Sunday, May 27, 2007

Living history

"Living history" has a normal meaning these days as a form of historical re-enactment or re-creation that is fairly strict in its efforts at accuracy.

I'm using it here in another sense -- as "history" that is still around. Like Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles.

Once upon a time the place "fast food" occupies in North America today was held by cafeterias, which were a feature of the downtown areas where many jobs were located. If I remember family stories correctly, my grandmother worked for years in one called "Koontz's."

Well, the tide has been going out for such cafeterias for a long time now, but thanks to the LA Times (upon which may blessings shower down), I now know that even in the home of modern suburbanization some cafeterias still survive, including one of the most distinctive, Clifton's Brookdale branch. According to the story by staff writer Larry Gordon, this place has been serving the same food, to some acclaim, since 1935, when it opened.

Even better, it still preserves the original decor: a simulated redwood forest which includes "a waterfall, a tableau of a family fishing for trout and a tiny inspirational chapel perched on a rocky ledge."

As an architectural historian named Chris Nicols says."It's incredible to have a total immersive environment from the '30s that you can just walk into for the price of a cup of jello."

(The picture above is from this blog which includes the unprompted comments of a young customer.)

Not exactly my usual early history (before railroads, I like to think) but on the other hand its not exactly easy to find an undisturbed human environment that is over 70 years old. I was in New Delhi in 2005 and you'd be hard-pressed to find one there. There are a few sites that are centuries old but most of the rest has been built quite recently.

I can only echo the person in the article who said, roughly, "get out an enjoy these things while they are still there."

On a related theme, what about a feature of my own country that I never heard of, that has been called "the eighth wonder of the world," which has been fairly undisturbed for the last 1.3 million years?

In Northern Quebec, over a million years back, a huge meteor hit the ground, creating a 3.44 km wide crater that actually sticks out of the ground. It's been there ever since, collecting rain water that, thanks to being isolated from pesky primates, is very, very pure. It's called Pingualuit Crater (this site provides a permalink usable in Google Earth)and there's a very good article in the Globe and Mail about it.

The purity of the water in the absence of a local population and natural groundwater inflows means the sediments that do exist should be a valuable record of the climate, and more, over the past million years or so. Indeed, scientists have just drilled out a core and are no doubt hard at work on it.

There are days when I think the past is utterly lost, and we just have the present and its evidence for preceding mysteries. This is not one of those days.

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