The Wrack

 blog of the wells reserve at laudholm

What Remains

August 16, 2014 By Nik Charov Filed under Article Tags: archivesfarmguided tourshistorical ecologyhistorytrailstwo worldsyankee woodlot

Fabricating 'Reading the Landscape

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 8/17/2014.

Around the time I was twelve, I went through what my parents called “the Indiana Jones stage.” I wore an officially licensed brown fedora, carried a homemade clothesline “bullwhip,” and definitely expected to be an archaeologist when I grew up. I even talked my way into a field expedition to the Caribbean island of Grenada, though I was two years short of their minimum age requirement. Rules didn’t matter – in search of lost tribes, buried treasure, even whip-cracking adventure, I dreamt only of piercing the jungle’s dark heart. Cue the trumpets!

After two weeks of counting shards of broken Arawak pottery sifted from a dusty, cactus-ringed hole in the earth, my archaeological dreams were dead. I returned home, threw the fedora in the closet, and rehung the clothesline in the backyard.

I thought often of that long-ago expedition as I spent the last two weeks going through the photos, files, and diaries of my step-grandfather, who died on July 27. I didn’t know the man well. Sifting through the bits and pieces of the 81 years of “his story,” I was an archaeologist again. Primarily, I needed bank accounts, IRAs, pension records, and whatever else would keep his wife, my grandmother, from insolvency. But the old hopes of finding buried treasure, or at least hidden knowledge, spurred me on. Sorting through what remains is a task that all of us will undertake at some point; I tried at least to make it an adventure.

Returning to work at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, I realized our site’s past life could be just as interesting to discover as my grandfather’s. Our Education team has been working on a new guided tour here called “Reading the Landscape,” based on the exhibit in our Visitor Center that charts the story of our site over the past 11,000 years. I borrowed their notes to see what archaeology, and even geology, could tell me about the life our lands have lived.

We’re surrounded by 350 years of farm remnants, of course, starting with our Historically Registered barns and farmhouse. Apple trees, not native to North America, can be found deep within the thickest forests at the Reserve, clues to orchards past. An old foundation lies just off our new Yankee Woodlot trail, the cremains of a house that burned down more than 100 years ago. New England’s stone walls, piled up by frustrated colonial farmers, consist mostly of the abandoned belongings of retreating Laurentide ice. (If you see even smaller, fist-sized rocks in the walls, you know you’re near a farmed field, not just a pasture – farmers have never liked tilling rocks.) I even found, near the end of our beach trail, a rounded dowel fence rail perched 20 feet up in a tree, still horizontal but separated from its fencemates by the growth of time.

Signs, signs, everywhere are signs. The “Leave No Trace” philosophy of outdoorsmanship, so noble of intent, is, I think, impossible. We are a species unlike any other in the scale of our imprint on the world. Future archaeologists, digging through our landfills, sampling our carbonic air, and sorting through all the plastic we’ve dumped into the oceans, will wonder how we could have left such a mess. Even our radio and television signals ripple out across space, a daily diary, beginning more than 100 years ago, of our silly lives.

We all leave something behind. One needn’t dig through a departed relative’s desk to be an archaeologist. One just needs to learn to read the landscape.

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, history and mystery. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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