On our recent tour of the Reading Viaduct, I experienced tactile overload—something that rarely happens to me in the city. For perhaps the first time since I’d arrived Philadelphia, I wanted to touch everything that remained of the site’s former industrial life; pick all of the plants I hadn’t yet seen thriving in an urban area; and collect each artifact that was hidden in plain site only feet above the neighborhood that exists below. It’s slightly unnerving to discover familiar objects in unexpected places, yet always somewhat thrilling; an unsolvable mystery, the outcome of which we have no choice but to accept as we hold the remains of the unknown in our hands.
With this in mind, I present such a discovery from our early morning elevated adventure: a spent shotgun shell (found on the Viaduct on November 26; photographed at my desk on December 3).
I found this object at my feet while standing on a long-abandoned rail line, remains of Philadelphia’s industrial decline elevated above the most commonplace of a city’s linear activities while looking out onto a skyline that represents an urban landscape fraught with tensions. Surrounded by an amazing array of plants that had self-seeded, grown, and thrived in an area mostly forgotten, what caught my eye was an object that for most would represent death. (The irony is not lost on me.)
My reaction, however, was one of excitement, as though I had uncovered a long-lost archaeological treasure. I have the fondest memories of these objects, even from early childhood. They represent, for me, a simpler way of life: of learning how to shoot a gun as a young girl, my father setting up targets of old coffee cans and glass soda bottles on a fence behind our barn; of later spending early mornings with him hunting in the fall (although I remember being a good shot at the empty cans and bottles on the fence, it was my firm policy to “miss” when it came to actually shooting an animal in the forest). Over a decade later, and I still collect the shotgun shells that wash up on the beach whenever I am near the river again, the way other beachcombers search for shells or sea glass. A collection of my “shells” is in a large glass jar on the bookshelf in my apartment even now. I can’t bring myself to part with them.
On the wall next to me hangs a larger-than-life image of one such shotgun shell, covered in barnacles from its tenure in the river and abstracted by sheer scale (a discarded, not-quite-perfect print from my photography professor in college, a talented artist and now a dear friend). He too has a fascination with the landscape that manifests itself in his artwork. His collections of found objects on the beach near his home have found their way to his scanner, are printed at an imposing scale, and question the very nature and processes of photography almost as much as the subject matter of his work questions the presence of humans within the landscape. I credit him for teaching me how understand and communicate the way I see and inhabit the natural places that surround me. (This short little vignette of his photographs does not do justice to his amazing body of work. If you’d like to see more of his work [and you should], you can visit his website here, or learn more about the galleries that represent his work here and here.)
When a shotgun shell has been shot, used, or emptied, it is referred to (in the most familiar of terms) as spent. I find this a tragically beautiful way to describe not only the means by which death can occur, but also the end of a thing itself. It’s an interesting topic to contemplate early in the morning—to consider the semantics of a word like spent. When the day is over, how was it spent? When you’re out of money, on what was it spent? Whole lives are spent searching for meaning, for success, for love. Yet the time passed isn’t considered until it’s been spent. Opportunities aren’t missed until they’ve passed, history doesn’t exist until it’s already happened. Spent, in every sense and use of the word, only exists at the end. Despite the most pleasant memories that spent shotgun shells evoke in my mind when I rediscover them time and time again in the most unexpected of places, they represent ultimately the end; something passed that will not come again. They are to me what the photograph was to Barthes: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”
The landscape has made me ever more aware of this. In any state, it is spent, no matter what is to come. Like all urban, industrial, decaying, thriving, natural and cultural landscapes, the Reading Viaduct (despite all of its future potential as a remade, reshaped, re-landscaped place in the city) will always represent catastrophe from some point in its history. But that isn’t to say it must remain in this catastrophic state. Perhaps sometimes it’s best to pick up the spent, put it on shelf and let it be. Things, histories, lives cannot be un-spent. Events cannot be altered; photographs, untaken. But the beauty in the landscape, despite what’s spent, is the change.
(No pun intended.)