Monday, July 24, 2017

Picking Up History

There are places along the Saco where I like go looking for Indian artifacts when conditions are right. I won’t dig for them because to do so would disturb the site. If I did, I’d have to abide by strict guidelines to document what I found, where, and at what level. Then I’d have to publish results. In other words, it’s a lot of work and I’m not inclined to make that much of a commitment. Instead, I let farmers excavate, which they do in the course of their work. Then, after a sufficient amount of rain has fallen on the plowed and harrowed field, I go looking. The strata in which the artifacts existed originally has already been disturbed and real archaeologists wouldn’t be interested in what I find unless it were something very unusual. What I find, however, is routine to them.
Flood and freeze on the Old Saco

I don’t find very many arrowheads. Where I look has been picked over for many decades, but I do find one occasionally. Mostly I find the small chips produced while making arrowheads and all the other sharp tools necessary for Indians to live as they did. I find a lot of scrapers — sharp pieces of stone used to remove flesh from inside animal hides or to remove fur and hair from the the outside. I find those every time I go out. Arrowhead hunters eschewed picking them up but I do and they make up most of my collection.
Nearly everything I find is made of stone because everything else has rotted away. Wood, bone, hide, turtle shells, mussel shells, and so forth don’t last in New England soils. Once I found a bone amulet, but it was largely disintegrated. Archaeologists can find bone if it has been heated to the point where its chemistry changes into something called calcined bone. That will resist disintegration longer, but I haven’t found any of that. I do find pottery sherds though.
Stockade like this was in Fryeburg

The arrowheads I’ve picked up are only 1000-2000 years old and they’re dated by their size and shape to the “Woodland Period.” Indians were thought to have started using pottery around 3000 years ago, around the time they began farming. Local Indians are believed to have begun farming only a few centuries before European contact and cultivated three main crops: corn, beans, and squash here in southwestern Maine where I live now.
I don’t know how old the scrapers are. They could be much older but I have no way to tell because I didn’t find them “in situ” — or where they were originally left by the Indians who used them. If they were found near a hearth with charcoal in an intact level they could be dated by both the charcoal and the strata. All I know is that they were in the "plow zone” turned up by farmers which goes down about two feet.
On Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon along the Old Course of the Saco completely by myself. It was sunny, in the seventies, and with a slight breeze to keep most mosquitoes away — perfect conditions. It was perhaps three centuries ago that the last Pequawket Indians used the site, just prior to Captain John Lovewell’s raid in 1725, after which Indians abandoned Pequawket (now called Fryeburg, Maine) and went to live with their fellow Abenaki in St. Francis, Quebec. That’s an Abenaki reservation (otherwise known as Odanak) at the confluence of the St. Francis and St. Lawrence rivers.
Champlain's map of Pequawket village at mouth of the Saco River

It occurred to me as I picked up each artifact that the last person to have touched it might have been an ancestor of my wife and children. I’d been reading my wife’s extensive pedigree going back to the 1600s in Quebec. Several of her ancestors were born, married, and died in St. Francis (also called Odanak). Joseph Forcier, her fourth great-grandfather, was married there to her fourth great-grandmother, Agathe (nee Gagne) in 1729 — just after the fight at Lovewell’s Pond. Were they Pequawkets? I don't know. It’s possible. Their daughter, Marguerite Forcier, lived there her whole life and was herself married in 1767 to my wife’s third great-grandfather Joseph Clement. That means Marguerite was present with the legendary Molly Ockett during the infamous raid by Rogers’ Rangers in 1759. Both survived, but over 200 men, women, and children didn’t.
Except for the women and children, they were not necessarily innocent victims of racist, white males in Rogers’ company. Abenaki warriors from St. Francis were allied to the French and often conducted raids south against British colonial settlements. While the Pequawket lived in what is now Fryeburg before 1725, they raided south too, including attacks on Andover, Dunstable, and Tyngsboro. Captain Lovewell and his men didn’t come up here just looking for scalps. They were also here for revenge. While descendants of men who fought with Lovewell settled Lovell, some of Rogers’ Rangers settled Fryeburg.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Window On The Doors

Fifty years ago, I worked at the newly-built Holiday Inn at the intersection of Interstate 495 and Route 38 in Tewksbury, Massachusetts,  the town in which I grew up. I’d started in the summer of 1966 as a dishwasher, then a groundskeeper, and ultimately a porter carrying room service trays, vacuuming the lobby, setting up tables in function rooms, and emptying ashtrays. My father would often pick me up on his way home from work. I had my learner’s permit and he’d let me drive the rest of the way in our 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne.
Rock-and-roll groups like the Yardbirds, the Turtles, and others stayed there when playing concerts at the Commodore Ballroom in Lowell. One of my jobs was putting red plastic letters up on the marquee to welcome them. Sometimes my father couldn’t drive me home and I’d hitchhike. One such evening in 1967, a late-model Buick Riviera pulled over and I hopped in. Driving was the drummer of The Doors, John Densmore. I had never heard of The Doors or of Jim Morrison, who was crashed out and sprawled across the back seat. Though I’d just come from work, nobody told me The Doors were staying there because they weren’t that popular at the time. Nobody was excited enough to tell me they were in residence. Neither was I told to put up a greeting for them on the marquee.
Anyway, Densmore was miffed that he had picked up an American teenager who didn’t recognize him. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
Densmore and Morrison

“No,” I said.

“Ever hear of ‘Light My Fire’?”
“Umm… yeah, I think so,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. It sounded vaguely familiar but I wasn’t sure. He didn’t look like a typical guy from Tewksbury and nobody I knew drove a brand-new Riviera. His hair was longish, his clothing was different, and he was driving with bare feet. The guy in the back seat had bare feet too and a small tattoo on his ankle. I think it was a flower.

