Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Philosophy of History, II

Let me say first that I am no historian. My education and training were in completely different realms, and I was never a great student of the required history courses. My on-the-job training in history began in 1996, when I took over some of the care of a small historical museum and began exploring the small history of one very small town. So we are discussing here not “big history,” but small history and so-called “ordinary” lives.

And the truth is, there is nothing ordinary about life. There is nothing ordinary about anyone’s life.

Some historians and certainly ‘big historians’ seem to be captivated by the knowable: the concrete facts (and enduring buildings and structures) that attest to the past. As I try to figure out why history now intrigues and engages me, I come to realize it’s the unknowable, the stories between and around the few facts that have survived. It’s about the mystery we uncover and the imagination we must marshal as we explore the past.

Why would I say history is unknowable? Think about it. Think about the lasting traces you are leaving of your own everyday life just this one day or this week. Not much, eh? (At least not in the pre-blogging era.)

So how much can we know about the lives of people more than a hundred years ago? We find small hints and try to put the pieces together. We talk to people and hear the stories that have come down, second-hand, third-hand, more. We puzzle together the lives and events of the past, and use our intuition, our sense of empathy, and our imaginations to do it. We project ourselves into the past. As we explore what these people were about, we learn a little more of what we are about.

I think maybe we want to understand the meaning of their lives because we want to understand our own lives.

Each answer leads to another question; that particular answer asks “when do lives have meaning?” That’s a BIG one. Or, taken from a different angle, “what can we learn from the lives of people who used to live here?” That’s a little easier to chew on.

For me, the key word is “here,” because history is the intersection of people and places. Who lived here? Why did they live here? How did they survive here? What did they do here?

That’s why I do what I do, why I’m developing this passion for history. It’s all about place. You see, my original passion is ecology and natural history, the story of places. When you add people to that mix, you get history. Eureka!

Here’s a picture of "the place," taken this morning as the rising sun hit the rocks.

Visit Red Rocks for more info on this place.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Toward a Philosophy of History (for non-historians)

On Sunday, January 15, we three stalwarts of the Heritage Museum launched our small town’s centennial celebration by recruiting several friends to come in character and reenact the town’s first “public meeting,” about which we knew nothing and which most likely never occurred.

So with about 12 characters in costume, decorations graciously arranged by “Mrs. Lewis” (aka Lila), and enough food to feed 50, we spent the afternoon pretending to be someone else. What a hoot! Even the few non-participants seemed to enjoy our rowdy portrayal of Morrison in 1906.

Late in the day after most of the activities had ended and we were packing it up, a family arrived after a walk in the nearby park and through the local cemetery. Grandparents, parent, and several small children. Granddad said to me, as he perused our exhibits on local history, “As we walked through the cemetery, I told the kids ‘as long as we remember them, as long as we say their names, they’re not really dead. They live on in our memories.’ ” He saw the same names in our displays that he’d seen on the headstones.

Here’s a link to the people in the Morrison Cemetery.

This morning, I’m mulling over his comment, and wondering why history matters. “Does history matter?” seems to be answered, for me at least, by the fact that at Sunday’s gathering, folks sat around for hours discussing, okay arguing!, points of history and recalling people and events none of them were around for.

There is also ample evidence, even here on the internet, that history matters. My search this morning for blogs on “local history,” yielded 389,478 posts matching that phrase. Yet they were about local history. Tomorrow there will be one more, possibly hundreds more. Go figure.

Here’s one from today’s search that seems especially relevant: a thank-you note from a modern-day writer to a local historian.