To Learn Something New (About Old Places), Bring in New Partners with Different Perspectives

Cooper-Molera Garden

Garden View at Cooper Molera prior to the beginning of rehabilitation (credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the National Trust for Historic Places, where I work, we believe that historic sites are fundamentally places of intersection. When we allow them to share their stories, historic sites are dynamic spaces where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  One very important way they intersect is with community.

About ten days ago, I visited Cooper-Molera, one of our National Trust historic sites where delight and enjoyment are at the heart of our community intersections.  Cooper-Molera is a two and one-half acre property in the heart of downtown Monterey, California’s historic commercial district. There we are implementing a new model that combines commercial uses and interpretation in creative ways.  We will have a bakery, restaurant, and event center in adaptively used historic buildings operating in collaboration with museum uses in one of the adobe residences to reinvigorate the site, sustain it financially and engage audiences that might never visit a historic site or house museum. Those are the people we should all want to meet at this intersection.

We call this a shared use model for historic sites, because the commercial, for profit, museum, and nonprofit entities all share the same space and support each other.  This shared use model itself is an intersection with the local community, developed through intense engagement with local preservationists and long-time supporters of the site and with unexpected partners including a for-profit developer and community institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Rehab at Cooper-Molera

Rehabilitation and New Construction underway at Cooper-Molera

 

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

There is a great story that emerged from one of our recent conversations with a group of Latino leaders in Monterey.  The “Cooper” in Cooper-Molera was an American sea captain, John Cooper, who moved to Monterey when it was part of Mexico and developed a robust business as a trader and merchant.  In the past, we would have focused almost exclusively on his story and we were surprised when this focus group of Latino leaders said we should focus on it again as one of the main stories we tell.  But they had a different spin on it.

John Cooper, they reminded us, immigrated from the US to Mexico when he came to Monterey and he did so without papers—as an undocumented immigrant.  He came in search of economic prosperity, he converted to Catholicism and married a woman named Encarnación Vallejo, who was the sister of General Mariano Vallejo, arguably the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.  He and Encarnaciόn had children and in 1830, John Cooper became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. We’ve been telling this story for years, but never framed this way.  Our focus group urged us to tell this old story in a new way that would highlight its ironies in the current political climate, focus on the central role of Encarnaciόn de Vallejo Cooper, and allow Latino audiences multiple ways to see themselves in the history of this place.

As is true in so many aspects of life, we never fail to learn something new—in this case about old places—when we bring in partners with different perspectives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from the Road: The Vacation Reading Edition

I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list.  So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work.  Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am.  She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer.  She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).

This is a book about mercy.  She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.  Do you want this, or do you want to be right?  Well, can I get back to you on that?”

It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”

The Only Rule

The Only Rule is It Has to Work

The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.

This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season.  Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.

This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell.  (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.)   For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories.  But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.  There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.  Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes.  He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking.  “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.”  And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”  That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex.  People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms.  The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president.  There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.

This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens.  There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout.  I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.

Architecture's Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case:  which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other.  It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers.  Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s.  (Full disclosure:  I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)

Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work.  The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading.  The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater (photo credit: DJB)

At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.

“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers.  As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy.  As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time.  Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”

“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect.  By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows.  Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”

Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men.  And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.

More to come…

DJB

Emotions Flow Through Places – Thoughts After Charlottesville

Last week I referenced Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s book Root Shock with a story that spoke to how emotions flow through places.  I wrote before the events in Charlottesville—and the reactions to that weekend—brought place, memory, and emotion to the forefront of our national conversation.

Stephanie Meek’s statement on Confederate memorials and the confronting of difficult history speaks to how emotions that arise from place are not always built upon strong, positive memoriesOf course, Dr. Fullilove understands this all too well.  Root Shock is focused on the difficult history of urban renewal, something seen in Charlottesville’s destruction of the African-American community of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s.  At the Trust, as Stephanie notes, “we believe that historic preservation requires taking our history seriously. We have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past, and to recognize the many ways that our understanding, and characterization, of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”  That is especially true of our Civil War history, and the fact that many of these statues and symbols were erected well after the war “to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.”  I am a Southerner with a grandmother who was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  When I see symbols used to support hatred and divisiveness, the confrontation of the difficult chapters of our past is personal as well as professional.

Two notes I received following last week’s post referenced, in different ways, how our emotions are inextricably tied to place.

