The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects

Su Zan Swain’s drawing of a praying mantis

I’m watching insects through an entirely new lens on this autumn day, bathed in October Light (as John Gardner would have it). Crows raise hell in the trees on the other side of the ridge. Stanton Moore’s tribute to Allen Toussaint rolls out of the cabin in a funky tumble of brass and drums, rattling widows that I just squeegeed clean.

And the insects. Stink bugs queue up on the screendoor, waiting for opportunity to knock. Hordes of small white butterflies flutter about, seeking a taste of nectar from fading wildflowers. Bugs blur by on translucent wings, too fast for me to discern details.

It was cold last night. Not freezing, but close enough at 37 degrees to try the cabin’s fireplace for the first time. As I sit on the deck at Innisfree, I sense their insect urgency. Winter is coming. Time to breed and die. Or burrow. Or suck the life juices out of one last aphid.

I’ve been gnawing on Edwin Way Teale’s “The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects.” Annie Dillard referred to it in her magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as “a book that I cannot live without.” That set me in motion to acquire a copy of the 1962 field guide. It was worth the effort.

I suspect much of the info might be dated, given that the book is more than 50 years old and scientific research never stops. For instance, Teale notes praying mantises have flown to the rooftop deck of the Empire State Building, which he refers to as the tallest building in the world, a title it lost to the World Trade Center in 1971.

But it’s still a delight to read, delivering gems like this: “The dragonfly nymph is a bloodthirsty ogre, stalking endlessly for living prey.”

My copy is old, perhaps a first edition. Every time I open it, that wonderful old-book smell drifts upward, whisking me back to the Carnegie Library in Swissvale that was a key contributor to my lifelong love of reading.

The insect drawings by Su Zan Swain are wonderful, and the black-and-white photos give the whole thing a noire feeling. I picked up numerous interesting tidbits while reading Teale’s book, including:

  • The period between an insect’s molts is called the instar.
  • Chitin is the substance insect shells are made of
  • The scientific name for mayflies is ephemerae, after the Ephemerides in Greek mythology, who live only a day. Ephemeris means daily journal in Greek.
  • Ephemerides is the Greek god of celestial mechanics “The mayfly stands in literature as a symbol for the swift passing of life, for the transitory nature of existence,” Peale writes. He also references Benjamin Franklin’s amusing letter on the ephemera, which I Googled and enjoyed thoroughly.
  • Dragonflies — a.k.a. the mosquito hawk — eat the larvae and the fully developed mosquito, and it’s not uncommon to find a dragonfly with a hundred mosquitos stashed in its mouth
  • The corn-root aphid’s eggs are carried by ants into their burrows to winter over. As the thaw comes, the ants take the aphides through tunnels to the roots of smartweed, where they can feed until the corn is available as a food source. Then the ants carry the aphides to the cornstalks, where they can spend the summer milking them for honeydew. This blows my mind. The ants are treating aphides like a herd of goats they are raising for milk …
  • Fireflies aren’t flies; they’re beetles.
  • Aphides can reproduce with no male. The males emerge in late summer to fertilize eggs for overwintering, but during the summer, the females are able to reproduce without any males and the spawn don’t turn out to be male until it’s time to lay eggs for winter.

Searching for ‘shrooms

Participants in Rural Action’s fungi hike.

Ever since I participated in a fungi hike at Rural Action, I spend a lot of my time watching the forest floor for interesting mushrooms. I’m going to use this page to keep a running list of the ones I’ve found and identified. The iNaturalist app has been invaluable in helping me keep track of what I’m seeing …

(Note that these IDs, for the most part, aren’t definitive. iNaturalist has a cool system where other people confirm (or contradict) what you think you’ve uploaded.)

Genus Stereum
Artist cork
Bay polypore
Trametes elegans
Dead man’s fingers

When trees put on their thinking caps

The more I read about trees, the more convinced I am that they possess a sort of intelligence. In the Paris Review, Cody Delistraty’s article “The Intelligence of Plants” summarizes a lot of the current thinking on how “smart” plants are. It’s interesting and compelling.

