There’s a short story I read in one of my lit classes at BYU, called "Sayso or Sense," by Eileen G. Kump. In it, a woman is planning her dream home—she wants all the modern amenities. Since she’s living in the 1800s, those amenities are things like a deep, cool basement for canning in, and a southern exposure, and other details I am fuzzy on and cannot verify because I think I loaned my copy of Bright Angels and Familiars to Becky. (Becky: did I?) What I am not fuzzy on is the story’s conflict. Her husband’s father is helping them to build her house, and every single modern thing she wants, he says no to. In the story, she makes peace with this by way of a dream, when she realizes that men can have sayso or sense, but not both. This is one of the most frustrating short stories I have ever read (because so what if you have sense? if you don’t have the sayso to make your sense effective?), but it’s also a story I think about quite often, every time I drive past an old-fashioned house.
I was thinking of that story just last week, in fact, when we had a staff meeting at work, with the topic of our town’s history. Even though I didn’t grow up in this town (just a few miles south), I have a real affection for where we live, not the least of which is my love for Timpanogos and Cascade mountains, for the environment that seems effected, in a hundred different daily ways, by the mountains around us and by the people who first settled here. I have often wondered what our bench looked like without all of the population swarmed upon it. Besides, historical things are just generally interesting to me, so I was excited for our staff meeting.
And I wasn’t disappointed. The man who presented—an individual who is on the city’s historical preservation committee—had an amazing series of photographs. The very first one he showed was a black-and-white taken in about 1885, when only eight families lived on the bench. I had pictured the area, pre-settlers, as a pristine, beautiful spot, full of trees. In the photograph, Timpanogos looms over the landscape—and at its feet is a plain with a few scattered ribbons of trees, and miles and miles of sagebrush. Maybe it was beautiful, but only in that desolate beauty deserts have. The speaker told us that no one wanted to move to our area because it was so desolate. One early settler wrote in her journal that she’d given up her pretty house in Salt Lake for sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and coyotes.
He continued on with several more photographs—the original library, the first homes built in the area, the first schools and government buildings. There was a Japanese interment camp here (I didn’t know that), a sort of stopping spot before they were sent on to Topaz Mountain; later it was used to house German POWs, and then immigrant farm workers who came to work in the harvests. Each time he talked about a building, he’d tell us what happened to it—still standing (very few) or replaced with something else. I grew weary of hearing things like "and this home was torn down to build the McDonald’s" or "this one was demolished to make way for a Pizza Hut." History is so easily lost, and suddenly this town I love seems too slick and polished, too much a replica of everywhere else. I’d trade the McDonald’s for an historical home!
As he flipped through his fifty or so photographs that document at least a century, I found myself thinking about pictures now. We have so many—will they ever mean anything to someone? Those photos are so precious because they are so rare; they have meaning because of their very scarcity. It made me think about how I tend to take pictures, and of what—and to feel that I should broaden my horizons a bit, look beyond just my children and the occasional flower as subjects, but also the world around me. Simply because I can always walk outside and take a photo of, say, my house, doesn’t mean I do it very often. Maybe those things will have more meaning in another 100 years?
As the photographs moved up through time, I realized I was seeing a landscape very like what my grandparents would have grown up in. Although I don’t think I’m related to any of the original families who settled this spot, and I don’t know any of them now, I still got a lump in my throat, looking at their faces. Their lives, with their hot brick houses and long dresses, outdoor plumbing and indoor rattlesnakes, seems much more real a life than mine. Probably, like the landscape around me, I am romanticizing it. But, unlike the presenter—who kept saying how grateful he is to not live during those times—I still wish I could know how they really lived, the people who came before me. I’d like to walk their farms, sit under their fruit trees, walk into their homes. I wish I could taste some of the tranquility I have imagined into their existence.