Stepping Out in Portland

Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city. It’s not too enormous or too small in its harmonious setting between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, which are flanked (on a clear day) by the snowy peak of Mount Saint Helens reaching into a beautiful blue sky.

That’s what Saturday was like at the National Council on Public History Conference, revealing to me just what a walkable, bike-friendly city looks like. I spent one of my breaks eating at Voodoo Doughnut and at various food carts, all while meandering through street fairs and Powell’s Bookstore (their architecture and history sections are like time warps – prepare to lose four hours in a flash). All in all, a good ending to a fantastic four days.

That being said, let’s take stock on the last two days of the conference. Friday morning I moderated a panel with David Brown (the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive vice president), Ian Fawcett (deputy executive director of the Land Conservancy of British Columbia), and Liz Dunn (consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab). The session explored the work of the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) and how climate change is being thought about by their member organizations across the globe. In putting together this panel, I wanted to spread the great information from the INTO conference in Dublin this past year. You can read one attendee’s reaction here.

Following this, I boarded a bus out to Dundee Hills to visit the Sokol Blosser Winery, an organic sustainable winery that is home to the first LEED certified silver wine cellar. The owners of Sokol Blosser understand the need for sustainable farming and viticulture and have adopted it wholeheartedly, managing to convince the vineyards surrounding them to work with them to accomplish their goals. More on that in a bit.

So, what does all this have to do with preservation?

On the one hand, the story of the vineyard speaks to what historians can accomplish (the founders of the vineyard were both history majors in the 1970’s), but it also attempts to answer a question we struggled with earlier in the week – how do we reach the public and show them that sustainability is a part of our future, and more specifically that historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand within that future?

When I first started at the National Trust almost four years ago, I knew almost nothing about how the environmental movement was linked with old buildings (aside, of course, from the role of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in the creation of the National Park System). It took time reading and listening for me to understand why this is an integral part of what we do.

As a public historian/preservationist, it is important to recognize all the ways that history and the past connect with the public, even when this connection reflects highly volatile and controversial current issues like global warming and sustainability. We always throw around the fact that history is relevant in the here and now – that it is an important part of daily life and is ingrained in community character. The acknowledgement of this link between the public at the grassroots level and our role as historians/preservationists/public historians at the professional level needs to happen in sync with the work we do on policy and other legislation.

Let’s take a step back to the vineyard. The owners of Sokol Blosser knew they wanted to have a vineyard that was organic and sustainable, but they knew they couldn’t do it by themselves. So they reached out to their neighbors, trained their employees, and created a mindset within their own community about the importance of being green. Similarly, we recognize that the work we do on this issue is about more than just saving historic places; it is about preserving ecosystems and landscapes that are a part of historic view sheds, and consequently a way of life. We work within our organizations to communicate this belief and to spread the word to our memberships. We are ambassadors that are helping to usher forth an engaged, knowledgeable, and determined public.

Yes, this is a slow process, but it will continue to be advanced by gathering at conferences like the 2010 National Council on Public History/Environmental Historian Conference, where we all stepped out of our disciplinary silo’s and talked to one another.

Also cross posted on the PreservationNation.org Blog and the NCPH2010 Blog.

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