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Peter Wohlleben‘s “The Hidden Life of Trees.” It blew me away, and several of the anecdotes from that book are included in Delistraty’s article, including the one about the stump of a tree that was felled about 500 years ago. The stump is still alive, despite the lack of leaves for photosynthesis. Apparently, surrounding trees have been keeping it alive, supplying it with the nutrients it has needed for the past 5 centuries.

I don’t think we’re anywhere near the dancing, singing trees of H.R. Pufnstuf fame (bummer), but the fact that trees care for their young, warn each other of threats and exhibit other behaviors that suggest some sort of sentience makes my walks through the forest much more interesting these days …

I don’t think my editor will go for that

(A) reporter interviewed me over the phone. “You write so much about Eskimos in this book,” she said. “How come there are so many Eskimos?” I said that the spare arctic landscape suggested the soul’s emptying itself in readiness for the incursions of the divine. There was a pause. At last she said, “I don’t think my editor will go for that.”

— Annie Dillard,
Afterward to the Twenty-Fifth Edition
of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I just finished A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It took me a while. Almost three months. The book is fewer than 300 pages. So I was averaging only a few pages a day. But it was so dense, so lush, that I quickly shifted from reading it like a book to reading it as if it were poetry. It is, in fact, poetry. The writing is beautiful. The meditations percolated in my head each day as I proceeded with my life.

The fact that I’d never heard of Annie Dillard or A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek embarrasses me deeply. But the way I found out about this remarkable work is the reason for this post, the first in a while. It’s not that I haven’t been up to anything. Quite the opposite. I have a new job. I’m the “storyteller” at Rural Action, a nonprofit here in Appalachian Ohio whose “mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in socially, financially, and environmentally sustainable ways.”

That’s how I met Annie Dillard. During my first week as storyteller, which basically means I get to tell the tales of how Rural Action is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, whether it be through cleaning streams afflicted with acid mine drainage, or encouraging entrepreneurship, or providing fresh, local produce for Appalachians living in “food deserts,” I met with many of the key people who propel the organization, and I talked to them at length, trying to figure out what makes them tick, looking for stories and tales demanding to be told.

These conversations were fascinating and confirmed my belief that Rural Action is an organization that acts to improve things instead of whining about what’s wrong. One of these talks was with Joe Brehm, director of the environmental education program. That means he spends much of his time showing children (and sometimes adults) how much more gratifying it can be to peer into the squirming muck of a pond rather than to stare dumbstruck at a flickering screen. It produces stories like the Instagram photo above. It doesn’t take a storyteller to make that fascinating. A picture = a thousand words. Indeed.

In talking to Joe, he mentioned some of his influences, including A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And Dillard is a Pittsburgh native. That sealed the deal. I went straight to the Athens Library and borrowed a copy.

A few days later, Joe showed up at my office and generously gave me a “spare” copy he had. I returned the library version and have been nibbling Dillard’s words most mornings for a half-hour or so before rising to feed the dog, clean up after the parrot and get ready to head in to work (a process that took me a while to re-adapt to after having been free range since my teaching stint at Ohio University ended and I declared myself “semi-retired.”)

But semi-retired wasn’t really working for me. I need something to throw myself into, and I’d been casting around in vain to find that something here in Athens. I tried a site dedicated to bikes and breweries but lost interest when I ratcheted back my beer consumption. I served on a local committee for several months but felt as if we spent most of our time talking about what needed to be done, not doing it. Then I came across Rural Action’s listing on They were looking for a “storyteller.” I really wasn’t hunting for a job so much as an avocation. Something I could lean into. I knew vaguely of Rural Action, and most of what I’d heard was good. The deeper I dug, the more interested I became. So I sent them a résumé, not really expecting much to come of it since I knew I’d be competing with younger, more driven candidates and a tendency of most organizations to be understandably leery of overqualified old dudes seeking rank-and-file jobs.

But somehow we clicked. And three months later, I’m spending my days on tasks that range from assembling the Rural Rambler, our twice-monthly newsletter, to telling stories like the one about a pair of 13-year-olds who met Joe at 4H Camp one summer and became so inspired that now, 9 years later, the two young women are working in Rural Action’s AmeriCorps program, using nature to inspire youth as they once were inspired. The students become teachers. And two young people who might not have seen any reason to remain in Appalachia after graduating are still here, making a difference.

