Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Valley Forge: Fragments

Valley Forge. Some things were supposed to come together here. We've been assembling fragments of history, fragments of the American Revolution, a sketch of the British occupation of Charleston, a glimpse of George Washington as farmer living and dying at Mount Vernon, artifacts at Yorktown. I am not sure why, but I thought Valley Forge, where Washington's army lived through its darkest hour, where 2000 men died of disease, cold, and starvation, where officers left because they could and soldiers stayed because they couldn't, would complete the puzzle somehow.

But on a glorious day it is hard to imagine the misery suffered by men in these cabins they built themselves. Washington offered a $12 prize to the team of twelve men in each regiment who first completed a well-constructed cabin.

There were more cannons.
And there were cousins. Cousins definitely raised the day above the run of the mill. It was great to see the girls share the knowledge with their cousins.

And have fun with their cousins. But the place was falling short of my expectations.
Until we arrived at General Washington's Headquarters.
This is the original building.
I was excited about the Commander's flag flying out front. We learned at Mt. Vernon that this was Washington's flag and it was flown when Washington was visiting a camp. Seeing it out front of the headquarters made me feel like I would find Washington inside and he would help us put it all together.

I did not find Washington in.
Instead we found a dig going on.

Clem is holding a pot shard still cold from more than 200 years in the ground. The last person to hold that pot was there in that winter of 1777-1778 when the British, happily occupying Philadelphia, thought the Continental Army could not hold out long.
Initially the archaeologists said that kids had to be 14 and older to participate in the dig. But we hung around and after a while the kids, with their enthusiasm and knowledge insinuated themselves into the groups surrounding four screens on saw horses. Each screen was for a marked off quadrant of the dig.

The kids pressed the dirt through the screen and when they found lumps they asked what each was. It wasn't long before they were identfying things themselves. I joined in late because I was taking photographs. I'd show them what I found and they'd say, "oh, that's just brick" or mortar or "klinker", a byproduct of smelting.
The kind archeologists put Greta in charge of saving earthworms.
I was so glad that my mom got to share this amazing experience. It was her last day with us.

Just like that our day was transformed from ho hum to highlight. And digging in the dirt, finding old nails and pot shards and pipe stems and glass, the broken remnants of the lives of Washington and his men, made me realize that I had been looking for the wrong thing.

History is not a puzzle to be assembled into one final picture, but a mosaic of unfixed fragments that we can arrange and rearrange and add to endlessly.


The Stone Age Techie said...

Susan, this is possibly my favorite of your traveling posts yet. I have always wanted to visit Valley Forge, and your descriptions make me resolved to go someday (soon).

On a sort-of related note, did you ever read the Peanuts comic where Snoopy, pretending he is a soldier at Valley Forge, is on his way to talk to General Washington about his idea to build a skating rink, to "boost moral?" He's all excited to set up intramural hockey leagues, and the last panel shows him in the air - literally thrown out of Washington's tent - thinking, "But I didn't even get to tell him about the Zamboni!"

That comic made me realize how valuable comics are; as my then 6-year-old tried to understand the humor, he was also learning so much about the Revolution, the conditions at Valley Forge, and who Washington really was.

Thanks again, for this and for finding the time to share about your trip !

Kat said...

I think you hit on something with your mosaic idea. If we were to be presented with the 'whole' picture of history (or an event) I think it would not make such inroads in to our psyche as finding it out piece by piece. I recently learned this over Memorial Day and relearning and finding out new things about my ancestors. Questions lead to answers and sometimes just more questions. What a great way to learn.

What an awesome experience to go on a dig.

Kristin said...

The montage of the photos of your findings is beautifully arranged and photographed. The post is well written and fun to read.

It is fortunate that they permitted all of your kids to partake in the dig, as it would have been such a let down if they excluded the younger ones--and for what purpose?

I'm not sure why you were disappointed about what you were first.

It seems from the photos that your kids were fully engaged and thrilled to have your Mom there.

In the end, I'm glad you found some enjoyment in the day and I hope you will find more simple pleasures.

Just being there, where it all happened is enough, don't you think?

Each day you get to choose what to explore together and that is such a privilege, as well as an adventure.

You will only have your children like they are now once; it is special that you and your husband are taking the time to travel with them now. I guess what I'm trying to hint at, but I'll just say directly is: don't worry so much about what they are learning. You are with them and they are healthy and thriving. They're getting something and that is good enough.

