A month ago (ALREADY?) my mom and I drove over to Plimoth Plantation to see how everybody lived almost 400 years ago when those pesky English people decided to settle in the New World. It was really interesting and totally worth the trip. You watch a little video about the pilgrims and the Indians, and then you take a little walk to the Indian Village. I mean the Wampanoag Homesite. Okay, this is going to sound so not politically correct, but Plimoth Plantation makes a really big deal out of cultural sensitivity. And it just sort of cracked me up, I was so sure I was going to say something totally insensitive to some Native American person and then I was thinking maybe the Plimoth Police were going to get me and drag me to an underground bunker and force me to watch videos about racism and ethnicity and tolerance in America.
Turns out we went on a day when the weather really wasn't so pretty (at one point mom and I walked out of a house and suddenly it was really foggy and thundering everywhere), so Plimoth (this is their spelling, not mine) was a ghost town. We went into the one hut (shack? building? house?) that had anything going on. The woman in there was trying to build a fire and WOW was she in a bad mood. Somebody remarked that it was really smokey and the kids were trying to be all perky and interested (and CLEARLY had some serious lessons in cultural sensitivity prior to coming anywhere near the Wampanoag Homesite, they probably thought that woman was going to kill them if they weren't super polite- they might not have been wrong), asking questions about everything in the place, while she was trying to get her fire going on a damp dirt floor. When that family left she started in about how if you don't like the smoke in her place you can just LEAVE. Well that was pretty hilarious to me and I was thinking oh wow they really are trying to present a certain image of nice cuddly natives here aren't they?
After hanging out with scary fire lady for a minute, Mom and I walked over to the English Village, which had a bit more going on. You could wander into all of these little houses and talk to people. Here's the deal with that weirdness. In the Wampanoag part of Plimoth the people who work there are cultural interpreters or something like that. Basically, they'll tell you all about how native people lived in the 1600s but they're not acting like they're IN the 1600s. They're just talking about it. In the English Village, these people are going to just be an English person in 1627. End of story. So if you ask them questions about anything modern or if they ask you where you're from and you say pretty much anywhere in the US they're going to give you a blank look and/or act like you're crazy. So that's sort of fun but kind of unsettling.
There were several reproductions of houses in Plimoth, which were fascinating. Tiny (maybe 8' x 12'?), made of wood, with open fires in the corner. Most of them had a table, a place to sit, some sort of bed, and a chest. Some were fancier and bigger, most were small and very very dark. The, er, role players said that the houses would sleep 10 to 12 people every night, which meant people were camping out on the floor and in the loft and pretty much anywhere you could clear a spot to sleep. I imagine that winters were probably bitterly cold and the various rats and mice and lice and whatever other little creatures were around would not have a problem bunking up with you.
Plimoth made me marvel again that the human race didn't die out thousands of years ago. How in the hell did people reproduce? I don't know about you, but the idea of having sex with a man who hasn't bathed in months, in a house with say 10 people trying to sleep is just not appealing. And if you should get that out of the way, how did you not die in childbirth? We're talking dirt floors and zero sense of hygiene. And then if you did have a baby, and you both lived, how was that kid not going to walk straight into the open fire burning every day right in the house? They did say that children were regularly tied to the table leg to prevent burns. The cool thing about having an open fire was that any trash was just thrown in and burned up. How convenient is that?
But I'm getting off track. There was this feeling that the Indians could attack at any time. There was a very small building (fort? stockade? I have no idea what you call it) at the top of the hill (with views to the bay) with a wooden fence around it which was the only protection against attack. Sure, the English had cannons, but how much of a help will that be when your enemies have bows and arrows? The English were totally unprepared for life in North America, and yet, SOMEHOW, despite everything, they pulled through and didn't just live. They multiplied.
There were no antibiotics. No doctors. No idea of germs or anything like that. If someone died it was the will of God and that was it. One woman said that if a woman in that time lived to be 30, she'd probably live another 30. Meaning that, once you got through popping out a bunch of kids (and I guess you'd be done by 30, although I'm not quite sure why- did your system just give up?) most of the risk to a woman's life was significantly reduced until she died of something age-related. That has really stuck with me. It was the thing that I really took from Plimoth. It's weird how things stay with you.
On a topic that seems unrelated, but has sort of been boxed up in the same "numbers" category in my head, I was reading this article about visitors to art museums in the New York Times last week. It said this: "At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely." Well that just blew me away. I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my life so far. Imagine narrowing that down to just 100. And I'm assuming most of those would be classics. You would read them again and again, comparing and contrasting them, pulling new ideas from them, and becoming so familiar with the work that you could probably quote entire passages. Think of what an education you would get if you read only great philosophers, Shakespearean plays, novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries, and of course the bible. (As opposed to trashy chick-lit, US Weekly, Facebook status updates, and comic books.) And think of how intensely you would read those books. Right now I could not tell you what I read last year, or what any of it was about. There's too much in my brain to remember the specifics. What would it be like if the pile of books I read was small but the focus so much sharper?
Perhaps there is something to be said for limiting the world a bit. Something to be said for knowing all of your neighbors, for reading 100 books (and owning 5 or 6) and knowing them all intimately (the books, not the neighbors). And perhaps it is midnight and I am rambling.
If you live until 30 you're going to make it 30 more.
100 books for your whole life.
Amazing stuff to think about.