In Rome or in Pottsville, the past is all around us
My mother's house in Pottsville sat atop the southern tip of the Mammoth Vein, one of the richest deposits of anthracite coal in the world, one of the most twisted and tortuous as well.
As children, we played in the woods behind our home, scuffing our sneakers on outcrops of shiny black coal that we "mined" with sticks and stones. Coal was there for the taking, at the surface of the earth, and we played with it the way other children play with sand at the ocean's edge.
The front windows of my mother's home looked out at Sharp Mountain, where, in the mid-19th century, outcrops of coal lured ambitious entrepreneurs into believing that all they had to do was scratch the surface to tap into rich veins of anthracite. They tried it and soon came up against rock and shale.
When she sat in her bedroom at the back of the house, my mother could see all the way to the crest of Broad Mountain. Through the trees, she saw a row of houses in York Farm, once company housing for miners. Further north, she could make out the contours of a strip mine. On the clearest of days, the co-gens lining the crest of Broad Mountain sent up visible signals of smoke and ash.
My mother died when she was 91 years old. When she was younger, in the autumn, when Schuylkill County foliage was at its peak of beauty, she liked to hike to the water tanks on Sharp Mountain and look out over the Indian Run reservoir. In a little book I have in my apartment in Paris, "The History of Schuylkill County," published in 1950 by the Pottsville School District, I read that Indian Run Valley was where "Indians sought shelter after carrying out attacks."
Seated in her home, looking out its windows or walking nearby, my mother took in a limited territory, but in terms of time, her gaze could span millions of years. Beneath her house and on the slopes of Sharp Mountain exist visible, tangible signs of geographic activity that began more than 300 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian stage of the Carboniferous period, which marked the beginnings of the slow birth of anthracite.
In terms of time that our minds can grasp, Indian Run carries us back to the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century, when British troops, stationed at Fort Lebanon, pursued Native Americans to a stream in Indian Run Valley. Arriving too late, they found campfires still burning, but the warriors had eluded them.
Closer still to home in time and space, at the York Farm Colliery in 1892, a mine-gas explosion left 15 miners dead. One of those killed was named Chris Honicker. I wonder if he is a distant relative of mine.
At this point readers may be asking themselves why, sitting in my Parisian apartment, I am busy digging up Schuylkill County's past. The answer is that I've just been to Rome, where the past is everywhere, a part of everyday life, a part of the present, impossible to overlook or to forget.
Of course, there is all the resplendent glory of ancient Rome and of the Renaissance, co-existing in perfect harmony atop the Capitoline Hill at the city's heart. There, Renaissance palaces flank a piazza designed by Michelangelo, and a 12th-century church supposedly marks the spot where a Sibyl announced to Caesar Augustus the coming of Christ.
Quite modest in size but enormously significant to the history of Rome, the Capitoline she-wolf, which may date back to the fifth century B.C., looks down on the crowds as she suckles Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.
And that's just one hill, one small hill in a city that includes seven, none remarkable in size, but each one a veritable Everest in terms of its multi-layered history. Above the red-tiled rooftops of Rome, atop Vatican Hill, the dome of St. Peter's, another creation of Michelangelo, dominates the skyline and the history of the Catholic church.
On the Palatine Hill are the ruins of the magnificent palaces of Caesar Augustus and his wife, Livia, overlooking the Circus Maximus, where chariot races were once run.
In her dowry, Livia brought to Augustus a beautiful summer palace to the north of Rome. In the National Roman Museum, you can still visit one of its rooms, a painted garden, where frescoes more than 2,000 years old are as fresh and alive as if they were painted yesterday.
Roman hills also enclose underground treasures. On Celio Hill, across from the regal ruins of the Palatine, you can travel down a staircase to visit the homes of ordinary Romans alive in Caesar Augustus' time. Above ground, not far from a major hospital and crowded city streets, chickens cluck and scratch the ground while sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the order to which Mother Teresa belonged, tend their vegetable garden and prune fruit trees.
There are also less glorious hills, not counted among the traditional seven, such as Testaccio to the south of Rome. Its name refers to "testae," which are shards of pottery, the material of which the hill is composed. Here is where ancient Romans tossed their unwanted earthenware jars. Later, it became the city's meatpacking district and today the former slaughter houses have been turned into a museum of contemporary art.
Wandering through the streets of Rome one day, I almost literally tripped over a ruin, some ancient stone jutting out from the side of a building, and everywhere, even in the most modern neighborhoods, I came up against Roman columns, walls and statues that artfully blend in with the new.
In Rome there's no tearing down the past. You simply build around it, which may be why it took 16 years to construct one line of the Roman metro - new archaeological finds were always slowing down the works.
Rome is not an easy city. It is crowded and noisy, just like cities everywhere yet it is also different, perhaps because the present has not forgotten the past. It's not like Paris, where the past has been turned into a monument, solemn and imposing, nor like many places in the United States, where too often it has simply been torn down.
In Rome, the past is a companion, a wise counselor. It does not haunt its citizens, as a forgotten past often does. It inhabits them, enriching their lives, a friendly spirit that reminds them that the ground on which we walk, always and everywhere, resonates with history.
(Honicker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)