Saturday, January 12, 2013

History’s Scavengers

It’s been a while since I took a “Process Break” and just wrote about what goes into producing this blog. Today is going to be one of those days.

I had this thought yesterday while driving home from a particularly enjoyable lunch meeting with a friend, and I want to share it. However, before I do that, I have to explain some background information.

I seem to do most of my musing when my brain is on auto-pilot. Perhaps you experience this sort of thing when you find yourself doing some repetitive, mindless task. Some people notice this tendency while in the shower, or when they are doing dishes. I find it happening when I am on a long drive.

Yesterday was one of those bright, sunny January days that just make me want to play hooky, call in sick at work, or otherwise escape my duties and go for a drive in the California foothills. My eyes can drink in the fabulous scenery (all the while, of course, being attentive to my driving). I can soak up the unexpected midwinter sunshine, and breathe in that fresh, crisp wintry air.

And think.

I thought about the time last summer when my husband and I were sitting outside at a particular coffee shop. We were enjoying the outdoors, then, too. Even though it was the exact reverse season from today, we were doing the same thing: soaking up the sun, enjoying the fresh air, and talking about our thoughts.

During that peaceful morning retreat, along came someone whom we expected to interrupt our conversation. He was dressed quite shabbily, and we had kept an eye on him from a distance, as he rustled through each garbage receptacle along the walkway. Our town has no lack of panhandlers, and we had assumed he would eventually reach a proximity from which he could conveniently press us for a handout.

After years in civil service in the field of law enforcement, my husband has developed his own policy of addressing the situation of contact initiated by those down and out on their “luck.” Perhaps this may seem jaded to some, but he has learned that providing such individuals with the cash they are requesting—no matter how compelling the accompanying story may be—is merely capitulating in providing that person with the means through which they may more easily access their poison of preference.

On the other hand, if he senses that inner prompting to do so, he is very generous in providing the hungry with food at a nearby sandwich shop, or gasoline for their vehicle “needing to get back to Oakland.”

But on this particular morning, as we waited as sitting targets of opportunity for that stranger, he didn’t make the anticipated move.

Instead, he steadily continued his routine: opening trash bins, rummaging around in the contents stored below, pulling out the items he was seeking, and organizing them in his bags.

Trash receptacle by trash receptacle, he drew nearer. With not much more than a brief nod when we made eye contact, he passed right by us and continued the process at his next stop. Eventually, he crossed the parking lot and proceeded to complete his rounds with the containers near the stores on that other side.

Bemused by this switch from the stereotypical behavior to which we had been accustomed, my husband wondered aloud about the possibility that, embedded within the various strata of society, there might be a role designated as scavengers.

Not sure how to take this unexpected conclusion, I pressed him to elaborate.

Just like in other eco-systems in the world, he explained, he wondered if there were a role to play in human cultures which paralleled that of, say, shrimp near the coastline. After all, by what they do, scavengers play an important role in their own ecosystem.

He may have been on to something. After all, the 1911 Census of England and Wales included “scavenger” as a listed occupation—although referring to a service more akin to what we’d now label “garbage collector” or “street cleaner.”

Watching our morning coffee interloper retreat into the distance, my husband remarked on his diligent search for recyclable objects. That man was providing a useful service. No matter how down-and-out he might have appeared, he was performing his rounds thoroughly and quickly. He was separating what others labeled as “garbage” into categories of worth, and extracting those groups which could be exchanged for a more useable medium: cash. Not a bad strategy—not to mention, eco-friendly.

While we may not admit it as a society, my husband continued, we benefit from the services of those willing to sift through what we consider useless and transform it into the once-again valued.

That was last summer. While it was a small conversation—admittedly more the domain of those late-night moments when college students wax philosophical just before everyone falls asleep—I tucked that unusual observation away in the back of my mind.

Yesterday, driving home after lunch, that memory resurfaced. It was triggered by yet another thought.

I was thinking about all the people I’ve met lately as I’ve delved back into the face-to-face world of Genealogical Society activities and D.A.R. meetings. I was thinking, in particular, about one acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in well over twenty years, who happened to attend the very D.A.R. meeting that was my first visit.

Meeting this woman was very timely, as I had often wondered what happened to a specific ancestor connected to her extended family. This ancestor, in his time, was a circuit rider for the Methodist Church during its early years in this country. As a circuit rider, he of course kept a journal, which had eventually been passed down through the generations in this family.

When I first heard of this family’s great fortune to still hold such an artifact of family history, I was quite jealous. Jealous enough, in fact, to still remember that detail after all these years.

I wanted to know if the journal was still in the family’s possession. Did anyone transcribe it? Did they still value it as much as I would have, if I had been the one to inherit it?

