A Stone’s Throw
Now is the time to walk on water, supported above liquid depths by a frozen plain. This ice demands respect. I listen . . . again, look again; attentive to any k r a a ck or yielding to my weight.
Today Leverett Pond’s surface is more solid than a hardwood dance floor, and much thicker. Skaters glide along the distant southern shore or gather in spinning clusters. A lone ice-fishing hut sits to the north. Dark centers of drilled holes mark yesterday’s chosen spots.
Stand still with me. Listen. Ga-loop. A distant plo-o-rp. A muffled gal-oosh. Water undulates beneath ice and us.
It is another cloudless February day. At 3 p.m. sunlight seems to emanate from above and below, as if raying through the crystalline lattice underfoot. Kneeling with my eyes a few inches from the surface, I lose any sense of depth, of refracted distance, to a sense of motion arrested. Air bubbles halt in mid-ascent. One, two, three white oak leaves lie within the ice as if on invisible descending steps. They are suspended for a time above the lake bottom. Resembling fossils—though they’ll likely never make it that far.
The recent past lies beneath me; these marcescent leaves plucked and carried here by January’s heavy winds. Just inches away, they are out of reach. I kneel in the next stratum.
I am thinking about time, not as an abstract idea but of how its passage, of how memory of any form, becomes inscribed upon the land. I was told at the age of five that even the smallest pebble contains the history of the world. Told this while I held a tiger-eye that glowed as if on fire. So this I believed, and my bedroom drawers quickly filled with stones.
I first unearthed fossils from outcrops in a college geology field course. My hammer edge split apart bedding planes of shale to reveal a burial ground of an ancient sea. Brachiopods, trilobites, crinoids, bryozoa—all invertebrates, all broken. The professor’s casual, over the shoulder, “That’s a death assemblage” did not diminish the magic. Mine were the first eyes to behold this scene formed perhaps 450 million years earlier. But I held only one small piece of the archive of life and death on Earth, not the entire history of the world.
It’s a fragmentary archive to be sure; not every species that lived is fossilized. And preserved bodily remains are only one part of what we call the fossil record. Trace fossils, for instance, are forms left by movement or activity. Trails crawled, burrows dug, tunnels excavated; in search of food, at rest, in hiding. The German word lebensspur, “life mark,” seems fitting.
Those in the fossil business often speak of “bias”: preservation bias, collector bias, bias due to incompleteness of the rock record. The paths that once-living organisms—whether clams or dinosaurs—embark on to become fossils, few rarely complete. Decay or disintegration destroys more than not. Then, too, paleontologists tended to collect fossils that were accessible rather than remote. More collections came from loose sediment than solid rock. And, the rocks exposed at Earth’s surface do not chronicle all of Earth’s past.
Third-graders with scissors would have liked helping James Gilluly show this in 1969. Then in his 70s, and as ever the independent scientist, Gilluly cut apart large geologic maps of North and South America. The maps displayed each continent’s bedrock and sedimentary cover in colored patterns based on age. He cut out and separated each patterned area. Then Miss Vertie Smith, whom he called “a skilled chemist of the U.S. Geological Survey,” weighed each age-heap of map fragments. From these weights Gilluly estimated continental outcrop area of different-aged rocks. However crude the approach, these snipped-apart maps gave a “rough measure” of the diminishing completeness of the geologic record with the passage of time. Gilluly recognized a crucial aspect of Earth’s past. Not just that younger rocks buried older rocks, but that younger rocks largely came to be by “cannibalizing of the older.” Earth’s material completeness was impossible. Tectonic upheavals and unending erosion saw to that. We’ve always lived among relics and ruins of former worlds.
We also are all potential fossils. But the geologic odds are against our mortal remains withstanding the sequence of preservation ifs over millennia. Post-mortem transitions from biosphere to lithosphere guarantee nothing. Eluding decay is only the first step.
What remains of our lives in the passage of time? Where are memories kept?
I live in a landscape of moved stone. The bedrock of these long, low hills in western Massachusetts formed as deep metamorphosed roots of long-vanished mountains. To geologists the most reasonable approximation of that distant past, when uplift yielded to relentless erosion, is well over 300 million years ago. Then, only yesterday in geologic time, the Pleistocene ice sheet dumped a chaotic jumble from boulders to mud that had been plucked up and entrained in its southward advance. This till mantles much of Leverett’s lowlands.
