Precious Paper


By Karen Elizabeth Land — originally published in “The Great Falls Tribune” and “Kansas City Tribune,” January 2011.


A black-and-white photograph of my Grandpa Land posing with a shotgun in hand and cigar in his mouth along some nameless creek in a forest probably located somewhere in Indiana revealed a side of my grandfather I never knew.

“Grandpa hunted?” I asked my Aunt Dot when I discovered the photograph in a box of random possessions. Several years ago, I helped her clean out and sell their lifelong home.

“Oh, yeah… he loved to hunt with his buddies,” Dot replied like it was old news.

“What did he hunt?”

“Mostly squirrels and birds.”

A picture is worth a thousand words.

I cherish every old family photograph I find, knowing these single images are one more link to relatives long since passed. I like knowing Grandpa was a hunter. I like knowing he enjoyed the wilderness like I do. I like this photograph.

In another box days later, I discovered a tattered leather wallet bulging with paper and tied closed with twine. Grandpa kept all of his hunting licenses from the 1940s through 1950s. The handwriting and misspelled words on the documents are another rare treasure — Grandpa, who emigrated from Poland as a child, grew up as an orphan in Indianapolis and only had a few years of schooling. I study his signature and feel a trace of his spirit in the careful script.

The things that we leave behind pass along information to those who follow. I would know very little about my family if it weren’t for the photographs, newspaper articles, books, sheet music, record albums, and letters they stashed away throughout their lives.

Nowadays, real photographs are becoming rare. How many digital photos do you actually print to paper? The majority of pictures I’ve taken I view as images on a computer screen.

Boys and girls, it might be hard to believe but once upon a time, we had to develop film in a darkroom before we could take the negatives and print our photographs on paper just so we could look at the images. This physical process created tangible results and hand-held evidence of lives once lived, adventures once experienced.

Without hard-copy photographs to pass along, how will future generations learn about us?

Will your great grandchildren discover in a desk drawer one of your old thumb drives full of photos from that two-week backpacking trip you took in Glacier? And will thumb drives be obsolete when they finally do find it?

In 50 or 100 years, will little Susie run into her great-great aunt’s Facebook Page, and discover that her distant relative once loved horseback riding as much as she does? Will Facebook still exist in 50 or 100 years?

Will that digital photograph frame you got for Christmas live as long as you do? Is there an electronic device that isn’t disposable?

As handy as computers and smart phones and digital cameras are, it seems to me the safest way for images to survive through multiple generations will be in the form of real paper, not electronic gadgets. So much family history and information will be lost as technology advances and we fail to keep up.

I know what you’re thinking so go ahead and say it.

“Poor Karen, she’s totally old-school.”

I won’t argue. I use technology daily, yet I try to do it with care and caution. Instead of drooling over the latest hot device, I try to think of ways I can reduce these expensive and short-lived trappings from my life.

As I discover old family photographs, I scan them into my computer and make prints for the family. I try to go through my new pictures in IPhoto every few months and print the good ones, passing those out as well.

I don’t want to depend on a screen to enjoy my life, family, and friends.

I like real framed pictures, hanging on real log cabin walls.

The photo of my grandpa with his shotgun tells me that he was a hunter; a stack of hunting licenses means he was a devoted one.

Grandpa’s folders of sheet music reveals his love of ragtime; I always wondered what tunes he played on that banjo I now own.

My grandmother enjoyed the Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley; she wrote “Return to Helen Land” inside every cover.

I cherish my great, great grandfather’s Civil War diary.

In the future, if most of our personal human artifacts are trapped inside of devices, buried in the endless muck and chatter of the Internet, hidden behind screens and passwords, how will our descendants stumble across and put together the puzzle pieces of our past?

That’s just me, wondering…

One thought on “Precious Paper

  1. You’ve struck another chord with this one. I try to save hard copy of whatever I write, but many of my earliest efforts exist only on obsolete floppy discs I can no longer access, and a hard drive crash seems to have eaten a large number of photographs. A bit of arrogance to think anyone would ever care in my case, but will an original Steven King first floppy ever rival a Shakespeare first folio? I suspect not.

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