The Search For Home
Part 6: The Land’s Human History
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
In this quest for home we promise ourselves to the present and the future, apprentice ourselves to place and to past. While our relationship with place is by necessity contemporary and immediate, it is further enriched by an understanding of and appreciation for what came before, the succession of events that transformed land and creature, and that bonded humanity to the land. Where your house sits, what changes were made to be able to put it there? Was it graded, a hill leveled, an arroyo or wetland filled to support it? What plants grew there, and are there any of them in the yard today? How many trees were felled to make room? What kind were they, and what kinds of trees were planted instead? What animals lived there before your place was first built, which of these are extirpated from the area or driven into extinction, and which still survive beneath its foundations or nested on its high-power lines? What were the earliest creatures ever to live there, and what kind of fossil record did they leave? Pick up a handful of the native soil. What is it like, and where did it get its color and texture? What mountains succumbed to create it, which rocks crumbled, or what period of volcanic activity spewed forth its porous tufa and brilliant crimson clays?
One can try descending into a nearby canyon or arroyo, or finding a spot where a road has been cut through a rise and read what is as much her-story as history. Instead of from left to right, read from the surface down, beginning with the scant few inches of humus, a hundred years of composting leaf and bug and bone. Read the lives of ground squirrels and moles, whose complex burrows are halved and exposed like the passageways of a child’s ant farm. Belts of ancient clay above the bedrock of an ancient sea studded with the shells or Precambrian mollusks. Seams of primeval coal. Every foot down may represent centuries, of eroding mountains and upthrusting continental plates, of species birthed and extincted, of cultures flourishing and collapsing, populations rising and falling like the slow inhaling and exhaling of the great earthen body.
It is more than a matter of natural history. Some might imagine themselves as originating from extraterrestrial forces, but we remain terrestrial nonetheless. The same atoms that make up our bodies once vibrated in the breath of prehistoric creatures, and fueled the fires of creation. In addition, we are each a product of, a direct descendant of the original organic molecules. And we harbor a molecular memory, of an ancient blood-red sky and its rainbow bands of unmixed gases, recall in the tides of our own blood the salten seas repeatedly pierced and stirred by amorous lightning thrusts. We come from our mother, from a certain house or hospital, but still our essence arises from that same great cauldron that gave birth to the first living cell. We remain part and extension of that unicellular ancestor. We share with the rest of life, from dragonfly to towering pine, this common progenitor— and those spiritually and scientifically defined energies that have, since the very beginnings of time, animated us all. We are coparticipants in the miracle called “life,” sharing the thrills and pitfalls of a three and a half billion year joyride. What we call “sense of place” must include sensing our position within the sequencing of evolution, the unraveling chain of time, and the regional histories of our own kind. For not even the wilderness is free of a history of human association, all the more powerful that it was never written down, passed instead mouth to mouth in myth and song and the resounding petroglyphs of desert canyon walls. It is a story told in the shadows of its forests, the trails winding above its rivers, and its powerfully painted caves.
I’ve always thought of old houses as special in a similarly wordless way. The run-down ones stand out stark and skeletonized, yet still meaningful and inspirited like the collected rocks of Stonehenge and the exposed walls of Indian ruins. The well kept-up ones feel like little monasteries, places of refuge, the destination of heaven-minded pilgrims. Once inside some hallowed old home it seems like I can feel the various moods, the emotions of the individuals of past generations. Whether an East Coast townhouse with its basement and attic, or a moss covered log cabin in Oregon, I experience a “take off your hat and lower your voice” humility upon entering one. The sense is of the the hand work in each board and brick, and the investment of so many human hours into living within its fastened frame. Polished oak floors glisten with the tears of joy and anguish as much as polish, brought to a deep luster by sliding stockinged feet, tongue-and-groove boards reflecting the busy shifting images of families growing, dying, changing. The stairway rails absorb more than the sweat of hands tender and strong, teasing and anxious— little hands reaching up, crippled hands working for a grip. They soak up and then exude the overlapping emotions of resistance and resignation, engagement and denial, loss and gain, love and anger, desire and satisfaction. Take out the heavy wooden furniture and the dark floral drapes, the heavy woolen rug and the leaded glass light fixtures hanging from the center of the ceiling, bring in bright acrylic pile and trendy aluminum-edged lithographs, but an old house will still reverberate with the echoes of the past. One can repaint, but something deep and old continues to shine through. Some walls give the impression they’re imprinted with intricate shadows cast by yesteryear’s window lace. Another holds a stranger’s attention the way it had when it hosted that oval-framed tintype, featuring the roving eyes of the scowling family patriarch.
