Migration — Unearthing the Past

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Got so involved I forgot to post this earlier!
Things keep circling back on themselves. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Charles Darwin’s research into whether women’s hair color affects their ability to find a mate. I still don’t understand why he wanted to research such a topic. The significance for me was the way the information came to light and how it came to be forgotten in the first place.
The folks at the Darwin Correspondence Project are attempting to locate and publish every letter Darwin ever wrote. So far they’ve posted 14,500. When did the man have time to write anything else? Anyway, the subject of the hair color research came to light when the doctor who was asked to provide statistics about the hair color of his female patients sent information to Darwin. The letters Darwin wrote haven’t surfaced yet, but the three responses include his notes indicating that the facts wouldn’t support the theory that brunettes married and had children more often than blondes.
What intrigued me was that so much of Darwin’s correspondence may be gone forever. The Telegraph reported earlier in the week: “Many of the letters are owned by charitable trusts and sell for thousands of pounds each. Others have been found in dusty attics and boxes where they have been stored by families for generations, but thousands more are feared to have been discarded.”
If the writings of someone as famous as Darwin could be tossed aside, then what about the stuff the rest of us write? It’ll be lost in the dust or in cyberspace, no doubt.
Sometimes of course we want to discard things. The White House underlings are I’m sure busily erasing email and shredding memos in anticipation of subpoenas that are already hitting the fan. And no one will want to keep their Tweets or their IMs in years to come – though who knows, some of them may become award winning haiku or those terrific Six Sentences.
But what about the longer stuff? And what about the material that might have been needed for actual recordkeeping? Even that gets lost. I never ceased to be amazed that it can stay lost for years, centuries even.
The Darwin correspondence was actually the second time this week I learned that the lost had been found. The first was in the current issue of Crosspaths, the magazine sent to members of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The place, BTW, is fabulous, and the traveling exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” should be a must for every school kid in the country, not to mention every adult.
The fall issue of the magazine features two articles on the Pequot War. “The Memory and Legacy of the Pequot War” offers a new view of the tribe that for two years battled the British invaders and their allies in southern New England and parts of New York. Kevin McBride and his colleagues knew of many of the letters and other writings by the British. In fact, the staff at the research center considered themselves experts on the war; nevertheless, they have found two new accounts of the incidents. The researchers are still trying to determine when they were written and by whom. But these documents supply more details about the war and about the Native Americans who inhabited the area.
Just before I read about this new discovery, I learned of another cache of stuff even closer to home. Over the weekend someone called to say that more pieces of my family’s past have surfaced. This time a bureau in Saybrook held a copy of my grandmother’s chiropody license from 1924 and a diary kept in 1907 by her sister Anna Louise James, who was then in pharmacy school in New York. The man who found these recent arrivals had just bought the house of an antiques collector who had helped my parents clean out James Pharmacy back in 1978 and 1979. I imagine my grandmother probably put the stuff in there and forgot about it.
So even my own family who seemed to have saved every scrap of paper they ever used managed to lose a part of their past.

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