Warm regards to all of you. We'll be in the forest camping with the homeschoolers for four days and missing you all.

Susan said...

Karen, I am going to have to get the Snoopy book with the Valley Forge story. Clementine loves comics. At the visitor center I found a comic book called Winter at Valley Forge (Graphic History). The kids read it one by one as we drove on the free shuttle from site to site.

Definitely do Valley Forge and take a couple days and do Philadelphia as well. There is so much to see. I hope to post soon about the Once Upon a Nation storytellers they have stationed all over town. Fantastic.

Susan said...

Kat, You are so right. I have to admit that I hated history as a kid. The seamless presentation in school textbooks slid right off my teflon brain. I needed those jagged fragments to make an impression.

Susan said...

Kristin, I guess for the first time at Valley Forge I began to worry that I was going to wear the kids out on American Revolutionary history, that we'd seen enough cannons, huts, camp kitchens, and spots where Washington had once stood, that instead of things all coming together, they would start to fall apart. The day before we went to Valley Forge Clem began complaining that Philadelphia was boring. More on that later because we gleefully ran our legs off on our second day in Philadelphia after Valley Forge.

But things continued to come together in their own way. The head archaeologist at this dig also oversaw the Jamestown dig. And after seeing so many artifacts at various sites and in DC to participate in a dig was thrilling. You are right of course, that just enjoying the time together is the most important thing. And seeing that we can go out day after day and not get worn out.

I always try to set aside a day a week with no activities so we can go on field trips and then I never do it. But now I will even though we live in California. (One docent said to us, "I always feel sorry for people in California because there's no history there."!?)

patricia said...

This is such a wonderful post.

I love this part: "But we hung around and after a while the kids, with their enthusiasm and knowledge insinuated themselves into the groups surrounding four screens on saw horses."

It's so fabulous when homeschoolers get to shine in their knowledge. How could the archeologists resist letting them participate--anyone with a passion can't help but be drawn to someone with knowledge of that passion.

It's no wonder that it was a dig that brought life to the day. Digs bring history into the modern day--it's too bad there isn't a dig for every history site we visit! I remember visiting the dig at the Roman Forum, and it absolutely captivated our kids, on a scorchingly hot noon in the blasting sun. It's like you said: being the first one to touch something since a particular time in history is amazing: it brings both a reality and magic to the moment.

And I love the idea that came together for you in the end. Literal and figurative woven together. Beautiful.

Kat said...

Oh my...sounds like someone needs to make a visit this side of the Mississippi. Too funny to think that there is actually a place that doesn't 'have' history.

Susan said...

Tricia, we stayed for a long time, forty-five minutes? We would have stayed forever, but a school group hove into view and the archaeologists said that if the schoolkids saw our kids,they'd want to do it, too.

I was sorry that they couldn't work something out so that those kids could participate and touch and be touched by history.

But, grateful for our opportunity, we made off so as not to cause them trouble.

Your dig in Rome sounds amazing. Two hundred years is laughably recent in Europe.

Alicia said...

Oh, the dig would have captivated all of us too! How amazing to hold such pieces of history in your hands, and how priceless.

Around here (southern MN) we have different history that we find in our digs. Our family got to participate in a real dig on a nearby island. They were doing construction and had to make sure there weren't substantial Native American artifacts first. They invited the public (all ages!) to help out all week and we helped sift and dig and sort and clean. It was during the week and most people were in school or at work, so we really got to interact a lot with the archeologists.

We also find Native American artifacts at a nearby lake all the time-- scrapers and arrowheads and bits of pottery and beads. And history from before any people were here-- we've found over a hundred sharks' teeth from when this was all part of the great inland sea, at the time of the dinosaurs! We've even been able to match them to which ones, long-extinct, strange looking sharks in some cases. Holding one of those in your palm and thinking in millions is so awe inspiring. :)

Your adventure sounds so amazing. I'm glad you happened upon my blog so I could discover yours. Nice to meet you!

Susan said...

Alicia, welcome! The dig your family participated in sounds amazing. How wonderful that they invite the public to help. We were just hunting shark teeth yesterday for the second time on this trip. Did you use a particular resource to identify yours? We were told that ours were mostly goblin shark teeth. Goblin shark?!

Stefaneener said...

You just bring tears to my eyes dometimes.