Monday, August 03, 2009

Winter camp

Allowing second childhood free rein is an advantage of being over 60 with loose ends. Like spending Sunday afternoon at play on the Cinder Path fitting myself into the skin of a Woodland Culture forebear, picking out a winter campsite among the low hills fringing the Chariton River valley. It’s getting to be that time of year, you know.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this forebear business. My Woodland friend’s grandmothers and grandfathers, for example, most likely trekked across the Bering land bridge. My redneck Euro-American antecedents arrived here on leaky boats between the 1630s and 1848. But we are all Lucas Countyans, after all, although separated by oh let’s say 1,500 years.

The office of Iowa’s state archaeologist inventories 103 archaeological sites in Lucas County, a drop in the bucket when compared to counties along the major rivers --- Mississippi, Missouri, Des Moines, Iowa and the like. But not too shabby. And it’s very likely that an army of archaeologists armed with fine-toothed trowels could turn up many more here if there seemed good reasons to do so.

A majority of these sites are along the Chariton, Whitebreast Creek, Cedar Creek and other valleys great and small, Six sites have been inventoried along a two-mile stretch of the Cinder Path beginning about a mile southwest of town. I have no idea exactly where the sites are or what they are --- most likely campsites or burial/ceremonial mounds --- and have no need to know.

Many families who have been hanging out in Lucas County for years have stories about signs of our predecessors here. One of my grandmothers, Eliza Rhea Etheredge, settled with her second husband on a farm that incorporated what now is Bethel Cemetery and the wooded hills north of it out in Cedar Township not long after 1850. There were, according to family lore, mounds along the creek there although I’ve not seen them; even stories of a few of the earlier Lucas Countyans who remained when the Etheredges arrived, dodging the feds determined to ship them off to Kansas.

When I was growing up, we owned and farmed my Myers grandparents’ land in Benton Township, a long and narrow assemblage of 40-acre tracts that ended at what we called the “lower 40.” This was a wonderful place for a kid in first or second childhood --- a high bluff along a stream to the south, source of mushrooms in the spring and bittersweet that set the woodland canopy aflame in the fall; Rising land to the north that climbed to a hilltop overlooking the Chariton River valley.

My grandfather was the finder of artifacts here, although he really didn’t search. But projectile points turned up as he plowed --- with horses, closer to the land than farmers nowadays are. And this odd chunk of raw copper hammered into a form that could be lashed to a handle and thrown. Perhaps there was a campsite here or nearby. I keep all three items on a table near my favorite chair because I like to handle them and think about how much skill went into their shaping.

Looking for my imaginary campsite on Sunday, I settled for now at least on this pleasant bowl encircled by low wooded hills and formed in part by a small stream that enters the Chariton here. The river itself has meandered close to the hills, so water is nearby as are game and fish (I almost managed to sneak up on five deer wading in a small pond nearby formed by the old railroad grade that forms the Cinder Path). The shelf is broad enough for a few dwellings as well as gardens, come spring --- near the river but high and dry enough to be clear of rising water and to catch the breeze. The hills offer shelter from northerly and westerly winter winds, but it’s a quick climb to the high prairie ridge that separates the Chariton and Whitebreast drainages.

Plenty of wood, plenty of water, plenty of game, shelter from the storms --- a pretty place, and I’m fairly certain our Woodland forebears appreciated pretty places as much as we do. What more could you ask for?

Well, I’d like Rathbun Rural Water Association water, thank you very much, electricity for my computer, a road in for my vehicle and the big truck that brings the propane needed to power my furnace … You can see the problem here and the reasons why my winter camp will have to remain imaginary.

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