03 January 2010

A foreign country

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

The old order changeth, yielding place to new...
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King

Most people I know in the museum field are there because they need to touch, to be in the presence of, the tangible fragments of the past, because so much of the past is intangible and ephemeral. Whether it is last year or last century or last epoch....it is gone, occasionally leaving traces to mark its presence and passage. It is up to us to find and follow those back, or not.

Today I am putting away another's year's worth of holiday trappings and ephemerata, and digging out some pictures that touch the past deeply for me.

The Brooks family, probably in Altus, Oklahoma, ca. 1915. "Mossie" of yesterday's post, Mary Marcella Walker Brooks, is second from the left. My grandmother, Vada Brooks (Johnson), is the taller of the two little girls standing in center right. We have no concept today of what a monumental event a family photo like this was at that time. No one was asked to smile for the camera. I don't know what the event was, or even if there was one, other than getting as many members and generations of the family together as possible. They must have been trying to hold still for what we consider to be a long exposure, and the children aren't liking it much.

Note: I would kill to have that house today, if only for the wide and gracious porch.

On the other side of my family: this is Jefferson, in deep East Texas, during the annual Pilgrimage historic tour. You wouldn't think it would be that different from Altus, but, no, it was like being on different planets. Jefferson was part of the Deep South; Altus was on the ever-moving frontier. Apparently I was there for this, but, being less than a year old, I was a slacker at memorizing and reporting on the details. Today it is combined with major Civil War reenactor events focusing on the Battle of Port Jefferson in 1864. Do they touch the past, or do they rewrite it? Or both?

My personal interests in natural history are deep and lifelong. Sandhill cranes flew over every spring and fall as I grew up, on their way to Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, and their call resonates within me like no other. Being in their flyway once again was no small consideration in the decision to move to South Dakota. Here they are engaging in their spring dancing displays near the Platte River in Hershey, Nebraska. Nebraska fossils prove that cranes are among the oldest groups of extant birds. They are a living link to a deep past that I think of every time I watch them. Their past is now. Their future is then. They dance on their past with great exuberant grace.

At Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska, the focus is on a more recent past, but one that is just as remote in many ways. Scotts Bluff was a major landmark on the prairie, rising up on the horizon, signalling the end of the endless flatlands, the beginning of the uplift. The covered wagons here are next to the main highway, paralleling the older trail. There are significant fossils in the strata here, and some of the pioneers picked them up and wrote about them in their journals. How many layers of the past is that? With survival being as precarious as it was, what impelled them to take a moment to notice the little fossil remains?

The family recipe project, something that we have all been working on for some time, is another almost-tangible glimpse into the past. Many of these come from an attempt to capture recipes that had never been written out because there was no need. You knew how to do it, or you didn't, and that was that, and if you were in the latter category it was probably useless to try to educate you. My mother typed a lot of these up when she was a girl, trying to save the directions wriiten in pencil on fading and brittle scraps of paper. Her grandmother, Mossie of previous posts (she seems to keep popping up, doesn't she?), ran a boarding house in Altus during the Depression, widowed and in need of making a living from her formidable cooking and sewing skills. Wish I had them...

I will save the teacake discussion for tomorrow.

It is another deep grey day with light snow, and tomorrow will be the first real workday in the new year. Packing away the holiday trappings is always bittersweet. I'm finding in the glimpses of the past some reassurance that the future will continue to take care of itself, and that what matters is living life so that the tangible threads and traces are invested with deep meaning.

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