Committee Hallucinations 

The impossibility of history

Last week the Regional History Advisory Committee met at the Ketchum Community Library. I was there. I had personal stories of the Wood River Valley. My great-grandfather settled there during the mining boom of the late 1870s and had become sheriff of Blaine County. His son, my grandfather, had been a mining engineer and surveyor who surveyed mines in the Wood River Mining District. My father had been a hard-rock miner at the Triumph Mine.

I intended to bring up the example of the Irish monasteries during the Dark Ages. Monks in Ireland copied and recopied manuscripts at a time when parchment was being used as heating fuel in the rest of Europe. I've always looked with favor upon libraries, because I think they will be the institutions that preserve our civilization's algorithms for the technician-archaeologists of the future. The Ketchum Library, isolated by mountains and desert, seems a likely candidate.

I ended up not advising much. Much of the meeting was focused on Hemingway's legacy, which was understandable, considering that Hemingway is big business in the Wood River Valley. I wanted to caution about using dead writers for cynical commercial purposes, particularly if they had crafted cynical commercial images for themselves in the first place. But the conversation did not go in that direction.

When talk turned to the ski industry, I realized the history of skiing is a history of myth-making, and it's the Olympic champions and the inventors of ski technologies who go into the history books, not the maids and lift mechanics and ski bus drivers.

The more people talked about history, the less I had to say. After a while I started wondering how my history conspired to make me a writer, and—still thinking of Hemingway—how it's possible for a writer's public image to devour the writer who created it. I wondered if a community's history isn't a kind of public image, one carefully constructed out of selected facts, and I wondered if communities could be devoured by their own stories.

When I teach memoir workshops, I tell my students that writing a memoir is a kind of personal archaeology, and that every time they write down a memory they will uncover another layer of their own buried past. Eventually they will get down to the tomb entrances, where the amber beads set in gold are draped across crumbling bones. If they are good enough writers, they might discover something—maybe a curse—still lives down there.

History is as dangerous as memoir, for opposite reasons. Every historian adds a layer of facts to many other layers of facts. Individuals and their memories get buried deeper and deeper under a community story. In the Wood River Valley, mining towns have been buried under new buildings and asphalt. Trees have replaced sagebrush. Bits of shacks and saloons lie under trophy homes and banks.

But the real burying has occurred in the choosing of particular events and people for a safely distant story. Memories too often have the immediacy of hallucination. If you're like me, there are too many of them to make sense of. It's up to the historian to convert the city to a green mound, to transform the deadly work of mining to a ritual parade of ore wagons, to fast-forward a human life into a title on a tombstone. History, done right, is a most reductive exercise, a compaction of the fertile earth of memory.

During the meeting I began to remember the people I had gone to school with in Ketchum Elementary, which stood a block away, where Atkinson's Market stands now. In my own archives is a class photo of my first-grade class. It would be good to look up each of those 65-year-olds, and see what they remember of Ketchum and their lives there. Even with the ones still living, it would be an excavation of buried selves. Their memories would expand the region of any regional historian, especially since a good many of the people who lived in Ketchum in the 1950s have become refugees, forced out of the valley by rising property values.

At the end of the meeting, I thought of Les Outz, another sheriff of Blaine County, who held office when I was in grade school. It was rumored that when Outz left office, he burned the records of all the Blaine County sheriffs, even the ones in my great-grandfather's hand. There were respectable families living in Hailey and Ketchum that hadn't always been respectable, and Outz wanted to save them from their past. All I could think of, sitting in a room full of historical photos and records, was that the ones I really wanted to see had been destroyed for the sake of propriety.

I certainly wasn't going to be the sort of efficient committee member who kept things moving forward, who would know who and what to remember so the past could move seamlessly into the present. I was too interested in rumor, gossip and fiction. My subjects were the freakish, the obscure, the failures, the moved and the shaken rather than the movers and the shakers. Look to the ashes and the edits for the truth, I would say, and that made me a most improper historian, that guy on the committee easily identified as the troublemaker, the one who made the simple past into an impossible project.

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