When the girls were young, the three of us took road trips over the Father's Day week-end. We never made plans. We just headed out in a direction they chose and stopped when we got somewhere interesting.
One year, we wound up in Natchez, Mississippi. Forgetting how much I love the history of a place they ended up with me on a double decker bus tour seeing all the grand homes, getting a feel for the history of Natchez and how it developed from a small huddle of tents on a riverbank in the 1700's to become by 1850 the home of fully half the millionaires in the United States.
As we rode (and they dozed) in the sweltering summer heat it gradually became clear there were four stages of development in Natchez with each phase producing a different set of innovations and leaders.
Stage 1 brought pioneers and pirates. Life was rough and tumble for a Natchez that was barely a foothold on the riverbank. No one knew if they were going to survive and those who did were unusual people. Life was uncertain. The wildness was everywhere.
But Stage 1 also forced a number of innovations along the river. The pioneers needed better maps and improved tools for navigation. They needed new weapons for protection and so created a whole system of forts and posts that made it possible for the next wave of people to come.
Stage 2 brought the traders. Life was relatively safe as traders don't like risk that outweighs opportunity. There were markets to be explored and companies to be built along the banks of the river. The traders loved traffic! The word "commerce" literally means "to traffic wares" and that is what they did. But they needed a way to move those wares to the markets and exchange them for goods they could not buy or make in the frontier. The two great innovations of the traders were the organized system of trading companies stretched north and south - and the use of steamboats for getting their goods back and forth. The traders changed Natchez from a settlement to a city.
Stage 3 was the era of planters. The magnificent antebellum homes of Natchez were built by the planters. These were not homes built on plantations for those were in other parts of the state or in other states altogether. These were the townhouses of the plantation owners. Life was genteel and cultured. Planters traveled to Europe and imported the finest materials and products of the world. This was the period of great wealth and comfort for plantation owners of Natchez. The focus of most innovations in this period was making life even more comfortable: plate warmers, indoor plumbing, fly catchers and ceiling fans.
Stage 4 began with the decline of Stage 3. Now was the era of preservers. There are hundreds of people in Natchez today dedicated to keeping these homes and churches as close to their original condition as possible while thousands of others make their living because those people do their work so well. The business of Stage 4 is preserving the glory of Stage 3. People come from all over the world to tour the remains of Stage 3 and even though the innovations are not as exciting as those for pirates, pioneers and traders but they are breakthroughs in paints, sealing wax and preservatives. Innovations all the same.
Each of us would fit best with a particular stage, I suspect. The benefit of our individual lives though is we get to live through all of them as we get older. There was a time for being a pirate and soon (for me) there will be a time for preserving those things I have learned to value and have built over the years. Not much glory, perhaps, but things I want to keep.
And that is more hazardous than the times of pirates and pioneers. We can become so cautious that we cease growing. We stop renewing in our efforts to preserve. John Gardner in his book, “Self-Renewal” wrote, “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.” This is what happens when the innovations in our lives become sealing wax, paints and preservatives. What we need is renewal and revitalization instead of perfecting ways of simply remaining. Of course, it is true for our communities as well. Renewal in a society begins with individuals who continue to grow, challenge, explore and risk. “The great virtue of a free people is to be a fertile seedbed for new ideas,” Gardner writes and, “the capacity to germinate is in the individual seed. And the source of creativity for the society is in the person. Renewal springs from the freshness and vitality of individual men and women.”
We cannot and should not try to reverse the process but, instead, renew the person and our place. That is the next stage, isn’t it?
Art by Gary Lucy