Exploring time and place with Howard Mansfield

Originally posted January 23, 2011

Author Howard Mansfield sifts through the commonplace and the forgotten to discover stories that tell us about ourselves and our relationship to the world.

He shows us artifacts— a stone wall, a refurbished ax, a railroad timetable— and translates for us the historical, architectural, and philosophical notions contain therein.

His most recent book, Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart, examines our changing concept of time.

In an interview with Whole Terrain, Mansfield said humans mark time to “gain control over it.” He related our discomfort with the vastness of time to our discomfort with silence. “People just don’t want to consider it so we fill it with noise and images,” he said.

“We want conventionality,” he said. “This is why we divide time into days and hours. You need something to find your way.”

But when something changes our concept of time, it upsets us. “Changing the system disturbs people,” he said. Those changes can range from daylights savings time to the differences in travel time as technology changes.

“Once, ‘time’ was sun time,” Mansfield explained. “Time was based on the rising and setting of the sun, and noon was when sun was overhead. Time was what it was in your local place.”

When the railroads came to power, suddenly there was the need to know the time someplace else. In 1883, it was the railroad companies, not U.S. Congress or local communities, that created time zones. Some cities protested, but court cases and increasing usage caused those cities to abandon local time by the turn of the century.

“Time meant nature. At the end of the 19th century, time meant clocks,” said Mansfield. “The more you think about time, the more you realize it’s a tight rope,” he said.

Our changed experience of time also changed our experience of place. “What defines a place is the cadence of how life is lived in that place: at what speed the commerce is conducted and how much time people spend with each other,” said Mansfield. “Time was changed and commodified.”

Many of the buildings in Mansfield’s town of Hancock, New Hampshire were built in the early 1800′s. There’s a library, a store, meeting house and a commons. “Some [buildings] are close together, some are small. They were hand made. The road was formed by foot and the hooves of animals who used to walk there,” said Mansfield. “It fits. It’s pleasant to walk through those streets. There’s a rightness,” he said.

Compare that to a city that was built after the invention of the automobile. The time it took to get from one end of town to the other could suddenly equal a great distance. Strip malls, sprawl and other modern occurrences were made possible.

Mansfield sees the influence of time and place in the connection between the built world and the natural world. “If the built world is not pleasant for people to live in, then we keep gobbling up the countryside,” he said. “When places are built right, they partake in the wonderful things about living. When they’re menacing, there’s no joy there, no interaction. That’s why preservation is important. The two things are really knit together,” he said.

Time and preservation also plays an important part in Mansfield’s other books, including Same Ax Twice. He tells us that preserving and restoring historical items brings us in touch with the values of the people who created them. “Old things call on us to maintain them,” he said. “If we do it right, they restore us.”

Mansfield’s exploration of restoration also led him to explore historical reenactment— even participating in a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam.

Mansfield laughs about pretending to get shot early on so he could take notes. He also jokes about the sanity of running around in wool uniforms in the hot weather. But he said, “It was kind of silly and very fascinating at the same time.” People who participate in the reenactments do it “because it brings them closer to understanding what it might have been like,” he said.

“If you have these reenactments and everything is just right, you feel like you’re back there,” he said. “Thousands of people are camped out. What you hear is not a cell phone or a radio, but people practicing bugle or talking around the campfire.”

He compares historical reenactment to a Japanese tea ceremony. “There are all of these steps. They all come to the same thing, trying to conjure this emotion.”

Mansfield also explores the history that we have forgotten or have tried to forget. In Turn and Jump, he writes about King Phillip’s War, which he says was proportionately one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

“Before the war, English settlers and Native Americans lived amongst each other like interlocked fingers,” he said. “The war burnt a path across history. Native Americans were sold into slavery and forced into exile. The colonists were set back economically. It was an important moment for how our history was formed; the same issues played out across the country.”

Yet how many of us really know the details of King Phillip’s War? Why don’t we study it in school or spend our free weekends reenacting it? “It has to do with attitudes towards Native Americans,” said Mansfield. “Or this idea that history starts with the American Revolution.”

“Americans don’t know that much history,” he said. “People get turned off of history because it’s all ground down to one text book. That’s never going to be interesting, and it’s not a good way to teach history.” Mansfield says the real questions to ask ourselves are: What happened here? And how do I tell the story?

“You need good, specific local stories with things people can go and see,” he said. Sometimes finding those stories involves what Mansfield describes as “digging around and reading a lot of dull stuff until something pops.”

The interesting parts are usually the remnants of daily life. Mansfield gives the example of looking through archived formal portraits of general store owners, and then noticing the low price of peas in the background.

For his book, Bones of the Earth, Mansfield became a “tourist of the near-at-hand,” studying his corner of New Hampshire with fresh eyes. He explored cemeteries and the social and written rules about what is and is not allowed as an expression of grief there. He explored the winter woods with a old-time trapper. And he collected memories and stories of magnificent elm trees that somehow survived time and disease.

For the elm tree research, he often found himself trespassing or loitering, trying to avoid awkwardness as he asked passersby and homeowners about the trees. He found a photographer friend to go with him. “Having a photographer gave me a cover,” he said, laughing.

Mansfield is working on a new writing project: writing about “dwelling.”

“It’s about that quality of being-at-home that some houses have and some houses don’t,” he said. “It’s about how comfortable people feel with being on the Earth, about when everything is just right and beautiful in a way that has a roughness to it.”

As another guise for research, Mansfield became a U.S. Census worker. “I could go up dirt roads you never get to go on, go up to people’s houses, talk to people. I went to some spooky places!” he said.

Mansfield also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in Louisiana 18 months after Hurricane Katrina. “I saw destruction, and how to put home back together. It’s daunting,” he said.

How does Mansfield see what we overlook? “I’m curious. I’ll talk to people. I look through the archives,” he said. “It’s about trying to keep looking at a place and stay fresh as you possibly can.”


About writing essays

I de-emphasize the ‘e’ word. People think of it as what they had to read in school or write in a blue book.[Essays] aren’t something publishers like to publish. Plenty of people are writing good essays. Some blogs are short essays. There’s always interest in form.


Influencing essayists

• E.B. White

• Joan Didion

• Lewis Mumford

• Ada Louise Huxtable

• Elizabeth Bishop

• Joseph Mitchell

• Annie Dillard

• J.B. Jackson

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