“We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find. I collected stamps, buttons, the cards that came with chewing gum, and other detritus, but these were private affairs with nothing of the authority of looking for Indian arrowheads.”
I have little interest in American-Indian culture and none in accumulating more stuff of any sort, except books, but I understand Guy Davenport’s fondness for hunting after those artful bits of chert or flint. In my favorite among his essays, “Finding” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), he describes his family’s weekend outings “to look for Indian arrows,” as they called it. This was in southern South Carolina and northern Georgia, in the 1930s and 1940s.
Seventeen years ago, at the suggestion of a rock-collecting editor, we took the boys to Lake Livingston, seventy miles north of Houston, to hunt along the shore for petrified wood, pottery shards, spear points and arrowheads. We returned home with 15 pounds of rose quartz and lake-polished stones, and one prize – a honey-colored hide scraper about seven inches long made of chert. My wife keeps it in her jewelry box. It’s a beautiful piece of human cunning and a bittersweet reminder of the boys when they were little.
The trips to Lake Livingston revived memories of my own. In the mid-sixties we visited relatives of my mother who lived on a dairy farm near Olean, N.Y. In the pastures, among the cow patties, were loose chunks of fossil-bearing limestone. My brother and I filled a cardboard box with the remains of trilobites and ferns and hauled them back to Ohio. Centuries from now, geologists may ponder the migration of so much fossiliferous limestone to a creekbed in Northeastern Ohio, otherwise filled with sandstone. Now I have found a poem by Jared Carter, “After the Rain,” which begins:
“After the rain, it’s time to walk the field
again, near where the river bends. Each year
I come to look for what this place will yield –
lost things still rising here.”
“The farmer’s plow turns over, without fail,
a crop of arrowheads, but where or why
they fall is hard to say. They seem, like hail,
dropped from an empty sky . . .”
In his essay, Davenport captures the heightened awareness that accompanies purposeful looking:
“What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things – earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem never to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.
“Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.”
As Carter puts it in his poem: “The trick to finding them is not to be / too sure about what’s known.”
That is my favorite too among Davenport's essays.
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