Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook

June 26, 2009
The past looking back at us...

I grew up spitting on potsherds. I would find them on the dry, gravely earth of south-central Arizona, pieces of broken bowls, jars, and water ollas that date back several hundred years. Rubbing spit around with my thumb, I would wipe off the dirt to see if there might be a fragment of a design, part of a red spiral or maybe the head of a water bird painted with a human-hair brush. The prettier the design, the longer I held it, as if it were an eye opening in my hand, staring out from the other end of time.

My dad used to take me hunting in the desert and that is when we would find most of the pottery. On gentle hill sides or at the cut of an arroyo he would go down on one knee, the butt of his 12 gauge resting on the ground, fingers sorting through ancient trash left from when huts and adobe fortresses once stretched across this country and people wore woven kilts and sandals. It was not really trash, though, not in the way we think of trash. The buried their dead in these rubbish mounds, not stuffing bodies in but interring them with full compliments of whole vessels and jewelry made of shell and turquoise. The mounds were generally set out front of their settlements. You could walk up to a settlement centuries later and see who had lived here based on the remains; who they traded with, what kind of wares they employed in their kitchens, the weave of their decaying textiles. These scattered refuse piles, now winnowed down to just stone and pottery, were parts of a social architecture.

I would watch my dad closely, matching his motions, leaning my .22 barrel against my shoulder as I searched for the right piece to pick up, a big curve the cattle had not crushed and pickers had not taken. I learned to stand up with it and admire it for a moment, just as he did, before flicking it to the ground like a bottle cap, or a coin winged into a fountain.

If he ever took one home, I never saw.

Had he been a pothunter, I would have been one too, happily booting a shovel into the ground right next to him to find what is hidden below. But it was enough for him to imagine people buried under his feet, funerary vessels encircling their heads. He had no wish to break their silence. He liked to talk about mystery and the lay of things. Then, we would find a car battery someone had junked out in the desert, and if there had not been any luck with quail or cottontails, we would take aim and blow the crap out of the thing. It was our contribution to archaeology, so that if the belly-ruptured remains of a battery survived for a thousand years someone might find them and be able to look right back into our eyes.

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