About a quarter mile down the dirt road from our house is an old bridge. Nearby, there is a small granite plaque declaring with simple reverence that General Knox crossed here, hauling cannon to Cambridge from Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War. (Or War of independence depending on one's viewpoint.)
Although the bridge is intact, it reaches only halfway across the river, because past floods have washed away the bank on one side. The bridge is now a jetty.
The form and grace of its original purpose is not lost however. Even the most casual observer can stand and admire the primitive arches. They are solidly locked by their own weight, without mortar or concrete, in harmony with gravity, sturdily carrying automobile traffic well into the '50s.
This ancient object of American history points to a lesson in relativity, or a type of it. I am British by birth, or finer still, English, and Cockney to be exact. My historical heritage is Stonehenge, Roman conquest, the Magna Carta, Drake and the Spanish Armada, the Reformation, the New World, global exploration , imperial endeavour, and probably too smug a knowledge that the best of my country's institutions and language are ingrained in much of the world today.
In London, the road I lived on was not particularly historical by any standards. The house was built about 1830, along with hundreds of others, on a spine of land that fell away steeply on each side. The road was originally built about 1320, according to the earliest documents available, and was used by swineherds to drive their livestock to the local market. It had been built on the point of the ridge to avoid easy attack by robbers. The whole area was thick with human history and formed the land and its people, all around. Similarly, where I lived as a young boy, houses were built on land once owned by Henry the Eighth. Nearby was a house, the third built there since 1510.
What is the connection between this little bridge in New England, and that London street? Both are an integral part of their neighborhoods, and to a larger extent, their country's history. The bridge holds the same foundation for the future of this neighborhood as King Henry's hunting lodge. Both historical perspectives belong in the same eye.
It would have been easy to scoff at long time residents of this country town when they speak proudly of the old bridge. The events of 1775 are not as historic, perhaps, as Roman baths, but history begins in the hearts of men rather than in machines and events. Thus is our sense of history connected.
To witness the passing of time is to be a part of eternity. As I stood on that bridge and watched the water below, I realized that, in effect, the same water once flowed under Westminster Bridge, and will flow again in the Danube, the Nile and the Amazon. As part of nature, this river will take its own sweet time to form and shape this tiny piece of New England, as I have been shaped by English history. Hopefully, I can become part of the shaping of history here.
Are we a part of history, or are we just witnesses or "labels" to preterition? The moment we become aware of an historical event, it has passed us by. But all history lies in the future of our actions. Within us, embryonic history grows as surely as our limbs and minds.
Each of us needs to feel that he is a locus of meaning in a meaningful world. We are not content to leave history up to the famous, known and potential. We crave to be a part, not only of our own lives, but to influence each of those around us. As proud as we are of the land we live in, few of us really know how rich and strange and full of wonder it is. Even fewer understand how it came to be that way. History provides us with legacies that we can use to make the connection between what is and how we feel about our inheritance.
These legacies have neither past nor future, but keep pace with us as we move from era to era, from millenium to millenium. Each man writes his own history by pitting himself against the world's past, to prove his own individual excellence.
All too often we see history as something we have no control over, because it has already happened. Perhaps then, we have all the more reason to look to future history; one that will depend on the kind of present we live.
Generations of mankind are linked as surely as one season is linked to the next. Not to believe so is to construct our own little "me generation" around us. Because man seldom believes he lives forever, we have this "me generation." Because he sees himself as starting alone, and finishing in solitary endeavor, he has produced a generation of limited thinkers who deal in temporary compromises rather than eternal promises. But Cicero said, "History illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity."
I am a part of this town. This bridge, built by men who left their country hundreds of years before I left mine, belongs to me as surely as it belonged to them. In each part of time and reality, this little bridge is as important as Stonehenge, or the Pyramids, or Lexington Green. And each of us is as important as those before us, and as those following.