That's what history's all about
My sister and nephew visited me and my husband recently here in Half Moon Bay, California. In the photo, we are standing in front of an old-growth redwood tree named Methuselah that’s over 1,800 years old. Ancient things in nature always make me imagine what changes they have seen over the vast span of their lives.
Born in 217 AD, the Methuselah tree was already a couple of hundred years old when the Roman empire fell. From its vantage point on a high ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains, it saw the first Europeans sail by in 1542, when they missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay because of the fog. At that time, the area had been densely populated for tens of thousands of years with indigenous groups engaged in active trade networks.
Shellmounds created by these groups used to dot the landscape—and bay-scape. Layers of soil, shell, and rock, sometimes 30 feet high, served as burial sites, meeting places, and focal points for navigating the bay. Countless generations watched them rise. Now, they have mostly disappeared. In 1909, archaeologist Nels Nelson documented over 400 mounds although there had once likely been many more. They were quickly being destroyed—in one case, to make way for a paint factory.
A shellmound in Mill Valley, as photographed by archaeologist Nels Nelson in 1909, from Nelson's report “Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Region.” Read more.
This past winter, relentlessly violent storms changed the landscape around where I live. Cliffs along the beach eroded, dropping huge chunks of earth covered with ice plants and birds’ nests into the ocean. Trails and bridges were washed out. Trees were downed everywhere. There were mud slides in the burn scars from the destructive wildfires of 2020. The blackened skeletons of burned trees still disturb me despite green carpets of new growth beneath them.
Seeing the area for the first time, my visiting sister and nephew didn’t see the changes that sadden me. They only saw spectacular beauty. It made me realize that different is disturbing primarily because it is unfamiliar and so generates worry and fear in some of us (and excitement in the people I envy). But we should remember that we do that to ourselves. Difference and change are not inherently bad. In fact, nothing is certain in life except change. The certainty that things will certainly change has comforted me during hard times and weighed me down in good times.
History is the deliberate study of change. Perhaps it can help us to become familiar with the inevitability of change in a way that helps us to appreciate the constant change going on around us. Take a moment to look around at your familiar environment—imagine what it once was like, how it is now, and what it might become. Make friends with history, make friends with change.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.