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29 July, 2010

Dis Co Nectid

Fieldwork can be disorienting, even for the practiced. You go to look over a place, and you need to immerse yourself in it, watch every step and focus on your surroundings Now (musing or mulling only on your surroundings decades or centuries Ago). Any scientist for hire (or archaeostitute, in lingua del Putzi) also knows that feeling of being thrust into some landscape bizarre and unfamiliar, a milieu too new, on the hook to report, locals squinting on in amused disgust. Disconnected.

The band Fear, whose album was one of the few reliably obtainable punk recordings outside of big cities, and who not surprisingly hailed from LA, plus a frontman who was cast in other roles as well, including an episode of the crappy but popular CHiPs, a weekly examination of CA motorcycle cops, women who are hot, and men who are bad...but I digress, making too many connections for this entry...
Anyway, Fear had a song called Disconnected, sung "Dis! Co Neck! Ted!" Some sort of commentary on postmodernist angst, maybe, but mainly it sounded off~kilter and fun, like hitting the ground running after jumping off a wobbly merry-go-round.

Nectid is a word I think I just made up, meaning "of or displaying the quality of the non-genetically selected class of nectar-producing or nectar-consuming life forms." Nectar, of course, being from the Greek (sayeth the word geek) for "death defying." What defies death better than an exudation, and excretion in fact, that ensures it's species will live on while feeding "others?"

Alternate tacked-on finale for that last paragraph (again, excuse the -connection shouldering the Dis aside): "Linguistically, words sometimes defy death by changing meaning, which usually involves some time in a liminal state, when the novel use is signaled by 'quotations.' I have now ended every sentence in this paragraph with so-called 'quotes.' "

If you happen to be lucky enough for long enough fieldwork in some place long enough to transcend the otherness--especially one of those places you return to over and over--then what happens? You slam ass back into the family fold like some feral invader. Disrupting their routine, twitching at every impingement of city life, disconnected.

Disco was an important historical force, enabling CHiPs, electronic claps, a new generation of roller skate technology, the fledgeling Chinese plastic industry, and in so doing, unleashed yet another Decline of western "civilization." It was also a farce of historical proportions, but we can all be thankful because without that, punk could never have reacted to the point of getting deals on major record levels and selling out, and without that, all the other punk bands would have been robbed of a prime lyrical topic.

But another riff like that, and I may as well write the next "Connections" script. I wonder if that narrator is still alive?

Dis. Is now a verb. Maybe it's properly spelled "Diss," but I could give a shit. Not even gonna look it up. Thus do I dis linguistic convention. [Keep in mind, I did look up "Nectid," and went with the 1937 Websters Unabridged for etymology, so yeah,I pick my battles.]

Co. Companies, and more to the point Corporations of the postmodern ilk disconnect more prolifically than people even a generation or two back could have imagined. Globalism pertains to a few rich humans; the vast rest of us are disconnected from our ancestors and their places, from the earth and all its natural sustenance, and from each other in all but superficial ways. The biggest transnationals make a point of separating: workers who might otherwise unite, resources from their ecologies, money from the masses, freedom from choice (which is delimited to a few realms of consumer decisions, not governance), and on down the line.

Neck. A fine part of the body, as long as it remains connected to the rest.

Ted. Long ago, as an alive young man, the least of the Kennedy Brothers, butt of jokes, suspect of drunk-driving drowning. Recently, the most influential Kennedy in terms of the law of the land (it helps to have a few more decades to work with), adored and abjectly hated (not fun, but indicative of iconic status), and suspect of liberalism.

25 July, 2010

A Recent Letter to Mom

Dear Mom,

When we talked yesterday, you were saying that the time you grew up in was the best, and you sounded pretty down about all the problems and pressures that your kids and grand-kids face. You seemed pretty convinced about it, and maybe more weighed down by the present than comforted by the past. Afterward, I felt a little down myself. Not so much because I think we missed out, but because I hate to see you sad like that.

I just wanted you to know that I also grew up in the best of times, and my girls are doing the same again. You and Dad loved us, gave us a great home, and did what you could to protect us and patch us up when we needed it. I'm trying to repeat that. Every generation does it again, because nothing really changes. I've spent decades now studying humans, cultures, and history, and it is pretty clear that people are people, no matter when, no matter where.

Things may look different on the surface, but if we have drugs, yall had moonshine. We have sex in the media, but women in your time couldn't do much about a grabby boss or cousin. We have Al Qaeda, you all had the Klan (the Good Old Days worked pretty well for Good Old Boys, but if you were black you wouldn't wanna go back). Maybe the past seems better because you were blessed not to be exposed to every problem of your era, which is something to be happy about.

