A few months ago, Chief Medicine Crow, one of the last remaining links to the Native American tribes of the Wild West died at age 102. He had grown up hearing stories about George Armstrong Custer from his grandfather, who’d been a scout for the doomed general at Little Bighorn in 1876. A soldier himself in the Second World War, Medicine Crow was one of the last Crow people to ever accomplish the four deeds required to be considering a war chief (command a war party, steal an enemy horse, touch an enemy without killing him and taking an enemy’s weapon).
He was a fascinating man, not just for what he did but also for what he represents to us now. He was, to use a phrase coined by Jason Kottke, a “human wormhole.” His unusual and long life is a reminder to how connected the past and present really are.
A curator at the Smithsonian described meeting Medicine Crow as “you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.” Which an amazing concept. A few intrepid historians on reddit recently discovered an even more amazing one, calculating that it would take a chain of just six individuals who shook hands with one another to connect Barack Obama to George Washington across the centuries (Obama ->Queen Elizabeth II -> Herbert Hoover -> William H. Taft -> Benjamin Harrison -> William Henry Harrison -> Benjamin Harrison V -> George Washington).
I’ve become fascinated with discovering and tracking some of these reminders. For some time now, I’ve kept a file of them on 4×6 notecards in my house. My friends and I email these moments to each other as we find them — some absurd (Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman may have hooked up), coincidental (Orson Welles claimed to have been in the Biograph Theater in Chicago where John Dillinger was killed by the FBI) and some that are so unbelievable that they might just blow your mind (there’s a video from a 1956 CBS game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” with a very old guest whose secret was that he was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. Appearing with him on the show? Lucille Ball.)
Here in modern life, it’s easy to think the past is dead and distant, until we bump up against the reality of Faulkner’s admonition that it’s not really even past. England’s government only recently paid off debts it incurred as far back as 1720 from events like the South Sea Bubble, the Napoleonic wars, the empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Irish potato famine — meaning that for more than a decade and a half of the twenty first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The US is still paying pensions related to both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.)
I’ll share a few more wormholes before I get to my point — because I promise there is more to this than just strange trivia.
Did you know that Tom Pratt, a football coach whose team the Arizona Cardinals narrowly missed going to the Super Bowl in 2015, was also on the coaching staff for the Kansas City Chiefs in the very first Super Bowl fifty years ago? Or that there are whales alive today who were born before Melville published Moby Dick? Or the world’s oldest tortoise, Jonathan, lives on an island in the Atlantic and is 183 years old? Or that President John Tyler, born in 1790, who took office just ten years after little Jonathan was born, still has living grandchildren?
War is perhaps the strangest source of these anomalies. Did you know that Winston Churchill and James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s father fought in the same unit in WWI? When Fleming’s father was killed, Churchill wrote his obituary. General Simon Bolivar Buckner was a Confederate general in the Civil War (he surrendered to Grant at Fort Donelson). His son Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr also became a General, and he died at Okinawa some 83 years later. General MacArthur — his father, Arthur MacArthur, Jr. — was a Civil War hero for the Union. Stonewall Jackson had a granddaughter who lived to be 104. She died in 1991.
In high school, a promising young student at the Virginia Military Institute named George Marshall petitioned the president for a military commission. Which President did the creator of the Marshall plan petition? William McKinley (just months before man’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.) And most unbelievably, what of the fact that Robert Todd Lincoln was present as his father died of assassination, was at the train station with President James Garfield was assassinated, and was in attendance at the event in which McKinley was assassinated? Three assassinations, spread out over 40 years. Robert Todd Lincoln himself lived to be 82, dying in 1926. He could have read stories published by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He drove in a car. He talked on the telephone. He would have heard jazz music.
And these are just the events of the so called modern history.
We forget that woolly mammoths walked the earth while the pyramids were being built. We don’t realize that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than she did to the construction of those famous pyramids that marked her kingdom. We forget that Ovid and Jesus were alive at the same time. When British workers excavated the land in Trafalgar Square to build Nelson’s Column and its famous bronze lions, in the ground they found the bones of actual lions, who’d roamed that exact spot just a few thousand years before.
The effect of these stories — after the novelty wears off — is an intense humbling. We like to think that we are special — that we live in blessed, unprecedented times. It’s this self-absorption that disconnects us from the universe we belong to. It’s unthinking ego that makes us assume that because the photos of the past were in black and white, that the past itself was too.
