“I like old things.”
“Here’s a rock for you then,” said one of my friends who still has a sense of humor.
While I might understand the affection a geologist could have for a particular rock, I prefer one with a connection to living memory. When I pick up one of our arrowheads, for example, I think about the hand that crafted it. The one I now hold was made perhaps a thousand years ago. I wonder how such a thing of beauty and utility was lost. Did it provide food for a family? Did it defend against a threat? Or was it carelessly abandoned like a spent shell casing at a firing range? That, I doubt, having spent some hours unsuccessfully attempting to shape a piece of quartz to even a small degree of usefulness.
More satisfying than these speculations is the memory of this arrowhead from a much more recent time. I remember the day this beauty was found in a freshly plowed field at my grandparents’ farm. It is early summer on a Sunday afternoon idyll, a moment of tranquility suspended in time. A cooling breeze flows gently down the mountain and whispers in the tall white pines. The valley is quiet but for distant sounds of crows harrying a hawk.
Dad speaks the language of crows. He calls out to them, and they answer. He calls again and a scout circles the field to assess the situation, flying away quickly upon realizing the mistake. He is scolded by his peers in murderous exclamations.
Nothing breaks Mom’s concentration in her search. She has the sharpest eyes and the greatest attention to detail. She can find the single four leaf clover in a patch while everyone else is still looking, and she always finds the most arrowheads. On this day she wins the prize: A dark beauty made from a flint not found in this area, with an untold story that will never be known. Out of the hundreds of arrowheads we’ve found over the years, there is none like it. How did it travel here, and why? Life is more flavorful seasoned with a dash of mystery.
In her country kitchen our grandmother is seasoning an early supper, watching us through the window and singing her contentment. Our grandfather has dug some potatoes and spring onions, which will go well with a bit of mutton from the harvest last fall. In the distance, the sheep bells are playing a duet with water on rocks and the sun sparkles in the creek. Yesterday we picked wild strawberries, and there will be cream fresh from the churn. The milk was dramatically lugged up the hill from the barn just this morning by young hands eager to help but straining to keep the milk from sloshing out of the heavy bucket.
The aroma of cooking is floating out of the kitchen and across the field, and our concentration is struggling against the loud opinions of our empty stomachs. The screen door slams and Granny stands on the porch to sing out her lyrical alert that the food is ready, and there is no hesitation from the amateur archaeologists. We converge on the back porch with our buckets and bags and come inside to wash our hands in cold well water. We sit around the big table peeking at the food while Pa prays over the meal.
I’m all for reducing the clutter. It’s a fine thing not to be attached to our possessions. If it doesn’t bring you joy, if you haven’t touched it in a year, by all means let it go. But the simple old walking stick standing in the corner of our office doesn’t take up much space. I remember the hickory sapling Dad cut to make it, the vibrating resonance of his sharp knife ripping the wood, and each expert pull of the blade to shape the beveled edge of the grip. It’s just a stick, and after all these years it probably wouldn’t bear my weight on a hike, but it carries a memory that is dear, and brings that memory into focus when I touch the smooth bark, and I would fight you for my stick.
I keep my mother’s old scissors for similar reasons, and the sentiment pays a dividend: They don’t make scissors of this quality anymore. If they do, I can’t find them, and if I could, I probably couldn’t afford them. I cherish them like my inherited Craftsman tools from the last century, painstakingly made before decades of diverting attention once given to quality was focused instead on making things more profitable.
Cherish the old things, old memories, and old folks. Old folks are living memory, and the only true repository of wisdom a civilization may be allowed to hold for a fleeting moment before the torch is passed. That torch is not always won. It may be disparaged, dropped or tossed aside. The fire may go out, and then we must stumble forward, or backward, in darkness until we learn to rekindle it. Our torch is flickering today. If we can’t keep it lit, if there is no capable hand to take it, I wonder what bits of our own civilization will turn up in a field someday to grace a future childhood memory.