My new Missouri Archaeological Society Quarterly just arrived. I started taking the journal and supporting the society when I was working on MAMMOTH BONES AND BROKEN STONES, a book about the search for the first migrants to the North American continent. This was partly because of my lifelong interest in archaeology and partly in gratitude to Neal Lopinot, Director of the Center for Archaeological Research at Missouri State University, for his tremendous help when I was preparing the book.
One of the articles in this issue is about the history of Native American occupation of Shannon County, Missouri’s second largest county. It’s an area of worn ridges and shallow valleys, a place where water comes from numerous large springs and rivers, and which has long been an inviting habitat for humans and animals. The first known humans to live in the area were Clovis people some 11,000 years ago. They were followed, 1,000 years or so later, by Dalton Indians. How do we know this? A good deal of the evidence comes from the stone points they left behind.
Every culture of Native Americans had distinctive styles for the points they used for knives, spear heads, hide scrapers, and so on. When archaeologists unearth points identified with a specific group, it helps fill in the map of when and where those early people moved about the country. Piece together enough of these human maps through the efforts of scientists across our continent and we slowly come to understand more about life toward the end of the most recent glaciation, which ended roughly 12,000 years ago.
What fascinates me about these glimpses into the past is that although it’s hard in a modern society to imagine life ten millennia ago, we need to remember that those people were in most ways little different from us today. Humans (Homo sapiens) developed in Africa probably some 200,000 years ago. By the time Native American were populating this continent, our species had existed for 190,000 years more or less.
When I was a boy collecting what we used to call arrowheads, I gave little thought to the hands that had fashioned that work of art that had such practical value to life in those times. Now, when I hold a stone point, I sometimes try to imagine what it might have been like on the day it was created. I wrote a poem about it in THE PURCHASE OF SMALL SECRETS.
A CHIP OF FLINT
By David L. Harrison
From The Purchase of Small Secrets
for an arrowhead.
Maybe a chip
from the weapon
by a master craftsman,
flint in one hand
antler tip in the other,
a new stone point.
Did he pause
in these woods
or was he surrounded
by chuckling comrades
who winked at secrets
as flint chips fell?
It doesn’t matter
the chip was rejected
by the arrowhead.
I accept it
as a gift
from an unknown hand.
(c) Boyds Mills Press
By permission of the author
Yesterday I received a nice note from Chong Yiu Hei Yom, a reader in Hong Kong about a poem of mine from THE PURCHASE OF SMALL SECRETS that appears in a textbook there. It’s called “Leaving Corky” and I talked about it in 2012. Here’s the link to that post.
I seem to be on a dog and cat roll this week. Well, that and spiders of course. I’m glad to know that my memory-based poem about the day I had to leave my cat is still alive and well in another part of the world. Corky always did get around. I’m grateful to Chong Yiu Hei Yom for letting me know.
FYI, today I’m not working on dogs or cats or spiders. Today it’s the king cobra. More about that some other time.
I took this picture yesterday. The little guy on the wet leaves is a blue hairstreak. When these butterflies fly, you see their beautiful blue wings. Sometimes they congregate in large numbers around a source of moisture.
I lived outside the city and often roamed meadows and pastures armed with my long handled net. The pastures often made walking a challenge thanks to the many cows our landlord kept. My reward for tempting the awful fate of stepping in a cow patty was the swarms of blue hairstreaks I sometimes found there. They loved the moisture and didn’t mind the smell so they often decorated patties with their dainty blue presence.
This, of course, presented me with a dilemma. Much later, in my 50s, I wrote a poem about it for a collection I called THE PURCHASE OF SMALL SECRETS. My editor, Bernice Cullinan, was a professor at New York University and although she hailed from Ohio (as I recall) she had been a city girl for a long time and was quite put off by my poem.
I resisted her efforts to eliminate the poem from the group but still hadn’t won the negotiation until I spoke at a conference in Atlanta and Bee slipped in the back of the room in time to hear me read the poem to an audience of giggling teachers who applauded afterward and by so doing rescued my poem. Here’s the poem.
COW PIE JEWELS
David L. Harrison
in the middle of the path
a cow patty
bigger than a dinner plate
with blowfly raisins
Melting in the sun
How can your charm
these dainty jewels
in sky-blue tights
to dance around
such disgusting pastry?
My net at the ready
to swoop up the jewels
And leave the pie.
Later Sandy found a praline pastry called Cow Pie in a shop and we mailed it to Bee. All was forgiven. We even wrote a book together. Bee died recently and I miss her.
When was the last time you wrote a poem in blank verse? That’s unrhymed iambic pentameter (five stressed syllables per line). Shakespeare wrote miles of it in his works.
ta DA ta DA ta DA ta DA to DA
Here’s one of mine from THE PURCHASE OF SMALL SECRETS, published by Boyds Mills Press in 1998. It’s a memory-based poem about the time I went with two friends on horses to search for an old man who had disappeared from his farm. We were twelve.
Old Man McGrew
by David L. Harrison
I’ve never seen old man McGrew in person.
(People call him that behind his back.)
There’s also lots of other stuff they call him
Like bony, crooked, grizzled, stubborn, gruff . . .
And poor! They say he lives on cans of dog food!
Maybe it’s true he’s crazy. Who could tell?
Well now he’s wandered off or something’s happened
And a manhunt’s on to find old man McGrew.
Dick said, “Open some dog food, he’ll come running.”
But it won’t be funny if someone finds him dead.
P.S. We didn’t find Mr. McGrew but someone else did. He was sitting on a riverbank, fishing.