Handshake with History
Whenever I visit a place, I try to understand a little bit about the place. Who came before me? What happened here and how has that changed this place and the world we live in? You stumble on ghosts walking through quiet woods when you come upon a stone wall running straight as an arrow left to right. Or an old logging road cutting through the forest. Dimpled rocks betray the hundreds of micro spikes that gripped this granite before you came along. Statues and monuments tell one story, but so too do the buildings and canals and cobblestone streets.
I’ve visited Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Robert Frost’s farmhouse in Derry, New Hampshire and Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. I ran my hand up the stair railing in each and stood in the doorways they would have been standing in as they looked out on a different world than the one I live in. Dancing with ghosts.
I once helped a friend tear down an old shed that had seen better days. Hammer and pry bar in hand, I stripped layers of plywood and siding off the walls until we were down to the studs of the shed. This was no Home Depot special. The studs were old growth wood, hand sawn and straight. They’d been quietly doing their job for a hundred years or so. I gave a nod to the craftsman who built it.
I visited the Duston Garrison in Haverhill, Massachusetts last year, the day after visiting the island that Hannah Duston escaped from between Concord and Franklin, New Hampshire. In walking around the garrison, built by Hannah’s husband Thomas, a brick layer and farmer, I came across a pair of thumb prints in the brick. Were they his thumb prints or those of someone who worked with him or re-pointed the brick wall somewhere else in history? I don’t know, but I do know that whoever it was came before me and I put my thumbs in those compressions in a moment of solidarity across the centuries.
Thomas and others built this garrison in 1697 for protection from the indians who attacked Haverhill, killing members of his family and his neighbors. This was the frontier, and I often think about that time in history, so close to where I’m living my own history, and yet so different. 321 years later, this is our time. That’s not some bullshit motivational slogan. We’re alive today while the vast majority of people who have lived aren’t. So many others came before us, and so may more will come after us. I quietly make my handshake with history when I feel it. And I feel it a lot in the places that I go.