Interpretive Signs Taken For Wonders

by zunguzungu

Taking two weeks off to concentrate on things like sweat and bugs and inner tubes and bike trail surfaces was just what the doctor ordered, and (luckily) my HMO approved it. I did manage to read Faulkner’s The Hamlet, which was awesome, though I failed to read any more of Walden than last time I cracked the thing, a thing distinctly less awesome. As for the trip, we didn’t quite get to Pittsburgh, but we got within spitting distance of it before we turned around and biked back to Washington. Our fancy bike computers failed us, so we don’t know how many miles in total we pedaled, but a round number like six hundred is plausible, and I’m going to go with that. And while six hundred miles is a lot of miles, when you’re riding on a level, well-surfaced bike path for the majority of those miles, you’ll find that it’s much, much easier than it sounds. I took a flikr-load of pictures, some of which I’ll post creatively, but many of them look like what they are, a new-owner of a digital camera taking to the device with the zeal of a convert.

One of the few things I thought about that wasn’t some variation on the problems of flesh — because nothing will remind you that you’re basically an unusually fancy bag of water more than riding through Maryland in July — was the interesting ways that history gets written into the landscape in places like these. We first rode through the C&O national park, an 185 mile long trail that follows the old canal between Georgetown and Cumberland, and enjoyed countless “interpretational signs” along the way: Jubal Early burned down a garrison here, canal boats used this kind of mule, the French and Indian War had a battle here, and so forth. Traveling along the canal is, you are repeatedly reminded, a journey through history, but it’s a history that gets retroactively constructed through a kind of geographic logic, if that makes sense. The canal trail is like an archaeological dig, exposing to the light fragments of the same past that happened everywhere, but by the chance of circumstance that made the C&O into a park–a supreme court justice liked to walk in the woods–these particular events have been unearthed and treasured.

After all, what is so special about the canal that was to have connected the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio river? It wasn’t even successful, taking so long to complete that the W&O railroad made it obsolete before it was even finished, and it was massively unprofitable at every stage. Melville could have done a good job with the lives of the canal boat operators and the locks keepers — both an early Melville intrigued by the romance of the life and the late Melville horrified by men being ground into meal by the gears of capitalist commerce — but there really isn’t anything that unusual or special about them; I know about them simply because the parks service has built sign after sign telling me about them, and because the wreckage is picturesque and not yet gone.


I started thinking about this when we continued on from Cumberland after the C&O canal ends, biking along the brand new “Great Allegheny Passage” into Pennsylvania, and a state project mainly put together by local initiatives. It is to connect Cumberland to Pittsburgh by bike trails and it almost does (apparently there’s some kind of hold up on getting the right of way in the outskirts of Pittsburgh) but its history is spoken in an idiom more nakedly commercial. Whereas the C&O canal is generally insulated from the few towns it passes near, the GAP trail is directly integrated into each local community, and is quite clearly built with that purpose in mind. Instead of being urged to enjoy nature, to submerge yourself in pastoral splendor, you are led by the hand into local communities that, having been devastated by the failure of the coal and steel industry, are now trying to turn that broken identity, that broken location, and that broken history into the foundation for a new way of life. Yet this is also a newness and a future premised on the very brokenness that makes it necessary: as with the Joker in the new Batman (or rather, the various psychological models of trauma on which he is based), the scars of the past both necessitate the treatment and are incorporated into it, are both the thing which must be fixed and the thing which cannot be dispensed with if the process of healing is to go forward. As you are surveyed by local volunteers, who ask quite explicitly what would encourage you to go into the towns and spend money, you cannot fail but notice how the poverty of the region is the both the irritant that has spurred them into action and the product they are polishing and trying to sell. If I may, it’s like the grain of sand in the belly of an oyster, and they’re trying to make it into a pearl.

There’s something fascinating about the way this history of destruction has become a narrative of rebirth, of how the very demolition by neglect that has turned these old coalfields and steel towns into poverty zones has–in the minds of its planners–the potential to become the seedbed to grow a new economic way of life. And it is this history that one experiences as you travel through the GAP trail. The landscape of the GAP trail records it quite clearly: while the C&O canal’s locks have degenerated into rusted wreckage, a narrative of nature reclaiming the petty trinkets of mankind‘s feeble industry, the GAP trail is dotted with lovingly reconstructed images of a past that maybe never was, but which are reincarnated because of the very certainty that they never will be again. While the canal’s locks have become beautiful ruins, the remnants of the coal and steel industry along the GAP trail have been demolished in favor of pristine replications of themselves, simulacrum that advertise the very fact of their non-existence. On the same sites where dingy and utilitarian stations used to work, brand new train station museums have been constructed out of fiberclass prefab, staffed by volunteers hoping to bring employment into desolate, ruined towns (leading me to suspect that the foundations are a composite mixture of concrete and irony). So while the C&O offers its history as a civic duty and privilege, the GAP trail commodifies and enshrines something it simultaneously transforms almost beyond recognition. The C&O canal asks you to stand and meditate on the past, but the GAP trail asks you to purchase the pearl they’ve built out of that sandy detritus, to exchange your money for a polished and platonically perfect manifestation of the gritty sandyness they seek to transcend by replicating.

