Wednesday, December 03, 2008

her name was mary anne


Outside my window at this very moment a steam shovel is destroying the house next door.

First off, I'm not sure it can reasonably be called a steam shovel since it's gasoline powered. But I'm uncertain as to what else it might be called.

Secondly, even though I disapprove of the fact that they are tearing down a perfectly fine house in order to erect a spectacularly large and, I'm confident, verifiably ugly house -- as this particular builder has done at least four times previously on our block -- the process fascinates me.

I'm working from home in an effort to make a writing deadline at the end of the week, but the sound of destruction and the nimble way the heavy machinery swings its prehensile claw about has kept me glued to my upstairs window. I have a brilliant view of the beast as it lifts and drops large chunks of concrete to make them shatter; as it butts its head against rigid standing walls to make them shudder and crumble; as it descends bodily into the large pit that its dug for itself and then claws its way out again.

Which means I'll be hurting as my deadline looms at week's end, but I can move forward in confidence knowing that the melancholy end of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel -- the story end that always left me sad and unsatisfied when I was a kid -- had it all wrong.

At the book's end, after digging the foundations for a civic building in a big and impressive flurry the steam shovel is stuck, and never emerges again. She lives out her days inert, acting as the central heating system for the building, with Mike Mulligan smoking a pipe beside her.

But there was no need: She could have motored right up the side again and been free -- free to dig and destroy and tear entire buildings down in a day. I know because I've seen it with my own eyes, just now, and I'm disturbed to admit that I feel a little bit of the truth in what Bakunin said: That the urge to destroy is the creative urge.

That there's something about laying waste to the old that opens up reserves to create something new.

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,
a beautiful red steam shovel,
Her name was Mary Anne.

Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne.
He always said that she could dig as much in a day
as a hundred men could dig in a week,
but he had never been quite sure
that this was true.

—Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

3 comments:

I, Rodius said...

That machine's known as a "Snort" in our house (http://tinyurl.com/5hg665). We do not know this Mike Mulligan, though it rings a tiny, faint, faraway bell in my mind. We'll have to check it out.

a.m. said...

A month and a half ago, my brother in law and I took a demolition job, just to experience what you are talking about. We rented a giant excavator and literally tore the house and it's four related structures apart. Because of our inexperience, we made it harder than it had to be, but it was a lot of fun.

It is thrilling to sit in the seat of a machine that can pick up several thousand pounds of wood and crunch it into matchsticks. The urge to destroy is indeed very close to the creative urge.

And the steam shovel is known as a "snort" in our house too.

Friendly Joe said...

I still have the cloth bound copy of Mike Mulligan that I got on my sixth birthday after reading my first copy to death. I read it to my children at bedtime and still open it occasionally to be transported to simpler times.

I know I'm too kinetic to ever retire that way, but the idea of whiling days away with a quiet smoke and the warmth of an old friend has an undeniable allure...

Thanks for this post. As always, your musings are thoughtful, evocative, and exceptionally penned. Cheers.

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