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

The Blessing of Silence, Part II

Tower House Grenada

Tower House garden in Grenada

A few weeks ago I wrote about the blessing of silence, meaning “quietude” as opposed to the “silencing of voices.” Rebecca Solnit, in her most recent collection of essays entitled The Mother of All Questions, notes that silence is crucially different from quietude.  The latter speaks to the absence of noise – which is sought – while the former speaks to the absence of voice, which is too often imposed.

Little did I know that the Friday before my last post on this topic, the Harvard Business Review had published an article entitled, “The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time.”  My colleague Barb Gibson sent along the HBR article which began with a quote from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who argued that serious thinkers and writers should get off Twitter, in a call to “get beyond the noise.”  It isn’t just writers who suggest that periods of silence are valuable.  Medical researchers have found that “taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our mind to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us live, work, and lead.”  Real sustained silence, the kind that “facilitates clear and creative thinking, quiets inner chatter as well as the outer.”

The HBR article provided some practical steps to facilitate silence, including using five minutes at the end of meetings for a period of silence, taking the occasional afternoon off for a silent walk in nature, and going on a media fast for several hours or a full day.

Cultivating silence can increase our chances of “encountering novel ideas” and discerning “weak signals” from the constant verbal agenda that goes on in our head.  It isn’t easy, but cultivating silence in our lives can be done with some creativity and commitment.

Many celebrate this season as one of renewal, rebirth, and redemption.  Quietude can be a great way to focus on those themes in meaningful ways.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Hope is Grounded in Memory

Mary Dixie and George Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my grandparents and part of the memory that gives me hope

Last Saturday marked my 20th anniversary at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about hope in the context of life’s milestones.  Not a greeting card kind of hope or optimism, but “hope that’s kind of gritty…the kind,” as described by songwriter and author Carrie Newcomer, “that gets up every morning and chooses to try to make the world just a little kinder (or better) in your own way.”

The thought that “hope is grounded in memory” has influenced the work of  another writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit. In a recent interview, she notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but…(if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’….(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things.”  Knowing history gives me hope.

To be fair, hope is hard.  Cynicism – where I have gone on occasion – is easy. But in thinking about 20 years of work at the National Trust, sharing experiences and losses and triumphs with some incredible colleagues, I have a hope that comes from our past and looks expectantly to the future.  When the individuals came together 50 years ago to propose what became the National Historic Preservation Act, they were working against the very powerful forces of urban renewal.  Forces that wanted to erase community, who said that the past didn’t matter. Now 50 years later, thousands of communities, in various ways, recognize the people who came before, and why their lives and work and places matter today and for the future. In thinking about where preservation goes in the next 50 years, we are facing different but equally powerful forces that again want to erase what came before. But my hope for the future comes from seeing what’s happened in the past 20, the past 50, the past 100 years.

I like the idea of hope being grounded in memory.  Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things – powerful things – can happen.

But hope doesn’t always have to be grand work and gestures.  It is a choice.  A practice.  To illustrate, let me end with a story.

I have a clock in my living room that is part of my earliest memories from childhood.  The clock sat on the mantle in a bedroom in my grandparents’ home in Franklin, Tennessee, and when I visited I slept in that room.  The first night I was frequently awakened by the ticking of the clock and the ringing of the chimes.  Soon, however, they became comforting sounds that only registered in my subconscious.  We’ve had the clock in our house now for more than a decade and it continues to provide accurate time and comforting rhythms to our lives.

I hadn’t thought much about my routine of winding the clock by hand each week until I recently read several thoughts from E.B. White about hope.  White – the author of wonderful books for children such as Charlotte’s Web and countless New Yorker essays – knows that hope alone will not carry us forward. (Or as many consultants say, “Hope is not a strategy.”) We have to act as well.  So White will “Get up on Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”

As I reflect on this, winding my grandparents’ clock is a way of looking ahead expectantly.  When I turn those cranks, I am reminding myself – through the memories of all my parents and grandparents accomplished – that there is another week ahead to do the good work we are asked to do.  Or, as my grandmother would say, “To make yourself useful as well as ornamental.”

We live in a surprising world – which should give us hope.  So follow E.B. White’s advice:  “Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”

Grandmother's clock

A small symbol of hope

More to come…

DJB

Letting Experience Be Larger Than Knowledge

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I just completed reading a thoughtful collection of essays by the writer Rebecca Solnit.  Titled after the first in the collection and her best-known essay – Men Explain Things to Me – these nine pieces written between 2008 and 2014 explore multiple topics including the gender wars and male privilege, the use of violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more.  Through them all, Solnit pushes the reader to consider perspectives that are likely to be outside their  comfort zone.

A colleague forwarded the link to the Men Explain Things to Me essay several weeks ago after I referenced Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. (Also highly recommended.) The essay begins with the comic scene of a man explaining Solnit’s most recent book to her – even though he never read anything more than the New York Times book review of her work.

But as noted on Solnit’s website, she ends this essay “on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, ‘He’s trying to kill me!'”

Each essay in this collection has something important to say and I strongly recommend them all.  Solnit is a clear thinker and talented writer.  For this post, I want to focus on two specific essays.

In Praise of the Threat:  What Marriage Equality Really Means quickly had me thinking, “Of course, she’s right.”

“For a long time, the advocates of same-sex marriage have been saying that such unions pose no threat, contradicting the conservatives who say such unions are a threat to traditional marriage.  Maybe the conservatives are right, and maybe we should celebrate that threat rather than denying it.  The marriage of two men or two women doesn’t impact any man-and-woman marriage directly.  But metaphysically it could.”

Solnit proceeds to examine traditional marriage. For much of its history the laws defining marriage – and the actual practice in much of the world – made the husband “essentially an owner and the wife a possession. Or the man a boss and the woman a servant or slave.”

Solnit ends this piece by writing,

“It’s time to slam the door shut on that era.  And to open another door, through which we can welcome equality: between genders, among marital partners, for everyone in every circumstance.  Marriage equality is a threat: to inequality.  It’s a boon to everyone who values and benefits from equality. It’s for all of us.”

Solnit takes a look at the inexplicable in Woolf’s Darkness. I used this essay when asked to speak to our Professional Development Program participants at work last week. I wanted to make the point that while I am a planner by training (and disposition), some of my most successful experiences (professional and otherwise) came when I left the carefully planned path and identified opportunities outside my comfort zone where I could both contribute and grow.

In this essay, Solnit quotes a line from Virginia Woolf – “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” – as a starting point for a celebration of the unknown.

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: ‘The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.’ His point is that when the two seem incompatible, we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble.  Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

A few pages later, Solnit expands on this point:

“I once heard about a botanist in Hawaii with a knack for finding new species by getting lost in the jungle, by going beyond what he knew and how he knew, by letting experience be larger than his knowledge, by choosing reality rather than the plan.” (emphasis mine)

In the final essay in this collection, Solnit writes,

“When the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, thirty-two of the one hundred signatories to its Declaration of Independence-echoing manifesto were men.  Still, it was seen as a women’s problem.  Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone.  The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.”

Amen.

I’ve made a resolution to return to read Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.

More to come…

DJB