Originally posted on September 13, 2010 at 2:23 PM
What is it about history that makes us want to leave our mark? When we were in Colorado, we stopped at a really neat historical ghost town that had lots of buildings still standing (though on their last leg). As I was marveling at the age, beauty, and atmosphere of it all, I suddenly noticed on the side of a house where dozens of people had carved names and dates into the wood. My automatic reaction was one of mild outrage. How dare these people ruin history with their vandalism? Have they no respect?
But then a quieter thought sank into my mind. It had to do with the way history seems to become sanctified once it’s about a century old. What about the people who built these houses in the middle of these stunningly beautiful mountains? What right did they have to ruin the natural beauty with creations of their own? Had they no respect for their surroundings? If someone were to do this now—build a village in a beautiful, isolated natural landscape—we would judge them poorly for it. Why does the fact that this happened years ago make it not only okay, but worth preserving?
This is when the quietest thought of all came to me. Perhaps, just maybe, it was all okay. The intrusion on nature, the preservation of random history, the vandalism of that preservation, the tourism… all of it. It wasn’t evil or blasphemous or sanctified or holy. It just was. Simple as air.
There are thousands, perhaps millions, of history buffs, museum curators, historical societies, and bookkeepers who would disagree with me, but I simply don’t feel passionately about preserving the past, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. Don’t get me wrong; I would never vandalize any property, but that’s because I think you should leave others’ things alone, not because I think the past is sacred. Not even my own past. I’ve never been one to reread diaries or feel unable to change the original version of a poem. In fact, when I get around to it, I plan on burning my old journals as a sort of ritual to let them go. I don’t want that weight trailing me forever.
I certainly don’t have anything against other people being passionate about history. I understand the practical need for history (personal and societal), and when you get down to it no one can rid themselves of the past because it makes us who we are. I even enjoy history as a passing interest (I like museums and ghost towns as much as the next person). But I don’t believe in grasping onto it as if it were our savior. I believe in letting it be a dynamic, fluid force that molds us as people. History is not a textbook or a preserved building; it’s a catalyst. One that can’t be pinned down.
Perhaps this wasn’t all so clearly articulated in that one moment in the ghost town, but it passed in an instant and changed the way I saw the graffiti. It was different then. It was less about vandalism and more about the need to live past death—although I still felt mildly annoyed that the markings ruined the atmosphere. But ultimately, the people who built this village left their mark. Truly, were the tourists with their penknives any different?