I’m starting to view Joe as Rural Action’s Johnny Appleseed, sowing his fascination with nature in everyone he encounters, leaving us all better for the encounter.

I still bristle occasionally at having to head in to the office each day, but even that is mitigated by the fact that my supervisor states emphatically that she doesn’t care where I work. I could work from home. But at my core, I really don’t want to. I love going in each day. Without exception, I work with inspired, smart, dedicated people who really want to make a difference in a world that seems to grow more indifferent daily.

Gregory of Nyssa (public domain photo)

But I digress. Back to Annie Dillard. And why I’m obsessing about her work. I knew intuitively as I read the book that she was wrestling with two views of god — one caring, nurturing, benevolent, the other indifferent, dark, perhaps even cruel. As Dillard notes, “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc.; that God possesses all positive attributes. I found the via negativa more congenial. Its seasoned travelers (Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth) stressed God’s unknowability. Anything we may say of God is untrue, as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God. Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.”

I was deep into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’s via negativa when I received news that a childhood friend died. Curt was more than a friend. His three brothers and his sister were our next-door neighbors. They were like family. His oldest brother, Jim, was one of my dearest friends. I attended his funeral 30 years ago this October. Now another of the brothers was gone. Too soon. Senselessly. I was reeling as I drove to Pittsburgh for the funeral, and the meditations in Dillard’s penultimate chapter, “Northing,” ricocheted around my mind as I slipped into West Virginia, then back into Ohio, and finally into Pennsylvania, crossing the Ohio River multiple times before skirting southeast to avoid the dreaded Parkway West/Fort Pitt Tunnels at Friday rush hour and slip into Pittsburgh by following the Monongahela River up into McKeesport.

That’s me on the right, during my altar boy days.

As I sat in St. Anselm’s — now renamed Word of God after the steel industry that was the Mon Valley’s rib cage rusted out, leaving a desiccated string of Catholic congregations clinging to the river’s steep banks, able to continue only by being mashed into a combined parish — I tried to remember the last time I had been there.

It was 30 years ago. For Jim’s funeral.

The organ rumbled solemnly as they guided Curt’s casket down the aisle, making Emily Dickinson’s words bubble to mind as she observed a shaft of light on winter afternoons that “oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes.” This is the Catholic church I grew up in, where I had my first confession, served as an altar boy, watched my brother marry. I long ago drifted from the faith, but my fascination with Catholicism’s medieval pageantry never waned. The stained glass. The robes. The sharp odor of incense. The splash of holy water. Autumn Pittsburgh sunshine streaming through stained-glass saints while the non- and lapsed-Catholic funeral attendees tried to remember if it was time to stand, sit, or kneel.

Curt (green shirt), Jim (third from right) and me (in drag, second from right) celebrate Halloween in our basement on Circle Drive in early ’70s.

The priest bemoaned our discomfort at uttering the words “funeral” or “death”; we prefer instead to hold “celebrations of life.” It is important to remember, he told the mourners, that death also is worth celebrating. For Catholics, it leads to eternal salvation, the image of Curt and Jim hanging out around a campfire in Heaven, watching Gunsmoke and listening to UFO, waiting for us to arrive.

For Dillard, it conjures Eskimos.

“I had a curious dream last night that stirred me. I visited the house of my childhood, and the basement there was covered with a fine sifting of snow. I lifted a snow-covered rug and found underneath it a bound sheaf of ink drawings I had made when I was six. Next to the basement, but unattached to it, extended a prayer tunnel.

“The prayer tunnel was a a tunnel fully enclosed by solid snow. It was cylindrical, and its diameter was the height of a man. Only an Eskimo, and then only very rarely, could survive in the prayer tunnel. There was, however, no exit or entrance; but I nevertheless understood that if I — if almost anyone — volunteered to enter it, death would follow after a long and bitter struggle. Inside the tunnel it was killingly cold, and a hollow wind like broadswords never ceased to blow. But there was little breathable air, and that soon gone. It was utterly without light, and from all eternity it snowed the same fine, unmelting, wind-hurled snow.”

