Square Roots

Journey to the past for a moment. Some people do it with an easy preference for the version that resides in their memory – the past being just the span of time that they themselves can remember – and at the other extreme there are those who think that the immediate now is everything. It has always been curious to me that many folks (ghost hunters excluded) have no sense that any previous tenants ever occupied the space they inhabit. Oh, there are the generational families that have a feeling of ownership based on decades or centuries of their bloodlines continuing to possess the same land or house. Native Americans had it right in that we are all temporary and our use of land is temporary, at least until the final resting place – and even that is iffy.

It occurred to me, after attending a lecture by an archaeologist (this is someone who is keenly aware of previous existences), that the making of and remaking of places come and go with needs or desires. We see it happening before our eyes, with thousands of acres of farmland being developed into tracts of mostly unnecessary housing. The frightening thing is how few of us have any awareness that a good portion of this country was once densely tree-covered, so much so that, it is said, a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. And despite the apparent woodlands along empty interstate highways looking like vast forests, these tree-lined strips are often narrow boundaries dividing roads from nearby settlements. A squirrel would have to drive the distance now.

The lecture was about one of the squares conceptualized by William Penn in his Green Countrie Towne for the founding of Philadelphia. His rectangular plan allowed for a center square and four others positioned equidistant from it at its radiating corners (Centre, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Squares were the original names). It was Penn’s proviso, in his city vision, for public parkland, the layout of which is visible in surveyor Thomas Holme’s “Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia,” published in 1683. Looking at them in their present state, you wouldn’t be able to guess that until the 19th century these squares were used for a multitude of purposes, including public hangings, Revolutionary War soldier burial grounds, market and auction sites, animal pastures, church graveyards, munitions storage, fairgrounds, the first reservoir and waterworks, city hall and lastly, parks. Penn, most likely, would have been horrified by most of the uses since, by their very nature, “use” was not the intent, but, rather, escape from use. Then, finally, the changes in city expansion made fashionable parks desirable to the Victorians, and so they remain today, with some alterations.

Humans create and have created places no matter where or what they are or were, layers upon layers, structural foundations over the yellow-fever victims, walkways and fountains over the convicted and hanged, merry-go-rounds over a powder magazine, a casino over a Native American fishing ground: one history replacing another in a perpetual recycling of space. There is an ebb and flow, with valued space being devalued and given over to a tenderloin district, accommodations made for roadways and the ubiquitous automobile cutting off easy public access of once strollable destinations, disappearing forests and native species’ habitats. Mostly, in our country, use is determined by profitability. Thankfully, profitability can be interpreted as and influenced by a tax base who desires some green space. People make places anew every day – it seems to be a part of the animal. A place of need or desire in 17th and 18th century Philadelphia was very different from the one of 19th and 20th. And what about the 21st?

In the ever-changing adaptations of land, what gives a place a kind of placeness – not an artful one, necessarily, but one of depth – is a consideration of what it has been, what came before in each incarnation and, most importantly, how you will contribute to it, how you will leave it: Will it be better than when you found it? Are you doing justice to its legacy, to its past? Awareness of what preceded you is essential. Treat the land with the same respect that you would give an aged ancestor, for that is what it is. It has life and history just like us, only much longer, and deeper.

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