Illustration: Julia Breckenreid

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On This Very Spot

At some point in time—June 1952, or the Paleozoic era, or six weeks ago—something happened on the patch of planet you're currently occupying. In 1888, in the building before the building before the building you're in now, maybe a man proposed to his beloved in the very spot where you're sitting; and perhaps 458 years before that, when there was no building at all, a teenage girl watched a shooting star; and 150 million years earlier, maybe a stegosaurus egg hatched in just that place and a scaly little guy greeted the world. Every chunk of dirt on earth has been the setting of more stories than we can fathom, most of them long forgotten.

But some people refuse to forget. Some people commemorate the events they find important, even if they're important only to them. Thank goodness some posterity-minded soul put plaque to stone in Makanda, Illinois, where in 1859, Boomer the Three-Legged Hero Dog perished while reportedly attempting to extinguish a fire with his pee. Praise be to the citizens of Sylacauga, Alabama, who erected a statue in appreciation of the eight-and-a-half-pound meteorite that bulleted through Ann Hodges's roof in November 1954 and smacked her on the hip. And what if no one had marked the Quartzsite, Arizona, tomb of Mr. Hi Jolly, who was hired by the U.S. government to test the military utility of camels? Many years ago, someone was pained to think we might forget these things. Many years ago, someone took the trouble to ensure we wouldn't.

In doing so, that someone put a story in your path, offered it to you as a gift. So when you happen upon a site marker, a plaque, a statue, a monument, or a memorial, stop and look. Do it to remember that every strange, singular life—every brave dog and comet-slapped homeowner and intrepid camel tester—is but one grain of sand on a beach the size of infinity. How kind it is, how generous, how stirring, to give a grain its moment in the sun.

—By Katie Arnold-Ratliff