Monday, January 9, 2012

In which I become an unwitting archaeologist:

We round a secluded bend in the trail of the Macon WaterWorks Park and suddenly, our boots sink in:


And not the friendly, earthen kind that children dig their squirming fingers into in search of smooth stones and crawling companions. No, this is the thick, red Georgia clay that runs in rivers down your front walk and consumes your car tires and stains your hands after a long day’s work in the garden.

Our exploratory party, which consists of me, my brother Jon and his girlfriend Katrina, immediately splits to the two sides of the path as we examine our options.

Jon has ended up on the opposite side as Katrina and me. He shimmies up the leaf-covered bank that borders the trail and disappears over the other side. I hear the crunch of his boots and watch his head crest and fall below the uppermost edge of the bank as I try to figure out how to maneuver to his side of the path without being swallowed by the oozing red river in between.

Years of “the mud is lava” games have engrained mistrust in me. I have all but decided against crossing over, content to pick and weave my way along this side’s narrow bank until I reach a place where the mud has dried. Then, I hear an exclamation from my brother.

“Whoah! You guys have to come see this!” his voice calls from the woods. Jon has a knack for finding hidden adventures.

Maybe it’s the fact that we’re spoiled from all the excitement that follows him, or maybe it’s the promise that the woods will not be going anywhere anytime soon, but neither Katrina nor I are breaking our backs to make it to his newest discovery. She is absorbed in a photo shoot of the pine trees, and I am trying to find a constellation in the mud-embedded stones that will deliver me unscathed to the opposite side of the trail.

Jon is still beckoning us when we hear the laughter of children ring out from further down the path. A suburban Maconite family has finished its own walk and is heading back our way.

“You guys come quick- we don’t want those kids to ruin our adventure by finding our secret spot!” Jon pleads one last time.

I sigh and plunge my soles into the mire. Katrina finishes capturing her angle and follows suit. When we reach the other side, the skinny winter trees seem embarrassed as our coats brush their naked frames; they shy away and yield a path as we scale the embankment.

When we reach the top, Jon is nowhere in sight. This might scare a normal, concerned sibling- and I do admit that I have an overactive imagination. But after years of Jon scaring me by hiding behind pantry doors, atop closet shelves, under beds in dark rooms, in the backseats of cars, outside illuminated windows, etc., I have learned to be less concerned about what evil has befallen him and more concerned about whatever trick he is about to play on me.

After scrutinizing our surroundings, we realize that slightly down the hill of the embankment, there is a tree whose root system has seemingly grown around an old car fender, forming a haphazard barrack. A telltale tuft of Jon’s hair peeking over the edge of the fender confirms that this is the finding he was referring to. Katrina and I scramble over the top of the fender, where Jon is already hiding out, and watch through a rusty nail hole as the family passes by.

Once the coast is clear, we examine the fender, which by all accounts should be cutting off the passageways of the xylem and phloem that supply the tree with water and nutrients. We are congratulating the tree on its hardiness when Katrina stumbles.

Stumbling in the woods is not uncommon, of course. It is one thing to trip over rocks and limbs and roots and even the occasional hole in the ground- nature lurking, waiting for its moment of mischief. But it is another thing entirely to be tripped up by a ceramic rooster on the ground.

We all examine the curiosity, a brightly colored trinket about the size of a man’s fist, its tail broken but otherwise intact.

And then we notice them. All around us, old-timey glass jars, vases, milk bottles, half buried in the foliage, peering at us through the leaves with lips upturned like pouting children.

We begin to rummage through the leaves and soil, unearthing our treasures and piling them behind the fender. At first, we put anything made of glass there, whole or fragmented. Two mason jars, half of an old glass Clorox bottle, a candy bowl, a few unidentifiable shards. I propose a conjecture that perhaps the car to which the fender belonged was some kind of antique store van. This explanation makes no sense, of course, since the fender has been there for so long that the tree has grown around it, making it an antique itself. But then again, it makes about as much sense as a hoard of glass chickens and mason jars in the woods, I guess.

We start spotting glass several feet away, and then several yards away, following their trail until we are slowly drawn further and further from our fender. 30 yards away, we stumble across the mother load. Glass bulbs of television screens, faceplates to Morse code radios, droves of ancient beer cans- a stretch of stratified treasures that would take weeks to sift through completely.

We realize we have not discovered the site of an antique store car wreck; these are unlabeled antiques in their natural habitat: a 1950’s landfill. The phrase, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” suddenly springs to life.

We excavate all afternoon. At first, I try using an old limb to gingerly probe through the dirt, but soon the excitement has gone to my head and I am clawing through the mulch and garbage with my hands, maneuvering around rusty cans and edging ancient leaky batteries out of the way with a knuckle or two.

I tip an old bottle towards the ground and allow it to vomit out the sludge that has been building up inside of it for twice as long as I have been alive.

The baby who was fed from these Gerber jars is probably my parents’ age. The girl who played with the doll is even older. The mother who picked out this apple shaped salt-and-pepper-shaker, the father who polished off these liquor bottles, the milkman who delivered these milk bottles- they are likely gone. Is this heap their only legacy?

As the sun begins to set, we stock our arms with as much loot as we can carry, leaving behind little neatly arranged piles of artifacts that didn’t make the cut. We pull the car around to the path, load up, and back out until we reach the main road.

The things we take away: bottles, TV frames, pictures we snapped of our findings, memories- we will try to use them as best we can. The things we leave behind: tire tracks, footprint, little piles of treasures- they’re only rearrangements of things that existed long before we arrived to tousle that path.