Bridges to nowhere

July 10, 2008

Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?

That, Thornton Wilder said, was the underlying question of his acclaimed 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The book explores the lives of five people who fall to their deaths when a rope bridge in Peru collapses.

I don’t think about the book when I cross Portland’s river bridges. But I do when I pass one block of Northeast 33rd Avenue. Several years ago I spotted two wooden bridges spanning small yards on opposite sides of the street.

No one will die if these bridges break, but I immediately linked them with Wilder’s work, which won a Pulitzer Prize. They’ve nagged at me ever since, something more than curiosities. But what?

Today, I finally stopped to photograph them. As I knelt on the sidewalk to shoot one, I saw a third bridge in the adjacent yard.

These landscaping centerpieces serve no practical function. They might have in another era. As I wrote the other day, long-gone creeks used to snake through this part of town. So what compelled people to build them? Free will or some other “direction” or “meaning” in their lives?

What compels my one impulsive garden projects? It’s work that satisfies a creative urge but also represents something more profound. I don’t claim to understand, though I’m certain the pull of the Earth is about more than gravity.

I stumbled upon Wilder’s book as a kid. It was part of the modest library that came with the house we rented in Florida. After devouring a human anatomy book (more so the drawings than the text), I dove into the novel. I came away comprehending for the first time the randomness of fate. It unsettled me.

Finding two bridges to nowhere then a third in such close proximity can’t be random. At the very least it’s calling me back to the book, which closes this way:

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.