Wednesday, October 24, 2012

O Brave New World

Two posts back I wrote a ridiculous piece pitting Christmas 2012 against the Cataclysm predicted by Mayan prognosticators a couple thousand years back. Yes, it was a fairly stupid few hundred words--a shaggy dog joke really--and was greeted with the yawning silence it deserved. Thing is, I need a fill-in post occasionally, when the long essays just don’t arrange and write themselves as quickly as needed.

Once in a while something interesting comes from the silliness, from some wild hare I pursue. Writing about Mayan culture reminded me of two other examples from this particular writer’s life-files...

First, in the late Sixties I researched and wrote for Seattle Magazine a long and fairly nifty report on the archeological dig then underway near Washtucna in Eastern Washington, but located down in the "scablands" canyon of the Palouse, where some rock-overhang shelters were used for thousands of years as both temporary resting
points and regularly visited hunting camps--terrain well-suited to preserve the so-called "kitchen middens" of piled-up human waste, cracked animal bones, and the occasional human burial, sometimes complete with rough-made tools.

This site had yielded solid proof of such occupancy: primitive weapons, bones and teeth from humans and other creatures, plus the near-entire skeleton of carbon-dated, twelve-thousand-year-old “Marmes Man.” (The human remains were thought to be those of early wanderers--crossing the land bridge from Asia to Alaska, then gradually moving south via Washington State, their descendants eventually considered the “Native American” peoples of the West and Meso-America.) But all would soon be lost, the whole canyon inundated by the rising waters of the river, trapped behind a new Snake River dam further downstream.

I actually joined the dig for two ultra-dusty, hundred-degree days, interviewing
archeology professors, grad students hoping to become such, and a few paid laborers. But I also took up shovel and wheelbarrow to move or re-move some surface layers of newer dirt--heavy-sweat work, I assure you--and then got to attempt a few hours of the finer digging, using trowel and whiskbroom and makeshift screen over whatever container was available, to scrape up, gently, thin layers of old dirt, small rocks, and whatever, above the middens proper, everything carefully measured and string-marked, divided into square-foot grid sections.

After a few hours of scraping and whisking, shifting, then sifting carefully, but finding nothing of possible interest, I was ready to knock off. (Okay, I was wimping
out.) But suddenly there it was, emerging from the latest trowel of dirt… a tooth! I grabbed it up, rubbed more dirt off, and then could see that it looked like a human tooth about an inch in length. Convinced that I’d made the greatest find since Java Man, I put the tooth on a Kleenex and hustled over to show the prof in charge.

He made the appropriate sounds, congratulated me on a discovery made in so few hours (some lurking sarcasm there or, maybe, a professional’s disdain for the lucky amateur), and proceeded to burst my bubble, explaining that a single tooth by itself didn’t count for much; other teeth, a jawbone, a whole or partial skull, would lend more credence, even help establish archeological provenance.

His careful science mattered little. I was jazzed, and I had some true grist for the story mill. I made a few more scenic notes, completed the interviews, and drove off, headed home to write the tale of a major dig under extreme pressure to complete its work, of a marvelous, history-defining find, of "Marmes Man" and one happy volunteer digger. (That would be me.)

* * * * *

The second verbal artifact requires less telling. When Sandra and I got married almost 25 years ago, we made sure that nearly every aspect of the several days’ celebration and wedding ceremony had been picked up and dusted off, or dispensed with, or changed utterly. Among the minor adjustments was our decision to offer a single-layer chocolate cake, and I put the rationale (sort of) into a poem printed in the program for our lovely but equally low-key ceremony:

In Defense of Flat Chocolate Wedding Cakes

Any time, love is a nervous condition.

On the sunwheel plaza high up each
pyramid of the Valley of the Sun,
Aztec priests got right to the heart
of the matter: the Cakes of Heaven
are seldom a body’s bread.

Nor should the hopeful couple approve
some half-baked cylinder shaped
like Chichen Itza’s Well of Maiden Sacrifice.
(Not that far removed, politically speaking.)
Imagine the usual sugary concoction,

small man atop clearly in reduced circumstances,

and the tiny woman, had she but tongue
to vent her anguish, shrieking like the Sidhe.
Neither would choose to live in such
a triple-tiered suite of dubious taste…
Let other weddings take the cake for show

biz. Our “I do’s” will not be
symbolically or otherwise consumed
at the Drive-in Chapel of Confectioners’ Dreams.
Marriage can be short and dark and give
you several raspberries. Chew on this

to remember our cock-eyed optimism.

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