Obviously, it wasn’t — their sky was the same color as ours (in some places brighter than ours), they bled the same way we did, and their cheeks got flushed just like ours do. “Think by way of example on the times of Vespasian,” wrote the wise Marcus Aurelius some 1900 years ago, “and you’ll see all these things: marrying, raising children, falling ill, dying, wars, holiday feasts, commerce, farming, flattering, pretending, suspecting, scheming, praying that others die, grumbling over one’s lot, falling in love, amassing fortunes, lusting after office and power. Now that life of theirs is dead and gone… the times of Trajan, again the same… ”
Again the same for us now. However much we celebrate our own exceptionalism.
In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which was a favorite of Napoleon’s) there is a scene in which Werther writes to a friend about his daily trip to a small, beautiful spring. He sees the young girls coming to gather water and thinks about how many generations have been doing that — have come and had same thoughts he is having. “When I sit there the patriarchal ways come vividly to life about me,” he says, “and I see them all, the ancestral fathers, making friends and courting by the spring, I sense the benevolent spirits that watch over springs and wells. Oh, anyone who cannot share this feeling must never have refreshed himself at a cool spring after a hard day’s summer walking.”
That’s the feeling most of us miss. Even if we don’t see it, it’s there. The whispers and the smoke and remnants never disappear. Goethe was born in 1749, wrote his first bestseller which contained those words in 1774 before America was a country, and would live well into the 19th century (overlapping briefly with Jonathan the Tortoise). A hundred years after that, another famous German writer, Stefan Zweig, would be stunned to find that his elderly upstairs neighbor was the daughter of Goethe’s doctor, who had vivid memories of meeting Goethe as a young girl. In fact, Goethe had attended her christening.
Sorry, I’m getting distracted. I have too many of these wormholes and I don’t know where to put them all.
Back to the point, Ernest Hemingway opens The Sun Also Rises with a bible verse: “One generation passeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and resteth to the place where he arose.” It was this passage, his editor would say that “contained all the wisdom of the ancient world.”
And what wisdom is that? That we all flow into each other as part of an endless stream (slavery, Louis C.K. observed is just two old ladies back to back). It seems slow and long to us because we’re in it. It seems distant to us because it wasn’t our problem, it wasn’t us that did that terrible deed we’d like to forget. In fact, time whips by in a blur. Wounds barely have time to heal. They don’t recognize the passing of generations. Because generations don’t really exist. It is instead an endless parade.
When I lived in New Orleans, my apartment was partitioned out of 19th century convent. When I would head uptown to write what became my first book, I’d hop on the longest continually running streetcar in the world — some 181 years it had been traveling the same tracks. How many millions of people had ridden those same rails? Sat, even, in the same seat. Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, George Washington Cable, Edgar Degas — could have looked out these very windows. They, along with so many others not as easily remembered — but who lived and hustled and struggled just as I was trying to.
In moments like that, one cannot help but know what Pierre Hadot has referred to as the “oceanic feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, realizing that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” And when one gets this feeling, we ask ourselves important questions about who we are and what we are doing.
On the other hand, nothing draws us away from those questions like material success — when we are always busy, stressed, put upon, distracted, reported to, relied on, apart from; when we’re wealthy or told that we’re important or powerful. Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter. When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it’s like a piece of our soul is gone. Like we’ve detached ourselves from the tradition we hail from — forgetting that we’re just like the people who came before us, and we’re but a brief stopover until the people just like you who will come after. The earth abideth forever, but we will come and go.
History on the other hand, gives us perspective. As I said, it has the power to humble us. Specifically, these wormholes — illustrating the “great span” as they do — are instant humility in bite-sized pieces. It’s proof that others have been here before you, generations of them, and that they can almost reach out and touch you. In those moments, we have a sense of the immensity of the world and also its smallness. Ego is impossible, because we realize, if only fleetingly, what Emerson meant when he said that “every man is a quotation from all his ancestors” or what John Muir tried to convey to us about his epic experiences in nature. Yes, we are small. We are also a piece of this great universe and a process.
Baldwin wrote that “if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too.” I actually think it’s the reverse. If you can examine and face the connection between other lives, and other eras, only then can you begin to understand and appreciate your own.
This post appeared originally on Boing Boing.