traces part one

Joe above the site, 30 October 2022.

I first encountered Dolores Hayden’s book, The Power of Place, thirty years ago when I was introduced to it by an urban planner. She and her graduate students had mapped the ‘named places’ — streets, parks, buildings, festivals, etc. — in Los Angeles to document whose identities were inscribed in the landscape. No surprise, they found that an excess of 90% were named for men of European descent, and that Chicanos and Chinese people were virtually absent. Women were very hard to find. 

What I’ve carried from this work is threefold (if not explicitly Hayden’s conclusions):

  1. Renaming things, naming new things inclusively, and attending to the manner in which things are named is critical to our understanding of human accomplishment and public history. It’s also a matter of justice.
  2. Names don’t need to be carved in stone. Ephemeral inscription of identities can powerfully shift perception. 
  3. Just because people aren’t named doesn’t mean that their identities are erased from the landscape. It means that we need to become keener readers of the language of landscape, good users of archive, and more robust storytellers.

When I teach public history I spend a lot of time on the third point — learning to read identities / histories in the landscape. Asking simple questions — who built this? why did they build it? what’s it been used for? — is a good start. The next level — who were the people who literally did the building? who was allowed to access this place? how did the use of the thing change as people’s needs changed? — takes you further.  Imagining the fullness of the lives of the people you encounter in this kind of research — understanding them as having as complex an interior life as you do — helps develop empathy for the past, present and future. Empathy, far more than reverence or aspiration, is what we desperately need to cultivate in our culture.


Above Newcomb Hollow Beach, 30 October 2022.

I first encountered the chimney without a house during one of my many late-afternoon trips to Newcomb Hollow. I tried to access it in the most obvious way, following the trail near the beach, but was confounded by thicket and gave up. It was obvious to me that the point of access was through the woods, but for a long time — mostly because I don’t like to disturb people’s privacy — I hesitated to investigate. Last winter, when privacy is less of an issue for me, I figured it out. As it turns out, it’s up a fire road and you don’t encounter other residents. 

The house was in the custody of the Park Service when it burned down in 2017. Built in the period immediately proceeding the establishment of the National Seashore, it speaks to the mini-building boom that attempted to develop areas of the Atlantic coast before development was prohibited. As such, the owners were issued a finite lease, with the Park Service eventually taking possession. It speaks to the conflicts between local and national interests in play during in the creation of the National Seashore.

Artifacts, 5 April 2022.

Joe and I approached the site toward the end of our long day of walking. The site is a marvel. It speaks to a quickly passing way of life. The fireplace and the cast iron detritus inside the foundation speak to the building’s mid-century origins. The view is spectacular, and hints at why so many people were against the founding of the Seashore — who wouldn’t want to spend summer days watching the ocean from this perch? But its demise also tells a story. This isn’t private space. The transcendent view and the possibility of witnessing sublime shifts in the ocean’s mood belong to us all. 

The news story linked above tells something of the facts of this house’s history. But it also stands now as a marker in time. For the next couple of decades, the remaining structure will speak to one facet of this land’s past, but it will also be a yardstick of the beach’s erosion. This chimney will fall into the Atlantic at some point, there’s no question. No one will move it back from the edge. It’s an artifact of the past, but it’s also a sentinel, holding space against an approaching future.

Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
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