I remember learning history in school. Even though the stories held a degree of fascination for me, the idea of whole others lives and times before mine, the learning of it always felt less than the subject matter. It was all a matter of memorizing dates and names and events so you could write them down when exam time came. The people and places lost their luster in all of that and in the end it became all about the grade.
Once my school years were over I read a lot of history. There was always a biography or a retelling of significant events in the pile of books near my bed. I learned that when you can choose what you want to explore, the luster remains intact. I read about the renaissance, the Viet Nam War, the development of music, the history of science, philosophy and art and the life stories of a plethora of famous people.
What made history jump off the pages for me was my acute hunger for it. I wanted to feel as though I’d been there when great things happened. Books and stories gave that to me but when it came to an abiding resonance, of the tactile sense of actually touching another time and place, the land was the only thing that ever had the power to offer me that.
The land holds stories within it. The energy of people and happenings seeps into the land where they lived or occurred and if you really and genuinely want to sense that, you can. I believe that. The trick is to make yourself open to them and when you do they have a voice that rings loud and clear and cuts through everything else to show you that history is a living thing just like the land itself.
Last summer we hiked to a place called Battle Bluffs with good friends. The bluffs stand above Kamloops Lake and face south and west where you can look out across the wide sweep of the Interior Mountains of BC. It’s an awesome and spectacular place. The panorama that’s revealed from those heights is magnificent and I could only sit and marvel at it.
It was a bright, sunny day. There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing and the smoke from distant forest fires gave everything the look of mystery, the haze making it all seem gauzy and unreal somehow.
There was history in the sudden flare of space. The country below us was reduced to a narrowing where the lake pulled our focus forward into the hard vee of its disappearing so that it became like time, really, wending, winding, curving in upon itself turning into something else completely.
In tribal times, before settlement happened, the scouts would come to sit and watch for sign of enemies coming out of the purple mountains or across the iridescent platter of the lake. From those heights the land stretches out across the territory of the Secwepemc, or the Shuswap as they came to be called. Scouts could see for many miles and they would light signal fires if there was a need to warn their people of incursions into their territory.
Great battles were fought on the grassy plain below. It’s how the bluffs got their name. I imagined that I could hear cries of them rising upward just as I felt the solemn peace that fell over young men who sat for days there to pray, fast, and seek the vision that would lead them into manhood. The bluffs were place of Vision Quests and there was a sense of sanctity there I’ve seldom felt in all my travels.
It’s a sacred place because of that. It’s a place of both becoming and of leaving, of life and death or search and discovery. Lying against the ancient rock I could feel that history on my back. Real. Alive. Vivid. When you allow it, history seeps into you the same way the land does, easily, mysteriously. It fills you and you learn of its presence by the way it makes you feel.
I don’t know why places like that affect me so. I only know that the search for a sense of my own history, my particular Aboriginal, Ojibway, First Nations history, involves many histories. The stories of people, the stories of places, the stories of events that came together in a confluence of circumstance that resulted in me. It’s a wonderful thing to contemplate.
So that coming to that place became a pilgrimage of sorts – a deliberate marching forward and backwards at the same time to reclaim a piece of me I didn’t know existed before. Living history. It’s all around us all the time. We just need to walk out and stand on it to feel it and become it.