Make Way for Miracles
Writers and builders have much in common. Both have the opportunity to aspire to a higher expression of their craft.
On occasions that are far too rare, a reader is fortunate enough to experience a piece of written wisdom, sometimes a single sentence, that causes him or her to stop, go back, read it again, and then be unable to move on from the profound simplicity that has been expressed.
A few months ago, I received as a gift a copy of The Overstory, a novel that earned author Richard Powers the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I am told that more than one of my acquaintances had recommended bringing it to my attention, for which I am humbly grateful.
As expressed by one of the characters in the book, Powers wrote, “When you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
Over the years I have come to realize that writers and builders have much in common. A writer, at least one working in English, attempts to create a meaningful message by taking the 26 letters of the alphabet and arranging them on a page in a particular combination and order that has not been seen before—something I have struggled to do many times, with limited success.
Similarly, a builder selects from a finite list of materials and products in an effort to assemble something worthwhile, a structure that meets a predetermined set of outcomes and that will have value. This process requires the skill, talent, resources, and determination of a great many people, but in the end, the results, like the written words, are there for all to see. As with the writer, the builder alone is responsible for the final product.
By extension, the place where the builder works is much like the page on which the writer lays down the words. But unlike the blank sheet or empty screen, that location, that site, will forever be an essential and integral aspect of what gets built there. I suppose we could debate whether or not this would apply to an orbiting space station, for example, but I would argue that it occupies a specific place and exists in the context of where it is at any given moment in time.
Back on the ground, what we observe as common practice are sites being prepared with convenience, uniformity, and expediency in mind. Tracts are routinely stripped, leveled, and processed to maximize profitability, with little or no regard for what naturally existed there. Topographic features, geologic anomalies, and any and all forms of flora and fauna are summarily bladed away to make room for homogenization.
The greater misfortune, however, may be the loss of creative opportunity that this model of development fosters. Maybe that’s why we are left with monotonous, repetitive, uninspired subdivisions and communities that are not much more than glorified warehouses for people to occupy. It defines the disconnect between the built environment and the natural world.
Like the writer, the builder can opt to aspire to a higher expression of his or her craft, but it does require making a conscious choice. It’s the difference between memorable and forgettable. With apologies to the author Powers, I’d like to suggest that whatever you build on a site should be at least as miraculous as what you have to remove to make room for it.