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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November 8, 2011: Moments That Remain 2

[The 2011 New England American Studies Association conference has come and gone; but while I’ve come to the inspiring end of that more than year-long road, I can’t quite let go. So each day this week I’ll briefly highlight one powerful and affecting moment from the conference’s full and diverse and profoundly perfect two days. This is the second post in that series.]
If the Friday evening creative reading at Pilgrim Hall, about which I blogged yesterday, represents one way in which we 21st century Americans can engage with the multiple but interconnected communities and cross-cultural conversations that originated in and around Plymouth, Saturday evening’s walking tour of the town represents a complementary but very different and even more visceral way. The tour was run by Native Plymouth Tours, an organization founded by two twin brothers (Tim and Tom Turner) who are also directors of the Wampanoag Homesite at Plimoth Plantation and who are as well-versed in the histories of both the Pilgrim and Native communities in Plymouth as anybody in the area. Yet while Tim’s tour for us NEASA folks on Saturday evening certainly added some knowledge and perspectives to what I already knew or thought about Plymouth, its real effects were, again, more viscerally than intellectually affecting.
The tour began at 5:30, with the sun already mostly set, and so by a few minutes into the 90-minute walk the town was dark. While at first we were walking near the waterfront and well-lit town streets, by about the halfway point we were back closer to woods and then the old burial ground, areas with no artificial lighting; we did have small flashlights, but they certainly didn’t make much of a dent in the night. So as we made our way up the side of Town Brook, the waterway up which the Pilgrims had steered their shallop as they found the water sources that convinced them to build their town nearby, it was easy to imagine that we were there with them on an equally cold December day; as we stood at the bottom of the hill where Hobbamock, an emissary to the Pilgrim town (or possibly a spy) from the Wampanoag chief Massasoit, had made his home, it was equally possible to imagine that we were there with Hobbamock, returning to a small hut after a day of dealing carefully with these strange and potentially hostile new arrivals to the land.
Historical work, whether done by scholars or museums or other AmericanStudiers, has many purposes, but certainly chief among them is a recapturing of the past, a connection of our present perspectives and identities to those of a distant but still relevant moment and world. It would be naïve to argue that those of us on the tour were transported in any genuine way back to the 1620s—our warm coats and flashlights, our waiting cars and restaurant dinners, to say nothing of our 21st century perspectives and experiences, would belie such an argument. But for a time the tour did help recreate some sense of that distant past, or at least make it possible for us to bridge those four centuries and imagine the Plymouth or Patuxet (as the Wampanoags knew it) that those first American communities had inhabited. And, at least for me, such recreations make it far more possible to likewise imagine both the reasons for hostility and division between those communities and yet the interconnection and interdependence that could be fostered in a New England winter.
More tomorrow,
PS. Any moments or ways in which you’ve felt closely connected to a distant past?

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