Monday, August 25, 2014

Storying Limestone

I remember my first (cognizant) visit to an American Civil War battlefield. It was a place managed by the National Park Service. At the ripe ol' age of 12, I discovered (unconsciously) how places contain stories because of that visit. The park ranger who led the battle tour made the stories of the battle feel real and the few remaining traces of the landscape contemporary to the mid-nineteenth century fueled my imagination of the past. I could see it! I could feel it! Later, I would write my master's thesis on how the significance of space and place and landscape in history and the roles space and place and landscape play in the interpretation of the past. That early visit planted a seed in me about how I engaged with the past and created a desire to share that passion. I still utilize that passion by taking people through the streets of downtown Nashville and reveal how the places tell stories of a rich and complex history.

My first experience at utilizing my experience of using a place to reveal a story happened during my time working as a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield. Have you ever been to middle Tennessee? It's a pretty place. Have you ever tried to garden in middle Tennessee? Depending on the landscape, you might have a heck of a time digging in the dirt because of that limestone. Limestone plays such a role in the landscape here (all the way up through Kentucky, too- just ask the Corvette Museum). It forms rolling hills and hollers. It jets out in some places and recedes in others to create visually striking scenes. It makes post-hole digging an exponentially strenuous task. Basements are nearly non-existent in the area because it is so hard to dig down before hitting solid rock. As it plays roles today, the limestone has contributed to the human history on the landscape, especially during the Battle of Stones River and the events that followed.

Even the national cemetery established at the battlefield after the Battle of Stones River
had to be built "up" and dirt brought in because the limestone interfered with digging efforts.

At the battlefield park now managed by the National Park Service, the approximately 15% of preserved battlefield land contains trails and roads and signs to guide visitors through the place to learn more about the site. The vast majority of the interpretive media focuses on the three days of battle history. One of the most iconic scenes of the battlefield rests on the south side of the tour loop; protruding from the ground are dozens of large limestone outcroppings with narrow crevices between them. This place is now called "The Slaughter Pen." It is featured in many visual materials, as it helps separate this battlefield from others. During the battle, the place ultimately became a turning place for the Union army and the landscape played a role in the outcome of the battle. The fighting concentrated in the place was particularly brutal, and soldiers remembered those rocks as both defense places and then death traps.

No longer on the landscape, park managers once used these broken cannons
as a visual tool to convey the significance of these rocks.

So most visiting the place or going on a tour will visit the rocks and learn something about the limestone's significance in this battle (and how it contributed to the two armies and where they moved and ultimately the outcome of the war). Few will consider how the presence of limestone played a role in the years following the war or even the development of a battlefield park. The abundance of limestone (in addition to the detritus of war remaining on the battlefield) meant that particular swath of land retained little value after the war. Ultimately, a community of former slaves would claim the land as their own. "Rising Up From the Ashes" is the name of an interpretive program the park sometimes offers and now a wayside at the battlefield mentions this community called Cemetery. Did they choose the land deliberately? Probably not. It was not easy to grow crops on most of the land there. Lots of work likely went into cleaning up a battle-ravaged land. This group of people made the land into a community that at its height had over 1,500 citizens. This community claimed this place as "home" for several decades following the war. Many of the folks who lived out the rest of their days on the land were once considered property; this community allowed them to own property as free citizens. Wild.

"Exploring the Promise of Freedom" is a wayside along the tour route at
Stones River National Battlefield. Notice the limestone rock in the background?

The presence of a black community made it easier for the federal government to move in and buy land from these folks. At the very basic core of this, the particular piece of land attained by the government to make into a military park in the late 1920s, early 1930s had little monetary value. Again, that limestone played a role in what happened to the various parcels of land that made up this place where a battle once happened. The government did not actively pursue purchasing the nearby arable land primarily owned by white citizens; the core was secured and the place turned into a park. "The rest is history."**

Today, the National Park Service still utilizes the landscape to help tell the stories of the past. Visitors come to experience the place and learn about the history. Most are surprised to learn about the community's presence after the war (because you know, once a battlefield happens, it just turns into a park magically afterward... or at least that's the idea that just all shook up when people realize the 150 year span between fighting and today). But the park's presence is just another layer of a story. The National Park Service is one method used to preserve a place and share a place, but it is not the place.

