Living History, Part One

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland.

Living History

We’ve spent this week tromping around the sights known as ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.’ Before you all flame me for touristing during a pandemic, please understand that it’s basically us and the sheep—that’s the whole reason we came to Orkney. We were looking for nature and isolation, and boy, have we found them.

The day we arrived, we wandered around the remains of a ruined palace, smack in the middle of the little town where we’re staying; the original palace was built in the 1100s. The ‘renovations’ date from the early 1600s. At some point, when I was sort of beside myself with happiness, Lee looked at me and said, “You’re imagining people here, aren’t you?”

Well, yes. Of course I am. Aren’t you?

We figured this out—this difference in the way we see the world—in Berlin, when we first started traveling. I went on a walking tour, and the guide mentioned a friend of his, who creates these amazing photographs. He layers current photos of significant locations in Berlin over old photos of the same spots, and suddenly you can see what the streets around you looked like a hundred years ago. Or in 1945. It was one of the most satisfying things I’d ever seen. It was like this thing that my brain has been doing for as long as I can remember suddenly seemed normal.

Lee says it’s like I have virtual reality playing in my head.

Apparently this doesn’t happen in his head. He looks at a tumble-down cottage in the woods and sees a tumble-down cottage in the woods. And standing stones? Rocks. He sees rocks, in a field.

It’s not a lack of imagination, or curiosity—he has plenty of those things. It’s just that for him, his brain is firmly grounded in the present.

I am at my happiest, my most inspired, my most complete, when I am in a place where the present rests lightly on the landscape, where the outlines of the past give shape and texture to the environment. That’s what grounds me. It’s how I know where I am.

From my writer’s notebook:

Yesterday we wandered around the edges of a bay called Scapa Flow. It’s where the British Navy was headquartered during both world wars. The second time around, when German U-boats were terrorizing the Atlantic, the British had to basically close off one side of the bay, to keep the fleet safe. Today, the waters on the far side of the barriers are littered with wreckage. We crossed the causeway at low tide, and saw the huge, rusting hulks of ships poking up out of the water. It’s eerie. Later, while we were waiting for the bus, I was poking around on the pebbly beach, and realized I was seeing bits of detritus that didn’t really look modern—there’s just a look, you know?

That got my brain spinning—what kinds of artifacts have washed up on those shores in the last 75 years? What might a beachcomber find, when the shoreline is dotted with sunken warships? What kind of stories could that flotsam and jetsam tell?

Take care,


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