I'm happy about when I was raised: good schools with air conditioning, lots of kids in the neighborhood, a time of plenty. I'm happy about when I am raising kids: good schools (living where AC isn't necessary), still plenty of good people, and more potential than ever for a girl. And in our family, every generation has had the love and support of their parents and grandparents, which is what matters.

So cheer up and keep the faith when you think about the world your kids and grandkids inherit. We'll all be fine.

Your Son

23 July, 2010

Pau, Da Tent

My Eureka 2-person tent, just right for one person, is done and gone.

It lasted pretty well but for the many tiny holes (apathetic moths, or just decay?). Neither abused nor abandoned (though not coddled or conserved), this tent was but one frustratingly bug-bit and down-poured summer short of collapse. Had I pushed it, this failing portabode would have suffered indignity or wrath, and so instead I enjoyed a last night in it, and put it down.

A last night featuring a waxing moon, that first night when sliver slithers off, extinguished by a swelling mama moon spilling silver about all the waters of the earth. In this instance, the glimmering Hood Canal fjord in Twano Country. Twano (said by some to be the name of the people along here before reservations clung to the bare skeletons of Indian Country) sounds curiously like Toano, a place less than an hour from where I grew up, named for some Indian thing but famous in my generation as location of the Williamsburg Pottery, an outlet of the old guard, a roadside sprawl in honor of the whore-goddess Commercia. 

An end to a tent that somehow fell short of my many and celebrated boot interrments: No lava tube (boots tend to bite the dust at the island closest to the jaggedest volcanic upwelling). No psychotropic farewell. No eulogy or euphony or euphoreal. No blaze, no glory. Not even a last-ditch rationalization for saving the fabric or fittings. Just a sudden breakdown of the camp, deflation of the tent airspace, a stiff-legged pace to the dumpster, and done.

So I bid "Aloha" to the tent that visited: Nu'alolo many a time (less so in later years as I developed a taste for beach-seeping), Kaluako'i (ith its poachers and akualele), Ulupalakua with it's camphor and cool), Turtle Bay (with its early morning catch of ulua fry), Ha'ena (with it's Makana), Hanakapi'ai (with its UFOs), Kalalau (with its hippies and their nene dance), Miloli'i (with it's cabin-full of softer folk), Barking Sands (with it's wee-hour missile launches), Hokukano (with its brooding blowhole), back yards in VA and WA (with their kids who like to camp with dad), rivers (with their eastward or westward flows), and wherever else it is that I forget at the moment.

Adios to the tent that held: an air mattress, a ceiling net full o stuff, corner rocks (I almost never used stakes), a snoring archaeologist, a Kelty Redwing (pack of choice for all the best field people), upward views of the cosmos (and a only few fewer rain-fly protected nights than rainy nights), and far fewer mosquitoes than my complaint threshold would respond to.

22 July, 2010

On Site

Now and then, I take part in an "on site meeting," a rite of passage for projects occurring in the real world. Some apparatchik needs someone else's blessing, and either because she recognizes the sense of an agreement reached on the ground that will be affected, or maybe just needs a day out of the office, she sets up the meeting. 

I even call them from time to time, mostly because I'd rather tell the guy with the heavy machinery to his face what can happen if he rips into an archaeological site. How many levels of his supervisors show allows me to gauge the importance they place on this. As a rule, cultural resource compliance becomes more interesting as the weather improves, or when it happens on islands. 

But the serious on site meetings deal with more than just archaeology, and almost never include any of the people who will eventually be working on site. Agencies, regulators, landowners, tribes, and stakeholders gather at the behest of the proponent, whose job it is to convince them to say, "Yeah, go ahead."

The representatives at this meeting are sure to include a few supporters--only a fool calls a meeting like this without backup, or ringers, or whatever you want to call them. And of there is an opposition, and they are not represented, then woe be unto the project manager. But by and large there are people coming to find out what sort of headaches this project could cause them. They never want to make a commitment on the spot, even though the proponent always makes some effort, and even though they may mumble some vague (and deniable) words of support.

