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Got Walls?

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

The short answer should be "probably."

Once upon a childhood, I grew up within walls, like most of us do, and admittedly, my home today has a few walls of its own. Some walls, however, have had more significant meanings than others. For example, for most of my childhood, several years of which I spent in then-West Germany, the Berlin Wall stood. Intact. Indomitable. Indicative of greater phenomena at work in the world. The Berlin Wall served as a defining characteristic of Cold War politics, culture and media, from James Bond films to television series like Scarecrow and Mrs. King and kids' movies like Cloak and Dagger. Tom Clancy, anyone? Spies and East-West rivalry were a big deal back then, shaping our world in obvious and more discreet ways, and they still inspire books, movies, and more.

Berlin Wall, Oct. 1961, from U.S. Dept. of State

But walls were nothing new.

Humanity began developing civilizations more than 6,000 years ago. With civilization came the need to defend settled enclaves of life and something dubbed property ... fields, homes, tools, domesticated animals, and yes, people. Among the most ancient archaeological ruins of places like Uruk, Jericho, Babylon, Mycenae, Athens, Memphis, and Solnitsata, remnants of early walls mark their place in history. Not all ancient towns and cities had walls, but many or most likely did. And of course, some people were especially ambitious with their walls. Witness the Great Wall, built in many parts over centuries.

(I'm still figuring out how to caption the images in the slideshow but they show, in order, Uruk, Jericho, Mycenae, Babylon, Solnitsata, Athens, and the Great Wall of China. Images from Wikimedia Commons, Reddit, and UNESCO.)

I grew up fascinated by walls. What they keep out. What they keep in. Why we climb and dig under and through them. Why we decorate and add things to them. How they weaken. How they change the natural and human landscape. How they create artificial but tangible boundaries. What they hide and where they lead. Which we want to keep and which destroy, and when, and why. I encountered them not only in the world around me but also in fairy tales and artwork. (More on that in another post.) The mighty castles along Germany's rivers and among its mountains and forests were well fortified, and with many of my favorite gardens and other public spaces, oddly, came more ornamental, organizational and even instructional walls. What's a labyrinth (hedge variety) but a living wall? Perhaps Tiffani Angus can address that more. (We'll come back to David Bowie's labyrinth in another post. Wait for it.)

As a creative writing teacher, I used to challenge my students to write about walls in a story or a poem because I find walls to be such pervasive and symbolic components of our lives. Real and imagined. They are timely again, today; though really, they never stopped being so.

Then, in 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered the construction of 13 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Thirteen years later, President George W. Bush authorized 700 miles of fencing to extend that physical boundary as well as 2,000 miles of "virtual wall" maintained through surveillance towers. Today, another U.S. president seeks to build what he calls "a great, great wall" out of steel and concrete across that border. Donald J. Trump's administration has overseen the replacement of about 100 miles of border wall/fencing so far.

"Teeter-Totter Wall," by architecture studio Rael San Fratello. Photo by Rael San Fratello.

I still live within walls, fabricated walls that we paint, walls thrown open by doors and windows. I know people who build bigger walls around themselves ... and live in walled houses within walled communities. We, as people, layer walls over our lives like shirts to keep out the cold. Some are needed (like that clothing) to keep out the elements, to impede pests like mosquitoes, and to protect what we consider ours. Right now, we wears masks as walls against microscopic pests called viruses. Metaphorically, we erect walls of varying types to protect our thoughts and feelings, and societies impose other types of walls against disparate groups of people to limit access, opportunity, equality, speech, etc. Some of these walls treat people as pests.

But walls invite challenges. If you sense someone is keeping something from you, you want to poke, peek, or at the least, ask about it. What are the implications of the bigger walls we as communities and societies build? What do they intend to keep out and in? What, in effect, do they keep out and in? What gets built and destroyed in the process?

As my children just learned when building a rock wall across a creek, something almost always finds a way through our best built boundaries. Eventually.

Some walls you respect. Others, perhaps, you question or challenge.

I've written about many walls throughout my life, for many purposes. I'll be writing about them more in the coming months.

In the meantime, perhaps you have a story, poem, song, or piece of art of your own to share about the walls you build, decorate, and challenge. If you do, send me a link.

Note: I linked to various resources throughout this blog. I tried to provide a variety of sources to support inquiry on your part. Don't be limited by one link, or count one source as the absolute authority on any given topic. Neither history nor life works that way.

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