Why does a person rummage around in the past? As with many human experiences and endeavors a simple answer is probably a poor explanation. No doubt some of us do not prevaricate when we make the case that we are seeking help to cope with the present. After all, not every member of the AHA could be lying! Yet some of us may prefer the past because it allows us to escape the tangled mess of the present while the past can be manicured into a quiet mind garden.
One suspects that many of us who are seriously engaged in practicing and teaching history were first attracted to some kind of intellectual glade by the romanticism of a story or perhaps the antiquarian fascination of an artifact found on the family premises or seen in a museum. On the other hand, perhaps the lure was escape. The young often see the present as undesirable. Past or future–anywhere but now!
Yet those of us who have come to a place of serious historical study most assuredly stand in the present. A present we know we cannot escape except in our minds and escapism seldom exerts the same powerful pull it exercised in our youth. So while we may have been drawn to the gate of the professional garden by antiquarian curiosity, budding romanticism, or unvarnished escapism we entered the garden and stayed to cultivate it for other reasons. Probability suggests that our reasons are highly personal with a hint Freudian complexity; yet trying to prune them has brought us to this place.
The intensity of sixth grade fascination with all things ancient Roman, to junior high enthusiasm for the military exploits of Americans in World War II was an excursion in romantic escapism riding an unbridled reading expedition. The almost perpetual consumption of history books was a staple of my early life. Lessons to be learned from the past remained in the barn while the steam-driven engine of pure curiosity carried me closer and closer to the fieldwork of my life. College did little to develop my self-awareness of why I chose to study history. The fascination factor was still very powerful, and the discovery of interpretive debates helped fuel the engine. Only in graduate school did I begin to grow into understanding that the complexity of the past was the complexity of the present. Few things bring self-awareness into focus as quickly as the exhausting work of cultivating an M.A. thesis that the author finds mediocre for its lack of explanatory power.
Being forced from the hothouse of graduate seminars into the rock-strewn fields of high school history classes was both a step forward and sideways. Forward because the cultivation was no longer a tightly managed communal exercise but a real world practice. Sideways in that so much of the daily work was merely removing brush, weeds, and stones that hindered even the planting of historical awareness among teenagers. The cultivation of a variegated and sophisticated historical reality was seldom possible, but the cutting, weeding, and lifting never ceased to create meaning. Season after season of generating seedlings of historical awareness; gardens of hope that others will value what we value and shape their own flourishing understanding of the past.
After so many seasons in the field reality sets in. Rewarding as our little plots may be they are not the grand, lush developments we envisioned when we acquired our skills and tools in graduate school. Discovering that we have walked our fence-line over and over, and that it circumscribes limited acreage can be a source of despair or discovery. If the 160 acres of teaching lacks the space and shape for intricate greenery it is not necessarily infertile. Any student of agricultural history knows that diversifying the crop can enhance fertility and increase yields.
Thus after team teaching with my good friend and English colleague for several years when we assigned our students to write a brief “family history” the idea of finding greater fertility in the current field seemed a logical path to more sophisticated work in the garden of the past. Indeed, at my colleague’s urging I returned to my earlier interest in World War II by exploring my father’s experience. A return to primary research became an even more invigorating experience when fertilized by the strength of my own past.
So in July 2005 I stood on the summit of Mount Tapochau, Saipan and viewed the garden of my father’s past. While both the real and the historical landscapes were fertile the field was yet open to cultivation. As any student of the past knows, venturing into new lands has always required dealing with the current inhabitants. There were ghosts in the planned garden.
Dealing with the ghosts in Death Valley.