These are the things that are of great importance to me—important enough to remember during a chance meeting, decades later. Important enough, incidentally, to continue brooding over on a beautiful, sunny January day like yesterday, when I should have just been enjoying my drive home after a satisfying visit with a friend over lunch.

And then it hit me.

We—those historians-at-heart, the ones who jealously guard the documentation of our everyday lives through our family’s generations—we are the scavengers of history. We are the ones who plow through the garbage heaps of history, searching for the remains that are still salvageable. We are the ones who take molded-over pages from musty book bins and prop them open to transcribe each page so the thoughts from centuries ago can be recaptured for tomorrow’s consideration. We are the ones who give no thought to how important—or relatively obscure—our subjects may have been in life, but honor their place in history, wherever it may have been.

And seek to convert the forgotten into the currency of modern consciousness once again.

Above right: photograph of a fossil decapod displayed at the Paleontological museum in Stuttgart, Germany; photograph courtesy Wikimedia user Ra'ike; permission granted to display this work under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation


  1. A couple of thoughts on this insightful post: scavengers have the same reputation as carrion feeders (for instance, vultures), but think how terrible it would be if no one cleaned up like they do. I like the idea of genealogists being scavengers, especially since my job this week is go through a couple of bins of family stuff!
    About envying the journal of friend, it makes me think, do I keep a journal that my g-g-g-grandchildren would find interesting? I do have my grandfather's diaries, but just once I'd like to know what he wore, what he had for lunch, just the ordinary stuff. Maybe we should just record one day a year of ordinary things.
    Again, thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    1. Hope you find some really great stuff in those bins! What an opportunity...but what a lot of work! And the hindsight is the most painful aspect of it all.

      Yes, it's so easy to whine about not having our ancestors' journals, yet all the while not taking the first step toward writing our own.

      My biggest problem is that, when it comes to pen and paper, I talk too much! I've done journal entries over the years, but the gaps in between are so huge as to make the things useless. I am hoping my reflections online here as I go through family material will at least be some sign to my descendants of what I was like.

      While I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, my daughter did give me a beautiful leather journal for Christmas. I promptly put it on my standing desk, fully intending to do exactly as you said: write short entries on day to day activities. As crazy as this month has turned out to be, do you know I've not written one word in that book yet?

      If I do ever get to it, I promise I'll make a note of what I wore for the day. Or at least what I had for lunch.

      I promise.

  2. Yes I scavenge..someone has to do it or it will be lost. I don't mind being known as the strange old lady that collect every old photograph that she gets her hand on. I notice I am in good company:)

    1. I love what you find to scavenge. I'm honored to be in such good company, myself!

  3. Yes, I am a scavenger of history. I just need to organize what I find so others will be able to use it.

    1. Grant, I see you are finding some interesting details in your scavenging! The organizing will come as you write what you find and post it on your blogs. Sometimes, I think online blogging sites are a Godsend for simultaneously organizing and sharing what we've discovered.

  4. A most intriguing way to look at things. I've just come into possession of a very large box of old photos - some marked - some not... some just baffle me as to "where?" and "who?" This scavenger is going to enjoy his find!

    1. Iggy, I've learned to look at those boxes much differently than I had before. Now, even though they are mystery faces, it becomes more of a challenge that can be tackled.

      Looking forward to reading more about what you discover in your own mystery photo box.

  5. I never thought about it like this, Jacqi, but t's a great way of looking at things. We do salvage bits and pieces of history and give them a breath of new life, don't we? Well said!

    1. Thank you, Shelley. I've come to see this more as a "Connect the Dots" challenge. Every little piece of information we discover helps unlock the door to another discovery.

  6. I like this. The scavengers of history. We do indeed find what others have thrown away or left behind (in my case, for a start, thousands of letters forgotten in my parents' attic) and we restore its value to the world. We say, Wait a minute! Look at this again! And put it in historical context! This makes us social historians, surely, once we finish the debate about academic degrees...Most historians are scavengers of "public" history, I suppose, but public history is made out of the stuff of family history. Your post started me thinking!

    1. Glad to hear this has gotten you thinking about what can be done, Mariann. I've read some inspiring stories of what others have found from history's trash bins--everything from "Orphan Photos" to diaries in antique shops. It makes me want to go out and do more transcribing and scanning, myself.

      Those thousands of letters you have from your personal heritage may indeed contain something of value--but not if they aren't converted into an accessible format. The Internet provides part of that conversion process by lending us its search power. But it's we who partner with that power by entering our transcriptions into the data stream.

      It may all be "private" versus "public" history, but even in the private aspect, gleaning trends from those thousand points of historic light help guide us in determining what that past was truly like.

      Yes, there is a lot to think about here. And really, I think what we are all doing as family history bloggers and rescuers of ephemera really will make a difference. We are archiving our personal and family past to add to the overall story of our heritages.


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