As I transcribed that passage, Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” filtered into Innisfree, the cabin I call home. The days are growing shorter. Acorns and black walnuts bounce off the shingles like popcorn kernels in a microwave. Leaves flutter gently earthward in the late September breeze. Stink bugs queue up on the screen door, waiting for opportunity to knock.

The soul is emptying itself. Bring on the divine.

Bunnies and goats and Yinzers on bikes

Selfie at Point State Park in Pittsburgh.

I spent last weekend in Pittsburgh visiting family and meeting my niece’s amazing baby boy. While I was in town, I also wanted to do a little research on The Book I’ve been grappling with, but time was short.

To make the most of it, I took my bike along for the trip and rode from Homestead to Point State Park on Friday. Initially, I was going to take the kayak and paddle it, but I couldn’t tell from Google Maps whether the boat ramp in Braddock would be viable. (Turned out, it would have been, though it is in rough shape … next time.)

Pittsburgh skyline as seen from the Hot Metal bridge over the Mon.

Total ride was about 22 miles roundtrip, and the biggest reveal was just how massive the Homestead Works must have been. I rode for a while before I was even off the original mill footprint. From there, I rode toward Pittsburgh and crossed the Hot Metal Bridge to the Eliza Furnace section of the trail, named in honor of the J&L Works that used to wow me as a child. It’s mostly sprawling office complexes now.

I spent time at the Pump House in Homestead and stood at the Homestead Labyrinth, which is at the site where the Pinkertons landed in 1892 and were met by thousands of enraged Homestead residents. I dawned on me that the next day — July 6 — is the day 127 years ago that Homestead erupted in chaos.

The Labyrinth monument near the Pumphouse in Homestead. This is near the site where the Pinkertons landed 127 years ago July 6.

It was a great ride. There were baby bunnies everywhere during the Homestead stretch, though they seemed to have the sense to stay off the bike path. I also passed a group of goats who were lazily munching on the weeds between the path and the river bank.

Goats on the Mon.

I got a bit turned around when I hit downtown, but the folks at Golden Triangle Bikes pointed me toward the Mon Wharf route, which mercifully kept me off the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh.

Exhibit at the Fort Pitt blockhouse museum.

When I got to the point, I spent an hour or so at the Fort Pitt Museum, checking out the exhibits. It prompted me afterward to drive by the George Washington statue in Braddock that marks the spot where Gen. Braddock was killed during the French and Indian War. Just as importantly, it’s also the location of the Whiskey Rebellion.

George Washington statue at site where Gen. Braddock died.

And while I was in Braddock, I stopped to say hi to Joe Magarac, the mill hunky folk hero. A key part of The Book is a recasting of the Magarac tale, so it was good to spend some time with Joe discussing it …

Joe Magarac statue at ET Works in Braddock.

Here are a few other photos from the trip …

Where the wild things are

Sydney and the squirrel eye each other warily. They seemed genuninely curious about each other ...
Sydney and the squirrel eye each other warily. They seemed genuinely curious about each other …

We’re settling in to Innisfree, which means we’re also meeting our neighbors. Sydney is getting particularly up close and personal since the back porch he inhabits feels like its more part of the forest than the house.

On Thursday morning, Sydney and I watched as doe walked cautiously past the porch. Syd was nervous but took his cue from me and shifted from being anxious to curious. Just then, a fawn darted past, trying to catch up with mom. Instead of screaming, which was his reaction when a squirrel got too close for comfort several weeks ago, he leaned in, trying to get a better look at the fawn.

This morning I walked in to to see Syd leaning off his cage toward the windows. Then I looked down to see a squirrel eyeballing him. I couldn’t believe Syd was so calm during the encounter. He’s feeling much more secure in his environs.

A ring-necked snake. Photo by Brian.gratwicke and taken from Wikipedia under Creative Commons license.

