Hundreds of sandy, verdant islands, have vanished against the eroding tide in the Chesapeake Bay since John Smith first ventured into the great, blue estuary in 1607. Peaceful, rural Oakland Mill disappeared beneath the rising waters of Liberty Reservoir in the 1950s. To the north in Pennsylvania, overgrown lots and crumbling sidewalks are lingering echoes of the small towns of Centralia and Byrnesville, dismantled in the 1980s as massive coal fires burned away the ground beneath them.

Our age is, in a broad sense, very similar to others; yet our age is distinct in the particulars. Every generation experiences the push and pull between the past and the present. The circumstances will change — the people and personalities, the ideas and movements, the tragedies, challenges, events, and achievements — but the enduring struggle between the past and the present remain.


Every generation wants to improve upon the past. Every generation wants to see things get better in the present. No one intentionally wants to make things worse (even if they end up being wrong). Progress, unstoppable and unhindered growth and change — the future, some say, cannot be built upon the past but can only be built once the past is undone and cleared away.

But who among us, honestly, wants to let every important part of ourselves disappear? No one would build anything if they did not seek to make a difference — whether it is raising a family or raising a barn roof or raising up ideas. We want things that are good to last.

We have all, at some point, felt that moment of time suspended, of happiness, of stillness, of love, of God’s presence, where time does not seem to matter — and yet, the moment ends and the hours move on. We cannot resist time. I have tried, and failed. I have stood out in the cool dark of summer night and watched the drifting glow of fireflies, like constellations, rearrange a thousand times across the shadowed fields, endless patterns, never the same twice no matter how much time seemed to slow and more patterns emerged — and still the morning came. We cannot keep such moments except in our hearts.

And we cannot take things with us, but we can pass things along behind in time. Conservatism comes from love of what we have, philosopher Roger Scruton explains; and conservatism is the answer to questions. Those questions relate to the human condition (What is our purpose? What is the best way to live? etc.) and it is through human experience that our customs and traditions develop as we discover the truth about ourselves and our world, beginning with God as the foundation of everything. Truth is not something imagined or politically constructed, but realized in our human experiences.

This is why the moral and philosophical tenets of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution resonate so loudly, remain relevant, and remain critical to articulate and protect. They deal in truth and timelessness. They are manifested in our being by our Creator, and we have enough sense to discover the truth.

It may seem a paradox that something so timeless should be borne along by creatures like us, bounded in on all sides by time. But our tenuous, human hold on truth makes it something all the more valuable because it does not belong to us alone. We have, as Edmund Burke explained, inherited it from those who came before, and we will leave it for those who follow in our steps. It only makes sense to leave what we love behind for those whom we love. To be a conservative is to recognize that someone other than you matters, and that a time other than yours counts. Time cannot be kept, so better to make the most of the fleeting moments that we grasp for, like autumn wind.

We demonstrate our understanding of those truths in the way we live our lives and in the place that we call home. It is why island residents clung to rapidly diminishing tears of land against a rushing tide; or why town residents held onto the burning ground churning poisoned air and eating away the earth beneath their feet; or why town residents watched in agony as the place that they had lived their lives became a source of drinking water for others, elsewhere. It wasn’t just a place changing, but a way of life vanishing.

But just as we have enough sense to discover the truth, but we also have the capacity to bury it. We assume things about, or attempt to rework human nature. We tear down things in the name of progress, or because we believe we know better, now, than thousands of years of accumulated knowledge grounded in human experience. That does not mean we shouldn’t strive to make things better. It means we should be both perceptive and understanding of the truth and of the past in our efforts.

Because when we act rashly, or change without consideration of truth, we make things worse. The tragedy comes in realizing what you have lost, and knowing it could have been prevented. Disappearing islands, dismantled towns, and reservoir-flooded valleys compose a firefly-spectral constellation of the past, a menagerie of human history. In some places, people tried their best; in others, they simply did not know; and elsewhere, more could have been done. And, in some, like the totalitarian regimes of socialist states, evil was deliberately committed.

In Carroll County, throughout the United States, and across Western civilization, truth remains something each of us must strive to protect in even the simplest daily things we do amid the tidal sway of past and present, change and saving what we love. Time is not ours to keep, but truth is ours to uphold.

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at