Active History and the Importance of Place

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By Andrew Watson

Stories bring places to life, and places attach special meaning to stories. Every story takes place somewhere, and every place has a story to tell. Historians, especially ‘Active’ historians have a responsibility to tie the stories we tell to the places where they unfolded. The evidence historians uncover and the insight historians apply to that evidence combine to create stories that include lessons from the past. While academics often find these lessons useful at a theoretical or abstract level (stories about ‘freedom’ or ‘Canada’), most people, I suspect, appreciate a story if the lessons they derive from it provide a better understanding of their own lives. This is why ‘place’ is so important for active history.

As Keith Basso argues in his book Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, places act as mnemonic devices for people to remember important cultural moments and the social lessons that originated from those moments in those places. Once a story and its attendant lessons are associated with a particular place in a person’s memory, a return to, or even just a reference to that place, will recall the story that went along with it, thereby reinforcing the social lesson inherent to the story. For historians, using place in this way enables our stories to sink in more fully, and mobilizes lessons from the past in a more corporeal and lasting way that the written word might not be capable of.

But, of course, it is not always possible to bring together stories and the places where they unfolded. The Jane’s Walk tours of urban neighbourhoods (which now take place in 20 countries around the world) is an excellent example of tying stories and places together in way that promotes enduring connections between places, their histories, and the lessons we can learn from them.

Where an actual walking tour isn’t possible, however, historians can use presentation software, like power point, or online tools, such as Google Maps and Picassa Web Albums, to bring our audience to places, add meaning to our stories, and share the lessons we have discovered about the past and its usefulness to our present.

This is exactly what I attempted to do at the end of April 2012, when I was invited to give the keynote talk at the Muskoka Stewardship Conference, hosted by the Muskoka Watershed Council, in Bracebridge, Ontario. I structured my talk as a journey along the shoreline of Muskoka (a watershed landscape 200 kilometres north of Toronto between Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park). Along the way, I shared stories about Muskoka’s environmental history that contained lessons about how the past can inform perspectives on the present and future. My hope is that for people in the audience, wisdom now sits in these places.

If you’re interested to learn more, the Question and Answer period continues in this video clip.

I would like to thank Judy Brouse and Rebecca Willison from the Muskoka Watershed Council for inviting me to talk at the conference, and to Steve Inniss who filmed, edited and produced the video lecture and Q&A session afterwards.

Andrew Watson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University. His dissertation, “Poor Soils and Rich Folks: Societal Metabolisms and Sustainability in Muskoka, 1850-1920,” will be an environmental history of sustainability in Muskoka.

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