Memory, History, and Landscape

I had the chance to see a talk by William Cronon last week here at U.Va. He's a professor at the University of Wisconsin and a recognized world leader in environmental history and environmental studies. His work, while helping define the field of environmental history as it became one in recent decades, also transcends it; there's this too, his skill at public speaking is top shelf. He is and has been for some time working on a book called, simply, The Portage. The talk last week was from that book. Taking one location in Wisconsin--Portage--only miles from which John Muir lived when his family moved from Scotland (when he was 12); Frederick Jackson Turner, famed nineteenth-century historian of the American frontier, grew up; and Aldo Leopold, wrote and worked, Cronon sets up an entire narrative about reading and writing narratives about the landscape.


Cronon's work involves, requires, and pushes on geology, ecology, and wildlife science, even as he does humanities (not scientific) work. His motivation in the book is to read landscapes. His main argument is to elevate the place of stories in doing so. History is not the past, he repeats several times in his talk, but the stories we tell about the past. But don't take that as naïve anti-realism. Of course things in the past exist. It's just that history is the story we tell about those things that actually happened.

Reading a landscape is difficult business. Landscapes are multi-layered, contingent, unstable, unpredictable things. Cronon flashes the image above at the start of his talk and explains that he won't go too far from it for the next 75 minutes of text. The scene is the Fox River. Fort Winnebago used to be nearby. Just off camera to the right (across that bridge) is a turn-off for cars to park and check out the historical markers about the place. Jefferson Davis was once stationed there around the 1830s. This fact, and Davis's name among others on a carefully placed historical marker, evokes some kind of memory for most passers-by. Few may have heard of Ft. Winnebago, and fewer still of Portage, WI. But many people will think, Jefferson Davis? The President of the Confederacy? This notice puts the place (Portage) into a collective with other memories of the viewer.


From that start Cronon unfolds into a wide-reaching and interconnected discussion about memory, place, and time. Davis at Ft. Winnebago; Ft. Winnebago as a trading post and secure spot; the locale at a key geological point at the outer reaches of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes Watershed. The Fox River, as it happens, is but a few miles from the Wisconsin River. The Fox runs north into Lake Michigan; the Wisconsin runs south into the Mississippi. That few-mile span between them is thus a geological rarity and the best and closest connection bringing the entire continent within reach - one can travel from the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence into the Great lakes, down the Fox River and over to the Wisconsin; down the Wisconsin into the Mississippi; and then to the Gulf of Mexico. The trade routes didn't get better than that. The portage of canoes across that short space of land gave name to the small town that later grew up there. The rivers' odd proximity to one another--flowing in different directions--is the result of glacial moves from thousands of years ago. To read that landscape requires a good deal of deliberate investigation, not just passive gazing. Reading landscapes is difficult work, but it explains how places are made.

Given all of that--the connections, the geology, the history, the landscape--I was struck most by the subtitle's emphasis on memory. Cronon intends for his study to be about time, memory, and place. Every place can withstand such full readings. He is fortunate that his place, Portage, was also signified by its famous residents in the history of environmentalism -- Muir, Turner, Leopold. Our memory of them brings the meaning of that place closer. We remember them because of the history of environmental thought and practice that followed. We tell their stories. For example, we still tell stories about John Muir, we still hold him in our memory, and we still find that relevant and meaningful. He is remembered. (Consider Donald Worster's A Passion for Nature, his new biography of John Muir. Good book, that, and only the most recent of many Muir biographies.) When I note above that Cronon's work transcends environmental history, I mean that in the sense here that the story of Portage is an environmental one--reading landscapes, understanding their history--but also a cultural, human one. Who are we, the readers or landmark viewers in that landscape? Who lived there before and why do we care now? His story addresses those questions.

The entire time I was listening to Cronon I was simultaneously daydreaming about an amazing short story by Kevin Brockmeier called "The Brief History of the Dead". The short story was published about six years ago, and later worked up into a full novel, published in 2006. As I remember it, the not-quite-sci-fi story is about the dwindling population of a not-quite-heaven, post-life netherworld called "the city" where people remain only as long as someone back in the real living world remembers them.

the city was not Heaven, and it was not Hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself--a sort of outer room--and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next.

Given the fiction of it, I'll interpret the story to be about the connections we have to one another, the love we leave behind, the mark we make before we are gone--or, here, this is better, that the mark we make before we are gone is the set of connections we've made while living.

Memory was Cronon's theme as well--Muir remains alive in the sense that we remember him. He's still in "the city," with Jefferson Davis as it were. Eventually in his talk, and with that river image looming so large we knew it was coming, Cronon gave us the Heraclites line--You can never step in the same river twice. As he noted, the subsequent clichéd use of the line should not take away from the depth of the observation. The river is the name we give to a moving body of water, a thread running across the ground that is defined by drops of water that will never go by the same spot again. One step in, and you are part of a dynamic system. One step out and back in, and you are part of a different one with the same name. It isn't about the river alone, though, it's also about our ecological systems. Though we don't walk around saying this, you can never really stand in the same environment twice. (As I noted in a prior post, this makes legislating policy about it difficult, since we presume the policy applies to the same thing, equally, always, and without variety.)

What's lingered over the last week for me is the connection between Cronon's reading of the landscape, Brockmeier's reading of humanity, and the common element of memory between them.

In a deeper way, Heraclite's point is an autobiographical one. Holding Brockmeier's fictional story with Cronon's non-fictional one helps show the human identity, the biography, at stake in these stories. I sat there thinking about my own past as Cronon talked about the past of Portage and Davis and Ft. Winnebago and the Fox River and post-glacial Wisconsin. Autobiographically, then, I remember my earlier years, and I know that was me. But I was different. That wasn't the "me" I am now. I have the same name, but I can never be the same person twice. I struggle with this all the time, and no, not always in the drippy way one might interpret my words here to indicate. I read the Brockmeier story six years ago, when I was someone else, only I had the same name so it's hard to say I was someone else. Except I was, in the Heraclitian one. I still have in my Inbox a note to reply to from an old classmate, a woman who sat with me on the front steps of our seminar room on September 11th; we write once a year to say hi and give life updates and talk about how blue the sky was that day. That wasn't me there either. I wasn't a parent yet; I lived in a different place; I didn't know about Cheney's full call to darkness. I drive up an interstate a few times a year back to my hometown, and I remember the dozens, maybe hundreds of times I've driven up that valley. And it's never been the same drive twice.

This could go on, so let me get back onto the main track: Hercalites is not making a point only about history--it's also about identity. Cronon is not making a point only about nature--it's also about culture, about human identity as part of nature. Landscapes are worth reading as much as biographies. We might come to respect their integrity more if we made this a habit.

I suppose my point is that Cronon's talk was memorable. But mostly because it was provocative, allowing me to put it into my own thoughts on place and time. That's good public speaking, an art, the same effect as a good film or novel. All the better that it's intent was to open up new perspectives on the environment.

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