We Live in the Archival Age

We live in an Archival Age. We’re preservers, conservers, collectors. We can’t let things go.

Is there a language spoken by only a hundred people? It must be preserved. A scholar at some small American University will produce a dictionary, records, sets of audio tapes. He’ll hold classes. He’ll apply for grants.

Is there an endangered species? We’re in anguish. Scientists are discovering new species at an unprecedented rate but we are not consoled.

We swear by the theory of evolution but campaign for survival of the less fit. So: the Royal Botanical Gardens (Hamilton and Burlington) tells those who live near the Garden’s many properties that they may not plant Vinca minor (common periwinkle) or Aegopodium (goutweed) in their front or back yards, for fear these fiesty little plants of European origin will find their way into Canadian ravines and forests.

There’s a fine of up to $1,000 for planting them. An RBG pamphlet shows pictures of Vinca and goutweed growing in deep forest cover. The effect is charming: woodsy, modestly colourful. But not allowed. The forest must be preserved as it is, or as it should be, that is, as it was in the nineteenth century.

And spare a thought for the dilemma facing the museum curator when a historically identifiable people asks for return of its artifacts. She wants to see historical peoples flourish, in possession of their traditions. Old ways must be preserved. (Not all old ways, of course. Some favoured ones, especially endangered ones.) But she worries about the artifacts. How will masks, feathers, and totems fare when removed from their expensively sterile, temperature-controlled conditions?

But that’s the story re nature and culture. When it comes to regimes, constitutions, and forms of government, the argument for conservation lapses. Now we’re told that we must evolve, progress, advance! The future beckons and it’s bound to be better. I turn on the computer after a day’s absence to find a dozen or more new e-mail messages from the boys on the Inroads Magazine chat-line, arguing for reform of political representation and the electoral system.

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