Ask yourself, what sort of people lived in the house you’re in right now, before you ever did? Were children born in its back rooms, were there proud matriarchs who breathed their last where the sun still comes in the east window? The house may be new, or you may be the apartment’s first tenant, but were there structures tore down to make room for one you moved into? Perhaps a row of old uninsulated brick houses scraped aside for a new development, or a flat-roofed adobe casita given way to ranch houses with large windows and Kentucky bluegrass lawns? The ethnography of one neighborhood may have changed several times over the course of the last two hundred years, from Indian to Spanish and French, French to English, an Italian quarter now considered part of the Cuban enclave, extended Irish families supplanted by Afro Americans, in turn replaced by buyers of diverse racial backgrounds who by chance or fortune can afford the rising cost of its real estate.
Look outside. What people tended gardens in the bottoms, on the constant lookout for raiders, and were these “raiders” the peoples they were encroaching on? What indigenous tribe once gathered shellfish from the edge of the bay and walked the narrow trail where the interstate now lies? And who preceded them? I live in a river canyon uninhabited for a thousand years before I got here. But a few miles away the river winds through a valley where the trailers of retirees sit amongst baked mud haciendas, the residents of the latter keeping alive much of the traditional Hispanic, frontier lifestyle. I love watching a family roast their chilies, the oldest son off to hunt for the winter’s meat, the little girls braided with bows for the many fiestas. From where I park our truck to walk into our place, I can see the land that belonged to Senovio, our deceased patron, or protector. The little casita is as empty as a torn pocket, and the status-earning direct-TV dish he never even used is now nearly hidden by a curtain of beautiful, uncut weeds. But I remember that land as an extension of the little man with the big straw hat. When I look over that way I imagine the way he looked at the sharp crack of dawn, leaning on a pitchfork, pointing with pursed lips at the horses filling up on their breakfast hay. His beloved animals were fed, and the sun was up in its usual show of morning color. I see the silhouette of this Spanish American with the baggy pants, rooted to his place, contemptuous of any cities more than a three hour drive from his needy animals, doubtful of or indifferent to any claims of distant wonders. Everything he ever wanted, everything that mattered was closer than that. Close enough to see, maybe close enough to smell, certainly close enough to nod at slowly with a dusty Stetson.
But there is more. Behind him, camped beneath the cottonwoods or sneaking up on him from behind the barn, I sense the intrepid Apache. And behind them, the pit-house and cliff dwellers they preyed on, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, the people they call “the Old Ones” pushing corn seed into the riverside soil with a willow stick. They are the earliest known human inhabitants of this bioregion, and their presence can still be felt over a thousand years after their migration away from this river drainage. In countless ruins, in the remnant stone-age irrigation ditches, in the cliff art and pottery sherds scattered about the desert floor, in the multihued vistas they themselves fancied— here we find the legacy of the Sweet Medicine People. To archaeologists they are known as the San Francisco Culture or the Basket Makers, and are commonly but mistakenly referred to as the Anasazi. And before– yes– before a single human foot edged across this rain-licked rimrock there were those other intrinsically wild beings, plants and animals characterizing and being characterized by the interplay of elements and energies that is land, in the unique combinations that define place. Behind the patron’s silhouette, the shadows of the Apache and the echoes of the Old Ones— I see, I feel, I delight in the dancing ghost images of leaf and tendril, tail and paw, fin and feather fluttering in the dawn breeze, sensuously rubbing up against an arching New Mexico skyline.
As surely as we alter and impact the places we live, we are ourselves shaped by the land. Nature seems like a foreign and even frightening place to many of us these days, but it is nonetheless our original, formative context, the very set of forces and qualities that first conceived and equipped us. What we now call “wilderness” once meant everywhere. It is the unmanaged Nature that stressed our developing beings to make us strong, that provided not only physical sustenance but the avenues for both love and loss: the genesis of human compassion. In experiencing a place’s natural and human history, we honor first our immediate ancestors, then those peoples whose relationship with the land predates our own, and finally those lifeforms that gave way for our emergence, or sustain and enrich us still. Finally we honor the evolutionary cauldron, creation itself, the ultimate terrestrial source, the swirling matrix that was and is our unique home.
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