First Words — 06 October 2012
Our pieces of resistance

The birds began to fall after a storm this year.

Four ceramic-tile egrets had been swirling up there, high on the western wall of the Cumberland Building in downtown Fort Lauderdale. They’d been part of a five-story mosaic created in 1974 by artist John de Groot.

The grout holding the birds up had begun to crumble, and the birds were falling now – tile by tile – to the sidewalk below.

“A lot of the tiles were broken,” said an attorney for the building. “They were shattered, they were swept up.”

By August, just two birds were left up on the wall – swirling above a ragged gap in the mosaic where the other two had been.

By September, they were gone, too.

Rather than repair the mosaic, which contained more than half a million ceramic tiles before the storm, the owners applied for a permit to tear down the rest and replace it with stucco.


I remembered the mosaics I’d seen years ago in the south of France. The Romans who’d ruled this place absolutely had also pieced together delicate mosaics of birds – and bulls, dogs, fish, flowers, people – on their walls.

I remember one at an ancient bath near the Château de Grignan. Things had certainly changed here over the years. An outpost in the Roman Empire had grown into a village, which had grown into a town, which had grown into a really pretty – if a little touristy – city, now surrounded by fields of sunflowers and lavender.

Things had changed here, I thought, but a Roman legionnaire would still recognize the mosaic up there on the old wall. Puzzle-piece figures endlessly carrying water to the bath, eternal flowers curling on vines – and birds swirling above it all in flocks of ceramic tiles.

I felt connected to their time, and grouted in my own, in a way that made me feel like a part of both.

I looked up at our falling egrets in August, and I wondered: What are we leaving behind now to connect us with future generations?


Maybe that’s enough. Maybe our age will be remembered not so much for works of art and architecture as for our good work. When I learned about the people we profile in our Powers for Good story this issue – people who try to build up the lives of others – it gave me hope. We may not raise monuments for the ages, but maybe we’ll leave behind a legacy of lifting up others.

Our grout may crumble, our birds may fall.

The good work rises.

Mark Gauert

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