I guess what struck me more than anything else was simply the sense of how “history” was being made and practiced in a very concrete sense–indeed, in concrete–out there on a very physical geography, not unrelated to how it gets theorized and written by history professors and students, but not wholly reducible to it either. The interpretive signs being built (in some cases, before our very eyes) create and recreate a kind of “history” that has much more in common with the ways the Maasai commodify and market their Maasai-ness for tourists than the ways the CCC rebuilt Fort Frederick in the thirties, or the ways civil war historians inform the construction of battlefields. Perhaps what we call “culture” in the third world is not so different from what we call “history” in the first.

A friend who just gave me a lift homeward from DC to Charleston, WV, is applying to be a Gettysburg tour guide in the fall, and as we drove, he practiced by giving me a three hour tour of the battlefield. He pointed to landmarks we could not see (because they were not present), referenced a “here” that was hundreds of miles to the east, and spoke to an audience that both was and was not me: he mentioned particular units that were from Wisconsin (because I was born there) and generals buried in Huntington, the West Virginian city we have in common, but spoke in a practiced authoritative tone he has never used with me before. As he spoke, it reminded me of the time Anton, the oldest son of the household I stayed in when I lived in Tanzania, gave me a tour of the Serengeti from his kitchen table. His source texts were carefully (but imprecisely) copied by hand when he was at tour guide school, but he knew what to say from working with real live tourists, real Wazungu whose anticipated questions now formed the foundation of his spiel.

I’ve been reading the wonderful work of a friend studying tourism in TZ and Indonesia, tracing out how tour guides construct their discourse both out of the imperatives of their situation–their need to market their “cultures” to outsiders who can pay them far better than anything local can–while also manipulating this situation to their own end. No one, after all, has more power over tourists than tour guides, and a particular kind of dependency emerges from that relationship that a better Hegelian than me might find evocative. Or not. But it occurs to me that in another life, I might do something similar to what my friend did with Tanzanian tour guides, but do it with professionally amateur historians in places like Western PA, an anthropological study of how narratives are produced about past places through the imperatives of the present economy. Shaped by their environment, they also shape it; impelled into action by their lack of agency, they act on their lack of agency in ways that we lack appropriate models for, it seems to me. But which we should be developing.

I won’t write that dissertation; I’ll instead write the one I’m writing. But, to bring this post to a ponderous conclusion, when I returned from my trip, I was very gratified to see that this humble blog was included in Ralph Luker’s group of history blogs that seem to [him] to be central to history blogging”. I like the way he phrases it almost as much as I’m flattered by being included (ZZ sneaking in at #80!). Partly, I guess, I never thought of ZZ as a history blog, exactly, so if I’m included in that category then it either means that the category has is bigger than I thought it was, in some very interesting way, or  probably the category is itself not the important thing at all. But more importantly, as an aspiring literary academic, the kind of history I’m practicing has more in common with interpretive signs along the trail than the polished gemstones that line the bookshelves of my friend the aspiring Gettysburg tour guide. As a kind of response to the peculiar situation of being a graduate student, it reiterates and restages the problems far more than it solves them, or lives up to any kind of platonic ideal of scholarship, yet that’s precisely what makes it functional, if not valuable. Precisely because I am where I am, this blog emerges as a misshapen and dimpled piece of calcium carbonate that no jeweler would pay good money for, but whose imperfections serve their function, imperfections that catch the light in surprising ways and (hopefully) eliciting responses that will help them become even more what they are. Whatever that is. Or maybe bloggery is less like the polished product that is good scholarship than the painful process of irritation that produces it. In any case, the real value of blogging is the strange and fascinating voices you would never otherwise hear, and as we trade our pearls like baseball cards, the act of linking instantiates the collaborative associations and thick webs of interaction that are at the heart of thinking work so much more sharply than footnotes and bibliographies and conferences ever could. When these misshapen pearls are passing from hand to hand to hand, they might not be appreciating in value, exactly, but they do get a little bit warmer.

Anyway, to keep the game going, here’s the rest of the group into which I’m immodestly pleased to have been interpellated: