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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Paddling backward is sometimes the only way forward. © Eugene H. Sanborn

Does history matter?

A contemplation on robins' nests, sticktights, and the passage of time.

Dave Crehore


Paddling backward is sometimes the only way forward.

© Eugene H. Sanborn
sesquicentennial logo

Back in 1919, Henry Ford said "history is bunk." I don't know what he had in mind when he said it.

Maybe he meant history is biased. If so, he was right. History books tend to be written about people who are white and important. The stories of ordinary people don't get told very often.

But if he meant that history doesn't matter, he was wrong. There's plenty to learn from history.

About 15 years earlier, another important white guy, George Santayana, said that those who don't remember the past are condemned to relive it. I think most of us would agree with George. Old heroes should be honored. Old mistakes shouldn't be repeated. Of course history has faults; it's written by people. But it isn't bunk.

Along with language, history is what makes us human. We understand that actions have consequences. We anticipate the future. We consciously make records and pass them along through time. Animals can't do any of these things.

Take robins' nests for example. Robins build them instinctively. But they can't tell other birds how to build them. If the last robin were to die, there would be no more robins' nests, ever, because robins have no language, no memory of the past and no concept of the future. No culture, in other words.

No, history isn't bunk. History and humanity create each other. We survive because our culture makes it possible for knowledge to transcend time. The things we learn become the property of the species and the future.

In 46 B.C., the Roman philosopher Cicero said that to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. And that's why observances like the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial are important. They blow the dust off the history books. There are bright chapters and dark chapters in our history. Understanding them can help us grow up.

We're all busy people. Once the sesquicentennial parades are over and the ceremonial swords and hoopskirts have been put away, what should we remember?

First, history is always beginning. It began this morning. It will begin again tomorrow.

Second, history is local. It isn't owned by Washington or Wall Street. It starts on your street.

Third, history is personal. At its heart, history is your story.

And fourth, if we want to have a tercentennial, you and I must take responsibility for the history we create every day.

Last week I took my golden retriever for a run in the woods. He came back covered with those little burs called sticktights. It took an hour to comb them out; they were a pain in the neck.

But sticktights are what we have to be, if we want to take responsibility for history: tenacious burs, sticking to the places we treasure – the Northwoods, the lakeshores, the farms, the country towns, the urban neighborhoods – holding on because people and places need each other.

Remembering, worrying, sacrificing, anticipating, and always, always giving a damn – sticking tight, making history.

Dave Crehore is public affairs manager for DNR's Northeast Region in Green Bay.