I treasure wildlife sightings. During the winter season I sometimes glimpse bald eagles soaring in the sky outside my kitchen window, and I’ve been fortunate on several occasions to see beavers swimming in the Haskell-Baker Wetlands. Last summer my East Lawrence neighbors and I were frequently serenaded by the territorial calls of barred owls. Being reminded that wildlife still thrives nearby is reassuring for the future of our environmental heritage. Read More..
As we slide into the holiday season, beginning with our most thankful time of year, we naturally begin to think about food. Sitting down to generous plates and celebrating all we’re grateful for, seems like a good time to give some thought to those who keep us fed. I’m not talking about Grandma’s cornbread dressing or Aunt Louise’s maple-bourbon-pecan pie. Rather, I’m thinking about the story that your meal would share if asked what it is and where it came from. Read More..
Take a few moments to trace your history. Now trace the history of the place you call home. Following threads of memory, you’ll discern more than one version of your past. You probably have had more than one home, each of which has different versions of its own history. You have changed, places have changed, and as you dig you see that history itself is based on perceptions changing. “The past is remembered and retold by desire,” says author and geologist Lauret Savoy in her sweeping new book Trace , in which she endeavors to discover untold parts of her heritage and, intriguingly, tie them to the American land.
A palimpsest of a colorful decaying leaf over a page of faded text on the cover drew me in, and the blurb by author Terry Tempest Williams clinched it. Likewise, discernable through the gritty questing of Savoy’s story, one can see Williams’s Refuge, one of my favorite books, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me– for within Savoy runs the blood of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, and she examines racial oppression in the American landscape.
She begins as a child on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the geologist she would later become describes the layers of the land, including those of its “discovery” and exploration by Europeans. Having stood on Point Sublime and being familiar with some of its history, I was immediately drawn in. Indeed, much of this small book rang familiar, for the author and I share more than a few places visited and books read. She even lives in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley (a name she has surely examined), right down the road from where I once lived.
Amos A. Lawrence, namesake of my current home, came from Massachusetts. Historian Jonathan Earle has said of the man, “He made tons of money – Bill Gates kind of money,” thanks to Lawrence’s father running the greatest mercantile house in the U.S., trading cotton goods.
A desire for a more complete history of this home, our city of Lawrence, must therefore recognize the hundreds of thousands of slaves of the American South whose lives and labor fueled the Lawrence family’s cotton fortune. Time and again, Lauret Savoy’s desire for re-remembering her own past teases apart neglected examples like this, from Washington D.C. and South Carolina to Wisconsin and Arizona.
As a child in California, she says, she never knew race, but once she hit the Grand Canyon on her family’s move east it couldn’t be avoided. She was ignored and then short-changed when buying post cards at the National Park gift shop. In school she read history books full of “savage Indians in the way of Manifest Destiny, and Africans who thrived as slaves and by nature want to serve.” On her adult “journey of and to perception” she learns that heads of Native Americans slaughtered at Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre ended up in the Smithsonian.
She follows her family history across North America, digging up more and more. Tribes relocated to what is now Oklahoma held enslaved African Americans. What we think are Native tribal names were sometimes made up by Europeans – Ojibway, for example, rather than Anishinaabe. Indeed, the very names on the land are fraught. She visits a South Carolina “Living History” plantation that essentially lives without the history of the slaves who worked it. In Arizona, where her mother served as an Army nurse, she peels apart shifting layers of Apache history, borderlands, and the Jim Crow experience of the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers.
It’s a stunning personal telling of what historian Patricia Nelson Limerick called the Legacy of Conquest, with another important layer: despite all she found, “one idea stood firm: The American land preceded hate.” The sublime Grand Canyon and an early exposure to the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac informed this reality, and provided some guidance. “Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them… relations among people from relations with the land.”
What refreshing words, with more than a trace of wisdom. I look forward to following more of Lauret Savoy’s explorations.
-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.