Wednesday, April 30, 2014

History as the Observation of Change

History is only the observation of change.

I was reminded of that in a recent article in the “Prairie Fire” newspaper. Dr. Paul A. Johnsgard wrote a lengthy piece on the way the migration of water fowl has changed over the decades he has been carefully tracking various birds.

The advantage that he had is that he had been writing things down over the years. Most of us are more likely to track changes in our own fallible memories.

One of the many things I found that had changed during my 44 year lapse of Clay County residency was how deer had become common in this area. Suttonites who wanted to hunt deer during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s had to go off on an expedition to somewhere near the Wyoming border. Fifty years later deer are not only commonplace in Clay County but may be even a nuisance.

Another surprise came when I saw large numbers of distinctive little birds at our backyard feeders. They were dark above and white below. I learned they were a type of sparrow called the junco – cute little fellows. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention but I did not remember them on the farm when I was growing up.

European Ringneck Doves, a recent (last 25 years?) immigrant to the U. S. 
A larger bird was a bigger surprise. These guys looked something like the morning doves I remembered well except they were mostly white and a larger bird. Normally when we encounter things from our childhood they seem to be smaller than we remember – not so these birds.

Then I saw an article in the World-Herald describing the European ringneck dove that first appeared in Florida in the ‘90’s and spread quickly across the country. Other sources tell almost the same story about something called the Eurasian Collared Dove. Whatever they are, we’ve enjoyed several years of watching from six to eight pairs in our back yard.

These little wildlife stories illustrate a few tiny examples of local change in which the nature of our wildlife is different now than just a few decades ago. The common pheasant may be a better example. They were introduced into Nebraska about 100 years ago and flourished. For large numbers of Lincoln and Omaha sportsmen in the 1950’s and ‘60’s the word “Sutton” meant “pheasant hunting.” The population seems to have dwindled from earlier levels.

The pheasant example illustrates an important point about history as the observation of change. Do I really know how the population of pheasants has changed over the years? Nope.

One really needs some well-grounded statistics and evidence to make sweeping statements about how things change over time. Otherwise, we’ll make statements of qualitative opinion without stopping to consider the level of certainty we actually have.

So let’s go back to that “Prairie Fire” article by Dr. Johnsgard. He has been called “the Birdman of Nebraska” with something like 50 publications mostly about the birds of this area. This article is titled, “Changing Great Plains Climate and Bird Migrations.”

The author grew up in North Dakota in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s where the peak of fall foliage colors occurred in early September and major waterfowl migration was in October. He moved to Nebraska in the ‘60’s where he reset his fall and spring calendars to expect the fall foliage colors to peak at the end of September and snow geese first appeared in early October with peak sightings at the end of that month.

His fall Nebraska calendar was so reliable that he could confidently reserve an expensive camera many months in advance for his NETV documentary at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge for the third week of October.

Then bird migration patterns began to change. Snow geese arrived at Squaw Creek in the second and third weeks of September, peaked at the first of November and were gone by the end of December. In 2008 through 2012 the peak population of snow geese was at the first of December. In 2013 those birds did not arrive until the end of November and wintered there.

Dr. Johnsgard was observing Canadian geese during this same period seeing their migration being delayed year by year until the early 2000’s when up to one hundred thousand Canadian geese wintered in the Platte Valley.

Bird people make an annual Christmas bird count that provides excellent quantitative evidence adding credibility and a higher level of certainty to the conversation. From 1968-1977 the most common bird in Nebraska was the mallard; the house sparrow was third and the Canada goose fifth. During the ten-year period from 1998-2007 the mallard was still in first place followed by the Canada goose and the house sparrow had dropped out of the top five.

The Canada goose climbed from nowhere to the top position in North Dakota during this time. It now trails only the mallard in South Dakota. It is now in fourth place in Kansas and fifth in Oklahoma. Dr. Johnsgard offers his statistics as a measure of wildfowl reacting to temperatures. Things must have warmed a lot, don’t you think? Actually, it doesn’t seem to take much.

Over the 11 decades between 1895 and 2008 average January temperatures in Nebraska increased by 0.11 degrees Fahrenheit per decade or a total of 1.21 degrees. The corresponding number for North Dakota was 0.44; South Dakota, 0.19; Kansas, 0.10 and Oklahoma, 0.04. That is, warming has been more rapid at northern latitudes – tracks with the breakup of the Arctic ice.

So what is the importance of all the numbers? Answer: evidence.

How many of us have said things like, “Well, I remember when we had snow on the ground all winter, from November into March.” Sometimes we confidently add, “Half the time” or “90% of the time.” Of course, we generally don’t have stat sheets to back that up but too often that doesn’t lessen our certainty. It is a big deal to go to contemporary records, records taken at the time of the happening, to strengthen your story.

Moving to a topic more related to Sutton History: When did Les Bauer close his hardware store? That question could generate a discussion at morning coffee with various and conflicting answers offered with equal certainty, some even right. But some document associated with the closeout sale or a newspaper account during that week should trump our well-meaning but fallible memories. (Young people, references to memory become more meaningful at an ever increasing pace over time.)

History is the observation of change. It is also the observation of things that do not change.

Businesses come and go and there is a sequences of business in specific store fronts in town. But perhaps the personality of Sutton, at least the physical appearance of our town is centered downtown on the west side of the street. We can thank the egos of the builders as they engraved their names and dates of construction on the buildings themselves. We have a Bender building from 1906, the Carney and Woodruff buildings from 1891 and we can date, at a glance, the Central Block to 1887. Not much to discuss there, we have evidence about the history of downtown.

We should take pride in the visible evidence of more than 125 years of our town dating to not much more than a dozen years from the first settlers. We are not alone. There are plenty of opportunities to see how other people take pride in the pieces of their history that do not change – let’s stick with buildings.

The east coast is home to great historic buildings from the colonial period but the western hemisphere can’t
MDCI inscription indicates this
Florence, Italy building dates from 1601.
hold a candle to the east. It kind of takes your breath away to see a date engraved on a building that reads “MDCI.” At first, you want to pronounce it. Then it strikes you that it is the Roman numerals for 1601. Is that telling us that the building was built in 1601? Not quite. That’s when the façade was added. The building was completed in 1481. Perspective: where was Christopher Columbus then?

Rome's Pantheon, in use since ...
way back. 
Then in Rome there is the Pantheon that has been in use for about 1,900 years; it is old enough that a writer in the year 200 was uncertain as to who built or rebuilt it, and when. (Hadrian, 125 A.D.) The Pantheon is an extreme example of a structure with historical significance because it has not disappeared and changed little.

Is Sutton’s Central Block in the same league as Philadelphia’s Independence hall, Renaissance or Roman buildings? Of course not. But the path to 200 or 500 or 2,000 years starts with the first 125.

The Central Block building on the west side of the south end of downtown Sutton, an 1897 vintage structure, old by some standards, not so much by others. 
This article first appeared in the January, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this publication contact Jarod Griess at (402) 983-4203 or LIKE Mustang Media, Inc. on Facebook.

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