I’ve recently been reading the novel Emily Climbs by L M Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame). Becoming curious about L M Montgomery’s life, I undertook a quick internet search and found some biographical information (http://www.lmmontgomery.ca/aboutlmm/herlife). As a collector of the Anne of Green Gables books and having now discovered some of Montgomery’s other works, I was struck by how much her life echoes through her writings. Of course it is said that every novelist, whether consciously or unconsciously, infuses their writings with elements of themselves. However, it struck me quite strongly how much Montgomery herself and her life and experiences echo through all the books written by her that I have read. Even before I read the information provided by the websites dedicated to her and her works, I had a sense that I was reading elements of her life, or at least mirrored reflections, in novelised form. In part this may be because the heroine of the book I am reading is an aspiring writer, and I get the sense that many of her struggles and efforts to write reflect Montgomery’s own experiences. But the circumstances of Emily’s life, as well as those of Mongomery’s better known heroine Anne, echo other elements of Montgomery’s life who was left to the care of her elderly grandparents on Prince Edward Island following the death of her mother when Montgomery was just 21 months. While such echoes may not be surprising in the writings of an author, this led me to think about the way in which the actions and activities of past generations continue to echo today. These are the things done and created in a place that somehow continue to reflect down the generations – the things that have helped create our surroundings and landscapes we see today. Like someone shouting into a room and listening for the ghostly echoes of their voice, we hear and see the distanced reflections of the actions of past generations- often fragmentary, partial and difficult to make out, they are nonetheless reflections of lives lived.
Such echoes exist around all of us. I wrote in my last blog post about my flat and a little of the history of the building. There in monumentalised form are the echoes of some of those whose lives were intertwined with this structure – those who decided to turn fields to roads and buildings, those who designed and planned the building itself, those whose hands quarried and shaped the stone, the individuals who shipped it to site and those whose labour created a solid building from stone, steel and wood. Then there are those who have lived within the flats, making their homes within them, shaping and remaking both the interiors and the exteriors of the structure. All of these actions, and the groups and individuals who made them, were entangled in some way with the structure that I live within and in some ways their actions echo down the years.
Other smaller echoes are visible around the city. One example is the occasional boot scraper surviving by the worn stairs of tenement buildings. No longer of use to the modern users (mostly office workers) of these buildings, they are small echoes of the former occupants of these buildings and the landscapes they inhabited. The worn stairways adjacent speak of the thousands of feet that have walked up those steps; in a sense fragments of individual lives worn into the stone structures of the city itself. Now, I love these little signs of past generations, but how many of us take note of them or even know what they represent?
Some echoes are very subtle. The very make-up of our landscape reflects the lives of past generations. These can be difficult to identify or understand as different events and actions intermingle and influence those that came after, but we cannot avoid their impact upon our lives today. The choice of where to settle, to build homes and the line of paths and roads were all decisions taken by past generations, but they impact upon where we live and the way in which we move and live in the present. Our movements today are choreographed along particular routeways and roads, which in turn influences the way in which we experience and understand our surroundings. If we choose to take our own paths across the countryside, often we must negotiate field boundaries, hedges, farm animals and crops, elements that largely reflect the agricultural improvements of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet our farming landscapes also reflect echoes of choices made thousands of years ago by our prehistoric ancestors, choices which resulted in the adoption of domestic animals and crops, the clearance of forest, the substantive alteration of the physical landscape and ultimately in ourselves and our current society.
Such echoes, and the very fact that the landscape of all our lives is infused with so much chronological depth and so profoundly shaped by past generations, are easily missed or forgotten. In this sense, such echoes are fragile things; easily forgotten, always partial. It is only by developing a way of seeing these fragments of past lives that they can continue to be recognised and so effectively to live into the present. As archaeologists we connect with these echoes through the material remains of past societies, though for all that it is often all too easy to forget that such remains are connected to the lives, loves and actions of real people. It is good to remind oneself of the countless individuals who came before us and helped shape our surroundings, even if their names and individual circumstances have now been forgotten.
Our lives and daily landscapes, then, are filled with the echoes of past generations. Like the author writing a book, they could not help but leave reflections of themselves and the communities they belonged to. In itself, this is interesting to consider, but what makes these echoes significant is the fact that they continue to resonate today, for our landscape and surroundings help shape our experiences and ultimately they help to make us who we are.