My life is exciting. Some days I spend hours sitting in a cement room, looking through microfiche images of 19th-century land grants. Basically, it’s Mardi Gras all the time. This summer I’ve been at work on two book projects, back and forth. One fiction, one nonfiction. Both old—a novel set in the 1930’s, a nonfiction book about 19th-century diaries.
This means I spend a good deal of the day trying to stick my head into a time machine: I write in a 100-year-old building, my workspace is plastered with old photographs, and research means sifting through century-old newspapers and records in archives and libraries. The effect of all of this time travel is that I generally feel plunged back into the 21st-century when I step outside.
Of course, that’s not all bad: I can walk to a coffee shop where they whip up a cappuccino in 30 seconds. But it is sometimes jarring to yank my head back into the present after spending so much time pushing it elsewhere.
The most rewarding effect of this blurring of time is that I am constantly looking beneath the surface of spaces to see the past. A retired railroad track waits 50 yards from my building, and when I leave the writing behind and step over it, my brain conjures up the train station in full form 80 years ago, the steam engine huffing to a stop alongside women with parasols and men with round hats.
In the liminal space my brain inhabits after leaving the past and walking into the present, I can’t look at a buildings or open spaces without imagining them a century ago. And it’s not always rosy and nostalgic. Life grows harder—power lines vanish, the air fills with smells of livestock, and my 30-second cappuccino winks at me as it disappears, leaving a trail of foam like a ghost. A
s I walk along, my mind scrapes away the asphalt to reveal dirt and rocks, laying both the present and past atop one another. And seeing the present street and my vision of it 100 years before does more than open up my writing projects. It opens me up to the strange layering of history. Every building and curve in the road suggests a story under the paint and pavement and soil.
Suddenly, nothing seems static. Time chugs along and the world morphs with it. I try to spring my mind forward, too—to envision the spaces in 100 years—but I can’t get there. Perhaps I don’t have enough imagination to perceive of life a century into the future. Flying cars, maybe? Super prescient, Jeremy; I think you predicted that in 3rd grade.
The attempt to see the spaces around me in both the past and the future puts quite a bit of pressure on the now. I live in a small town in southern Appalachia, a place changed dramatically over the last 120 years—for good and ill—and as I witness the rush to turn farmland over to houses and to shoot water and chemicals into the earth to release gas, I find the potential effects immediately present. Nearly visible.
Yes, this is essentially just that George Santayana maxim: “to know your future, you must know your past.” But I’ve found it all very real, very tangible this summer, as I’ve been steeping myself in the past. The world around me has become fluid, sliding backward and forward, and it makes me love my place, makes me want to play a role in ushering it forward carefully, sustainably, and fairly. It makes me return to Wendell Berry:
“Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed.”And so I hole myself up to write, vanish into the past, but when I come out, I come out thinking about how we’ll shape this land and community for a people not yet conceived.
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,