A few years ago, I walked half the circuit of a massive town wall. After hauling three kids and pushing a fourth in a stroller for a few hours through the forest, we recognized the wall by the close-packed rubble that stuck out from the crest of the long dirt mound. Perched on a wooded plateau, the wall had once stood up to 20 feet high and 60 feet thick, with its ditch and the steep slope below making the wall seem even more imposing. At the height of the town’s power, it was perhaps the largest settlement within the borders of modern Germany, inhabited by people known today above all by their pottery styles or burial practices. The town walls have now stood abandoned for over a thousand years.
A decade earlier, my wife and I hiked to the ruins of a medieval hilltop fortress. This castle had been ruined only for a few centuries, and the town below was thriving. When we reached the castle at the top of the hill, we found three small boys playing at knights with wooden swords, and I realized at once that every playground I had ever known had by comparison been put to shame forever.
It is true that town walls and stone fortresses serve important functions in certain times and places, and that securing our safety and wellbeing is a worthy project. When we think we are building solid stone walls that will stand against the ages, though, we might actually be constructing a path for hikers among beech trees not yet sprouted, or building a playground for children. These too are worthy goals.