SMOKY MIRRORS AND FRACTALS
History can be perceived as a network of highways and byways along which cultures and people, the small as well as the recognized great, are traveling. The highways connect the major centers of humankind along with the most notable events and personages, usually in the political sense, but on occasion of a more subtle intellectual or spiritual nature. If perceived at all, this highway of intellect and spirit is ordinarily viewed only through a smoky mirror held up to the physical landscape. To a greater or lesser degree independent of the highways are the paved roadways, back roads to little-known places and the unpaved byways historians may overlook. These are the diminishing fractals1 of history – upon viewing indistinguishable from the larger views, but contributing to events perceived on those larger scales. Within the fractal layers the smoky mirror can be cleared to reveal a vision of human relationships with the surrounding environment too often missed or studiously ignored by historians.
In this effort to travel the fractal layers and to clear the mirror, the points of departure are found among the prehistoric cultures of Europe and North America. By way of the highways, but diverting onto the intersecting byways, the focus moves from broad cultures to smaller ones and then on to more personal lineages among the participants and local observers. Simultaneously, the scale travels downward from continents to the North American region known as New England and through the fractals to the Connecticut coast, ultimately reaching the scale represented by the shoreline from Branford2 eastward to Hammonasset and the relationships between cultures and individuals and the shoreline lands and waters. Here the voices of scholars, the tellers of stories and representative residents, mingling past and present, guide explorations in pursuit of the ways in which the shoreline continues to nourish people spiritually as well as physically. Here those scholarly voices are the background yielding to those of participants in the small events contributing to the great ones that resound in the articles and texts of academia.
While such indigenous sources have been altered both contemporaneously and through subsequent interpretations, among First Nations folklore and oral narratives provide the voices with the strongest connection to places and times. Over the years the voices of English settlers have been compiled from diaries and letters as well as more official documents. Certain of their descendants in spirit if not blood continue gathering the lineages of relationships to the land.
As the road narrows to follow the shoreline, the focus turns from cultures to their individual members. Over recent historical times,3 the character of cultural sacred places has been dissipating. Now places tend to retain their special nature among individuals, for some still sacred. The voices chosen here convey senses of continuity with the land and waters, expressed on an intimate personal level as the larger view perceived by historian swarms past, often sweeping environmental features aside, figuratively as well as physically.
Traditional historical accounts of New England ordinarily take the environment for granted. The spotlight falls on personages and the great events of discovery, contact with native peoples, the spectrum of political interactions, the wars, statehood, nationhood. For the most part the land and its features are lost in the mist of times and events, relegated deep into the background. Here, the land with its features, both material and of emotion and spirit, is brought to the foreground as a major participant in events large and small. Connecticut’s shoreline has been deeply appreciated from the era of primal cultures to that of today’s summer visitor. As the question of why so many interests have converged on the shoreline emerges, answers may be found in acknowledging that local history is “written on the land,” with every age “characterized by the way . . . peoples used the land and water.”4
When the European explorers and colonists came to New England shores, they brought with them their own cultural images of places, sacred and special. That there were in fact parallel lines of relationship to place on the two continents becomes apparent, but it is worth remembering that contemporary estrangements from the sacred and from relationships to environments – places – is a relatively modern development. Unfortunately, that contemporary estrangement is neither solely the province of European-Americans nor entirely voluntary.5
1. Fractals are one aspect of the highly mathematical science known as chaos theory. In essence, chaos theory holds that scientific analyses, reductionist or holistic, of natural systems can never yield complete predictability because of the high degree of innate complexity. All the components acting on a system can never be fully known. And yet, out of complexity comes order, allowing for some predictability. Because the complexity recognized in chaos theory is limited by so-called strange attractors, limited predictability remains possible. While we in New England, for example, may not be able to predict the weather more than a few days in advance, we do know there will be four distinct seasons over the year and that those seasons will be characterized by certain ranges in temperature and precipitation. We also know that regional climate, as a microcosm of global climate, has undergone a patterned progression of alterations over the millennia of planetary existence. Although those patterns are immense from the human perspective, they are predictable through inferences from geological and biological records.
Some of the order to be found in chaos arises from the limited number of patterns to be found among and within natural systems. Each tree, for example, branches in a distinct pattern, from the largest limb to the tiniest twig. Without some frame of scalar reference, it is impossible to tell whether a view is of limbs or twigs. Similarly, the eastern coastline of the United States can be viewed from a series of scales, from the vantage of outer space to that of the pebbles on a beach. Without a frame of scalar reference, it is impossible to distinguish a strip of coastline representing all of New England from that of only a few inches, feet or miles.
History exhibits a comparable array of fractals. Historians can make sense of the grand scale, made up of layers of decreasing scales. Historians can also grasp any one of the smaller levels of scale in the context of the grand. All historians, however, should reflect on those scales above and below that of immediate interest.
For more on chaos theory for the general reader, see John Briggs (1992) Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos: A New Aesthetic of Art, Science, and Nature. New York: A Touchstone Book.
2. For the most part modern versions of place names are provided, even when anachronistic in the context. For the First Nation and early English counterparts, see Appendix A.
3. Simmons (1986), Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, at 4.
4.Tedone (1982), A History of Connecticut’s Coast: 400 Years of Coastal Industry and Development, at 1.
5. For an extended discussion of this estrangement see Howell (1997), Environmental Stewardship: Images from Popular Culture, Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.