Cobbles and boulders—of gneiss and schist, quartzite and granite—were also moved by human hands. Most common are rock structures built by European colonists and their descendants who, after displacing native peoples, changed a native landscape. One can find cellar holes of homes and barns, remnants of mill dams and raceways, boundary markers, wells. Most ubiquitous, though, are the stone walls that thread Leverett’s woodlands.
Glacial till does not make ideal farmland. As settlers cleared forests, they hauled and stacked stones. Walls marked the edges of crop fields, hay fields, and grazing pastures. Preceding a summer’s harvest of grain was an early spring harvest of stone, frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed upward by inches to the field’s surface. “Two stones to one dirt,” one early Leverett homesteader supposedly put it. To this I can attest each spring when we turn the garden soil.
Stone walls are lebensspuren, life marks. Of rocky, marginal landscapes cleared for farming two centuries ago. Of a merino sheep boom that radiated from Vermont in the 1810s, and went bust three decades later.
Patterns in the woods today, the ages and shapes of conifers and hardwoods, are also life marks. They give clear evidence of a forest resurging after farmland was abandoned. I try to remember Tom Wessels’s lessons of forensic ecology to read these changes in a field and forest mosaic.
Returning home from the pond, just a stone’s throw away, I rest my hand on a dying Eastern red cedar. Now deep in the forest, this tree began its life in the full warm sun of an old field. Through such tangible traces, I can imagine back across two centuries. But I can’t reach or feel the life breath of that time.
One day has passed. Now a huge nor’easter envelops the region. A TV reporter in New York City says this will be “another storm of the century.” Four inches of snow are on the ground here by sunset; at least two more feet in the forecast.
I walk again on the pond. Time and space intermingle on such a night. Crystalline water defines the world, underfoot and overhead. So thick are the flakes, swept sideways by the north wind, I at first inhale as much snow as air. Footprints left 40 yards back have already disappeared.
Trace. As a noun, a way or path. A course of action. Footprint or track. Vestige of a former presence. An impression. Minute amount. As a verb, to make one’s way. To pace or step. To travel through. To discern. To mark or draw. To follow tracks or footprints. To follow, pursue.
Many pathways to the past converge.
I often ask my students to pause and consider several questions as we explore the environmental history of this country.
What is our relationship to the past? Is the past over?
What is memory? Can it be owned?
How do we know what we (think we) know?
Who are “we”?
“Why don’t you have us read the books with the answers?” sometimes comes in response.
The inquirer wants texts that present a tidy, unchanging, official story. A complete chronological picture that highlights the important names and dates—preferably told in an omniscient third-person voice from above. No matter that the presented picture may be a somewhat petrified single dimension. Or, if two-sided, the wrongness of one view meant to emphasize the rightness of the other. No ifs, ands, or buts make facts easier to memorize. I had read many of these books in school.
As much as some students wish it, we can’t retrieve an unaltered, intact history from repositories of the past. Documentary records, like records of Earth’s past, are fragments. Their existence is not a matter of unbiased preservation or re-collection. No single or simple narrative can claim the authority of history, or of collective memory. Think of the Second World War.
Holocaust. Manzanar. Enola Gay.
On one level these are just words. Burnt sacrifice. Apple orchard. The name of a pilot’s mother. But each is heavily weighted, its meaning dependent on one’s perspective and memory.
Citizens of Germany, Poland, Austria, Israel, and the United States do not remember or memorialize the same version of the Holocaust.
Manzanar War Relocation Center, in California’s Owens Valley, was one of several internment camps to incarcerate Japanese American citizens and resident “aliens” during the war. Manzanar National Historic Site is the first of the camps to open as an interpretive center under the National Park Service. Controversy has accompanied every step. Many Americans struggle with commemorating forced exile as part of a “collective national memory.”
The Smithsonian Institution had planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the war’s end with an exhibit of the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945. Curators hoped to ask visitors to consider, among other things, the consequences of using “the” bomb. But veterans and other powerful lobbying groups condemned the plan for its alleged pro-Japanese bias and lack of patriotism. Pressured by intense criticism and Congressional threats to its funding, the Smithsonian in the end omitted any historical context from the actual exhibit. Visitors read of the bomb only in reference weapons technology.