The National Park Service as a federal agency is 98 years old today, so today seemed like a good time to reflect on what that means to me. It is a baby in the grand scheme of things and is just one portal to something bigger than ourselves. It is a land-management bureaucracy. It is also a history-management bureaucracy. And a story-management bureaucracy. And a memory-inducing bureaucracy. And an experience-producing bureaucracy. But the National Park Service is there for the resources and should be celebrating and honoring the resources, birthday or not. That limestone has been around for a while (as evidenced by some of the fossils embedded in the rock). It formed as the calcified remains of sea creatures settled a gazillion or so years ago. It has stood as native tribes hunted game through the area. It has rested quietly as white settlers began to take ownership of this land. It has had the brogans of soldiers run through it. It has existed as the barefeet of children hopped over it, playing and exploring the space on their own terms. My own park ranger hiking boots have led groups through it. It has been the frame as many scenes played out on it. And for the enjoyment of future generations that the National Park Service conserves this site, that limestone will continue to hold and tell stories regardless of how we choose to designate anniversaries.

These rocks have witnessed time march on and various people interact with the space.
In this case, a child rests amongst the limestone circa 1932.
(Photo from Stones River National Battlefield collection.)




*As a toddler, my parents took me to Fort Donelson. That's my official first battlefield visit.

**I hate that catch phrase.

***My time, my opinions, etc. etc.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Historians are not the Only Ones Who Struggle with Relevancy


"When you think Nashville, what comes to mind?"

I ask that at the beginning of my tours of downtown Nashville. Guess what the answer is 98.5 percent of the time. Here's a hint:

[Whine whine twang twang]

Nashville is known as Music City, USA! Of course people will answer that question "country music!" It is a part of our identity today. But I give tours to reveal Nashville's complex history; there is way more to Music City than the music. Way more. (You have to come on a tour to see for yourself.)

Modern lines meet unique architecture designs from the past.
Nashville has some remarkable landscapes, most unrelated to the music industry.
The music industry in Nashville is a fairly prominent industry, but Nashville has more. The music industry has certainly played a role in Nashville's identity, but for most Nashvillians, it is not the sole identity. So when it is time to rally public support for things like historic preservation within the music industry, what we see is this industry encounter the same issues that historians working with the public have dealt with for a long time. Is relevancy the correct word?  Or maybe meaning? Or maybe resonance?

The city is growing. It is an especially popular city right now, an "it" city of sorts. Heck, we even have our own television soap opera show that features all sorts of love triangles music airing on national television. But this growth also means "progress." And sometimes "progress" and "preservation" seem to clash rather than compliment each other.

One of the more recent preservation struggles to emerge within Nashville is that of the RCA Studio A building. Ben Folds wrote an open letter about developers' interest in the property and that got picked up and carried all over the place. Several musicians and artists came forward about the significance of the property and how it has contributed to music history. Hashtags for preservation efforts even got created (and you know that if you tweet something with a hashtag for a cause, you've made a difference, right?). Even this week, the issue received national attention by way of broadcast (because not everybody reads national publications).

So I have been following this as articles get published. It's like its own soap opera, really, just made up of mortar and bricks and plans and blueprints and hope and crossed fingers and pleas and contracts and more bricks. Yesterday, I read another open letter from country musician Keith Urban. Huh, I thought. This sounds crazy familiar. A group of people recognize the significance of a place because of their own passion and experience and interests and emotions, but are having a hard time instilling these things in people beyond the members of said group.

Kind of like historians, especially historians that work with the public. Most historians know what they are passionate about and why. Their struggle is creating a relevancy to new audiences, provoking something that resonates with new audiences. We know why history is cool, that's why we chose this line of work (because history isn't usually a massive money-making endeavor; just ask your local historic house museum director). But we sometimes forget that many people don't know why these places are cool, that these stories are fascinating, that the past helps reveal who we are today. These musicians and preservationists know why they want to save this building. However, Nashville's identity is complex and very few are actually involved with the music industry. For many people, why bother with saving a place?

I usually say that in my line of work, I tell stories. It sounds simple, but it is a developed craft. I have to spark an interest with the little time I have. I have to inspire new audiences. I have to get people to care. I already know why these places are significant, but I use this craft of interpretation to share that with the public. Maybe we can learn from the musicians that are trying to save a place. Just saying "this is important" is not enough. You have to resonate with your audience so they can walk away with the answer to the question "so what." I find this case especially interesting as it shows celebrity alone does not create relevance. It is bizarrely comforting to know that historians are not the only ones and that people who are masters at evoking emotions through music struggle with portraying the emotion in their own histories. I feel ya, Ben and Keith.

I appreciate being reminded of what happens when relevance is missing. The twang of a guitar resonates, but emotional connections resonate better.