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Reading the Land

Updated: 3 days ago

About 20 yards from my tree stand I retrieved the evidence. Another hunter had been here before me. Exposed from the leaf litter by recent rain, pressed into the soft damp clay lay an arrowhead, at least a couple thousand years old, crafted by hand from a piece of stone. A far cry from the steel, hyper-sharp mechanical broadhead attached to the arrows I carry today.

I’ve spent many quiet hours in that stand wondering about the people who hunted this land eons before me. Who were they? Was the arrowhead lost, a hit or a miss? What animal was hunted? What did the land look like? Wonderment about the passage of time and the temporary nature of my own occupancy on this small patch of ground.

There are places you can go where time and history are well marked, like the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, or the civil war battlefield at Gettysburg. And there other known places where you must look a little harder to see what was there, and with a limited degree of certainty, we visit these to visualize and interpret the events of that point in time. Places where we imagine an age before and maybe learn how to observe, discover, and see.

Once, while conducting field work in the north woods of Wisconsin I walked a transect line observing and recording the types of vegetation present. An alien flower in a small meadow told us something was amiss. As I walked I stumbled upon the shattered fragments of an old woodburning cookstove hidden in the sedge, while a team member discovered an iron axle and  wheels. More exploration revealed another nearby anomaly. Several uniformly shaped four-foot-high piles of some unknown organic material, each covered with moss, ferns, and other vegetation. A long-hidden secret was revealing itself. Relics of an old story.

One hundred years earlier, this area was once a giant pinery. Logging camps of various kinds dotted the land along with tote roads and corridors for temporary narrow-gauge railroads. A little research told us the man-made organic piles were the remains of hemlock bark, meticulously stacked for transport, but never recovered. Sitting for 100 years or more, slowly decaying, the bark was likely intended to be used by a leather tannery. The discovery made a good day in the field that much better. We uncovered artifacts, a piece of history, and learned a little about the art of reading the land.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have permission to access various properties neighboring our own here in Missouri. Whether it be hunting deer and turkey, the elusive morels, or just a long walk in the woods, the land never fails to mesmerize in ways never to be revealed to those who view it from behind a windshield or the screen of a phone.

On the corner of our 10 acres, under the old walnut tree, discarded flowers grow and bloom. Throw aways from long deceased neighbors, the iris, daffodils, and sweet William quietly thrive like a breakaway community, shunned, ignored, and homeless, eking out an existence before inevitable encroachment suppresses and overtakes. We’ve rescued and adopted a few members of this community before new landowners arrived with their UTVs and zero turn lawn mowers. I doubt they have yet to discover this secret patch of history, protected, for now, by woody stems and old fencing, and I hope they never do.

A short hike further into the woods, a few old trails can still be seen, created back when wagons and mules were the preferred method of transportation. Like the remnants of the Oregon trail, these pathways traverse ridge tops and creek bottoms, and steep rocky inclines between the two. They linked a long-gone plantation and homesteads to farm fields, a schoolhouse, and church, many constructed and used by formerly enslaved African Americans. Among the brushy tangle of invasive honeysuckle and multiflora rose, we’ve found old farm equipment lodged within trees and cross fences slowly rusting away. Remnants of a time when freed people scratched rocky soil to grow crops, and livestock ruled the woods.

Along the creek, barely noticeable, the remains of an old icehouse can be seen. Rock walls carefully constructed into the shade of a bluff and steep hillside. I walked by it many times before the landowner told me where to look. I was surprised how obvious it was, and it reminded me how reading the land is a skill to be continuously honed. The steep bluffs along the creek also hide the remnants of a shelter cave or two, and other smaller caverns, and if I was the young man I used to be, that boy with an overactive imagination and undying curiosity, I’d scale those hills and bluffs and look for the stories I cannot see from below. Stories waiting to be rediscovered.

The path home is a continuation of the old trail. The ridge we follow reveals old, barbed wire fences that must be navigated to avoid tripping. We occasionally visit a high point overlooking a deep valley where teenage boys, now grown men, used to have a campfire. On the other side of the ridge I visit a rock outcropping where I’m sure someday I’ll find the remains of a rusted coffee can stuffed with silver coins, but so far have only found shards of crockery.

On a day we looked for antler sheds, an old whiskey bottle, partially exposed in the leaves, reflected the morning sun. On a different day several years ago, my wife found a small dump in a ravine, and a bottle from 125 years ago or more. The Tarrant Co., Chemists, New York, the makers of Tarrant’s Effervescent Seltzer Aperient and Cordial Elixir of Turkey Rhubarb among other marvels of “modern” medicine. Unfortunately, the earth swallowed the dump, and we’ve not been able to relocate it. We do know of another more modern dump dominated by household trash, and empty bottles of cheap rye whiskey and bromo-seltzer.

We keep a few of our finds in a neat shrine-like pile near our house, or in places of decorative honor within. Mule shoes, horse teeth, turtle shells, skulls and lots of antlers, a goat skull, jaw bones, feathers, arrow points, fragments, and other possible tools; and a few golf balls (yes, neighbors on two sides thought it okay to drive golf balls from their property into my woods). Once an unsuspecting visitor raised an eyebrow when seeing our many skulls, bones, and antlers. I assured him we did not practice any ancient pagan rituals but I didn’t try too hard to convince him.

When townies come to our home, they are impressed with the seeming isolation. But for most the land is only background. Scenery. A commodity. Something to visit or change, a nuisance, or irrelevant. We, however, see things not as trees, weeds, and potential homes and lawns. We see presence, absence, change, and relationships; we see a community, a theater, and stories. And with a small amount of effort, we can read the past and maybe see a glimpse of a future and ponder the fact that we are not the first to be here, nor will we be the last.

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