Diana Chew Lane: mother, student, and historian, represents the "point where," as T.S. Eliot put it, "time and timelessness intersect."

She describes herself as a mother, but the context of her maternity extends beyond her immediate family to one that typifies, in a way, the whole history of the American West. Lane and her far-flung relations are the basis of the Ivy Project, a multi-media biography/genealogy research effort at the University of Utah. The endeavor led to the development of an educational CD-ROM created by students, peer teachers, and history professor Dorothee Kocks during winter quarter 1997, in a course titled, "The History of the American West since 1848."

by Stefene Russel

The goal of the Ivy Project, according to Kocks, is to tell the story of the West through the lives of ordinary people, who are not politicians, crusaders, or legends. And this is where Lane and the ivy come in. Through experiences like homesteading, fighting in wars, marrying across racial lines, and religious conversions, unfamous people create history.

I came back to school after 20 years. Lane says, shaking her head. I’d gone to UC Davis, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do back then. I got married, had Carly [now 14], and played the role of a doctor’s wife. When Keith and I got divorced, I decided to go back to school, just to finish I wasn’t that far from my degree.

I’d had my own medical transcription company for years. I’d also worked as a checker at Albertson’s, Which I loved, by the way! But it was hard to go back to school. They hadn’t required an American Institutions class at Davis, so I had to take that which just happened to be the section Kocks was teaching.

When she started talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act I really started to think. I’m from Northern California, my family is basically Chinese. So how did they get here? How did I get here if they weren’t allowing women to come over from China to marry the men who had immigrated? And that was when Dorothee and I started talking. She told me about this idea she had for a class, and she wanted to use my family history as the basis for it. That was the beginning of the Ivy Project

What Kocks envisioned was a "virtual museum" covered with ivy, each leaf representing the life of a person in the West, a kind of family tree. But this is not your tidy cross-stitched family tree, dating back to Fulcre the Barbarian sacking Rome. As with many modern families, divorce and remarriage split the patriarchal and matriarchal trunks into various lineages. Through men and women related to Lane, her partner Lonnie Reed, her ex-husband Keith Lane, as well as all their ex’s and relations, the Ivy spins stories that run the gamut of the Western experience: miners, entrepreneurs, housewives, ranchers, fishers, truck drivers, outlaws, grandmothers, and stunt doubles in John Wayne movies. The names in the family include Pacheco, Chacon, and Vigil, who are among the earliest Hispanic families of New Mexico; they include the polygamous Johnsons, the Cherokee Reeds, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and a lesbian couple. There are stories of love (the daughter of a wealthy rancher who elopes with one of the hired hands), intrigue (a murder in downtown Salt Lake City during the '20s), and Grace (that’s Lane’s cigar-smoking, shrimp-peeling, cussing, unbelievably golden-hearted grandmother).

On the CD-ROM their names, carefully mapped out on illustrated ivy leaves, are hypertext links into a virtual "museum room" equipped with audio and video clips, photos, actual letters and birth and death certificates in spidery brown ink. The text is written by students who creatively weave the artifacts together in much the same way that a human life is composed. People and events are cross-referenced, everyone is related; it’s a microcosmic affirmation of the six degrees of separation cliche' about people all being related. In exploring the CD, the West unfolds the way the world, and history do: through linking and association, in a circular random rather than coherent, linear way.

What kind of Westerner are you? This is the question that Kocks proposed students ask themselves as they worked on their projects. Their answers:

I don’t know what kind of Westerner I am.

I am a temporary Westerner.

I am a Westerner in love with the romantic myths of the West who also wants to destroy them. I am a genetically programmed Westerner, through and through.

The experience helps Kocks’ students come to the realization that every Westerner is a different kind of Westerner. Her course covers the period since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, when the current geographic boundaries took shape. The mythos of this modern West is full of figures who demonstrate how highly individualism and independence are valued. There is the cowboy, who depends on nothing but the moon, a horse, and a canteen of water. In this history are also the pioneer, the snake oil salesman, the sharpshooting cowgirl, the Indian brave.

Westerners are shaped by the landscape they inhabit, as everyone is, but the profound associations between open space and the freedom these figures represent charges the terrain with a peculiar kind of power. The West is about pushing through frontiers. Which is why, with the literal Western American landscape fairly well mapped out and explored, a logical place for exploring these confines and the Western Imagination is across the electronic frontier.

Many of the students who signed up for History 465 had never even had an e-mail account. Even the ones accustomed to electronic correspondence didn’t have much experience with programming HTML (the basic language of the World Wide Web and multimedia). The uncertainty of using a media for storytelling that has not been "figured out" even provides a nice metaphor for the course subject: the West is about inventing yourself, figuring things out as one goes, finding a trail with nothing but intuition and a good pair of boots. It’s about jumping into what looks like never ending horizon, which was for the students’ ancestors the expanse of the West, and is the bottomless, wired-up, global infinity of the Internet today.

It’s funny how when you look at someone’s life like this, things jump out and become so clear, Lane says. I’m only just now really making sense of who I am and what I want to do with my life. Everything I’ve done fits into this larger picture, even the things that didn’t seem related at first.

Examining where and who she came from gave intellectual, emotional, and sublime clues to who she was and what her larger purpose is. Lane says that when she first arrived at the U, she asked an academic counselor what major she should declare in order to finish her degree in the least amount of time.

She looked at my records from Davis, and told me it looked like Family Studies, Lane says. "I was like, okay, let's just get this over with. But soon after starting at the U, she found a job in the Department of Human Genetics on campus. She started mapping genetic susceptibility to cancer. And then she began working on the Ivy Project with Kocks.

So, now I’m beginning work on another project in conjunction with the genetics department. We’re taking every death certificate that was filed in Utah since the late nineteenth century, and mapping out causes of death as connected to region.

I’m not even sure what the whole picture is yet, but there’s all this stuff here about family, about humanity in a larger sense, how we’re all part of the same bunch of people. If you look at my family, there’s Chinese,Texan, Spanish, Native American, Irish...just everything. I don’t think a person could look at this project and be able to say to someone that was not the same color, or the same religion, You don’t belong to me. We’re all the same. We’re all in this together.

Which ultimately may be what the CD-ROM and the revolution in electronic communication will do, too. Complaints are lodged by modern romantics that people don’t talk like they used to. They don’t write letters like they used to. All they do is sit in front of the TV; the community as we knew it is dead. The Ivy Project CD-ROM is not television. It’s not about celebrities. The message is not, "you’re not famous, therefore you’re worthless." Rather, it’s "these people are like you. They struggled, died in childbirth, they lived off soup when a parent lost a job, they beat up on their sisters and brothers."

Students will demonstrate their work on the Ivy Project in a presentation that will include another example of educational technnology at the college level April 25, 2 p.m. in the Marriott Library’s Gould Assembly Room.

Community as we know it may be dead, but this may not be a bad thing. Letters may be ephemeral now, but they are being written. We’re in liminal territory, on the verge of the virtual frontier. We're on the edge of the West like pioneers, all over again.

Stefene Russel BA’96 is a writer, actress, and multi-media editor at CitySearch.

The Ivy Project can be found on the World Wide Web at www.hum.utah.edu/history/hist465

Students will demonstrate their work on the Ivy Project, an electronic family-in-history museum, in a presentation April 25, 2 p.m. in the Marriott Library’s Gould Assembly Room.