June 28, 2011 16 Comments
Much as a star’s mass curves space and pulls the cosmos toward it, so history leaves depressions in the land and in time. It tugs at us. On approaching a battlefield, a crumbling military outpost or the detritus of a dead empire, we sink into a temporal well. We sink and then we plunge without warning. The weight of a place and everything that happened in it crushes us. People lived here, we realize. They washed in these streams, cultivated maize in these fields, had babies. They lived, they fought, they died, yet their works linger in the land. Their thoughts pervade ours. They are still with us.
My grandmother taught me how to read history in a landscape. I was eleven years old when she, my mother, my sister, and I drove from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Grants Pass, Oregon to visit my Uncle David. On that trip I saw the west for the first time. I remember that the Great Salt Desert blinded me like new snow, that the immense salt pan glowed and that to walk on it was like walking on light itself. I remember that the mountains that ringed the white desert seemed close enough to touch. When I asked my grandmother how far away they were, she said, “miles away.” I was enthralled.
On that trip she and my uncle taught me about distances. They taught me to see stories in the land, evidence of volcanic cataclysms in Crater Lake, the imprint of pioneers and Native Americans in the relics they left behind, in the persistence of their ideas and lifestyles, and in their descendants who walk among us, who are us. On that trip, eighteen years ago, I learned how to listen to the land.
In the summer of 2009 my grandmother and I took up where we had left off when I was a boy and lit out for the Santa Fe Trail in her light blue Buick. We clambered over the ruins of old U.S. army outposts, meandered through the mountains and high plains of New Mexico, and stood atop Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado and gazed across the Arkansas River at land that more than one hundred and fifty years ago belonged to a Mexico twice its current size.
My grandmother knows history in a way that I believe becomes rarer with each passing year. She knows history as someone who has lived it, studied it, immersed herself in it. She has strolled through fields where tens of thousands of soldiers fought and died. She has visited the tombs of men and women who nudged civilization in this direction or that, for better or worse. She always told me that to understand an era you have to try to place yourself in the context of the people who lived within it. My grandmother understands history in a way that demands internalization of its lessons, the cultivation of an awareness of the past that a thousand Google searches cannot provide.
Google doesn’t tell a story. People do. Cultures and societies do. Do we still tell stories? Or have we lost the narrative and therefore weakened our links to generations we never knew directly but who laid the foundations of the world we live in?