I am not sure what really draws me to destruction. I seem to follow it like a dog sniffing the air, following behind a hotdog cart rolling down the street. Whether it is in my job, or my explorations, I seem to gravitate to the ruins of generations past. This type of exploration has many names; urban explorations, ruin porn, urban adventure, or just UE. I just call it fun.
There is something beautiful in the destruction, the ruination of something once considered so perfect, something so complete. Decay sets in as cement crumbles, and rebar reaches out like tendrils of steel, hoping to ensnare some unsuspecting victim, like a constructed venus fly trap set up for human consumption. We all observe the world through our own lens, and maybe mine is shaped for a dystopian future, where I see beauty in the ruins of what once was. But don’t judge me so quickly. This behavior has been happening for hundreds of years.
Anthropologists, antiquarians, and archaeologists have been drawn to the ruined cities of civilizations for some time now. Their explorations and methods seem to place them square in a past that forces them to recognize the beauty found in the ruination of a civilization. As children, my generation was enthralled by the intrepid and heroic adventures of Indiana Jones, as he brushed the desert sand away to find the entrance to the well of souls. Maybe we find solace in knowing there is still something left to discover, in an age where everything seems so readily available at the click of a mouse.
Imagination runs wild for me, and I find myself staring at the desolation found in these ruins, absorbing the dystopia as if I was a saguaro cactus long in the desert without rain. I find peace in these environments, and my mind creates illustrious pasts and futuristic scenes of these worn down, but not always forgotten, buildings.
I recently found myself at Battery Steele, on Peak’s Island, nestled in the cold waters of Casco Bay. Just a short ferry ride from Portland, Maine, this abandoned WWII coastal artillery gun emplacement sparks the flame of imagination within my mind.
Completed in 1942, Battery Steele was meant to protect Casco Bay from any axis enemy advancement. Named after Harry Lee Steele, a coastal artillery officer during WWI, this compound housed two 16-inch MkIIMI guns. Today, the guns are gone, but the hulking cement structure which housed them sits in a marsh, the path winding through the cold rain water of spring and tall golden reeds.
Through the marsh, a rudimentary plank walk sinks into the bubbling mire hidden beneath the black water, and the cold liquid begins to trickle across the top of the sun bleached boards. With each step, these loosely fitting slats of wood shift and twist under our weight, and we race through the swamp like ill trained ballerinas bouncing on tippy toe from one board to the next. Past the reeds, and the crudely constructed walkway, we are confronted with the cement structures of a distant path.
Abandoned military bases always look like something from a science fiction move. A post-apocalyptic landscape with a rugged past set within an atomic future. The cement openings are gaping maws, with large half-moon canopies looming overhead. We entered the space decorated with graffiti, showcasing all levels of talent, advancing with the anticipation of uncertainty.
Darkness can be so intimidating. As children we imagine things lurking in the vast onyx abyss unfurled before our eyes, seeing yet not seeing, as a nothingness envelops our vision. As adults, we develop an assurance that we know the world, and the things that we imagined as children, surely don’t exist. That we are the keepers of knowledge, and there is nothing left to find, is what gets us through unknown situations, that as children would have paralyzed us. Darkness is still menacing though, but it isn’t creatures in the dark that I fear.
When I talk about darkness, about a black envelop swallowing all images and silhouettes, I speak of a pure, dark, inky wan. A Stygian pitch smeared across your eyes, blinding the occupier within such a space. Go to the deepest bowels of a boat, an underground hydroelectric facility, a cave deep beneath the earth, and shut off the light. Switch your torch off, and watch the darkness snatch up that light as if it had never existed, and then you will know the true tenebrous depths of what nothingness is. So when I say, bring a flashlight to Battery Steele, not just the light on your phone, I mean it.
Graffiti artists. Criminals. Whatever you call them, I call them talented artists of outsider art. Those that make the world beautiful and quirky, add an interesting element to life. I refer to those who are artists. Those who don’t deface buildings or just tag, but those that create works that would inspire awe in those whose eyes break through the darkness with a golden glow of light.
The walls are the canvases for these creators, and upon the cement we find works of art, all manipulated from spray paint cans. We wondered about their process, and imagined who would be out here, painting where few eyes would see. Without light, you see nothing, and these paintings don’t exist. It is only with the introduction of luminescence, do we find the beauty hidden behind the coal-black.
This was once the location for Sacred and Profane, an artists gathering of epic proportions lasting for days. Those who manipulate the world to create thought-provoking images and installations, would gather here and illustrate the beauty hidden within the decrepit, a juxtaposition of decay and renewal.
As we traveled deeper into the facility, we found sections were inundated with water, hindering our exploration further. We left this bunker to search for other adventures on the island. Fire Control Towers are easily accessible via easily marked trails on the island. Other buildings, once used by the military, still stand, and seem to attract those who seek to create the strange and bold out of something in ruination.
Just as we all flock to Rome to see the ruins of civilization, maybe someday, hundreds of years from now, people will flock to the last vestiges of military ruins that once dotted the world. These fortifications, their thick cement walls still staving off the weathered elements, will stand against time. Tall vines will encapsulate them, and they will be forgotten, until some intrepid explorer steps off the road, and wonders what that mound is across the swamp, as a cool ocean breeze bends the golden reeds, grown in over the old path.