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Being There

A strong case can be made that the best way to understand history is to be there. That is, to place yourself on the very ground where some historic event—say, a major battle—occurred in 490 BC, 1066, 1815, 1863, 1944 or 1968. Real places are physical gateways to the past, portals to understanding what happened years ago right there.

That is the premise of a recent personal meditation on how to connect with history, My American Revolution, by Robert Sullivan (see Interview), a lifelong walker through historic landscapes. In the course of his book Sullivan acts on his belief that while maps, photographs and prose are all very well, the only meaningful way to know a place is to stand there and stay open to the insights that can arise in that landscape. Of course, it is facile to lapse into romanticism or even mysticism about the importance or beauty or perceived meaning of a place. But it is a fact that essential landforms, sight lines and seasonal weather do not change much over generations or even centuries. So when you are standing in a historic “there” in 2012, often you can see and even feel and hear much of what a person saw and felt there in 1812. Sullivan has a word for that experience: re-emplacement.

He’s got a point. Consider one example: Fort Union, near Watrous, N.M. What stands there today is a sprawling array of stabilized stone and adobe remnants of a once-active Army base, oddly evocative of England’s famed Stonehenge. The present structures date from the third and largest Fort Union, active 1863–91. At the western margin of the heartland’s vast grasslands and some 20 miles east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it was built to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, which passes within sight of the fort. Plenty of vivid photographs, drawings, maps and firsthand accounts of fort life are available.

But until you stand at the sundial between the long blocks of buildings and the parade grounds; until you gaze on the miles of treeless plain stretching out as far as the eye can see, at the deep ruts of the Santa Fe trail and at the overwhelming unbroken dome of blue sky; until you feel the relentless push of chilled wind from the mountains––only then can you appreciate the scale, the isolation, the vulnerability, the dangers, the hard work (wagon crews brought in winter firewood from forests 10 miles away), the routine boredom and the silence of the seasons that defined daily life 140-odd years ago on this outpost. You’ve got to be there.