“Ever hear of ‘The Doors’?” he asked, getting more peeved.
Morrison crashed at performance in Amsterdam

“No,” I said. He seemed to sense my nervousness then and eased up. I turned to look behind me at the unconscious guy, and Densmore said something about him. I don’t remember exactly what, but it had a tone of disapproval, disgust even. By this time we’d gone about four miles and I was relieved to tell him he could stop at the next crossroad and let me out. He pulled over and I thanked him before closing the door. “You’re welcome,” he said.
Not long after, I heard “Light My Fire” on the radio and I liked it. So did millions of others and The Doors were invited to perform it on The Ed Sullivan Show. Morrison had been asked to modify the lyric “…girl we couldn’t get much higher,” as the audience might consider it a reference to using drugs, but he sang it anyway and was banned from further appearances.
After that encounter, I paid closer attention to stories about The Doors as Morrison was becoming notorious for his hedonistic lifestyle. He was convicted of exposing himself onstage to an audience of mostly junior high and high school girls in Florida when evidently very drunk. Densmore wrote later that Morrison had a serious alcohol problem and he died in Paris at twenty-seven, only four years after our short ride together. There was no autopsy so his cause of death can’t be known for sure, but many believe it was alcohol-related. 
During his four years of fame, Morrison became a symbol of sixties alienation, of rebellion, and of “the counterculture.” Though I liked his music, I was put off by his behavior and that of so many other counterculture figures too numerous to mention who also died of lifestyle-related causes. I liked much of their music as well and all were heroes to baby boomers. To me, however, they were reverse barometers — examples of how not to act. Some posthumously diagnosed Morrison as bipolar. Such people are often highly creative, highly intelligent, highly sexual, and highly prone to substance abuse. Add his Irish genes to that and what happened to him wasn’t inevitable, but understandable. 
One Morrison biography claims he knocked on Jack Kerouac’s door while he was in Lowell, but was turned away by Kerouac’s wife and told to “get a haircut.” Kerouac died of alcoholism two years later in 1969. While Morrison’s music still appeals to me, Kerouac’s books never did.
Doors Drummer John Densmore who picked me up half a century ago, said in an interview for Huffington Post recently: “Jim was one of those kamikazes who had creativity and self-destruction in the same package, dammit.”
A fitting symbol of his generation? Maybe. What do you think?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Words and Pictures

It never comes out as good as I want, whether I'm capturing an image with my camera or describing something in writing.
Photo by Vito Acconci

My camera is always with me because I always expect to see something beautiful and/or interesting wherever I go. I’ll photograph it, but the result falls short in some way. There’s beauty there, yes, but the colors aren’t as bright or as vivid as in the actual scene. The contrast or focus isn’t as sharp. I don’t get the same feeling from the image that I got when observing the real thing.
Granddaughter Lila at 7 months

It’s the same when I finish a piece of writing. Whatever words I put together do not sufficiently express what I think or feel while I’m banging them out, so I edit. Then I edit again. Then I edit some more. If I didn’t have deadlines, the editing process would never end. The piece will improve, but never to my complete satisfaction.
From elephant

It’s one thing to record an image to evoke a feeling, but trying to accomplish that by stringing words together is another matter. Nearly every week for over a quarter century I’ve published an 800 word account of whatever was foremost in my mind at the time. Subjects vary widely and while feelings drive my picture taking, thinking more often catalyzes writing. Feelings are not absent, especially when writing about family or telling a meaningful story, but making a point about something abstract involves stepping back, thinking, and analyzing. Picking something to write about means I have some feeling about it but intensity is sometimes problematic. It can energize the writing, but it can also put analysis out of balance if the feeling is too strongly in favor of a thing or against it.
Photography and writing are both limited by perspective as well. Since my camera lens goes from wide angle at 18 millimeters to telephoto at 270 millimeters, I can record a large crowd scene or zoom into an expression on an individual face to fill the frame. I can shoot the big picture or focus on a detail. The same is true when commenting. I can opine about general trends or discuss a particular aspect of whatever’s happening. The result, when published, will gratify some and annoy others depending on the readers’ perspectives as much as my own.
The same is true of the photos I take, though less so. I and others may like a particular photo of a family member or friend, but the person who is the subject of the photo may not. Maybe the pose or a facial expression displays an aspect of personality about which others are aware but the subject is not. A photo can capture mood, and it has a degree objectivity by its very nature compared to a column. “Pictures don’t lie,” they say, but that’s not entirely true.
When I post the column on my web site, I include images of whatever the words describe. Sometimes they’re my own pictures and sometimes I borrow them from Google Images, which usually has something suitable. Browsing the site, I was surprised to discover they’d posted pictures they’d mined from my blog — which is enabled by Google. Now I don’t have any qualms about using theirs. Their archive has such a wide variety, I can find shots that portray any personage favorably, unfavorably, or something in between. Doing this kind of spin myself, I more often notice when mainstream media does it. Pictures may not lie outright, but they can distort.
My four-year-old grandson, Henry, got annoyed last week while I was photographing him as he played with his sister. “Stop doing that!” he said, angrily.
Grandson Henry: "Stop doing that!"

“What? You don’t like me taking pictures of you?”

“You don’t have to take pictures of everybody!”

“No,” I said, “I don’t. Just of the people I love.”
Grandson Luke

Later I mollified him somewhat. He likes sandwiches made with peanut butter and honey, so I proposed a deal: “How about I let you eat my honey and you let me take pictures of you?”
Granddaughter Claire

“Okay,” he said right away. We’re all good now.
Grandson Riley at Colosseum

No, I’m never completely satisfied with either images or columns, but with each I must come to a point where I have so say, “Good enough.” That I have done with over 27,000 pictures and 1200 or so columns. They’re as good as I can make them and that will have to do.