Friday, January 11, 2013

Cannons or Eagles or Both?

Sign posted along the road at Fort Donelson National Battlefield
I live a hop, skip, and a jump away from Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Tennessee. For those of you who don't know, Fort Donelson fell to the Union Army in February of 1862. Within a few days, the Union Army followed the Cumberland River and took Nashville (the first capitol city of the seceded states that the Union reclaimed). Fort Donelson National Battlefield, a part of your National Park Service, now hosts a small (about to be updated) museum, driving trails, a national cemetery, the "Surrender Hotel," and eagles. Yes, eagles.

I'll admit it. I have been living here for over three months now and I still have only popped in to the visitor center to use the restrooms. I know, I know: I am one of those visitors. I recently found out that the whole museum is about to be gutted so I should visit in the very near future (I am sure I will write about that here). However, I find the battlefield an excellent place to run, with slow and controlled traffic, beautiful scenery, and gauged distances. So I run. Yes, at a battlefield.

Heavy artillery overlooking the Cumberland River.
Yesterday, I passed several visitors. Some just drove through (many do that, actually). A few were wearing their hiking boots and backpacks (equipped with maps and/or books), touring the battlefield on foot. A few were wearing their sweatpants and tennis shoes, briskly keeping their heartrates up, probably choosing to workout there for the same reasons I did. We were all experiencing the place in our own ways. Here is where I argue for those visitors. I argue for those visitors who chose to engage with parks (especially battlefields) in their own ways (legally, of course). I argue for those visitors who may see more than battle site.

The winding road through the main portion of Fort Donelson National Battlefield rolls past well-preserved earthworks, through old stone pillars (I'd bet circa 1930s, between the establishment of the park under the War Department and the transfer to the NPS) and other monuments and markers, along the Cumberland river and heavy artillery pieces (you can't have a battlefield without CANNONS!), and through beautiful wooded areas. I enjoy it for the natural aspects as well as the historical landscapes. However, I choose to appreciate the park averaging 9:40-minute miles (the hills are killer) with a bandana tied to my head and an iPod strapped to my arm. Does that make me any more or less valid than those who drove to the site from out-of-state to get their stamp or those who visit because their ancestors fought there or those who just love the Civil War and have to see all the Civil War sites or even those who visited because that was the designated field trip destination? I pay federal taxes, just like all those "real" visitors. I appreciate the place, just like all those "real" visitors. Heck, I even like history some, just like those "real" visitors.

A FED eagle is a DEAD eagle. Seriously.
Yesterday, thinking about the differing visitors I passed on my run, I stopped to take a picture of the place in preparation for my original plans of this post. One stretch of the road loops down towards the river; it is designed for cars to park and visitors to take advantage of the trails and boardwalks. I found the "A Fed Eagle is a Dead Eagle" sign mildly amusing, mostly because it doesn't take much to amuse me. I know it is a serious matter, but rhymes like that tickle me (similar the "Booze it or Lose it" signs along the interstate- serious messages in rhyme just make me giggle). I contemplated what the various visitors would notice in their own walks. What do other joggers think of cannons or regiment markers? What do the "history buffs" think of the eagle signs? Integration of cultural and natural resource management has to happen at places like battlefields, and some battlefields do a better job than others. The interpretive media (wayside signs or cell phone tours) can be one way to present both natural and cultural resources to the public to encourage better stewardship. How well is that message received by the public?

At the end of my run, I was cooling down with a walk to my car. I believe I had my head down and phone out, plugging in my run info into some tracking app, earphones still in, when a rusty red truck slowed down beside me. The truck had passed me already once before, with its faded "heritage not hate" sticker peeling off the back. I figured the overall-wearing occupants to be some of those "real" visitors, some "buffs" of the Civil War. I am usually sensitive to my safety when running by myself, so I immediately went on guard and mentally planned how I might react if I encountered any trouble. The windows were rolled down and the passenger called out, "you see that eagle there?" At first, I thought he meant the sign (since I was taking a picture of it earlier). Still out of breath, I heaved out an answer that sounded like, "you mean the sign?" "No, that eagle right there!" Both men pointed up to the tree. The driver announced, "It's beautiful! Look at its white head! Like in a picture!" All three of us gawked in awe for a moment, attempting to capture the amazing site with our phones. "Thanks for pointing that out!" I quietly called out as I walked away to finish my cool down.

An American Bald Eagle at Fort Donelson
Those guys (with their park maps and obvious desire to tour the park) maybe only planned to drive through and read the appropriate battle signage. At least, that is what I would have expected them to do. Those guys seemed like the last guys to be the nature-appreciating visitors (from a judgmental perspective like my own). Yet, as I drove away, I saw that those guys ended up parking at the closest stop to get out and stand in awe of an American icon a little closer. What do you think they will remember most about their visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield?   

I disagree with the notion of  forced reverence at battlefields. I believe the line reads something like: "We can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." That's already been done. People come to visit this places for their own reasons. Yes, men fought at died at these places. But so did people live. So do people live. Providing positive experiences that highlight the many aspects of these special places (like nesting eagles) allow for more opportunities to make connections to the stories, to the histories, and to the places. These connections inspire interest. Interest inspires stewardship. Local runners and joggers want to see these places preserved maybe for different reasons than birders or naturalists (maybe). Naturalists want to see these places preserved for different reasons than descendents of soldiers (maybe). But each makes connections in their own way, resting on their individual reasons for caring for these special places, and each can ultimately serve as stewards for the park. 

Side note: I nearly burst out in Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" upon seeing a bald eagle at a national park, but resisted.

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