"What About History?"
Rev. Tracy Johnson
November 21, 2021
I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the World” recently. In it he links four human desires – sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control with four plants that satisfy those desires – the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. He weaves a tale of the mutuality of benefit for both humankind and plants, asking who is really domesticating whom! I didn’t get too far into the story of the apple before I landed on the character of Johnny Appleseed – John Chapman actually – that 30-something, rather whimsical figure we have come to know and love as the father of the apple tree who made his way in a dugout canoe with bags of Pennsylvania seed up and down the Ohio River and its tributaries planting orchards as he went. And somewhere in his research, Pollan hooked up with Johnny Appleseed aficionado, Bill Jones, who considers Appleseed a folk hero of sorts and gives talks and tours along the original route, espousing the virtues of the man as he goes. He is a Johnny Appleseed evangelist and Pollan travels the riverway with him listening to the story as Jones tells it. Now, Pollan is a wise man and given to exploring the depths of his subject. He knows, for example that an apple tree doesn’t come true directly from seed and needs to be grafted to continue to produce a particular variety, something Chapman would have nothing to do with! Too much human intervention in what God hath wrought for him! So, we can have our apple a day for our health and think this delightfully sweet treat was brought to us by none other than our hero, but the truth is that the apples planted back in those days were not particularly sweet and were grown for cider, which was hardened and consumed at most every meal by most every settler in the area! Chapman planted orchards, hired tenders, and went on his way, repeating his route and reaping the rewards! Not exactly the generous, gospel preaching, simple life-loving personality of children’s books we have learned about!
I tell you all of this because it seemed to me a perfect example of the idea of history as told through a specific lens. And it wasn’t just that Jones had his story skewed, because when Pollan questioned him on the facts it was clear that he knew the real deal! It was just more palatable and profitable to tell the other story. Jones was using his lens to distort the history. And I began thinking more about this concept of a lens; how it often genuinely reflects the beliefs of its beholder, and how it just as frequently is used as a tool for personal or collective gain.
Our reading this morning suggests that the lens is the linchpin upon which the tales of our past go forth. Depending upon where you sit on a subject, the lens you apply can take you down one road or its complete opposite; can create for you a positive or a negative memory; establish a lineage from which history unfolds. In the telling and retelling of the story, it becomes more cemented as factual. And the be-all and end-all seems to be if you have written it down somewhere! What is historical has moved away from the oral tradition, especially in our culture. There is history, as documented by our forefathers, as opposed to the stories told by those who did not hold the power of the pen. There is power in the lens we utilize. And the lens of the powerful has proven itself suspicious, at least in my lifetime.
Daily it seems I am confronted by a telling of history and of a present-day story through a lens that is being used to ensure that one’s power is maintained. Obviously, this is nothing new, but in a time in our nation where the culture we ground ourselves in is itself in a place ripe for transition, this constant tug of war over the truth is exhausting to bear witness to. And yet, even as I say these words, I am reminded of the privilege I hold, the power of the pen and the pulpit; reminded to look for the lens through which my world is being revealed to me and to use the power I have to share a history that is unencumbered by another’s need to lift themselves up for profit or personal gain. The ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning’ we espouse as Unitarian Universalists carries with it an awesome responsibility.
We know, perhaps more so here on Cape Cod, of the harm that comes from the misuse of a lens in storytelling; the outright lies that Wampanoag people have had to endure as “history” in the telling of the Thanksgiving story through the lens of white colonialist settlers; in its perpetuation down through the generations here as a truth that our nation holds as the grounding for a national holiday. How that version of history was woven into the national mindset by then President Lincoln grasping for opportunities to create a sense of unity when so much discord reigned in the midst of civil war. A story of unlikely companions coming together in love and gratitude. A convenient misrepresentation.
Some of you may wonder why I have included in this season of our time together a “territorial acknowledgement” at the start of services I lead. It is a simple thing that I can do; to share an alternative lens through which to view our history here on Cape Cod; a way for us to be reminded and to begin to tell a different story. It is a reframing; a reset and if I want to be grateful for something at this time of the year, it can be that I have been given new truths and a place from which to share those truths, so that over time the story is rewritten through a different lens upon our hearts and minds. George Orwell is quoted as saying that, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” I’d like to believe that we here, as Unitarian Universalists are about the business of revolutionary truth telling!
This idea of reframing is interesting to me also as I read about the power it holds. Studies in neuroscience show that all of our memories, upon our remembering them, are changed ever so slightly because they are affected by the frame of the present, our current lens. With each recollection they are altered. Knowing this is in and of itself a fascinating thing and the therapists among us will surely acknowledge the use of such a tool – cognitive reframing – in helping clients to move past painful or detrimental memories in order to shape a healthier future. I am given to consider its use in a slightly different way, applying the practice to reshape the history we have been offered; to re-member, as in putting it back together in another way, to re-member the story imbued with what are often hard truths, but that serve to honor those maligned by the gratuitous writing of a story that benefited the teller over their subjects. I wonder if this isn’t a piece of the revolutionary actions Orwell was pointing to that we can engage in – the sharing of history through the lens of the marginalized, so that in each retelling it is heard in the context of the hearer’s present frame of reference, reformulated, and taking root with more of an eye toward what really was instead of what has been told in the history books. With Chapman we sow the seeds of wildlings, shoots that spring up with alternative fruit!
I continue to explore this Meeting House and its story, its history, the ones that have been penned over the past thirty-five years and the ones that never made it to the page. They are all pieces of a whole. Today I am thinking less about the stories and more about the storytellers. Who do we empower to tell the story of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham and does that story differ depending upon who shares it? How do we represent this place in the wider community, on the map that plots out UU history in southern New England, in the trajectory that began in 16th century Transylvania?
Our theme this month is “holding history” and maybe some of you have explored this topic in your small groups. This idea of holding history as a thing we can cradle in the palms of our hands, something observable we can lift up to the light and examine, but also something we can nurture continues to show itself to me. How do we hold the history of our Meeting House? Is it tightly held with no wiggle room left for reimagining? Or do we hold it loosely trusting its malleability to loving hands that mine the deeper truths? How do we bring the past forward in such a way that it becomes for us a means by which we grow in community with one another? What of that centuries old history has meaning for us still today and what have we already reframed? I want to learn from history, to take what I find to be true, to explore the roots of that which is not, so as not to repeat mistakes or continue to marginalize or cause undue harm, to hold it tightly enough not to lose it and freely enough to watch it take on new meaning and shape.
In this season of giving thanks, I am grateful to be on a journey here with all of you, grateful for family and difficult relationships that help me to learn and grow, thankful for fresh revelation when it comes to old stories that just don’t ring true and for the chance to right those mis-tellings, to rewrite through the lens of today that a better tomorrow may take root.
In the coming week, as we perhaps feel safe enough to gather once again with our loved ones around a table, may we explore the old stories we carry in our hearts through the lens of a gratitude and love. May we make new stories that will be tomorrow’s history filled with truth and compassion, and the gentle embrace of those we hold most dear.
Blessed be and Amen.