Traces of the past and clues to the present are hidden just below the top layer of the soil. The surface yields clues to recent events as well, and because of this, I am always looking for more, eyes to the ground. I might have been a tracker, and I know if someone, or something, has passed by recently. Wet trails in the dewy grass, small paw prints, a pile of warm feathers left by a fox. A darker patch of soil. Trash and treasure are both hidden, but near, waiting for discovery.
One spring, as I marked out rows in the garden, my heavy hoe kept bouncing back up at me instead of sinking in the soil. Strange. I spied a pinkish smoothness, and hooked my hoe under it to pull it out. A root? It was a scary thing to find underground, and my thoughts sidled spider-like toward all things Mafia. It was about three feet long and rubbery, fresh. The dogs were suddenly attentive as the cow’s trachea came into the light of day. How did it get there? A canine trophy, carefully buried, to be enjoyed later.
I found a five-cent coin, dated 1885, in my vegetable garden. It was badly corroded and hardly legible. The Lira was originally divided into cents, with one hundred of these comprising one Lira. At the twilight of the currency, fifty-thousand Lire might fill half your car’s gas tank. I thought of the poor farmer who lost it; it must have been disheartening, so long ago.
A tractor pulling a large plow scraped up some terracotta tiles; roof tiles, larger and flatter than the curved kind used in recent centuries. I know from my experience with excavations that where there are roof tiles, there are often tombs. In fact, Greek tombs were commonly made from these. The countryside where we live was divided into neat plots of land in 500 B.C., and people often buried their dead close to home if they weren’t grand enough, or near enough, to be included in the organized necropoles closer to the ancient town center. Up the hill from this area there is a large area of rich dark soil, and an extensive jumble of broken pot shards. It represents the farmhouse that belonged to the occupants of this parcel of land, and so it would follow that family burials would not be far away. Around the broken tomb I found a beautiful and simply-painted lebes gamikos, as well as pieces, broken long ago, of other ceramic objects. The pot is not nearly as old as my lithics are, some of which date back as far as twenty thousand years, but it had been lying in its forgotten grave for five hundred years by the time Christ was born. It is a sad fact that the advent of mechanical farming has led to a swift and relentless fragmentation of all antiquities which lie in the uppermost layers of soil. A large plow can reach as deep as five feet and damage or obliterate all it comes in contact with. And there are also bulldozers, and a thing which is called a ripper, which describes its effect poetically.
River stones lie beside the roads, this having been the site of swiftly-moving water millions of years previously. All of the stones are rounded and smooth, but once in a while I will find one which has the shape of a cork from a wine bottle, larger at one end and narrowing in a pinched arc toward the other. I imagine how it was shaped, trapped in an eddy of the stream, turning dizzily, rubbing continuously against its brethren which surround it on all sides. Ground to a distinctive shape over years, these stones are an illustration of persistence, and movement, and transformation over time.
One Spring day as I was hacking out crab grass, I moved my wedding ring onto my smallest finger, the better to grasp the handle of my hoe. As I was throwing the weeds away I accidentally tossed my ring away as well. Hours of searching produced no results, and within the week my husband and I went and picked out another one for me to wear. Years later, again pulling weeds, I found it again, shining in the newly-turned earth. Now I have two, should I ever need a spare.
This is the dwelling place of giant toads, some as big as broiler chickens. They are reserved and single-minded, as they search for insects in damp places, and often hide in corners of the yard where weeds have grown tall. We are careful when mowing the grass not to tip the machine up and lower it onto these weedy islands, as two have come to a tragic end in this manner. One day I found a dead toad, poor soul, and I buried it in a secret corner of the compost pile. A year later I gathered its bones and bleached them white. I keep them for use in my art, and fondly remember their original owner.
Following the sheep paths which criss-cross the edge of our fosso, there are bits and pieces of ceramics and glass, rusted iron agglomerations and bones. You must watch your step close to the edge because you can fall twenty feet to the stream bed below if you are careless. Along this edge I spied a small crusted object, a glint of blue and yellow paint. Pocketed, carried home and washed, I found I had two joined pieces of a century-old puzzle, pieces from a vase which had been broken a hundred years ago. Mended carefully with strips of lead, these were threaded through small holes in both sides of the break, metal laces in a ceramic shoe. It must have been a favorite, and the loss of it must have seemed unacceptable to its owner, such a long time ago.
My shelves have space, openings available to display new finds. I often wonder what random bits of our lives, hundreds of years hence, will be carried home and treasured by our descendants in their wanderings.
“untitled,” wood, paper, bone, shell, Mylar, beeswax, oil, brass 11 x 7 x 2 inches, 2009
(above) ”Sotto San Costantino Albanese,” oil on canvas, 14 x 14 inches, 2004