The Past as a Universe of Adventure

By Tom Shakely, October 23, 2012

We tend to like thinking of new ideas and fresh thinking. It’s tempting to imagine we of the present are, almost by definition, at the vanguard of history. We like moving forward rather than looking backward. Yet, we can do both. It turns out that there is much fresh thinking scattered throughout the past, just waiting for some explorer of our time to seize upon the opportunity of an “old” idea rejected in the past for being too far ahead of its own time. A study of the past can furnish a creative spark that leads to new results.

In Ben Novak’s Introduction to his book Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal he writes:

“The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.”

Indeed, we have entire fields of learning devoted to the study of the past. In some cases, as with our social history, we learn to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to commemorate the heroes of past days, mining their lives in quest of lessons for our own. In archeology we literally dig for the secrets of the dead and vanished. In astronomy we look to the stars, studying the past as we peer across galaxies and into faraway corners of the universe. We observe the emanations of the Big Bang that us to this precise point in time. We become a part of history by playing witness to it.

“Fortunately,” elaborates Dr. Novak, “we do not live in a world where the past, present, and future are in airtight cubicles that we must look at separately as though the past is dead and gone, the present stinks, and the future is always bright. Rather, the past, present, and future are fluid, and keep washing over each other. There were a lot of good things in the past that can brighten the present, and a lot of things in the past that seem to be missing in the present, but which could brighten your future.”

As a conscious person, you are the physical result of decisions made in the past — whether you are conscious of them or not. As a member of a town or city, your communal life of today flows from the decisions of yesterday. We pass things down by inheritance to create an historical flow of physical gifts and reminders for our family of where they’ve been and what they’ve been a part of. We inherit and impart so that new and old alike can have context for their time.

The forthcoming book The Legends of the Nittany Valley, set to be published Dec. 1 by The Nittany Valley Society, is a special collection of Henry Shoemaker‘s folklore and American Indian legends being brought together in a new volume. It’s in no small part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that we are the Nittany people — his folklore of Princess Nita-Nee was read and acted upon by students at the dawn of the 20th century. In one volume, Shoemaker describes Jake Faddy, an old American Indian storyteller, in this way:

“The past seemed like the present to Jake Faddy, he was so familiar with it. To him it was as if it happened yesterday, the vast formations and changes and epochs. And the Indian race, especially the eastern Indians, seemed to have played the most important part in those titanic days. It seemed so recent and so real to old redman that his stories were always interesting. The children were also fond of hearing him talk; he had a way of never becoming tiresome. Every young person who heard him remembered what he said.”

Jake Faddy represents someone who knows the “good things in the past that can brighten the present,” to quote Dr. Novak. A proper knowledge of the past can brighten the present, and “as if it happened yesterday” we can enter into experiences and places we can never travel today! We can understand the past as its own universe of adventure.

Jay Paterno reflected on the energy “waiting to be drilled or mined” in the past in his StateCollege.com column of Sept. 13th:

“The past is a tricky thing; you can never go back, but you most certainly must never forget it. Forget it at your own peril. In World War II the Germans (thankfully) ignored the lessons of Napoleon’s ill-fated foray into Russia. Since the times of Alexander the Great, how many nations have tried and failed to invade and conquer Afghanistan? … But the past is there; it lives and breathes. William Faulkner often wrote about the “ghosts” of the past as he lived in Mississippi. He was raised on and heard oral histories of his family and the Civil War. … In his book Requiem for a Nun he wrote ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.'”

“What will we be?” asks Paterno directly. “In this town there is certainly a lot of talk of the future. As humans we are drawn to the days ahead, we are drawn to the next big thing, but often do so carelessly ignoring lessons that could guide us as we walk on.”

What will we be? If we want to avoid the fate of a sort of communal schizophrenia the sure way to answer “What will be be?” is to discover who we have been, and that is an adventure whose answers wait to be unlocked in the past of fact and fiction. It’s what The Nittany Valley Society hopes in whatever small ways to do: reintroduce one another to the Nittany Valley “across time” — as it’s been lived in the past, and imagined for the future.

The lore of the people of the kind Henry W. Shoemaker recorded is a means to encounter this spirit, and we hope The Legends of the Nittany Valley can be a guide. So, too, are Dr. Novak’s books Is Penn State a Real University? and The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

All around us are ways to discover the cultural and spiritual landscape of the Nittany Valley, just as efforts like the Mount Nittany Conservancy impart an appreciation for the beauty of our physical landscape. To be a part of the future we’ve got to  be a part of the landscape, and to do that we’ve got to encounter it.

As we progress, the past paradoxically calls out to remind us why we beat on.