The first one shows how difficult it can be for preservationists to support the removal or destruction of places from our past. Yet, there are many among us who have reluctantly reached that conclusion when it comes to Confederate memorials in their specific cities.  A friend and professional colleague who has spent her life working on the preservation of cultural landscapes also happens to sit on the City of Charlottesville’s Historic Resources Committee (HRC).  She has long supported contextualization of the city’s downtown parks and the statues.  But she wrote late last week saying that while she still believes that the city “could have led the way with the addition of powerful design and new interpretation,” her thinking has evolved with the charged emotions of the issue. She shared that evolution with me as well as with the members of the HRC.  In explaining her thinking, she noted that “the political situation locally, statewide, and nationally post-August 12 would make it difficult for any local political leaders to be effective and continue to support such a nuanced position or for our city to begin to return to any semblance of normal governance.”  She adds that this is a difficult decision professionally, but that she does not see “another way forward for Charlottesville at this time.”  She ended her thoughts to the HRC by noting “I hope that Charlottesville will continue to address this issue legally and with appropriate strategies for relocation of resources that have local, state, and national designations that come with various degrees of responsibility for continued conservation and mitigations.”  This is very much in line with Stephanie’s statement that these decisions should be made “on a case by case basis at the community level.”  These are conversations where we as preservationists are engaged, and removal of these symbols should not stop the necessary conversations about how the “understanding and characterization of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”

In the second instance, a friend of mine (and fellow blogger) responded to last week’s post with a note that I believe speaks to why much of what we save from our past has such meaningful and moving impacts on our lives today. As a priest, she focused on the preservation of sacred space, which I found insightful and applicable in ways beyond her reference. I want to share her note with you.

In response to Mindy Fullilove’s words, my friend wrote:

“This is one reason that I think it is important to set apart dedicated sacred space. When I was in New Jersey, a megachurch start-up rented the ballroom of our neighboring hotel each Sunday. They grew like wildfire. I would look across the street from my office in a colonial-era church, where maintenance costs were eating us alive, and sometimes I would be green with envy. And yet, our buildings let us do things they never could: let us feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, advocate for the immigrants to came to us for legal help. And one thing I knew: the air in those ballrooms would never be thick with prayer. At the end of Sunday morning, their folks would pack up and go, to be replaced by wedding parties and conventions and business meetings. But in our building, the walls held the prayers of all who had wept or rejoiced or begged in that place for hundreds of years. The difference was palpable.”

Sacred places

Sacred places (photo credit: Claire Brown)

Sacred places have long been landmarks which evoke emotions and generally point us towards our better natures.  They may be places protected with the help of the National Trust’s National Fund for Sacred Places or sites such as Mount Taylor, sacred to as many as 30 Native American tribes and which the Trust has fought to protect through our National Treasure campaign.

Two different ways of seeing the importance of place and the ties places make to our emotions. Both made me think, and I hope you’ll find in one or both something of value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Emotions Flow Through Places

Root Shock

Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove, M.D.

It will surprise no one that I read a couple of baseball books and watched several games while on vacation.  But it may surprise you to know that the best piece of writing I read which included baseball as its subject came from the opening pages of psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s 2004 book Root Shock:  How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About ItShe begins chapter one with several powerful paragraphs.  I’m going to quote extensively from those two pages.

“Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic.  One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hard-working people enjoyed baseball.  That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field.  It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and there that ‘Shorty’s Sym-Phony Band’ tortured the opposition.  Words like ‘raucous’ and ‘zany’ are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity, and the uniqueness of what went on.

In 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles.  The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of the fans. ‘I felt like a jilted lover,’ recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life.  Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Fields and in particular, to try to take us into its magic.  This is the real essence of ‘nostalgia,’ an emotion that is in one second bitter and in another sweet, as the remembrance vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss.  Enduring sorrow and untampered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘I never rooted for them again,’ says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.

Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site.  People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there.  And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished.  Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray.  The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.

But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth largest city in the United States (were Brooklyn independent of New York City)?

The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places—buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations—are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter.  Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them.  When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams.  Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food.  The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad.  Try to find the shortcut you use to take to your best friend’s house and it is your feet that will carry you there.  The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them.  We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people.  We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care.  When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”

Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field (photo credit: A Slice of Brooklyn)

People and places are intertwined.  It is why, when discussing preservation’s future, so many people we spoke with over the past two years focused on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings.  In these six paragraphs, Dr. Fullilove captures that connection in an eloquent and personal way. I began my preservation career in August of 1977, and coming out of a vacation four decades later I’m still excited to have the opportunity to help people see, understand, and honor the places that awaken our “sinews and bones, where the days of our lives have been recorded.”

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

An Aid to Navigation in Troubled, Uncertain Times

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

The July 4th weekend turned out to be the perfect time to read historian David McCullough’s newest book The American Spirit:  Who We Are and What We Stand ForThis compilation of 15 speeches spanning the years 1989 through 2016 brought renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the elder statesman of America’s historians (and honorary trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).  The fact that it includes McCullough’s October 20, 2001, speech at the National Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island—the most memorable of several David McCullough speeches I’ve been privileged to hear in person—is an added bonus.

Some would note that optimism is in short supply in today’s world. That was certainly the case just six weeks after 9/11.  Yet in 2001, McCullough used the setting of the First Baptist Church in Providence—one of the nation’s most historic houses of worship—and the scholarship from his recently published biography of John Adams to make the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he says in this book’s introduction.  He spoke then to the importance of authentic places in helping to make a “physical, tactile contact with distant human beings. To “feel their mortality.” To “feel a common bond” with all humanity.

We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence).  We think we have worries.  We think our leaders face difficult decisions.  But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed.  But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Speaking in 1994 at Union College, McCullough touched on this same theme when he said,

I think what most of us want—as most people everywhere want more than anything—is to be useful.  This and to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves.  What is needed now…is a common understanding of what that larger something can be.  What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition….Beware the purists, the doctrinaires.  It has been by the empirical method largely, by way of trial and error, that we have come so far.  America itself is an experiment and we must bear that always in mind.

This is a good time to remember the power of history.  The power of story.  And it is an especially good time to work to ensure that the story of who we are and all that we have been through to reach our achievements as people and as a nation is not lost in the uncertainty of the present.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

I Am Not Invisible

Last evening I spoke in Athens, Georgia, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.  The topic was the future of preservation, and I took segments from remarks given by my colleague Tom Mayes at the recent EDRA conference on Why Old Places Matter and combined it with the basic elements of our recently released Preservation for People:  A Vision for the Future.

The first key concept from the vision is that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.

I built on this concept by noting that,

“The recognition of our stories and the capacity to see yourself and others in the American narrative has a profound effect on our sense of identity.   A few years when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, Congressman John Lewis challenged us to believe in the idea that ‘my house is your house.  My story is your story.  The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.’”

The Well-Tempered City

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

I followed that with a quote from The Well-Tempered City, by Jonathan Rose, the visionary developer, urbanist, and former NTHP trustee.  In that work he notes that cities emerge from the interdependence of related parts.  He says, “compassion is essential for a city to have a healthy balance between individual and collective well-being.”

It is my belief that hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story helps provide “the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.”

After my remarks, a member of the Foundation’s board came to speak with me.  Linda Davis is a civic and business leader in Athens, a member of the local school board, and African American.  She told me that the vision is right in line with what she has been supporting in Athens in her five years on the ACHF board.  She said, “I am not invisible” and this future is “exactly what I hope for preservation.”  Her comment was straightforward, yet poignant.

Americans have conveniently forgotten most of the people whose lives are part of our layered history.  At this time of deep division in our national life, I believe—more than ever—that we each have to do whatever we can to hear, understand, and honor the stories of those who might have been forgotten in the past.  We have to make sure they are not invisible.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Places Teach Us, If We Let Them

I have just finished reading two books about the American West that were written in 1987 and 1994. As I finished the second one on a rainy Sunday afternoon I thought, “I hope I age as well.”  The older of the two—which I actually read second—was the first book cited by the author of the 1994 work in her “Sources” chapter.  Both are written by women I greatly admire as writers and thinkers.

So enough of the cat and mouse games.

Savage Dreams

Savage Dreams by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit‘s Savage Dreams:  A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West, was republished in a 20th anniversary edition in 2014, with a new preface by the author. I’ve been on something of a Solnit kick lately, as she is one of the most thoughtful of writers exploring a wide variety of issues across the American landscape. This early work is often hailed as a foundational work of environmental thinking.  However, I saw this more as a book about place and unacknowledged history, and the title of the post comes from her 20th anniversary preface.

At the end of Savage Dreams, Solnit lists her sources and calls out Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s The Legacy of Conquest:  The Unbroken Past of the American West for special inspiration.  I have come to know Patty Limerick a bit from recent work we’ve undertaken together, and this book has been on my bookshelf since the early 2000s, which I first heard her speak in Denver.  She is unquestionably one of the leading scholars of Western history.

What I found enlightening about both works was the timeliness of the issues they discuss some 25-30 years later.  Immigration, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, the “owning” of the historical narrative, the complex layers of history that are the reality underneath our myth making of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—all are as present and divisive today as they were as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

I could delve into so much in these two works, but will be content with a synopsis of each and some quotes that may lead you to want to explore them on your own.  Solnit and Limerick are easy-to-read writers who take a different path in getting to their conclusions.  Solnit’s work here is more of a meandering conversation that, amazingly, arrives at its destination at the end of each chapter and feels very satisfying.  Limerick did not rely on original research in her ground-breaking work, but pulled together strains in New Western study with a style that is easily accessible.

Solnit’s work is actually two books, although they do connect in surprising ways:

“In 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later–in 1951–and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin.”

In her preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Solnit notes that she was writing as a period of “making visible, of rewriting history” was underway. She is in the parking lots at Yosemite ten years after her book was written and noticed that the signs had changed, with a “massive reimagining of native America” as the old language of discovery was mostly gone, and the idea of virgin wilderness was seen as outdated.

Right from the beginning Solnit notes that “it’s important to remember that this was not inevitable change but was the work of scholars and tribal spokespeople, activists, and storytellers.”  That is so important in today’s charged political environment, where thoughtful scholarship is often under attack. As she notes, “the people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”

I found this most compelling in the Yosemite story (not to downplay the importance and terrible nature of the test site history).  But as we think about hearing, understanding, and honoring all stories in historic places, I was especially taken by the stories of eradication of the Native American people and story at Yosemite right from the beginning of its conquest by white Americans.  As one small example out of many, the kind of plants growing in Yosemite Valley in the 1850s was largely the work of its original inhabitants.  So when “Bunnell, Olmstead, and their peers rode into the valley and wondered at it for its resemblance to an English landscape garden, it resembled such a garden because it was one.”  Since Yosemite is often considered an American Eden and a touchstone for wilderness, it is surprising (to many) to find that it was an “artifact of generations of human care.”

Legacy of Conquest

Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Solnit’s is an activist’s book, which is “about how understanding history and making it are not really very different” to quote one reviewer.  Limerick’s activism is of a different sort.  She seeks to take the story of the “settling” of the American West as “a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures—most with happy endings—and a process that came to an end with the ‘closing’ of the frontier in the 1890s” and turn that on its head.  The west is not a process, but a place.  It is a place where competition, profit, loss, uneven business cycles and—always—conquests are what ground its history.

Limerick’s book is also divided into two sections.  First, “The Conquerors” followed by “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.”  In today’s fight over immigration rights, the antagonists on each side could do much worse than read Limerick’s chapter entitled “America the Borderland.”  Limerick notes that this antagonism has been with us from the beginning of our country.

“…some New England Puritans brooded over the presence of Spanish Catholics far to the south; the ‘New World’ seemed less than pure if the papists had a more sizable empire than the Puritans.  Two centuries later, Anglo-Americans moving into the borderlands encountered long-term Hispanic residents.  Much modified by the environment, time, and contact with native populations, northern and southern Europe met in odd circumstances and conflicts between them, unresolved since the Reformation, surfaced again.”

SE Utah Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings in the Bears Ears area of Southeast Utah, where centuries-old conflicts over the West are still present today

One of the more difficult parts of our past to square with the American myth is the treatment of Mormons. Today’s hatred of “the other” has—it appears—deep historical roots. Limerick dives in here as well, to make the point that just when the reader thinks race is a key factor in dividing people in the West, we come face to face with the Haun’s Mill Massacre.  As she says, this attack by a Missouri militia on a poorly defended settlement, where seventeen were killed and fifteen wounded, “restores one to a realistic confusion.”  All of the victims of this 1838 massacre were white—and Mormon.  She examines the prejudices behind the 1857 Mormon War, which is extraordinary in that the U.S. Army was deployed against a church primarily composed of U.S. citizens.

There is so much here I could explore, but suffice it to say that both Rebecca Solnit and Patty Limerick have written books that are as timely today as they were some 25-30 years ago.  That’s a remarkable place for writers to find themselves.  In these challenging times in which we live in 2017, we do well to remember Limerick’s point that we need to think as anthropologists, because “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.”

Recommended!

More to come…
DJB