Posted on: September 4, 2012
On the 30th of August I packed up my desk in the visitor center at American Camp. From the far-end of the double-wide trailer nestled north of the golden prairie I surveyed the shelves for any remaining books to return to the History and Interpretation library, stacks of scholarship crammed unceremoniously but in careful order behind the door of the Park Manager’s office. I leafed through printouts of the 2011 NPS Call to Action, the Second Century Report, and America’s Great Outdoors and zipped them up into my backpack. I bid farewell to the retiree volunteers who, like clockwork and for consecutive summers, hoist the flags high on the parade grounds, patiently sift through the barrage of questions from a never-ending parade of visitors, and see to everything from the swearing in of junior rangers to leading seniors on golf cart tours of the cultural landscape.
These people, though RV vagabonds, truly demonstrate the reverence for place that the National Park Service relies upon, particularly in far-flung locales. Jim and Lois, Fred and Brenda, Tom and Cathy, and Paul and Ada, to name a few — are crucial to the visitor experience at San Juan Island National Historical Park, providing the first point of official contact for visitors to English and American Camps, and perhaps the first introduction to the park narrative, a story of global importance that told from a remote place seems to often get lost in the winds off the Strait of San Juan De Fuca.
“This is the park about the pig?” many visitors ask. Well, yes, we would tell them: but it’s more than that, too.
This summer I looked for ways to make the park about more than the pig, or the Pig War: that folksy tale of porcine-icide hinting at the collision of American manifest destiny with the ambitions of British mercantilism in a remote corner of the Oregon Territory, circa 1859. I pushed hard on the traditional boundaries of the park mandate — to interpret the Pig War — to achieve a broader perspective on a host of topics: war and peace, disputed boundaries, and the best means of connecting past events to a contemporary audience through interventions in and readings of the landscape
Ultimately, I wanted to answer the questions:
– What is a 21st C take on the interpretive mandate of SJINHP?
– What is a 21st C means of telling this story?
And then, because plain in simple: there needs to be a new visitor center at American Camp. The trailer still has wheels on it. Please, just roll it away.
– What is a 21st C vision for a visitor center at American Camp?
While not polished or finished product, I emerged with the idea of moving beyond the Pig War as an isolated piece of provincial island or national history to understand it as a global-historic event, and ultimately as emblematic of the virtues of diplomacy in times of war. A visitor center in this light, is not just a place for orientation and information, but a place for more deeply and fully understanding the park message, in this case, perhaps a forum for the practice of peace and diplomacy as part of a park for the peaceful.
If it can be said that historical parks convey stories and messages worth remembering, our memories should not be selective. The 21st C of the National Park Service increasingly looks like an era where we are asked to remember complex, at times painful histories. The history of slavery, of Japanese internment, of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all heavy parts of American — and Global — history that can be addressed through the reading of landscapes.
For SJINHP, the Vietnam era of the park’s founding emerges as a narrative worthy of interpretation. What does it mean when a park commemorating peace is founded alongside escalation of the war in Vietnam?
What does it mean when a primary proponent of the park, Senator Jackson of Washington, was also a proponent of the Cold War program of “peaceful deterrence“?
And how does a more complex reading of history change how we understand our collective heritage as articulated in the preservation of historic landscapes? What heritage do we preserve?
These questions clattered in my head as I took a last walk on the prairie, stopping to admire an all too tame fox that earlier had harassed picnickers unrelentingly for handouts.
We think about these things, engage them, ruminate upon them, but also we come to National Parks to be subsumed in the landscape. In this way, the 21st C experience is no different than the one John Muir found as he walked into Yosemite Valley: just as parks provide a place to learn and to turn on, they also provide a place to turn off. This duality is their best idea.