In praise of looking, finding and the genius of place.
This classic essay by Guy Davenport recalls childhood hours spent hunting for Indian arrowheads with his family. Take the time to read it in its entirety, it will have a balm-like effect on you. It is like taking a slow Sunday drive or saunter down a Southern back road - just the detour needed in the rush and placelessness of our lives.
Here is a lengthy excerpt:
Some slackness of ritual, we are told, that hurt the feelings of the dii montes, the gnomes of the hills, allowed Rome to fall to the barbarians. These gods of place were genii, spirits of a place. All folklore knows them, and when a hero died who had wound his fate with that of a place, he joined its genii and thereafter partook of its life. Our word “congeniality” means kinship with the soul of a place, and places have souls in a way very like creatures.
In hunting Indian arrowheads we were always, it seemed, on congenial territory, though we were usually on somebody’s land. We could trust them to know we were there; country people have suspicious eyes. My father was raised in the country and knew what to do and what not to do. Rarely would a farmer stroll out, in the way of peering at the weather or the road, and find out what we were up to. Likely as not, he would have some arrowheads back at the house and would give them to us. Never sell, give. He would be poorer than poor, but he would not sell a piece of rock.
Here at these unpainted clapboard sharecropper houses we would be invited to have a dipper of water from the well, cold, clean and toothsome. Sometimes a sweet-potato biscuit would be served by the lady of the house, a tall woman in an apron and with the manners of an English lady from the counties. We children would ask to see the pigs. Country people were a different nation, both black and white, and they exhibited mores long remembered. There was once an elder daughter who retired to a corner and tied herself into a knot of anguish. We assumed idiocy, as country people do not send their demented off to an asylum. But the mother explained, with simplicity, “She has been lewd, and she thinks you can see it in her.”
And once we found a black family with our name, and traded family histories, blacks being as talkative and open as poor whites are silent and reticent, until we discovered that their folk had belonged to ours. Whereupon we were treated as visiting royalty; a veritable party was made of it, and when we were leaving, an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. “O Lord, Marse Guy,” he said, “don’t you wish it was the good old slavery times again!”
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 not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoudy 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.
When, in later years, I saw real archaeologists at work, I felt perfectly at home among them: diggers at Mycenae and at Lascaux, where I was shown a tray of hyena coprolites and wondered which my father would have kept and which thrown away, for petrified droppings from the Ice Age must have their range from good to bad, like arrowheads and stone axes.
And I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition.
Ambition was scorned by the Fants and unknown to the Davenports. That my father worked with trains was a glory that I considered a windfall, for other fathers sold things or processed things. If I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures), I am even more grateful, in an inconsequential way, for my father’s most astounding gift of all: being put at the throttle of a locomotive one night and allowed to drive it down the track for a whole five minutes. I loved trains, and grew up with them. I had drawn locomotives with the passion of Hokusai drawing Fujiyama. My wagon had been an imaginary locomotive more than it had been a rocket ship or buckboard. And here we were meeting the Blue Ridge one summer evening, and my father must have seen the look in my eyes as I peered into the cab of the engine. Suddenly I was lifted onto the step, and helped by the engineer—I believe his name was Singbell—into the ineffably important seat. The engine was merely switching cars in the yard, but it was my ten-year-old hand on the throttle that shoved the drivers and turned the wheels and sent plumes of steam hissing outward. Life has been downhill ever since.
But this is not the meaning of looking for Indian arrowheads. That will, I hope, elude me forever. 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. I was with grown-ups, so it wasn’t play. There was no lecture, so it wasn’t school. All effort was willing, so it wasn’t work. No ideal compelled us, so it wasn’t idealism or worship or philosophy.
Yet it was the seeding of all sorts of things, of scholarship, of a stoic sense of pleasure (I think we were all bored and ill at ease when we went on official vacations to the mountains or the shore, whereas out arrowhead-looking we were content and easy), and most of all of foraging, that prehistoric urge still not bred out of man. There was also the sense of going out together but with each of us acting alone. You never look for Indian arrows in pairs. You fan out. But you shout discoveries and comments (“No Indian was ever around here!”) across fields. It was, come to think of it, a humanistic kind of hunt. My father never hunted animals, and I don’t think he ever killed anything in his life. All his brothers were keen huntsmen; I don’t know why he wasn’t. And, conversely, none of my uncles would have been caught dead doing anything so silly as looking for hours and hours for an incised rim of pottery or a Cherokee pipe.
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. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: “A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off.”
And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me. As we grew up, we began not to go on the expeditions. Not the last, but one of the last, afternoons found us toward sunset, findings in hand, ending up for the day with one of our rituals, a Coca-Cola from the icebox of a crossroads store. “They tell over the radio,” the proprietor said, “that a bunch of Japanese airplanes have blowed up the whole island of Hawaii.”
Read the entire piece here.