In order to remember, one must also forget. Otherwise each of us would drown in a sea of every detail of every experience of every day of our lives. To make sense of things, to function—to gain retrospect—we must forget, and instead sort what remains in memory. To remember—re-member—is to piece together constituent parts toward some whole. Re-membering is selecting, arranging, interpreting. “The memory is a living thing,” noted Eudora Welty, “it too is in transit.”
Marc Augé writes of “oblivion” as loss of remembrance. Oblivion crafts memories “as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea.” The sea erodes, remodels. Our remembrances are outlined by the traces of what once was, crafted by what we have forgotten.
Groups of people also sort, arrange, and discern patterns of experience through time. By attributing significance to some events, they construct narratives to make sense of their past and their lives. It is here that forgetting has a more troubling side. With so many peoples making America, no single “we” can possibly suffice. For some social memories or historical narratives to be prominent or privileged can require an amnesia or silencing of others. These may be discordant experiences of other people of the same time or event, or they may be what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall calls “unacceptable ghosts of our own pasts.”
Where does the boundary between then and now lie? In so many ways “the past” is not securely or safely past. What is considered important to remember (and how to remember) may be transmitted from one generation to another, as history, as memory, as artifact. But it is in the present where acknowledging and interpreting the past occurs, in response to the concerns and needs of today. Current forms of public remembrance, even of events long past, reveal much about ourselves now, our politics, our society.
A few months ago I visited Gettysburg National Military Park. My last time there, when I was 16, the park service presented the battle by troop movements each day, by land held or lost. The round tops, Cemetery Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den. This bloodiest battle was depicted as a turning point in the Civil War, but no account offered why the Blue and Grey went to war. Now the new visitor center situates the battle within the context of the war, the war within the context of slavery, and slavery within the context of this nation’s life past to present. Now, in the public history, three days in July 1863 do not stand isolated from what came before or from who we, as Americans, are.
Loren Eiseley wrote in The Immense Journey that we are denied the dimension of time, so rooted are we in our particular now. From this circumscribed pinpoint of time, we cannot in person step back or forward. I could not touch an oak leaf in ice—nor could I hold the history of the world in a piece of shale.
But back we gaze. We try to re-member; we write and tell history. A single “what happened” will never be possible, though, for Earth’s deep time or for our many pasts to present.
These thoughts relieve an hour’s cold stings on my cheeks as I return home near a path hidden by deepening snow.
A Few Readings of Interest on New England (and Northeastern) Landscapes
Allport, Susan, Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990).
Cronon, William, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).
Foster, D. R., and O’Keefe, J. F., New England Forests through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Raymo, Chet, and Raymo, Maureen, Written in Stone: A Geological and Natural History of the Northeastern United States (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press Corp., 2001 (2nd edition)).
Thorson, Robert, Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls (New York: Walker & Company, 2002).
Wessels, Tom, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1997).
Wessels, Tom, Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2010).
Whitney, Gordon, From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America from 1500 to the Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
A Few Readings of Interest on Time, Memory, History
Augé, Marc, Oblivion (English translation from French, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
Blight, David, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).
Bourguignon, Erika, Memory in an Amnesic World: Holocaust, Exile, and the Return of the Suppressed: Anthropological Quarterly, v. 78, n. 1 (2005): 63-88.
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).
Climo, Jacob, and Cattell, Maria, eds., Social Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002).
Eiseley, Loren, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957).
Foner, Eric, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002).
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd, “You Must Remember This”: Autobiography as Social Critique: Journal of American History, v. 85, n. 2 (Sept. 1998): 439-446.
Kammen, Michael, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
Lerner, Gerda, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Limerick, Patricia N., Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).
Linenthal, Edward T., and Engelhardt, Tom, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).
Loewen, James, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: The New Press, 1995).
Lowenthal, David, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Shackel, Paul, Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003).
Tonkin, Elizabeth, Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).
Vansina, Jan, Oral Tradition As History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
Ward, Kyle, History in the Making: An Absorbing Look at How American History Has Changed in the Telling over the Last 200 Years (New York: The New Press, 2006).
Young, James, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
Zinn, Howard, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).