Can You Dig It?

When my son was young, he liked to dig. He was convinced somewhere on our property, which sits uphill from the Rappahannock River near where Civil War troops marched, and for centuries before them the Powhatan people hunted, is spent ammunition. He may be right. There are mounds along the perimeter that resemble casements, and a few seem too much like burial hills. So he would dig. Once, when I knew I brought back too much crap from Russia, including Khokloma bowls, trays, and small lacquer boxes, he came up with the notion that if we buried a few dozen broken Khokloma bowls, a few spent bottles of vodka, and perhaps a torn up book written in Cyrillic along with some beets in an old campfire, a thousand years from now archaeologists will rope off the area and attempt to figure out why the hell the trade route brought Russians from Western Europe to central Virginia. Future Phds might note these ancient people most likely couldn’t survive due to a fondness of bad alcohol, or even just bad oysters one warm summer day.

I like screwing with future historians that way.

A few years ago, a horde of Bronze Age weapons was unearthed in England. From this very cool discovery of what resembles small shovels, pickaxes, and what can best be described as head-cracking-open thingys, researchers and other people who know determined the Bronze Age inhabitants of that part of England were violent nomads who couldn’t organize enough to conquer each other. Okay, on the surface I can see where it appears that way, but perhaps they liked each other just fine. Maybe those small Bronze Age tools were gifts, or their so-called weapons were their version of our cold war stockpiles of nuclear threats so they wouldn’t attack each other. They may, in fact, have meant to defend themselves against aliens, but when the otherworlders arrived, they all got along simply divinely and they buried their hatchets in celebration of intergalactic accords, and from that time we gained the expression, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” Really, who the hell knows? Maybe those rudimentary objects were the Bronze Age equivalent of ashtrays from seventh grade shop. The shovel and head-cracking-open thingys were all they could figure out how to make. “It was supposed to be a lamp, Ma!” little Zorr might have whined. “Oh honey it looks lovely,” his mom answered in a pre-British accent as she tossed it on the neighborhood pile of trash with other discarded tool-looking things.

They didn’t recycle. Time passes.

So in my attempts to clean out this house of twenty-five years of accumulated crap (clearly to make room for more soon-to-accumulate crap), I’ve decided to make an archaeological compost pile. This one mostly Russian, though some broken Czech glass would be humorous to include. I might even toss in some torn and tattered strips of bark with nonsensical language and send the diggers searching for a new Rosetta Stone to break the code of these Slavic people speaking Old English in America.

Yes, I am the benevolent supporter of scientists from a different era, ready to guarantee future funding of necessary research projects and ensure jobs to graduate students a thousand years from now. I am doing my part. Open some vodka.

But first I need to unearth something closer to my own surface, some relics from my recent past. I’ve gathered mental artifacts through the times and places of my life, and often it is difficult for anyone else to see how they match up. Each of them as separate events seem clear enough—I enjoyed those car rides to Canada, the quiet moments at the Wachusett Reservoir, the dust of the Mexican desert—but the big picture is awash with non-sequiturs. Did the farmhouse in Pennsylvania where I spent some intensely happy days in ’86 leave a mark in my narrative which appears unrelated to Mexican blankets? Because to me it makes perfect sense how they’re connected. And those stories an old friend of mine told me while driving to Niagara Falls on random weekends more than forty years ago; are they related to my trip across Siberia or Spain ten years ago? Because on a quick glance, of course not; but when I’m standing at the river at dusk, and in the east Venus is rising like a cloud of gnats from 1974 on the Connetquot River, a close scrutiny of my life reveals a narrative which makes perfect sense. While Robert Browning believed, “The past is in its grave,” Jackson Browne said, “I’m looking back carefully. There’s still something there for me.” Yeah, me too. My life is a vibrating screen, and the dirt of a half-dozen decades is sifting through, exposing treasures I thought I’d left on the banks of the river, well upstream by now.

So I like to walk carefully through the woods near home; it is where I leave my thoughts, and I do not want them trampled upon. In fact, if I am not paying attention I might think I’m walking through Heckscher State Park on Long Island’s South Shore where I grew up; or it could be the Berkshires, or the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York. Or the Sonoran Desert. The Lynnhaven River. The Neva River. The Vltava. The Congo. The Rappahannock. I believe when I look at my life many years from now to trace my journey on this earth, what on the surface seemed decisions as random as the ricochet of a pinball, were all connected by passion and desire and some quixotic need to keep digging, perhaps in search of love. Certainly in search of myself.

I pray my son never stops digging, never ceases his attempts to find the connections in his life. At this very moment he is somewhere in Connemara with another artist—I hope he understands how directly related that is to the small cherry tree at the apartment complex where we lived when he was two and he’d stand perfectly still under the branches while I shook the tree until cherries rained down on his head.

And we’d laugh. My God, we’d laugh until we rolled on the ground.

Honestly, how can anyone not see connections?

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