While there are no howler monkeys here, there is plenty of wildlife, much of which I’ve never encountered before. While cleaning out the area where the propane tanks are stored, I flushed out a ringed-neck snake that seemed more worm than snake. I gently nudged it off into the woods.

The fishing spider in happier days.
The fishing spider in happier days.

I also encountered a big, gnarly spider later that day. I thought it was a wolf spider at first, but after researching a bit I’m confident it was a fishing spider. Apparently, they’re water spiders, primarily, but they’re also found in forests. There venom is more like a bee sting, so I left him be only to see him again an hour later in the kitchen, where he was curled up into a ball. I thought he might be molting, but he rolled out into the middle of the kitchen so I kicked him, gently, I thought, outside where he curled up under a chair. But apparently my kick was fatal. When I checked up on him later, I found this grisly scene, with gore leaking from the dead fishing spider’s abdomen, which an opportunistic ant was feasting on.

An ant fests on the guts of a poor fishing spider that I accidentally killed.
An ant fests on the guts of a poor fishing spider that I accidentally killed.

Speaking of ants, I’ve been watching them swarm the trumpet vines as they flower. Apparently, the vines attract an aphid that leaves a residue called “honeydew,” which the ants love. They love it so much, in fact, that they protect the aphids from predator bugs.

An ant on a trumpet vine bud.
An ant on a trumpet vine bud.

And here are few more random photos of life at Innisfree …

More screen time, please

Big dog, bigger oaks.

While sitting on the deck with Sydney and Sunny, I noticed my neglected Kindle Fire and iPhone SE sitting screens-up on the table, reflecting the white oaks above them. So I reached over without moving the gadgets and took photos of what they were “seeing.”

I can’t think of a better way to enjoy “screen time.” The only right wing trolls on my screens were a band of red bellied woodpeckers who noisily swarm in each night like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.

The Kindle Fire’s view of the oaks above Innisfree.
This is the view my iPhone had of the oaks towering over Innisfree.

I finally broke down and bought a book on tree identification, but not without some misdirection. I downloaded the Kindle version of “Identifying Trees of the East” after reading the rave reviews of it. The book merited the praise; the Kindle version did not. The book is predicated on narrowing down what type of tree you’re trying to ID by referring you from page to page until you find the specific tree you’re after. But the Kindle version isn’t paginated so the entire organizing structure of the book is blown up. After whining about it on Amazon, I returned it and ordered the print version, which is fantastic.

Sunny shuffles along beneath an Eastern Redbud as we approach Dove Cottage, which was graced this morning with a solitary dove foraging around outside the front door.

This morning Sunny and I went out and started trying to ID trees. Well, I was trying to ID trees. Sunny was just patrolling her property to make sure no coyotes or deer were stomping around. I also came across a great story in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch about the largest sycamore in Ohio.

That article yielded two more interesting links:

The Ohio DNR’s big tree page

American Forests’ registers of big trees nationwide.

Otherwise, I’ve been working to impose order on Innisfree and Dove Cottage. Yesterday, I used a self-propelled push mower to cut the grass for the first time. It took about 2 hours but wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Hardly sore at all this morning … Har.

Here are a few more photos of life at Innisfree …

Sydney plays with the sugar skull salt and pepper shakers.
I think this was an northern black racer that became roadkill on Peach Ridge near our mailbox.
The butter pig, a gift from our dear friend Mauvette (who makes THE best jerk chicken this side of Montego Bay).
Sunny enjoys the candles at Innisfree.
Sydney chows down on Beelzebub pizza from Avalanche.
The forest shimmering with late-afternoon light.

It’s a rainbow full of sound. It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns …

Owsley’s Wall of Sound

Via JamBase, I stumbled across this audio documentary of the Grateful Dead’s infamous Wall of Sound, which Owsley Stanley cobbled together when he wasn’t busy brewing the best LSD in the world.

The episode uses several versions of “China Cat Sunflower” — one from 1968, one from 1972 and the third from the Wall of Sound days in 1974 — to illustrate the impact the wall had on the Dead’s live music. The difference is astounding, even taking into account that playing and touring constantly for several years also contributed to the group’s improved sound. I knew there was genius driving this but wasn’t fully aware of how revolutionary it was for live music. It’s also sad to live in a time when bands spend more time faking their live performances than obsessing about how to deliver the ultimate sound experience to people who cough up big bucks to see their favorite musicians live.

