Monday, November 14, 2011

`A Connoisseur's Sense of Things for Their Own Sake'

“The land is full of what was lost.”

I grew up a hunter-gatherer, with the emphasis on hunter. Truly, hunting is the thing, not the gathering. Stalking the butterfly is the adventure, not the netting, pinching and pinning. Trolling the dim shelves of a book shop, alert and expectant, outweighs the pleasure of finding the three-volume Everyman’s edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy priced at $10. Ordering the same from is not the same. My Burton carries an addendum of happy memory, a covert connection to an autumn afternoon in Schuylerville, N.Y.

The line quoted above is from A.E. Stallings’ “Arrowhead Hunting” (Hapax, 2006). For her, hunting connects us with the anonymous past, with ancestors whose existence we could otherwise never have guessed.  Stallings notes that hunting for arrowheads echoes the archaic hunter’s hunt for game. She puns on “hart,” and in time’s lost-and-found she finds futility and hope:

“And the sharpness honed with longing, year by year,
Buried deeper, found someday, but not by you.”

Pressed to name the literary work with the most lasting influence on my thinking, I might propose “Finding,” an essay by Guy Davenport published in Antaeus in 1978 and later collected in The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981). It recounts the weekend expeditions his family took “to look for Indian arrows.” Davenport was born in 1926 in Anderson, S.C. His essay is a delicate balance of memoir and meditation on many things – family, lost time, the importance of attentiveness and the formation of sensibility.  Go here and scroll down to read it.

Davenport says he hopes the meaning of those childhood expeditions “elude[s] me forever,” that he will never find the meaning of finding. But he can’t help speculating:

Its importance has, in maturity, become more and more apparent—an education that shaped me with a surer and finer hand than any classroom, an experience that gave me a sense of the earth, of autumn afternoons, of all the seasons, a connoisseur’s sense of things for their own sake.”

We learn best by doing and by watching others do. Learning one thing (finding arrowheads) later may teach us another (reading texts, writing others). Davenport writes:

“I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer.”

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