In his book “Even Darkness Sings,” author Thomas Cook discusses visiting the world’s darkest places, from concentration camps to battlefields to places of massacre to suicide sites. Cook is drawn to these places because they evoke powerful emotions and because he believes that we all can learn from what we see and how we feel at such places.
I thought of Cook recently, when my family stopped at the Stonehenge War Memorial on a bluff above the Columbia River near Maryhill, Washington. Built as a replica of the better-known ancient Neolithic ruin in England, the Stonehenge War Memorial honors 14 young men from Klickitat County who died in the first World War. (Granted, this is a war memorial, not an actual scene of great human tragedy, like the places Cook addresses in his book. But as it serves as a reminder of a mass surrender of human life, I’m rolling with the parallel.)
We hadn’t stopped at the Stonehenge memorial in years, not since our daughters were in preschool, when we let them run around the memorial, racing from name plaque to name plaque, hiding behind the columns and the altar stone. On that earlier visit, the sun shone on the spring grass, ravens played on wind currents above, and the girls scampered about. We took photos of the kids amidst the pillars.
On this recent stop, however, armed with Cook’s perspective and a new appreciation for respectful observance, I left my camera in the car and simply walked around the memorial, reading the dedication plaque and the names of the dead men. Boys, really — some of them were just 18 or 19 years old.
I watched in judgmental silence as other visitors took selfies, smiling broadly, arms around friends and family members. “Put your phone away and show some respect,” I thought, sanctimoniously aligning myself with Thomas Cook, who found himself enraged while watching teenagers frolic on the French battlefield of Verdun, where nearly 1 million soldiers died during WWI.
But Cook is quick to admit that to condemn other visitors’ apparent irreverence in places like Verdun or Hiroshima or Ground Zero is to fail to recognize that we all process tragedy differently. He points out that by visiting dark places with those close to us, we “remember those [we] were with in a way that is often richer and more touched by tenderness than memories made in places less charged with emotion or deepened by gravity.”
Extrapolating, we might say that later reviewing a photo taken at such a place reminds us of the people we were with and our relationship to them, and thus of our own humanity, and of our connection to other people — to all people, perhaps. Many of Cook’s “dark places” exist because of people’s loss of their sense of humanity — a failure on a vast scale to recognize others and our connections to them. If taking a picture at a burial ground or battlefield serves to remind someone of their own humanity, it’s not cause for censure.
What does this have to do with Winthrop? Clearly, nothing. But I was out of the valley all week, and this is what I was thinking about. I’ll make it a goal to have next week’s column be more relevant. Feel free to help me out.