Philip the Second is an afterthought. That’s what a college professor once said. We were reading Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The professor was pointing out the significance of the book’s title. Philip II comes at the end, and he’s really just the name for an Age, an Age defined by The Mediterranean and The Mediterranean World. The beginning of the book is mostly about geography, weather, seasonal migrations of various kinds of animals. Braudel was of the Annales School, a group of historians for whom history ought to be told in the little stories, the ground level (literally), the details of life as it is experienced by the mostly unnamed creatures who toil for their time and then pass away.
Wandering through the New York State Museum in Albany, I had the sudden realization that I was exploring a three-dimensional Braudelian space. Here was the attempt to capture, in fragments and chunks, the fine-grained details of life as it was lived in this region — by man, beast, and shrubbery alike — over the last 400 years. The dioramas and models are anachronistic in this digital age, but somehow they work anyway. I’m not entirely sure why they do; perhaps it is best explained in the exhibit of a reconstructed subway train from early in the 20th century. It contains the life-sized model of a young woman riding the A train. A nice-looking girl, she also seems annoyed. Her expression says, “Damn I hate riding this train.” The same thing could be said of the prehistoric mammoth in another scene; he’s just cold. Or take the skull of a man from the cemetery of a 19th-century flophouse. His skull is a wreck and the wall description surmises that he probably died from getting his ass kicked too many times. Life was hard. Life is hard still. In being true to that basic fact, the New York State Museum has made low-tech a virtue.
Of the various modes of life found in New York State over the last few million years, the museum pays some extra attention to New Netherland. In this country, we tend to tell a story about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, about the war with England that led to independence and, even, about the crucial role of the French. The fact that New York was New Netherland before it became New York is generally glossed over. But the good people at the New Netherland Project in Albany struggle on, translating and making available tons of documents written in 17th-century Dutch. A recent translation is Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of New Netherland first published in 1655 and never properly translated into English until now. Van der Donck discusses such topics as “Vegetables Generally,” “Avifauna, Aquatic and Terrestrial, and First the Raptors,” and “Poisons.” He throws out such observations as, “the summer days are warm and long enough to complete whatever one wishes to do or to amuse oneself, while in winter the time always seems to have flown before one fully realizes it.”
But the most extraordinary parts of Van der Donck’s book are the passages where he describes the ways of the Native Americans. New Netherland was Dutch. But more fundamentally in the 17th century, it was Algonquian and Iroquoian. As a cop in the Upper Hudson during the mid-17th century, Van der Donck spent a fair amount of time with those natives, sometimes engaging in vigorous theological debate. He describes an argument in which he tried to prove that God, being infinite and omnipotent, could outmatch any demon or devil that might be lurking about. The natives respond that God spends much of his time in heaven with a favored goddess. “With this goddess or beauty he passes and forgets the time, being deeply attached to her, and meanwhile the devil plays the lord on earth and does whatever he pleases.” Van Der Donck claims otherwise, but I think it is safe to say the Iroquoians came out ahead in that philosophical debate.
New Netherland is gone now, barely a memory. The Iroquoians and Algonquians are now only present in the strange names of towns and rivers that made their way onto the maps of the New World (Poughkeepsie originally meant “the reed covered lodge by the little-water place”). The flora and fauna of that time is now all mixed up with everything that’s been imported and exported over the years (we have palm trees now). The beavers, the young of which Van der Donck noted “can be made as docile as a pup and never bite or get cross, however much one teases them,” no longer dominate the waterways with their incessant building. The overlapping worlds that made up New Netherland in the 17th century have faded, or been destroyed, or pounded into something new. But there are little fragments of that lost time preserved in a not-terribly-well-attended-but-nonetheless-special memorial to past experience open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in Albany, New York. • 9 February 2010