As we all know only too well, nothing lasts forever, especially the good things. I somehow find this illustrated by a supposedly true anecdote, about W.S. Gilbert, of “Gilbert and Sullivan.” He is said to have been at a concert, seated next to a gushing woman, of the kind he hated. One of the names on the program was Bach and she asked, “Is he still composing?” – to which Gilbert reportedly replied, “I think, madam, he’s in the process of de-composing.”
Alas! Everything in the universe, including us, is in one of these stages. And we have opportunities all the time to witness things under con-struction or de-struction. Depending on circumstances, observers can find both processes fascinating. The demolition of buildings is particularly interesting. You can see videos of sturdy structures collapsing all at once from the setting off of an array of well-placed explosives.
But all that is as nothing compared with the deliberate destruction which has accompanied modern warfare. There has as yet, however, been no more enthusiastic devastation than that of both sides in World War II, climaxing, of course, in the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In its earlier stages, that war featured airplanes called “bombers,” which were actually built to carry large loads of explosive devices to be dropped, usually from high in the sky, upon the enemy, often upon civilian targets. The theory was that, if the ordinary people could be made to suffer enough, they would force their leaders to surrender or at least to negotiate.
But this never seemed to work. The people in Britain and Germany, who were the most reachable victims of airborne destruction, were somehow only toughened by having their homes, businesses, loved ones, and even their own lives, put in constant danger.
Over time, almost everything, to say nothing of everybody, gets destroyed anyway. Of all of the wonders of the ancient world – and those ancient people were often remarkably adept builders – only one has survived more or less intact into our own time. That is, of course, the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Everything else has crumbled as a result of earthquakes, fires, storms, and various other natural disasters, plus wars, invasions, revolutions, and other forms of human conflict.
The Great Pyramid is still there, only because even its parts were too big to be carted off – and because its very shape made it peculiarly resistant to the destructive forces of man and nature.
But life itself is a destroyer. Every living thing can keep living only at the expense of other once-living creatures. Purely as examples, think of the beaver, whose lifestyle involves killing trees – or the grizzly bear, who makes short work of beavers.
Sometimes being able to destroy something relatively harmlessly is a good release for feelings of anger and aggression. Hence, the popularity of breaking dishes. There used to be plenty of other cheap breakable objects lying around which could also suffer the same fate: pencils, vinyl records, paper manuscripts. But modern technology has done away with many of those destructibles. In many conflicts, it all seems to have come down to a matter of computers or robots attempting to destroy one another.
Nature has its own way of recovering from destructive forces. If you’ve ever accidentally or intentionally demolished an anthill, you may have experienced a sense of fascination to watch those industrious little critters scurrying about to repair the damage you have inflicted upon their dwelling. No wonder they have flourished here on this Earth of ours since long before our own species made its first appearance, and that they will probably survive us for future eons.
But the greatest natural destructive force is probably the one simply called “erosion.” Things get worn away. The best place to see this process in action is any seashore, with waves crashing onto the land, eating into the bottom of cliffs until they fall, and turning big rocks into little grains of sand. As it says in a stanza of one of my favorite inspirational poems, called by its first line, “Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth,” by Arthur Hugh Clough:
For while the tired waves, vainly
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
Or, as one of my own epigrams has mused:
Even the most ambitious little pebble will never grow up to become a big rock.