landscape of memory

On Sunday April 4, 2010 a 7.2  earthquake rocked Baja California and the desert lands near San Diego, Anza Borego and the Salton Sea.  For nearly a minute tectonic forces were oblivious to international boundaries and struggling peoples trying to make ends meet on either side of the border.

Anza-Borego Desert East of San Diego. Copyright 2009 Robin L. Chandler

Such a jolt shakes personal and collective memories  to the surface…quakes I have known myself such as October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta or quakes I have mythologized such as April 18,  1906  San Francisco.  On October 17, 1989 after leaving the Montgomery Street BART station, I walked the six miles home.  Gone were the thoughts of seeing the opening game of the World Series Giants versus the Athletics  as I hiked past the milling crowds of displaced persons, broken glass, fallen bricks, and scent of natural gas. I heard snatches of news from people sitting on their front porches with battery powered transistor radios reporting fires in the Marina District, the collapsed Cypress Structure in the East Bay, and the severe damage to the Bay Bridge.  I trudged onward uncertain as to what I would find at home in Noe Valley.   Sometime later, I reached the Mission District and walked up the Dolores Street hill where with enough elevation, I was able to get my first view of the city.  I turned slowly, dreading what I might see, but the city was intact — yes there were fires and yes I knew some person’s lives would be changed irrevocably, but at that moment it was not the chaos and extensive devastation I feared.  Suddenly I realized where I was standing  at 20th and Dolores the site of the Golden Hydrant.

Taking a quote from About.com “On the morning of April 18, 1906 on the slopes of Noe Valley overlooking the Mission district, Dolores Park was packed with displaced citizens watching the fire advance from downtown. This hydrant across the intersection of Dolores and 20th streets was found to have water, but the exhausted horses could not pull the fire engines up the hill. The people mobilized to do the job, then spread out under the firefighters’ direction and, with crude tools and hand labor, stopped the flames”  and saved the Mission District  from the advancing fire. This hydrant is painted gold in a special ceremony every April 18th at 5:40AM.

That sense of a shared history and a collective memory with San Franciscan’s past and their strength to rebuild after tragedy gave me courage to keep struggling forward. David Blight in his book Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War describes collective memory as “the ways in which groups, peoples, or nations remember, how they construct a version of the past and employ them for self-understanding and to win power and place in an ever-changing present.”  I think San Franciscan’s proudly tap collectively into the  memories and mythologies of the ’06 earthquake drawing strength to overcome these unstable times.

Aftershocks continue here in San Diego, and daily National Public Radio updates me with news of the 6.9 earthquake in Quinghai, China near Tibet and the eruption of the glacier bounded volcano in Iceland.   Amid these geologic statements that humble humankind reminding us that we cannot and should not expect to control all,  I continue to work on my paper  considering digital libraries and the  “Landscape of Memory” and think about the role of archivists in shaping history and memory as described by Rand Jimerson in Archives Power as generations pass, written records and other forms of documentation must take the place of personal memory….. Historians have also begun to recognize that archives are not simply locations to examine authentic and reliable records of the past, but are also active agents in the shaping of what we know of human history….the role of archivists in this interplay of history, truth, memory and evidence requires examination.  As collectors, guardians, appraisers and interpreters of the archival record, archivists actively shape society’s knowledge of the past. “

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