14 April 2010: Historical Preservation

Preservation not all it’s cracked up to be

In his column about a new biography of President Obama, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is properly no history, only biography.” In other words, history is not so much about artifacts, sites, and ruins, as it is about people doing what they did. If history is anything, it is an account of ongoing creation.

At its kernel, history is storytelling. Much of it is fictional or sanitized because the truth is often painful and embarrassing. Virginia Governor Bob McConnell, for example, proclaimed April as Confederate History Month in honor of the same people who built their society on human ownership—slavery—and acted to dissolve the Union, thus committing treason. The governor in his initial proclamation made no mention of either.

When the storytelling is honest and pure, it can be a jolt. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is such a work, and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire is such a tale: 146 people, mostly young women, some in their teens, locked and thus trapped in their factory’s upper floors, died leaping to horrific deaths.

Clear Creek chronicler Greg Markle has directed a much anticipated film about George Jackson. Love him or not for his exploits including opening Clear Creek to mining, Jackson, like other movers and shakers of 19th-century Clear Creek, is a character of note, and his story bears telling, for where we are today largely began with him.

But I think of pioneer non-movers and non-shakers, everyday folks like you, endeavoring to do what they did, enduring even more challenging conditions and suffering and dying from illnesses and injuries routinely healed today, clawing to make a toehold into these mountains, the same ones I-70 commuters blithely breeze through and grouse about because of extra time it takes getting to the slopes or boutiques in Breckenridge and Vail.

Their stories, though, are not in bins of the past, but live through their descendents since they are ultimately not about holes in the ground but in the purposes of their lives, the reasons they came being the same as everyone’s today, whether born and stayed, or returned, or migrated to this land of mountains and valleys, wind and snow, and beautifully exhilarating and exuberating ruggedness.

So in like manner, everyday people in Clear Creek today struggle to claw their toeholds into these same mountains, some literally and others not so much by the sweat of their brows but by entrepreneurial talents creating businesses that employ locals and entice tourists and flatlanders to drop their change.

History is not a physical concept. Bulldoze Georgetown’s Sixth St. and it would not change one iota what the men and women circa 1876 did to establish a settlement in this daunting terrain. It is about doing, and if it stops with what they did and not continue into what we are doing and in time into what our progeny do long after we are dust in the wind or six feet under, then it is meaningless. So what if you have a pleasant, picture-perfect setting from your front window when you reach codgerhood! If there is no acticvity, no abounding growth, it is pointless.

Human history in some ways mimics earth history: an act of building up and tearing down. Gosh, I am so happy to be finally rid of the 1970s gold shag carpet, harvest gold appliances, and dark chocolate brown pressed-wood cabinets. Of course, a pure preservationist would rather go to her grave with her last sights being of that travesty of design, not ever realizing the creativity within her by tearing out the old and re-creating a space with a new look and feel and sense of presence.

When I think of preservation I think of preserves—cherry is my favorite—and mummies. The Egyptians were the best at mummification and look what it got them. One day I hope to visit the pyramids, but the thought of looking at the mummified remains of King Tut seems a tad ghoulish. From the after-life, should there be one, I would think King Tut is a bit embarrassed about people gawking at his contorted and misshapen remains, which is what often happens to the past when we try to preserve it. Recall it, mark it with a marker, learn from it, assuming what is told is what really happened, and leave it to create a life of meaning for yourself and your loved ones and friends and community.

Last week I referenced the ruins at Chaco Canyon. The debate there is about whether to excavate and “preserve” or to allow them to return whence they came. Many hold the latter is what the builders intended, for in the end, like our bodies, so too will our physical creations. As the natives say, “Nothing lasts forever.”

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