Monday, June 05, 2006

Dig Yourselves Some ‘Memory Holes’

Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, Mayflower, is a fresh retelling of the voyage of the Pilgrims from Plymouth to New England and their initial contacts with the original American inhabitants of the Wampanoag tribe.

One of the insights Philbrick unearths is that when the Pilgrims visited the indigenous communities they noticed circular pits alongside the trails, which the natives told them were for storytelling. Each of these ‘memory holes’ had been dug at a place where a remarkable act had occurred so that every time the Indians passed by these spots, they recounted the deeds from their distant past.

The new settlers quickly came to see the importance of remembering and telling their story, which has come down these hundreds of years to us.

When that little band of Puritans arrived on the Mayflower from England they experienced a harsh winter and only 50 of the original 102 survived. They discussed whether they should go back to their home country but they decided to stay on and plant corn and barley.

When the time of their first anniversary rolled around they wondered how this should be observed. Some proposed a day of mourning, when attention should be focussed on all those who lay in unmarked graves.

The others said: “No, a day of Thanksgiving would be more appropriate. After all, 50 of us have survived. We’re gathering in a good harvest. The Indians have been our friends.” In other words, let’s focus on what we have going for us, not on what we have going against us. And maybe that decision and that attitude of thanksgiving was the turning point in the founding of America. Had they chosen to mourn rather than give thanks, would they have found the courage to hold out as they did?

Every year when Americans get together for Thanksgiving, with their turkeys, corn and other rituals, there is the retelling of the story and on such a day Philbrick says, a new ‘memory hole’ is dug.

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, Viking, 2006.
Russell Shorto, ‘Pilgrims and Indians’, The New York Times, 4 June 2006.

Image: Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour.