By Jonah Begone
There is a term I wish to introduce to the reenacting world; I think most of you have experienced it. It is found in a book I read.
Here’s an excerpt from the prologue of Ivor Noel Hume’s excellent book about Jamestown and Roanoke Island, “The Virginia Adventure”:
“…my first encounter with James Fort, on a Sunday afternoon in September, 1956, remains as vivid today as it was when I first caught sight of its pointed palisades thrusting menacingly upward amid the piney woods. As my wife and I returned from a visit to the site of the colonists’ early-seventeenth-century glassmaking venture, the forest was eerily silent; nothing stirred but the occasional towhee scuffling for grubs in the underlying carpet of dead leaves. Even without a twig’s warning crack, imagination had no difficulty conjuring breeze-stirred shadows into painted faces watching and waiting; I needed only the twang of a bowstring and the thud of an arrow to know that I was experiencing what parapsychologists define as retrocognition – stepping back in time. At any moment colonists nervously clutching their muskets and blowing on their fuses behind the palisade might begin firing from between its newly pointed posts.”
I distinctly recall an experience with retrocognition. It was on a Friday in April, 1985. I was sitting in my convertible by the Hillsman House on the Sayler’s Creek (Virginia) battlefield, waiting for the other guys in my regiment to arrive, watching the setting sun turn into the expressionistic orange wafer that Steven Crane describes in the Red Badge of Courage. The air was very still and quiet - the site is somewhat remote - and time seemed to be suspended. The sun hovered over the tree line, and it caused me to think of a piece of avant-garde classical music, George Crumb’s Haunted Landscape, written the year before. In the program notes for it, he describes certain places on Earth where ancient battles could be imagined, or ghostly Indians, the original American inhabitants, stepping about in the woods. At one point in the piece, muted trumpets blow what sound like faraway calls to battle, as if a mere gauzy curtain of time separated the listening audience from the actual event. (When I heard the piece performed in the Kennedy Center, once, I was fascinated to watch the trumpet players perform this part.) The music is very evocative, and at the time suited the setting perfectly. As Ivor Noel Hume experienced in Jamestown in 1956, it didn’t take much to imagine what happened there once – retrocognition, aided and abetted by some well-written music.
Note: If you go to the Sayler's Creek site you can do a 360 degree virtual tour of the area around the Hillsman House and see the Haunted Landscape for yourself!
The year before I flew out to Maryland from Utah, where I was attending college. I was on a trip to interview with a government agency for an engineering position – I was about to graduate. Maryland and Virginia landscapes are very different from the ones in Utah. In Utah, the horizon is almost always visible, or bounded by high mountains. In Maryland and Virginia, where the hand of man has not built anything there is normally a grove of trees, or a small forest. Consequently, there are a lot of evocative glades and woody spots – it’s one of the things I like best about the two states.
I was taking a battery of tests in the upper floor of a building when I chanced to look out the window, where I saw the tree line. Since it was winter, the trees were barren and brown. But, being deeply involved in reading about the Civil War as I was at the time, my imagination began to run away with me, and I could visualize ragged Confederates emerging from the tree line to attack Yanks in blue. As Tom Sawyer observed, “There ain't anything that is so interesting to look at as a place that a book has talked about,” and it therefore took me a few moments to focus my attention back to the task at hand. The fact that no ragged Rebs ever emerged from that particular tree line to engage Yanks in battle didn’t matter much. My imagination was engaged, retrocognition was happening, and I knew then that Maryland and Virginia was where I wanted to live.
In my more than ten years of reenacting the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, I have experienced retrocognition many times, in many places. I am certain that many of you have, as well. Perhaps it’s a defining trait of the past-obsessed people I describe in Jonah’s Chronal Orientation Theory. Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to have a name for the phenomena, and in addition to being grateful to Hume for being the author of many interesting, well-written books, I’m glad he defined it and gave it a name for me.