Friday, March 29, 2013

Hope on a Deadly Landscape

Last week, I moseyed on down to Americus, Georgia (because, let’s face it, there is no other travel speed than “mosey” when in south Georgia) to help a friend move into her new place. Ok, fellow park nerds: what (two) National Park Service sites are within 20 miles of Americus, Georgia?

Ding Ding Ding Ding!

That’s correct. If you guessed “Andersonville National Historic Site” and “Jimmy Carter National Historic Site” you get two gold stars. Since I know all the interpretive staff down at Andersonville, I spent some time there before my departure.

I believe I should preface what I believe will be many of my future posts about Andersonville with “wow, what a striking place” and “I have a new research interest.” The stories on the landscape are complex and, unfortunately, have been mostly neglected over the past century. I have visited the site before, but that was about six years ago (and the interpretive staff was different and I was visiting with family and was there for maybe half a day). This visit proved enlightening and fascinating. The staff is doing an excellent job researching, interpreting, and providing means for visitors to connect to the place in ways that haven’t been provided there before (especially considering the limitations of a small staff and limited budget). As I digest some of the content there (and content I’ll be working with in the future), sharing what I learn here in the future, I wanted to share one  interpretive effort on site at Andersonville that almost caught me off my interpretive guard.

Behind the visitor center and National Prisoner of War Museum sprawls the landscape where the prison physically existed. That patch of land the staff refers to as “the deadliest ground on American soil” hosted a Civil War prisoner of war camp, probably the most infamous of all the “portals to hell.” That patch of land witnessed atrocities that would make the most stalwart of individuals squeamish. That patch of land saw more deaths than the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam combined. In one month alone, more perished here than in any other one battle during the American Civil War.

When visitors walk from the visitor center towards the prison site, they pass a reconstructed wall and some tents. These pieces serve as visual props, indicating a prison site. The tents, torn and weather-worn, stand forlorn and isolated. The staff use this site as the “stage” for some of their living history events and remarked that often visitors express empathy and sadness with costumed interpreters there (not always the sentiments park rangers in uniform receive at the museum). It is hard not feel sad or heart-broken just standing at that place.

But then there are these.

Tiny shoots of corn peak out of the red dirt, stretching toward the sun.

I commented “oh, how sad!” to the park ranger who showed them to me.

“Ah, ha!” he said. “Yes, sad is one way to look at it, especially when one considers where the prisoners would have found the corn” (either in their food supplies or possibly in the, hmmm, areas where food had already been digested once). “But,” he continued, “consider the idea of the prisoners planting corn."

Take a minute. Consider it.

He continued, "The prisoners thought of the future- these prisoners looked to the future and told themselves they would survive. They looked toward that day when they would harvest this corn, holding onto hope.”

That is what I call interpretation. He made a simple connection of a thing (a living, growing thing) to an idea in a way that visitors could make a connection. Hope! Here! Even amongst the some of the worst of human experiences existed hope. Woven throughout the inhumane narratives of the Andersonville story (and the general “prisoner of war experience”) shine glimmers of humanity. Numbers of dead, statistics of wounded, or facts about prisoners of war don't stand out in my mind nearly as well as those pieces of green growth contrasted against the dirt. 

*Special thanks to the staff for talking to me about the many aspects of this place and to Ranger Eric for sharing this particular feature at the park. 

**These are writings of my own and do not officially represent that of the National Park Service. 

***I also feel that those corn stalks can be considered "living history." And they don't need to dress up, either.

1 comment:

  1. The really cool thing about the corn stalks is that it's also recent scholarship based on primary source research. We found an account by a prisoner describing corn stalks, then found a separate prisoner drawing clearly showing corn stalks alongside a shelter.