Secret Histories: Lost and Found

The large hill behind our house was the site of a skirmish in the French and Indian war.  Five stone cairns form a circle that may, possibly, mark the graves of five soldiers, casualties buried up on the hill after the skirmish (if Bicentennial speeches in dusty town histories are to be believed, and of course speeches leave out necessary details of exactly where graves are).

When we first moved here, I dug up a flintlock out of the earth in the back yard, at the foot of that large hill, and I became curious as to why an old gun might have been left on our land. Was there blood shed on the ground that we now swing lazily in a hammock over, that we play on, that we roll over on in laughter and chase each other in fun?   Were there, long ago, emotions strong enough to shed blood over?

If there were, they’ve since been absorbed by the ground: diffused by the layers of time and soft silty earth, erased, unseen below the grass we now walk on, and no longer felt.  Actions and consequences which, once upon that time, must have cut sharp now have blurred edges, uncertainties. And like those casualties of that long ago skirmish, no one survives from that time or this, all that is left, or will be left, are words, and metal like the flintlock and horseshoes, curiously bent square nails.  Perhaps some shards of pottery, and those stone cairns up on the hill.  Hopefully some art, but I think probably not from our side of this remote hill.

The town keeps land records, carefully bound, safely conscripted to a walk-in vault.  These official records are indexed, even the earliest hand-written ones with beautiful script and hard to decipher flourishes.  Those records can be followed to trace the history of our property from owner to owner in a chain of title, but not much can be gleaned but names and places, buyers and sellers, liens for debts.

Court and military records may reveal more detail: transcripts of disputes, bad behavior, acts of valor.  Probate court is interesting, as it contains the public record of how individuals distributed their belongings, a sort of catalog of last wishes, and how they felt about the ones they loved, and those they did not love at all.  And it is something to wonder at: these many individual wishes and dreams survive, written on paper, tucked within filing cabinets, within a framework of paper and ink and steel, while the skeletons of those wishes and dreamers long ago turned to dust.

Endless dusty files, distilling raw human emotion and actions into a paper realm, neatly defined by the parameters of law.  Orderly documents folded into files, tucked into drawers.  Wishes and dreams, so distinct to their owner but distant now, muted in yellowing paper, filed next to many others. Individual emotions don’t conscript themselves to eternity, except in the most general of ways, distilled to the universal.

It’s just not possible to entirely know the history of a place, or to catalog every circumstance.  History is many times in the small and personal details, and easily lost.

Flintlock excavated with metal detector in the Vermont woods
Flintlock excavated with a metal detector
flintlock excavated with metal detector in the Vermont woods
Reverse side of flintlock

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11 thoughts on “Secret Histories: Lost and Found

  1. This is a wonderful piece of writing! I love the poetry of your words. You made a subject I’m not readily interested in and brought it to life, it jumped off the screen and wrapped me in your world! Thank you for a lovely post!

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  2. oh my – you hit this nail or flintlock on the head. I often wonder about what the land could tell us. Yes the library of paper has records but if one has ever done research to find our ancestors it is just paper. So, how does the land sing to us? Does it hold the memory if we only could tap into it? I think so, and you have done just that. Made my evening. Batgurrl aka Robin

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  3. It is interesting, isn’t it? We spend so much time looking around the far horizons, but we can also find treasures when we look much closer at hand. Whenever I do significant work in my yard, I find little artifacts. Pieces of a child’s china tea set tell me there was once a girl or girls around the house. By the number of bolts and screws, one of the men was a back-yard mechanic. A row of bricks from an old gate was completely buried in my lawn. People come and go, but we do leave a few things behind.

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  4. I am so happy to find your blog. I am loving everything that I am reading from you. We share the same sense of wonder and appreciation of the beauty that surrounds us. I am anxious to go read the rest of your posts. I hope you are having a wonderful and inspiring day.

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  5. Margit Van Schaick

    Daphne, could the cairns be an Indian burial ground? Do you know the Indian tribes that lived in your part of Vermont? Is there a river or stream near your land? Maybe an old farmer or other aged resident or area historian could tell you more about the early history of your land.

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  6. Anonymous

    I often wonder the same things when looking at vintage photos. I try to imagine the stories. Were the people living happy lives? Who did they love and who loved them? I’m so curious about your cairns. Very neat!

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  7. Pingback: Recipe: Excellent Spare Ribs | Bean & Bantam

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