My short trip to the South has left me thinking about travel, which is one of the great privileges and pleasures of being alive at this time in history. We are on the cusp of a homogenizing of world culture driven by the relentless penetration of corporations into the farthest reaches of the earth. Anyone who traveled thirty or forty years ago, and travels again now, knows that the individual character of places is being dampened by the presence of multi-national corporate entities and the astonishing growth and availability of communications technologies.
I remember lying on a couch in a quonset hut in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean, watching WGN news out of Chicago. People tell me the same stories about being in Khyrgistan or small villages in Peru. Then, of course, there is the omnipresent cellphone and the horrifying reality of seeing KFC restaurants abutting the Great Wall of China.
Lament this as we might, it is the wave of the future. We happen to be at that most precious historical moment when the availability of travel allows us to see these places before they become so much like us that we have to excavate far beneath the surface to see their uniqueness in any meaningful fashion.
But the world does not exist to remain a theme park of cultural diversity for our entertainment and edification, so we have to accept this cultural flattening and learn to do that excavating in order to find the deeper truths that any place contains.
I was reminded of this as I traveled through the South of Nashville and its environs. I thought I should visit a plantation and make a quick dip into Civil War history, even though it would be so superficial as to be almost embarrassing. But I have managed, much to my chagrin, to get through life with only a cartoon historical knowledge of the Civil War: Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, Monitor and Merrimac, Sherman’s March to the Sea, Harper’s Ferry, etc. You get the idea: disconnected snapshots, in dim focus, of primary historical events.
So when I pulled in to the beautiful little town of Franklin, Tennessee, and discovered that the battle that took place there in 1864 resulted in almost 10,000 casualties, I was both shocked and amazed. 10,000 killed or wounded, and I knew nothing about it? I was stopping in Starbucks, driving down strips of car dealerships and tire stores, and beneath my feet a battle had taken place that had been a pivot point in our nation’s history and had shed the blood of 10,000 men? What sort of cultural zombie was I?
Yet this is the nature of every piece of land we walk on. The last four years of my life have been spent trying to excavate the historical narrative of the journey of the Nez Perce people, so that others like me won’t have to drive down a highway and shrug disinterestedly when they pass signs that say, “Bear’s Paw battle site, 13 miles.”
And every inch of this land — every inch of every land anywhere in the world, has this depth of meaning, if only we take the time and expend the creative and imaginative energy to find the history it contains.
I remember with awe the time my wife and I spent in Oxford with our group of American students, watching our wonderful professor contextualize the landscape of England so that the kids could do more than walk around saying, “That’s cool” or “That sucks” or wondering where they would find the next McDonald’s. With the deft strokes of a master teacher he gave them the meaning and history of the canal network, significance and legacy of the religious divisions, the techniques of cathedral construction, and on and on.
To say he made history come alive is a cliche that only gets to the half of it. He made the land come alive with history. He became my mentor and model when I set out to write the Nez Perce book, and his passion echoes in my memory every time I try to bring that story alive for those to whom I speak.
It is imperative that we who have this privilege of travel not take it lightly. And it is imperative that we who hold the shaping of the children in our hands not take our responsibility as teachers and mentors lightly. Day by day, year by year, it is becoming ever more possible to skate across the surface of experience by moving from one familiar franchise to another, and filling our travel time with the pursuit of trinkets and bargains and souvenirs. But even such a place as Disneyworld has a history and a place in our cultural experience, not to mention a demographic, ecological, and economic significance for Florida, as well as a deeper history of peoples long dispersed or annihilated and a land once trodden by bootsteps of Conquistadors.
No small part of the challenge of the modern world is to fight for an awareness of the vertical nature of human experience in the places we have the good fortune to travel. We have a gift before us, as I was reminded once again on my recent southern visit. It is our duty and our privilege to be able to pass it on.