EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was previously published at Richland Source in 2013.
When I was in high school here in Mansfield, most of my classmates couldn't wait to get out of this town. To them, this was the last place you would want to be caught after you had the opportunity to leave.
But I didn't really feel that way. I know now that the reason I felt differently was because I could see so much more here than they could.
Since the sixth grade, I had been fascinated by local history. That was the year when an old man came to talk to our class. He owned camera shop downtown, was a man who you could look up in the phone book and call, a man who you might see standing on a sidewalk in Mansfield.
This man had actually been on the Titanic. He had an ashtray from the ship to prove it, and a photograph of himself as a little boy sitting in a lifeboat. It was astonishing to my 12-year-old mind to think that my little life and my little town intersected with the great world, and with the epic history of America.
From that day on, I started paying attention to people all around my community, and asking questions to get a clearer understanding of this amazing place where I lived. I collected stories and pictures and artifacts and impressions of other times and other eras that all took place right here in the same place I am today.
I discovered layer upon layer of people who lived in Richland County ever since the time of the glaciers, all of them leaving their soft little footprint in the very soil where I walk.
Richland County rolls on its hills like a comforter spread over a sleeping form, and I was wrapped in that dream with the enthusiasm of a little kid for most of 30 years before I shook off the covers. I knew that in order for me to be an adult I needed to wake up.
So I left home and grew up in California. In that experience, I came to reckon the worth of my life and question what it is that I may have to offer the world. It turned out that what I know best is Richland County and that didn't mean anything out there.
So I came back home.
In the decade since coming, I have had the opportunity to tell many of the stories I know through books and documentaries, and to digitize a vast collection of photographs in order to make them easier to share.
Today, as I look around the county, the land is populated in my imagination by generations of these interesting people from the past who I have heard about and read about, and it adds whole new dimensions that overlay the common world we all take for granted.
When I walk down the street I see not only what is there, but also what was there once, and, ultimately, what could be there yet. Because, in truth, the past is meaningless unless it serves us now in the present, to inspire a richer life, and as a way of powering a better future.