Voices in the ground

I read today in one of my “guilty pleasure” magazines (Discover Britain, Feb 2019) that John Steinbeck lived for six months in Somerset. Apparently he was quite the King Arthur fan, and stayed within sight of Glastonbury Tor.

                            Avebury, 2005

What struck me was this quotation (p39), from a letter in summer 1959:

“It’s more than meadows and hedges – it’s much more than that. There are voices in the ground.”

And that’s it for me too, although I couldn’t have put it so well. That’s why I love England as only an American can (like Bill Bryson without the talent, or a reverse Alistair Cooke). I was born there. I know the voices in the ground there. I cannot hear the voices where I live, even after all these years.

I always liked history. Just as HG Wells read Chambers’s Encyclopedia while in apprenticeship at a Southsea draper’s shop, I read the Encyclopedia Britannica sitting on the floor at home as a schoolgirl. Ancient Egypt and the American Revolution were my specialty. I invented my own hieroglyphics and could draw out most of the battles of the revolution.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when I went on a family tour of the historic east coast of America in 1977, and I could feel the battle as I stood at Yorktown in Virginia. It happened there, the connection between me and everyone who had been there. There were voices in the ground.

That didn’t happen again until I went to England in 1981, for the first time since my birth, just to visit. There were voices in the ground everywhere I went: London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Edinburgh. Upon my return, I went to UCLA as an English major, but was seduced away by a history class (in retrospect, since my professor was Joyce Appleby, that shouldn’t have been surprising either).

                                Lancaster, 2017

I went to college, I went to graduate school, I became a community college teacher of history. I visited England in 1992, in 2005, and much more often since 2014. Each time the disconnect between those senses of the past and what students experience in the classroom seems to widen.

Of course, it’s hard to “visit” history. It isn’t really there. It’s buried under a carpark, or is recreated with a horrid “soundscape” to make it exciting, or Jack-the-Ripperized into a tour. You’re always a tourist when you visit the past. But if you do, like Steinbeck, know there are voices in the ground, it’s very real.



3 comments to Voices in the ground

  • This is a wonderful post Lisa. I really like the idea of ‘voices in the ground’. It perfectly explains why I feel so comfortable in India. And of course I know exactly where and when your photo of Lancaster was taken.

  • […] At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane. […]