One I went to today, regarding a half mile of road to be built in the woods, was a good illustration of why government can be expensive. Attendees included:
For the landowner: a geologist, regulator, engineer and archaeologist; 
For the proponent: project manager, an assistant, archaeologist, region manager/engineer
For the funding agency: contracting officer, archaeologist, and someone else
For the closest tribe: cultural resource director and field tech
For a tribal consortium: 3 natural resource scientists

About a quarter of these people drove less than 50 miles to be there, and another quarter came from over 200 miles away. Everyone had a plausible reason to be there, although as usual the people who called the meeting could probably have mailed construction drawings and a sentence or two about what they wanted and skipped the actual meeting. Itain't cheap, but if you wanna protect fish and cultural resources, and avoid a catastrophic geological failure, and so on, you have to have the experts.  But despite the expense, it is more efficient than having a bunch of remote communication only to be surprised by the reality in the field. 

At least there were no contractors to deal with. Availing the project of private sector expertise and efficiency would have required at least one more contracting officer and a bevy of contractors wearing the most inappropriate footwear possible and complaining about the small-town lattes that made them late. To project an air of client service, they would surely have brought a boss who calls himself a 'principal,' who puts  his hands together (fingertip to fingertip, for full palm contact goes right past thoughtfulness to churchy in terms of hand signals, and principals are notorious atheists) and makes positive but irrelevant pronouncements.

As an archaeologist, I can usually render my professional judgment before the meeting is a third done, but of course I never do, not yet. In any case, if I wander around before introductions, or while the clot course and rests its way through the project area, the risks  are usually pretty obvious if they exist. 

As an anthropologist, I spend the rest of the time watching the people. Surreptitious eye rolls as HQ staff dons too much gear or stumbles through the easiest terrain, glazed eyes of the bored, intent eyes and whatever it is they are staring at. What are the friendships, partnerships, attractions and avoidances? The vapid loudmouth is easy enough to spot, but which of the quiet ones is just not interested, and which has some wisdom that won't come out in front of the whole group? 

I also enjoy the rituals. The transition from milling about to meeting, culminating almost always according to some ancient and unwritten rule: stand in a circle and introduce yourselves. The passing out of drawings and plans, which are never real and final, but are nevertheless handed out, tokens of appreciation for your attendance, something for you to hold onto, maybe mark up if you are so inclined (and to more than a few experts, visibly marking something out or writing is an important display). The various assertions of knowledge and status, from the beat-up skull-bucket to the probing inquiry. You can learn a lot watching these things happen.

The on site meeting can be a burden or an epiphany, a chore or a distraction. Whatever it is, it beats almost any conference room.

21 July, 2010

Cypress Moon

Somewhere sometime back I said something about sticky places, specks on the globe that have the power to hook a guy, play out the line sometimes for years before reeling him back, maybe let him take off on another run, but always that little bit of drag, that tugged lip, pointing back like Elvis's lip did to Memphis.

Maybe I also blurted out something about how new places keep sticking to me: ancestral farms and grandma's and mother's houses, gardens of my own, settlements Virginian and Hawaiian, grounds in both Washingtons. Maybe I revealed that Cypress Island is one of them near my latest abode.

And already it is clear that this island is where I will end up in the August moon. In the past two years, events have conspired to send me there and then. Today I learned that it will happen in the third as well: a descendant of the islands only Zoe (so far as I know) needed to reconnect with her kin's story and organized a trip, a coworker who took over a restoration project wants to walk the place with an archaeologist, and then there's me--more aware than ever that an August trip to Cypress is a treat not to be refused. 

Treat? I mean blessing. And so the fishing metaphor ends (because that would be a sham, as you aware of my paltry angling acumen must already be thinking), with me swimming willingly back to this place, as I hope to to Nu`alolo in the coming year. Lured by the aroma of those sweet springs, beckoning tendrils cast into the deep blue, that vast and shapeless world, luring the shad, o'opu, and salmon. 

So, maybe a fishing metaphor after all, but more of the ancient and collective "the run delivers fish" kind than the "guy in a bass-boat with an armada of lures" kind. Either way, I'm hooked.

05 July, 2010


After lunch on July 4th, I rounded up the girls and we went to the edge of town to a strawberry farm. One of those U-pick places, which every time I hear about make me think it must be run by the Yupik people, but there were none to be seen. You park, you pick up baskets. you go into the field where a girl points out your row. I felt like the guy at the stand insulted me by asking if I wanted just one basket. Like what, my girls cannot pick? You think I'm some yutz out here for a photo op, some family event bagged for the bragging in a christmas letter later?

Turned out that no, he didn't. It was just that I'd happened to arrive during the last hour of picking before they turned loose the commercial pickers. Out in the field, the row boss saw right off that we were there to pick, there to fill up a couple boxes. Apparently, my 5-year-old is a mighty picker for her age.

