Imagination and the Preservation of Culture

I didn’t get a chance to blog last week because I was on vacation in Puerto Rico with my husband, with only one laptop (his) between us. When I’m on vacation, I prefer to be as fully “present” as possible, so I didn’t ask for access to the laptop for much more than researching where we would stay and what we would see the next day.

Despite distancing myself from the Internet, traveling always gives me the itch to write. It makes me see the world in new ways. It takes me away from all the day-to-day demands on my time and my mind. It challenges me to dream.

In Puerto Rico, we visited two sites of particular historical significance. One was the Castillos de San Christobel and de San Felipe de Morrow, fortresses that were built to guard San Juan as early as the 1500s and used for military defense all the way up until the 1960s. The other was the the Indian Ceremonial Center at TIbes, where artifacts from ancient times were first discovered after a hurricane washed away the soil covering them in 1975.

Entering San Christobel’s tunnels

As we explored these places, I found myself grateful that humans, as a species, can agree that our past is important to preserve, examine, and continue to discover. Undoubtedly large amounts of money and labor have gone into preserving the significant places that remain, and a cynic might ask what the purpose is. We can, after all, learn about history through reading; why is it important to keep these places intact, when they might be used for businesses to turn a profit and create jobs, or to feed families?

The cliche, and obvious, answer is that by learning about our heritage and our past, we can continue to evolve as a species and make better decisions about our present and our future. But there’s something else there, too. These places continue to intrigue us because we have the ability to imagine. Because they help take our minds deeper into themselves than we might be able to go on our own. We each have only one life to live (the possibility of reincarnation aside), and yet, by reading and exploring new places and new times, we can have the opportunity, just for a few moments, to taste what another life might have been like. And this, somehow, makes our own lives more meaningful, reminds us that we are not alone as the tapestry of history continues to unfurl.

The view from atop San Felipe de Morrow.

Many of the plaques in the castles invited visitors to “imagine” what it might have been like for soldiers marching through the tunnels from one end of the castle to another, or to look out on the ocean and see an enemy ship approaching. A group of tourists (possibly drunk) stood at a lookout point on the sixth floor of San Felipe and yelled, “The British are coming!”, as if they were children immersing themselves in imagination at the playground. At the Ceremonial Center, my favorite part was listening to the guide explain, in detail, the ceremony indigenous people participated in when one of their chiefs died. Part of the ceremony involved getting the chief’s favorite spouse incredibly drunk, so she or he could, at the end of it all, be buried with the chief and go to the next world with him or her. The guide said, “They got her drunk to be merciful, so she wouldn’t be frightened when they buried her; and because it made their jobs easier, and she wouldn’t struggle. These people were primitive, but they were not stupid.”

An ancient “calendar” formation — the triangles uncovered represent the points of the sun, with 12 of them in the complete circle.

And for a few moments, standing on the edge of rock formations that had the same sort of significance to the tribes of Puerto Rico that Stonehenge held for the ancient peoples of the UK, I could live what they lived.

This ability to imagine ourselves in other lives is one of the greatest gifts of humanity. It imposes on us the importance of preserving Stonehenge, the Castillos in Old San Juan, and the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico. More importantly, in opens up our capacity for compassion, as our hearts ache over those who were killed in the Holocaust, or beat faster with fear when we imagine an enemy ship on the horizon. As writers, we probably spend more time in the realms of imagination than most people do. But visiting places from the past that have been lovingly preserved reminds us that we are not alone in our desire to understand and to create more and more. Instead, we are part of a vast network of scientists, historians, curators, librarians, travelers, and others who are dedicated to preserving and exploring what it means to be human–we are in good company, indeed.