the Seminary grounds is mine. Perhaps it all belongs to someone, but these skeletons have grown new bodies now. I think when the fox looked into my eyes I ran because I could feel her rage. The rage of a wild animal who is frightened, whose grounds are trespassed upon by humans once again, who is surprised, who thought she was alone. This is no longer yours, she said to me. It was never yours. I came from dust, and to dust I shall return. My bones will dissolve into imperceptible soils. Tiny plants will grow from me. They will stretch their green leaves towards the sky, and eat the sun.