We spend our lives amongst the dead. I’m not suggesting that we live in a Tim Burton film and that phantoms and skeletons are bidding against us on eBay; the physical manifestations of the dead, tissue and bone, are something that most of us rarely interact with. (Yes, there are times we intersect with these points of actual physical decay, but this is either by accident or with reverence in the vast majority of cases. And prudence, probably informed by a built-in biological directive, conspires to minimize these interactions.) But death and the dead aren’t just decaying matter of the physical form in some box below the ground or a vase on Aunt Judy’s mantel.
“The dead are much more than that: they are our past, they are the exhausted realities that have become the memories which fill the world.”
Science can’t identify any physical markers that show the accumulation of memory, as in, Yes. Over the past 15 years, 370 people have gazed out this window and down on that little square blue pool below and wondered, “Is this my life?”, so I could be bullshitting. But then again science can’t even figure out how the big things and the little things go together, so shut up, nerd [Grand Unified Theory]. I can’t shake the idea that space can account for past memories, and that within space, memories are cumulative. Perhaps what we’re dealing in here is semantics: by memory do I mean moment? Are these ideas actually different, is it only a matter of perspective or awareness? Space is clogged with moments, one after another stacked on each other since the Big Bang, or the big Rift Valley bang where the chicken and the egg simultaneously materialized in the form of a thumb-wielding, upright-walking, tool-using hominid.
Follow me here: people have been walking, farming, milling, mulching, eating, cooking, shitting, screwing, killing and birthing in and around Georgia for a long ass time—and they have the architecture to prove it. In the Svaneti region, Georgian Castles plague the valleys like a pox of unwanted back hairs. The pacification of history by the modern eye creates a flat and depthless idea of these castles: they’re old and neat and foreign! Books, movies, and images have trained us to appreciate the noble view of a castle perched formidably against a grand mountainscape, obfuscating the truth that these were instruments of death and mayhem, that they were constructed to both prevent and carry out subjugation and annihilation, that scattered around these towers are the memories of dead invaders and within their walls lie moments of the starved and suffering. But by the fact they’re still standing they also represent triumph, continuation, and survival.
Ushguli is home to many of these towers, clustered on the hillside at the head of a glacial valley. The roads through them are narrow, built to accommodate one-horsepower vehicles and foot traffic, and they thread amongst the towers like skeins of an estuary, branching and converging without any sense of modern order and proportion that is the de facto Western experience. Walking among them one must be vigilant, lest your foot become covered in cow pie. But in this wandering the weight and physicality of memory is felt. The past, the sense of lives started and ended here, the geist of memory is impossible to ignore. What it must have been like to fight off Mongols, Ottomans, and Persians! What it must have been like to hear the howling of wolves blow through thatched roofs! At some point someone was here, in the shadow of these towers, when they heard that news that man had landed on the Moon.
“Humans imbue place with memory and by the simple physics of accretion these ancient places are the most laden.”
It’s not news that we go in search of these locations; from quests and crusades to Lonely Planet and Indiana Jones we long to be connected to the places and the architecture of our past. They help us feel grounded to memory, to the past. Finding and experiencing a place not only feeds our sense of mortality but our sense of immortality as well. It forces us to reckon our moment with and within time.
I could have spent this time telling you about how the host of our guesthouse smoked cigarettes while his wife did all the work, or that there were hordes of tourists on the ridge behind the village doing yoga poses and taking selfies as the sun set. I could have talked about the drunk tourists and locals at the local cafe or the giant dogs who lounged amongst the tables. About riding horses to a glacier. Or doing a five mile bike ride to a church parking lot. I could have described the baby horse and the young kids playing soccer between the tours. But those memories are so young, it will take time for them to create resonance, to find their place amongst the pack. In the future they’ll pluck at the tendrils of our psyches as we walk amongst the garden of these stone towers. But not yet. For now we walk upon the dead and live amongst ghosts, imagined or not. It doesn’t matter which it is, that’s not the point.