On the prosaic and poetic potential of bridges
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
— Hart Crane, “To Brooklyn Bridge”
Anyone looking for an apt symbol of civilization would do well to consider the bridge. It’s easy to imagine that a bridge — maybe a tree extended across a stream — was one of our human ancestors’ first construction projects. The famed Roman arch was turned to many architectural projects, including bridges, some of which were built as early as the first century A.D.
Opinion: Consider the bridge
After basic shelter, a bridge represents perhaps humankind’s most elemental effort to contend with nature. Streams and rivers form natural boundaries, and human nature chafes at boundaries. We might climb a mountain simply because it’s there, but we cross a river because we don’t like being hemmed in.
The history of civilization is bound up with rivers, which constitute a natural form of transportation and convenient source of irrigation. It’s unsurprising that many settlements were built next to rivers and equally unsurprising that early settlers would immediately begin scheming about how to cross the river they lived next to. The bridge is a tribute to the human spirit.
A bridge, like any architecture, marries form and function. We build bridges to get from here to there, so they are first of all utilitarian structures. But as with most fabrications, we often concern ourselves with how they look, so bridge design is both a practical and an aesthetic enterprise.
A bridge can be beautiful and a source of inspiration for artists. Joseph Stella, Albert Bleizes, George Grosz, John Marin, Georgia O’Keefe and Karl Zerbe all painted the Brooklyn Bridge, and Hart Crane’s book “The Bridge” begins with “Poem: To Brooklyn Bridge.” The bridge was a continuing source of inspiration for Crane, and he owned different apartments specifically to have different views of it.
The prosaic and poetic potential of bridges is captured in their names. In Minnesota, unless a bridge acquires a particular name, it’s officially known by its MnDOT bridge number. For example, a 30-foot masonry arch bridge over Stewart Creek in Duluth, built in 1925, is known only as Bridge No. L-6007, while in Lac qui Parle County, an 1893 structure that would have been simply Bridge No. L-7744 was rescued from the ranks of mere numeracy by the melodious local name Yellow Bank Church Campground Bridge.
Bridges, perhaps because of their iconic status, have been the scene of many suicides and suicide attempts. In 1972, the poet John Berryman leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue bridge. More than 1200 people have jumped from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Modern bridges, built for vehicular traffic, have rendered tame the momentous experience of crossing a large river. It’s only when walking over a bridge and peering at the chasm below that one has a sense of what it means to surmount an obstacle that constrained human migration for millennia. And it’s only when a bridge falls or is wiped out in a flood that we appreciate the ease of transportation we have come to depend on.
Actual bridges are convenient as a means of conveyance. Metaphorical bridges are convenient for expressing truths about the human condition. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, and we’ll decide which bridges to burn behind us. Mostly, though, if we’re wise, we’ll study the art of bridge building.