Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reflections on the District #2

One of the things I find so fascinating about "history" is the reality that it is a constantly shifting term.  The various academic disciplines change and develop, but history grows -- literally -- on a daily basis.  As a result, the parameters we set upon "history" are in a state of eternal adjustment.  I was reminded of this as we perused a "treasures of the Smithsonian" exhibit with my 6-year-old...

Hmm.  She was positively floored there was no mouse, touch pad or other such mechanism involved.  (Wish we could have fired that puppy up for a game of good old "Oregon Trail.")

I am still on the front end of this lived-experience-becoming-history process; I'd love to walk through the National Museum of American History with my 96-year-old grandmother and see what she has to say.  I find resonance with an Apple II; I bet she'd have some observations to share about the World War II exhibit (and the Depression artifacts; and the Cold War sections; and...).

We are, quite literally, history.  It's the story of us -- if not personally, then in the larger sense of shared humanity.  We have only ourselves to blame if we transform it into something dry and dusty.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #2

On a lighter note than my last post, earlier in the day that we visited Petersburg National Battlefield we enjoyed a tour of Shirley Plantation outside Charles City.  Our tour guide was interesting and the plantation's hostess was extremely conscientious in her duties:

I could spend time on the subject of slavery and I'm sure I will by the time this series of reflections is over, because it's necessary and tremendously important.  For the present, however, and because I was impressed by this plantation's owners' willingness to own up to their slaveholding past I am interested in another topic: longevity.  

The Shirley Plantation is intriguing because it is one of few such sites to remain in private hands -- and to be more specific, in the hands of the current generation of a family which has owned it since the mid-1600s.  We toured the first floor... the present Mr. Carter lives on floors 2 and 3.  

This level of rootedness is impressive for the United States, and particularly impressive from a West Coast perspective.  The current farmers of this land do not grow tobacco... because after some ill-informed uncles nearly despoiled the land growing this hard-on-the-soil crop in the mid-1700s, the heir forbade it, having invested considerable time and effort in salvaging his patrimony.  How many of us would consider ourselves bound by dictates delivered by an ancestor over 250 years ago?

Longevity confers roots.  Roots can in turn confer negative resistance to change, but roots can also mean stewardship and identity.  We tend to care more about that which we will have to continue to live with.  In our disposable culture that strikes me as a value with significant merit.  For most of us, nearly 400 years' residence on the same plot of land is going to be a tad unfeasible, and such residence does not, of course, guarantee good stewardship.  The type of rootedness that does generate good stewardship, though, is something worth nurturing.  We are connected to our past; we are also connected to our future.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #1

We had the opportunity to visit the Petersburg National Battlefield south of Richmond last week -- site of the last large siege and series of battles before the Confederate defense of Richmond became impossible and the Civil War ended in April 1865.  Among other episodes of conflict, Petersburg was the site of the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, when Union forces who had been miners in Pennsylvania's coal country burrowed under a Confederate emplacement and planted four tons of explosive powder that blew the Confederates sky-high, created an enormous crater -- and ultimately backfired upon the ill-prepared Union soldiers who stood gaping at the destruction or falling by the dozens into the hell-hole they had created.

Today, evidence of various batteries remains spread over miles of the landscape near Petersburg.  The entrance to the mine tunnel and a big depression in the land remain, as well, and are littered with granite obelisks dedicated to the Pennsylvania soldiers or the Confederate victims.  Preservation of this landscape is a gift to our generation in terms of how well it illustrates the range and scope of this single series of battles.  If one arena of the conflict was this enormous, the full scale of the Civil War's hostilities are almost incomprehensibly vast -- and so, by extension, must be the range and scale of most armed conflicts.  Petersburg is one among many useful reminders of how much effort and destruction went into this war.  One would hope it serves as both memorial and caution.

And yet: the battlefields were also among the most peaceful and pastoral landscapes we encountered on our journey.  We saw bald eagles and wild turkeys, and enjoyed (amidst the oppressive eastern humidity -- three cheers for Oregon's climate) leafy green landscapes and vast fields that guarantee the need for a tremendous lawn-mowing budget on the part of the National Parks Service.  It was nearly impossible, gazing upon these beautiful expanses, to imagine the death and destruction that once littered them.  It all seemed rather... romantic, to use the incredibly inappropriate term that so often characterizes the realm of "Lost Cause" lore.

The Crater

Fort Stedman (Union)

Grass covers a multitude of human sins.  This is a good thing in many ways; it is a useful reminder of human impermanence and a testament to the world's endurance even we throw at it the worst of our human inventions.  I wonder, however, whether part of our fascination with the Civil War has something to do with these elysian green fields.  It wasn't romantic; it wasn't green and pretty.  It was hell on earth.  We need to face that and remember that lest we transmute the quiet beauty into a vision of the past that elides the horrors of war.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reflections on the District #1


We recently returned from a trip to Williamsburg, VA and Washington, DC.  It was an amazing experience to actually walk upon some of the same ground that the first permanent English colonists trod, see Virginia's colonial capitol and witness the sites of Civil War and Revolutionary battles.  While I don't subscribe to the idea that one must see these places to be deeply informed about them, I do look forward to the next time I need to discuss Jamestown with my students or talk about the Revolutionary era.

I'll share some photos and reflections over the next couple weeks, but for now, a brief reflection: we had the opportunity to see the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  The statue is an arresting one (you can see better in the second photo how he emerges to chart a course through the mountain in the background).  What struck me most deeply, however, was that just as we came around the corner of the statue from behind, the elderly lady you can see toward the lower right side of the first photo -- with the tennis-ball-shod walker -- was having her photo taken in front of King.  The poignancy of that moment has stayed with me.  I can only imagine at the trajectory of this woman's life, but what changes she must have witnessed.  Perhaps she simply admired the man; perhaps she was an active participant in the movement.  We have distance yet to cover, but I am thankful for the progress we have made and I hope we can find the moral courage to continue the struggles waged by her generation -- and those before her.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Da-doo-doo, dee da-doo-doo..

I've written previously about historical memory, but it's a topic at the front of my thoughts this afternoon.  We all can talk about where we were or what we were doing when a given event of national or international importance took place.  Ask anyone over the age of about 53 and they'll be able to tell you where they were or what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  We all have personal reference points for the day those planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  And in early 1991, I came home home after school and turned on one of my favorite old programs to find that a bulletin was scrolling across the base of the screen.  "Waves" of planes (I'll never forget the use of that word) were bombing Iraq.  War counterposed against a story its star once described as all about love; planes and high-tech weaponry against near-utopian idyll.  The program in question?

You guessed it.

Yes, I realize 1950s North Carolina was far more complex--and troubled--than Mayberry.  That said, there's value in friendship and community... and a legacy of peaceful resolution, episode after episode (no matter how much Barney might have hankered to use those handcuffs).

Rest in peace, Andy Griffith.  We could use a lot more of you and a lot less of those scrolling headlines.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You know you're a historian when...

... you write a note to yourself in your daily planner to remind the other half that pick-up day for the CSA (as in Community-Supported Agriculture) box is Tuesday this week due to the Independence Day holiday, and rather than farms, the first thing you think of every time you see the note is "why am I writing notes to myself to remind Geoff about the Confederacy?"