Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Past is Not Dead...It Surrounds You!

"The past is not dead it surrounds you everyday." I came across this quote in a book I read recently. This author, a history professor, said it was his goal each semester for his students to realize this fact in their lives. It is a simple statement, but one we could all take to heart.

Those of you that know me know that I enjoy walking for exercise. I really don't "hike" anymore since I left the mountains, and since there really aren't any good trails where I live I just walk. I am a suburban walker. When I moved to Petersburg three years ago one of the first things I looked for was a pleasant place to walk. I found a great place that offered a good path and was only a modest four mile walk up and back. Little did I originally know, this path had an interesting history of its own. I noticed right away that it was a canal, but it took some digging (no pun intended) to find out the story. The Upper Appomattox Canal was built over several years in the late 1700s and early 1800s in order to avoid the fall line of the Appomattox River, just west of Petersburg. The canal was used by boatmen who piloted flat, short-draft vessels called batteaux to bring crops, principally tobacco, to market in Petersburg from the farms and plantations to the west. Part of the path that I walk on toady is the original towpath. The canal was cut by enslaved workers, and it must have been extremely difficult work to cut through the rock that now lines parts of the water route. As I walk along the path, I often wonder how many people who also walk here now know how old the canal really is, or how much work went into making it, or how important it was to the economy 200 years ago.

Another example if you will. I live just about 300 yards from where General Grant's Army of the Potomac broke through General Lee's thinly held lines on the morning of April 2, 1865. This breakthough was the event that caused Lee to evacuate Petersburg (and the capital at Richmond) after a nine and a half months of stalemate. One week later Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox 90 miles to the west, and for all intents and purposes ended the Civil War. Much like my thoughts about the canal, I often wonder how many people that live in my large apartment complex know the story of what happened so long ago but so close to where they reside. Do they understand the impact that event had on the course of our nation's history? Sadly, I believe most do not...nor do I believe most people care. In our busy workaday lives and society few people have the time or energy to learn about the past when so many other responsibilities demand attention and take priority. But, there are some people out there who do care. There are people out there who for whatever reason become fascinated by history at an early age...or even later in life, and who realize history's importance to our present and our future.

Indeed, the past is not dead, and it does surround us everyday...please look for opportunities to learn about the past and preserve it for future generations who do care. If you are one of those that care, please take time to share your interest in history.

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