National Medal Winner
Henley, Don, National Humanities Medal, 1997
Suggestions from the fields of music, the environment, literature, and others
"I have managed to give some thought to the matter of potential contents for the National Time Capsule. I will list them with a brief explanation in some cases.
"The first things I thought of were related in some way to my profession--the loudspeaker, the microphone, the electric guitar, the electronic synthesizer, the modern drum kit, magnetic recording tape (both analog and digital), the CD, the DAT cassette and the DVD. All these things have revolutionized the way we make, reproduce, and listen to music. Of course, there are the smaller electronic components including microchips, microcircuitry, transistors, diodes, capacitors, etc. On a more historical note, the banjo is the only stringed instrument that is native to the United States. It is the only truly American stringed instrument.
"Since I am also a staunch environmentalist, I had some thoughts regarding one of the more ‘ironic’ products of our age--fossil fuels. It has been said that we as a nation have been on a ‘petroleum bender’ for the past fifty years. Petroleum products have been the engine of our incredible growth and prosperity as a nation and those same products may also be one of the primary factors in our ultimate demise. The almost unfathomable amounts of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) that we have generated in this modern age have polluted land, sea and sky. We have literally changed the global weather. Yet we continue to pour millions of tons of these waste products into our environment. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the fossil fuel supply on this planet is finite. Therefore, I think you should include some petroleum, both crude and refined, as well as other fossil fuels and petrochemicals. To balance out this rather “non-hopeful” entry, you might also include a storage battery of the type now being used in the electric cars. You might also include photo-voltaic cells. These items would let future inhabitants know that, here at the end of the 20th century, we were trying at least to make the transition to cleaner modes of power.
"Of course, you should include some of the great literature of the 20th century. I think that somewhere there may be a consensus on at least a portion of it. I would personally nominate anything by Wallace Stegner, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Angle of Repose, or a relatively obscure, little work of his called The American West as Living Space. This thoughtful, wise book deals with the idea of limits. I think that our idea of living without limits, which is a particularly American idea, will be our downfall--especially in the area of the environment. Of course, in the future they’ll know about limits--because they’ll have come up against them.
"Given the recent explosion in genetic engineering you might also consider including some seeds (flowers, vegetables) that have not been hybridized or genetically altered. I believe that there is a program at the University of New Mexico that endeavors to discover, catalog and preserve ancient, “original” seeds. Of course, most of these probably date back to times that preceded the 20th century, all the way back to some of the early inhabitants of this continent. Nevertheless, since we have lost so many species (and pure versions of species), I think that some of these seeds would be a good thing to send forward into the future.
"Some hermetically sealed containers of air (possibly from various points around the country) and water (both salt and fresh and also from diverse sources) and soil (same criteria) might be helpful to distant future dwellers, particularly scientists. These things would provide information about the balance, or imbalance, of the components that now make up our atmosphere, our lakes, streams, and oceans, and our land in cities, suburbs, rural and wild areas.
"Also included should be photographs of our ancient redwoods which may disappear in the next century or two. Photographs or samples of other great trees that are native to this country should also be included because they may very well be gone someday. The same goes for animals, particularly the ones that are currently endangered or threatened.
"You might include some films or videotapes although they may disintegrate with time. Ric Burns' ’extraordinary documentary on New York which was recently aired on PBS would be quite appropriate.
"You might throw in a cell phone for kicks. Future inhabitants might find it quaint and amusing."
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