Saturday, October 25, 2008

Two Trees:

Aunt Gertrude's drawing of The Old House shows a big cedar tree in the front yard, still there when I was growing up, and further on in her album, she mentions "the old oak tree" ~ subject of an earlier post.

The old oak tree, cut and bulldozed under by the subdividers of The Hill when the Duttons lost it, was a white oak, estimated to be well over 400 years old. Since I'm feeling in the dark here anyway, and following Cebah's "no one can dispute you" concept, I'm going to site the sprouting of that acorn in the year 1550. It's not impossible. In this imagining of that event, I'll try to balance between artifact and conjecture.

Curiously, that date in Kentucky would fall within the period archaeologists now term as "Mississippian" (A.D. 900 to 1700) - an echo of the so-called Mississippian Era of geologic time, many millions of years earlier when the limestone of The Hill originated. On the staircase in The Old House were two ancient axeheads, presumably picked up on the farm, and arrowheads still turn up whenever ground is plowed here in dandyland. So it is a fairly safe guess that someone walked on The Hill when the old oak tree was a sprout.

(The axe head that Axe Head Leaver left, and sprouting white oak acorns.)

Just a few miles north of The Hill, an unusual artifact was found in a mound. That object was a pierced and engraved shell gorget with a rare design (one of only two found so far) believed to depict a jaguar.

(A typical shell gorget with a pierced and engraved design of a falcon man.)

(Artist Herb Roe's concept of what a Mississippian era man, like the falcon man on the gorget, might have looked like.)

Shell gorgets in this neighborhood indicate a number of interesting things about the people who lived or visited The Hill in those days - one being that their trade routes extended all the way to the ocean, where the conch shells used to make the gorgets were found. The gorgets are believed by some to mark the boundaries of a cult, or to put it another way, an affiliated group who recognized and valued their incised symbols. Many feature somewhat abstracted (and often winged) rattlesnake designs, falcon men, spiders, and a cross-in-circle motif. This "Southern Cult" extended from and beyond the largest of the mound sites, Cahokia, near St. Louis,
all the way to Florida.

Some things can be guessed about how the person who left the axe on The Hill imagined the world. I think it is safe to say, given the careful orientation of the mounds, and the gigantic "woodhenge" whose traces remain at Cahokia, and similar structures in Ohio, all carefully designed to coincide with the celestial phenomena of the solstices and equinox, moonrise and moonset, that the Axe Leaver had a keen concern with the cardinal directions and the cyclic patterns of the sun and moon.
Certainly the remainders of the Mississippian people did and continue to, the so called "historical tribes", present in the area when European settlers arrived, the Cherokee, for instance. I discovered this for myself when I took singing lessons from Walker Calhoun, a Cherokee elder. The directions have associated colors in Cherokee: East is Red, South is White, West is Black, and North is Blue. There's a great deal of meaning, and many stories associated with this complex of colors and spatial orientation, but that will have to wait.

(The "Woodhenge" at Cahokia)

It's possible as well to imagine what sort of "Old House" the Axe Leaver would have left on the Spring morning when the Old Oak Tree sprouted. It was probably like a turned over basket thatched with grass, perhaps wattled and daubed inside with clay, most likely with floor mats woven of cattails. Cebah believes that she had Cherokee ancestors, and that's not a stretch either, just unproven. However it is suggestive to me that she taught me how to make these sort of shelters when I was a child, first by bundling sedge grass, later, when I was strong enough to handle the task, by bending and weaving together supple small trees to make what I called wigwams. And it is interesting to me too that by doing this, weaving a shelter, I learned to make baskets. But it makes sense that the house comes first.

It's also possible to imagine what the Axe Leaver heard on that Spring day so long ago, plenty of the sounds are still being made. One in particular may connect yet another thread from then to now, the tiny frogs that we call spring peepers, whose singing rises up from every damp bottomland like countless tiny bells, instantly evokes a host of associated things to anyone who has farmed in this part of the country. Their singing commences at the time to begin gardening. Perhaps it is this connection which lead the Cherokee to make a dance chant, now called "Knee Deep" , for their Spring social festivities.(The spring peeper frog, Hylax, is called "dusdu" in Cherokee. Around here the phrase "knee deep" is supposed to be the call of the bullfrog, "kanuna" in Cherokee.) Mr. Calhoun taught me this song, and I incorporated it, along with a field recording of the peepers themselves, into "Peepers", one of the pieces of dance music made for The Faun.

(Pipestone in the shape of a frog holding a dance rattle.)

Frogs, of course, are aquatic creatures, living in the body of Yunwi Gunahi'ta (Person who is long), or, Water personified.
Axe Leaver, of course, knew about the spring that would be called, 450 some years later, Pete's Spring, and undoubtably he or she took a drink from it, so they keep coming back. If that person knew the forerunners of the myths that the Cherokees still tell today, the spring would have been a special place, and not just because the water tasted good, but also because it was an opening into The Underworld, a place beneath both earth and water, itself a home to some powerful and dangerous creatures, the Uktena, a giant serpent similar to rattlesnakes, and the Water Panther. Mr. Calhoun wondered if the Uktena might have been a dinosaur. It is probable that southern Kentucky, a karst region famous for caves, was something of a center for Underworld interface in those days.

A greater danger than the Uktena was lurking about in those days though. Hernando de Sota, in his 1539 - 43 expeditions in the south, had introduced European diseases to a population with no resistance. By the time that European settlers would arrive, millions of the "Mississippian" people had died, and the mound building and ceremonies had ceased, the trade in salt, copper, lead, pipestone and shell ended, and the "Southern Cult" lived on only in a much-changed form, in the myths and stories of the Cherokee and other "historical tribes", remnants of a culture that had transformed the land from beyond the Ohio River to Florida into their homeland, only to see their newly re-established towns destroyed by invaders, and many thousands of their children and elders die of exposure and starvation on the horrible "Trail of Tears" as they were marched trough a brutal winter by Andrew Jackson's order toward the Darkening Land, home of the dead.

The Cherokee have an interesting story concerning the cedar tree, one of the seven sacred woods that is used to feed and keep the original fire, brought in the Water Spider's tiny basket from the burning hollow of a lightning-struck sycamore tree on the first island to emerge form the primordial waters - but that's another story... ahem ~ The story tells of how the conjurers of the ancient times became so powerful, and abused that power so much, that the people rose up in rebellion and killed them. They hung the head of the head sorcerer atop the cedar tree. His blood, itself pure power, dripped down the trunk of the tree and colored the wood red, and filled it with power, as it remains today. Lightning-struck cedar wood is one of the most potent of Cherokee substances. Getting power is one thing, knowing how to use it wisely is another.


William said...

500 years from today, someone exploring the hill may find one, two or even three concrete toads with a 6 engraved on their butts.

What do you think they will make of that?

Dan Dutton said...

My only goal is to make em wonder!

Those toads are aging well, by the by. I've thought of making a post on them - how we sneaked them under the radar is pretty funny.

Your point does make me wonder to what extent people of the remote past envisioned (if at all) the idea of "time capsules" - or what people in the future might think of what they left behind them. (ahead of them? language & time kindof clash...) I think it's a little prematurely dismissive to believe they were incapable of such imaginings. Surely every person witnesses the passage of time & the residues of the past.