Most of the season, they put people on a row of lush plants that can absorb the collateral damage of toddling beginners and their bumbling parents. They eat some, they drop a lot, they seek out the biggest fruit and bring a pound or two home, where they discover another few ounces stuffed into one of the kids' underwear.

Since we were interested in jam-worthy quantities, and since we were able to pick the ripe without destroying the not yet, the row boss gave us a corner full of a small local variety. We raked in the clusters hanging out in the open. Swept one hand through leaves and picked with the other. Plucked and snagged and hooked. Hundreds of nickel-sized berries piling up.

The little ones are nice for jam: no need to cut, red-ripe through and through, full o flavor. Not necessarily big and photogenic, but then, I'm looking for sustenance and substance, not a politician.

I'm not a survivalist or a millenialist, not a farmer or feeder or families, but getting off the food grid, where everything arrives from somewhere else and tastes the same,...well that I like. Jam of our own (I swore to the kids we will do something in addition to strawberry this year, since they spent the last year with nothing but that) is a step in that direction. That leaves me about 1800 calories per day short of sustaining myself most of the year, and my summer garden is way too small to provide food enough for canning.

My grandmothers, born over 100 years ago, canned a lot of what they ate, but buying food eventually got too convenient, and one had to spend her days in a textile mill, which monopolizes the day with wages-earning and weariness. Still, I remember trips to the basement, shelves lined with jars of beans and beets, pickles and tomatoes. The trip from field to shelf to kitchen was a few dozen feet.

My mom continued some of that. We canned tomatoes and pickles a few times. Mostly because there were too many tomatoes and cukes, but partly because they tasted better just knowing we had grown them (and partly because we tended them well and didn't put them in a truck for days and a shelf for months). Buy a can, and you miss the rich steamy aroma, the satisfaction wrung from a hot tomato peeled without burning your fingers, the ritual steps that yield a proper pickle.

Buy the can, and never know where the stuff came from. Maybe the risk of cantamination is lower these days, but you have no idea what was sprayed on them beans, what campesino lost his familia farm and spent his days picking this for a corporation. Buy the can and get the same dull product time and again; it is uncanny for vegetables to be so uniform.

Dry it, freeze it, or can it yourself--especially if you grew or picked it yourself--and you can taste the life. You can walk again through that strawberry field, make it last forever.

04 July, 2010


Native blackberries of the NW snake along the ground. They weave windfall twigs and failing fronds and each other into the mat of forest soil. They snag hiker feet and even though the thorns are pretty small, people pretty much think of them as a nuisance. A few know that the berries are supremely tasty, but they are tiny and sparse on the ground compared to the Himalayan blackberries clinging to every roadside and vacant lot in the NW like some savage velcro mutant.

But I've been letting them carpet the wildish back strip of the yard for the past couple of years, and this year I spent a few more hours messing with the weave. I plucked mustard weed, which unchecked will shade out the berries. Pinched some leaders, rerouted and rooted others. Avoided walking through the patch.

Gave that blackberry blanket some tender loving care. Because I am tender of this tiny piece of earth, and tend to think that something that's native and nutritious is worth tending to.

I could, and sometimes do, make like I do stuff like this for noble reasons (just ask my family who have to hear my spoutings, not just via blogview, but at any odd hour), but I just like spending time outside rapt up in some job, especially when it will end up yielding food. The work itself is pretty easy if you remember that nature is boss and sets the schedule; a few minutes of weeding now might take an hour in two weeks, and still won't bring back the sun swiped in the interim.

In this case, the earth reciprocated. The berries this year are huge compared to what you generally find in the wild. Freed from some of the competition by my selection (seemed natural enough to me), they sucked up soil and sun and now lie fat and sweet and happy in the morning dew.

Which is probably how people became tenders in the first place. Those big eyes saw something tasty and the big brain figured out that it was because of the gap in the canopy or the lack of some other plant or last summer's fire. Most archaeologists would say agriculture is on the order of 10,000 years old, and recognize that humans have used fire to change the landscape for tens of millenia. I think it's also pretty likely that there are a bunch of behaviors invisible to archaeologists that are deep in our past and have to do with tending the earth to get more food. Things like weeding, clearing, peeing at the base of a tree, ripping down branches for shelters,...who knows how long our kind of ape has been doing these things? (Maybe longer than we consciously did anything to make food grow; corn is not the only plant that evolved to trick humans into giving it an unfair edge.)

So, the blackberries can depend on tender-hearted me.