Note: My Off the Beaten Path travel post will appear next week.
I saw that poet and author Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt just released two new books “Poems from the Battlefield” and “What Would You Rather Be? a game for kids of all ages.”
For a few years during my childhood, we lived near Manassas National Military Park in Northern Virginia (one of Katherine’s favorite poetry places). I have wonderful memories of running on the trails there and posing for pictures next to cannons. With my dad being career military, I have always been interested in history—especially from the Civil War period.
This is a summary of Katherine’s battlefield poetry book:
Poems from the Battlefield captures unique aspects of the Civil War in Manassas and Prince William County, Virginia. Using persona, metaphor, photos and quotes, Gotthardt brings readers from contemporary park experiences back to the days of the Civil War, offering multiple perspectives and rare insight.Katherine was also gracious enough to speak with me about her Civil War project:
Gotthardt does not seek to relay details of history or battles. Rather, she offers a collection of powerful impressions, images, and emotion, as well as obvious bewilderment at how easily we invite our own destruction.
Question #1With my second question, I was curious if she was seeing the same types of property crimes that Gettysburg National Park has experienced. It is difficult to write about a historical landmark if it is consistently being defaced. Fortunately, that has not been Katherine’s experience.
Me: What inspired you to write poems about Manassas and Prince William County?
Katherine: I moved to PWC in 1999. Having two small children, I realized I needed some meditation space, and as they grew to school-age, I had more time to explore those spaces. Manassas Battlefield Park was the most obvious and intriguing choice.
For at least two years, I spent 5-6 hours per week there, hiking and taking photos. The hikes thrilled me. I kept finding more and more trails, seeing more and more wildlife and learning more and more about what happened in those fields. It was quite an adventure.
Since I've always written poetry, it seemed natural that poetry made a nest in my head whenever I went out there. I wrote a few poems based on my impressions, but it wasn't until I came out with "Poem from the Battlefield" that I realized I had a theme going. I wasn't in any particular hurry to get a book out, but my long-term plan was to use my hiking time to think, write and daydream while getting healthier.
In 2005, I was the victim of a rape (mentioned briefly in the book's afterward). Among other things, the trauma prevented me from hiking the way I had prior. Though the crime didn't take place in the Battlefield, I was no longer capable of going many places without having panic attacks. I continued to work on the poetry, but by then, it was taking a darker turn.
My own battle with PTSD and depression worked as conscious and unconscious metaphor within the Civil War poetry focusing on the people I imagined had lived through the battles in Manassas and PWC.
As I got better, I wanted to walk the battlefields again, but I needed something closer and less remote. I had been putting off going into Brentsville (because it seemed I was always on my way to someplace else when I passed) but finally got in there. What a treasure! I got to tour the Courthouse Center and Bristoe Station. The more I learned, the more I took pictures, the more I wanted to get back to my Battlefield collection.
In the meantime, I checked out the Manassas Museum a few times. All I can say is, I am thankful for the people who have worked to preserve the history of this area.
By the time I got down to the final book revisions, I realized I wanted more than what I had started out with which were a couple of light, pretty pieces about trails, fields and forests. I wanted to get into the psyche of the people who had lived through the war. I wanted to really connect with these people because I believe that is the only way to really understand history, especially if we are not historians, which I am not. To understand history, we need to understand the people.
It turned out to be quite a healing process. When I looked at what had happened then, what is happening now in our country, and what has happened in my own life, I had this mind-blowing feeling of connectedness between ages. I know that probably sounds silly, but for me, it was a major "Ah Ha!" moment that put everything in perspective.
I came away from the writing believing certain truths. Among those are:
1. Our country, from the federal level down to the local levels, is still in a civil war. We just don't see as much blood.
2. Most of us have a disconnect with history we have not personally lived. It isn't real to us. It's still too easy to dismiss as irrelevant.
3. Historical and natural preservation are highly valued by some, but not by enough. Compared to other countries, our history is short. We MUST preserve as much of that as we can, not only intellectually and in print, but physically, as we move into the future.
4. "History" might not be what first comes to mind when you hear PWC or Manassas, but it SHOULD be. When people hear "Gettysburg," they think "history." It should be no different here. This area is so much more than it is currently perceived to be.
Me: During your visits to these sites, did you see vandalism or other criminal activity as a threat to preserving the area’s history?
Katherine: I saw only a few minor things when I was hiking the Manassas Battlefields, particularly in the more remote areas (which I used to visit alone, but not anymore).
Stuart's Hill, Manassas Battlefield's most recent acquisition, still has piles of "stuff" like tires and rusty car frames, that kind of thing, within site of the trails. There is evidence of partying going on--beer bottles and such. I often wonder if homeless people camp out there, but I've never seen that because the park is closed at night.
Stuart's Hill also has a large hill full of junk that was dumped. Last time I saw the pile (3 months ago?), it included a stove, tires, etc.
Once when hiking Stuart's Hill, I saw three guys (late 20's?) off the trail. It looked like they were digging behind a log or something, and they looked up in that way that tells you they weren't supposed to be doing whatever it was they were doing. Since I was still in my PTSD era when I saw this, I was completely freaked out and imagined the worst.
I have never seen vandalism on the monuments at any of the sites I've visited.
Thanks to Katherine for her inspiring story and best wishes with the books.