History as a part of science


Santayana’s line at the top of this blog is a key justification for what historians do. Avoiding bad results by studying history is not only an exercise in diplomacy and economics, however. Knowing what happened in the past often offers windows into what is happening today, in economics, diplomacy, education, agriculture, transportation, health care, a hundred other fields, and in wildlife management — and what we should do about it

Ralph Maughn’s Yellowstone region-specific blog is one of my late favorites, Yellowstone National Park being part of my childhood in so many way. My wife and I honeymooned in Yellowstone (in January — have you ever had Old Faithful in the moonlight, with only you and a dozen bison as witnesses, no other humans?). My oldest brother is interred there, after a career that saw him finally achieve recognition in the desert southwest — he still preferred the Yellowstone.

Human observation of the area is too recent to make a lot of long-term predictions. We simply do not know how the enormous ecosystems in that relatively small area behaved in response to natural and artificial changes in the past. So we read these articles talking about change with trepidation. Do they show trends? Is this the future that must be, as Scrooge asked the third angel?

Articles in the Jackson Star-Tribune probably will not be picked up by the news syndicators and published in a dozen newspapers nationally, let alone a hundred or more. News of our National Parks, our national treasures, often is limited to the regions where they are. But they affect all of us. The Yellowstone area strides two river drainage systems, the Missouri to the Atlantic, and the Columbia to the Pacific. It is a centacosm (too big for a microcosm) of what is happening worldwide.

To Yellowstone, we are Scrooge. If only the path we need to pursue to be the new Scrooge were clear, decisions would be easier. And so we study history, seeking sources for history of natural things that can tell us what happened 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, and longer ago.

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