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Column: What of the present is worth preserving?


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I took advantage of the beautiful weather to drive down some of the country roads around town. As I was winding my way through the rural landscape, I began to daydream about what this area must have looked like 100 years ago or even 200 years ago.

In 1814, American Indians still occupied much of Indiana. Most Hoosiers were farmers. Few of the buildings from southern Indiana of that era are still with us. Indiana was dotted with mostly forests and wetlands. The landscape had not yet been sectioned off by fences. Columbus was not even a town yet. The United States had been a country for less than 40 years.

There were few roads in southern Indiana in 1814. Bison, wolves, large cats and bears lived here. It would be an Indiana that few of us would recognize. With little artificial light, it would have been a much darker place than where we live now.

It would be almost like an alien planet. A golden age of agriculture was around the corner for Indiana. Farmers would soon use new techniques and technologies to create a breadbasket for the world. But the American Indians and animals are now long gone. In the process, we changed the Indiana landscape forever.

Through the windows, I speed by the remnants of the distant past. I see a few Civil War-era brick houses and crumbling tombstones in tiny cemeteries surrounded by rusting iron fences. But to see the Indiana of 200 years ago, I probably have to take a drive or hike through the Hoosier National Forest.

As my little car zipped along, I thought about what 100 years actually means. On a cosmic scale, a century is just a blink of an eye. On a human scale, 100 years is much longer. One hundred years ago was the start of World War I. In 1914, Columbus had only around 9,000 inhabitants.

Most Hoosiers still lived on farms. Luxuries such as electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing were rare. Most forms of transportation ate hay instead of gas. But Indiana’s immersion into industry and manufacturing was just a few years away. As Indiana industrialized, the landscape changed again. We built cars, highways and suburbs. Hoosiers moved off the farm and into the cities.

As Columbus discusses the future of the Crump Theatre, the old Sears store and the addition of new roundabouts, we will be looking at another change in our landscape. As I twisted my way home, I wondered what the area would look like a hundred years from now.

While it seems so far off, we probably know people (very young people) who will be living in 2114. Will the things that seem so important and concrete to us now be as gone as the bison roaming the Indiana grasslands? I wonder what kind of work the future residents of Columbus will be doing. Will they be working in advanced manufacturing facilities or go back to Indiana’s agricultural roots?

The only constant in the universe is change. Not all change is progress.

I think a lot of times we have taken giant steps backward. The best we can do is to take change, whenever it comes, in stride.

I wonder if in 2114 our descendants will be thinking about preserving anything from 2014. Will they want to keep old cellphone towers, ATM machines, decaying highways and aging fast-food restaurants? I am not sure they will have a lot of romance for our modern world. They might even condemn earlier generations for damaging the environment.

While our present world seems so permanent, even the bricks and mortar are fleeting. At some point in the future, it will either be a historical site or gone forever.

Aaron Miller has a doctorate in history and is an assistant professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College – Columbus.

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