Then everyone I talked to for the rest of the day was sad - heartbroken, even - about this fire in France.
Everyone on Facebook was talking about it, too. And I started to see a few people talking about how you shouldn't care about it because it's the Catholic Church, or because it's a symbol of repression or colonization. And I realized that these people don't understand my point of view and were making some pretty broad assumptions about why people care. So I posted this this morning on Facebook:
I'm seeing so much bullshit on the Internet about why we shouldn't care about Notre Dame having a fire - somehow we are bad people for being upset - that we should somehow consider ourselves bad, politically-incorrect people because we are sad about the potential loss of a symbol of colonization and the pedophiliac Catholic Church. But I'm not upset for those reasons. I am upset about Notre Dame because it is a physical representation of our history - one that millions of people see every year. And so many of us have experiences there - or at least have seen pictures and know a bit of what it's about. It ties us to the past, it gives us roots, reminds us of how people can accomplish amazing things regardless of the politics and religion involved. But MOST IMPORTANTLY it gives us a point of reference that we can share with most of the world. It belongs to us all in one way or another.
If Angkor Wat in Cambodia (the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, L'anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Tikal in Guatemala, Petra in Jordan, or any other historic icon) was destroyed or damaged in a fire or other disaster, I would be just as saddened - the only difference being that I haven't personally been to Angkor Wat or any of those other places and would be just a little more devastated for having NOT seen them. For me, this has nothing to do with Europe, nothing to do with colonization, nothing to do with religion. Nothing to do with my personal heritage. This is a piece of the built environment that unites us. I think people are finding that hard to understand because we are now being encouraged to divide instead of unite. We are encouraged to attack Catholics, the wealthy men willing to donate to rebuilt it, the colonizing Europeans. Can we just sit for a moment and appreciate this landmark that so many of us are moved by?
FINALLY! Finally I dug down to the bedrock of my core beliefs. I found the answer to that question that so many people have asked me over the past 30 years:
Why do we study the past?
This question covers them all: why do we care about the built environment? Why do we care about Neanderthals and Homo Erectus? Why do we care about the peopling of North America? Why should we care about slavery? Etcetera, ad nauseum.
I can't tell you how many times people have asked my why I did archaeology. Or why we should care about history. Most recently (on our local Edmonton news): Why should we care that the Rose Country Inn (1904) was destroyed by fire? Watch me try to explain it (not very well) here: https://globalnews.ca/video/5074464/fire-breaks-out-at-historic-hotel-in-wetaskiwin
The pat answer was always someone else's - you should study history, for those who don't are doomed to repeat it.
And that is a really, really good reason to study history - sometimes it feels like we're forgetting everything that came before. Sometimes it feels like the lessons of history are being mocked, ignored, destroyed - but that's another topic altogether.
We study history because we can learn from past mistakes. That answer always covered part of it for me. And it was reasonable. But it didn't cover everything about that question.
And then Notre Dame caught on fire.
And I wrote that piece this morning.
And after that I had an epiphany:
WE STUDY HISTORY FOR THE SAKE OF COMMUNITY.
History brings us together. The Notre Dame fire drew heartbreak from all over the world and joined us all together while we held our collective breath to see how things would turn out. Because people all over the world know what it is, where it is, and at least loosely know how it fits into the past. People all over the world can appreciate the craftsmanship that existed at a time when technology was much simpler than it is today. People can collectively discuss this building from many points of view (even the ones I don't appreciate) and can converse on the topic. We preserve our built environment and study the past because it provides us a place of common knowledge and emotion.
Notre Dame has stood for centuries. Perhaps Captain William Fraser of Brackla (maybe a relative) saw it when he was with the 92nd Gordon Highlanders overseas. Richard Grant almost certainly went to Paris during WWI when he was on leave in December, 1916, and sent three lovely postcards to a family friend in Nairn.
And perhaps my great-grandfather Jack McCurrach saw it when he was in France during the war. A place like Notre Dame can connect generations.
I was lucky enough to see Notre Dame cathedral when I visited Paris briefly in 1986. I couldn't remember if I had gone inside - it was so long ago that I don't have an actual memory of it. But I knew I'd been there. And thanks to the few photographs I took on a crappy camera, I now know I DID see the inside.
Most importantly, though, I can talk to other people about it and come together in community to celebrate it's architecture, mourn the damage, and remind others about why we should care. We are one - and Notre Dame is part of all of us.