Sadly, the care and feeding of the wall prompted its demise. It just got too expensive to cart all those speakers around the country, especially during a time of rising gas prices and shortages. The documentary focuses on the success of Owsley’s wall but doesn’t dwell as much on some of its spectacular failures. Lots of moving parts there, and I’ve read in several Grateful Dead memoirs about frustrations with the wall.

And speaking of Owsley, apparently a guy who was restoring a vintage synthesizer ending up tripping balls after touching LSD that had been stored in it for decades. Fascinating story. No indication how or why it was there, or whether it was Owsley acid. But the poor tech who was working on the synthesizer spent about 9 hours weathering the trip …

And since we’re talking about Bear, apparently he had a run-in with Rory Gallagher during a show I saw at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in the ’70s.

Do not go gentle into that good night …

I’ve watched the entire Deadwood series at least 5 times. I’ve also rewatched John from Cincinnati multiple times. And I’m still astounded by David Milch’s writing. Who else could put a chunk of dialogue like this in a character’s mouth:

 “I may have fucked up my life flatter ’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any of these other limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.”

In a recent New Yorker interview with Milch, Mark Singer calls out that quote from Deadwood as an example of how “Milch’s dialogue transformed the frontier demotic into something baroquely profane.”

Wild Bill HIckok’s grave in Deadwood. Just over the fence is Calamity Jane …

I stopped in Deadwood last summer during a jaunt to Montana just to check it out. I was worried I was walking into a tourist trap, and to some degree, I definitely was, but it still was a worthwhile side trip. I couldn’t help but hear Milch’s versions of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane ricocheting around in my head as I visited their graves at the cemetery.

A restaurant in Deadwood included several menu items that clearly were influenced by David Milch’s show. I passed on Woo’s pork ribs …

The New Yorker interview offers insights into his writing process and approach to storytelling, but what resonated most with my is his battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s heartbreaking to see this type of intellect slowly slipping away, but Milch isn’t surrendering without a fight:

While writing the screenplay for “Deadwood: The Movie,” I was in the last part of the privacy of my faculties, and that’s gone now. I was able to believe that— You know, we all make deals, I suppose, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging. It’s a series of givings away, a making peace with givings away. I had thought, as many or most people do, that I was in an earlier stage of givings away than it turns out I am. It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do, in particular the way you can’t think any longer. Your inability to sustain a continuity of focus. And those are accumulated deletions of ability. And you adjust—you’d better adjust, or you adjust whether you want to or not.

The interview reminded me of a marvelous New York Times story about a woman’s struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s. I used this story in a feature writing class I taught at Ohio University a few years ago, fearing the college-age students wouldn’t be able to relate to a tale about aging. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. They could relate. They have witnessed the devastation that dementia wreaks in their own families. Writer N.R. Kleinfield detailed emotions that the article subject was feeling as she realized she had dementia and things were only going to get worse. That period fascinates and terrifies me. That span where you know you’re slipping away, trying to hang on to a thread of who you were, grappling with a world that grows increasingly less familiar.

Meanwhile, the Deadwood movie launches May 31 on HBO. I’ll definitely be watching. Probably repeatedly. But as I watch, I’ll be thinking about Milch as we continues writing, working, resisting the inevitable march of Alzheimer’s.

Detail of Calamity Jane’s grave.

Walking in the footsteps of the Moundbuilders

Squier and Davis’ map of the Newark Earthworks.

We’re standing in front of a 4-foot mound of debris beside the railroad tracks in Newark, Ohio. Jeff Gill, our guide, tells us he caught two kids huffing here once, and during that encounter he wondered if this pile of detritus might be something more, something that once was part of the ancient Newark Earthworks.

We were walking the streets of Newark on that spring day, looking for traces of a past civilization scattered among second-hand stores, golf courses and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, the traces were easy to see. Others, it required close observation and a dose of conjecture to spot them. As we walked, we paid especial attention to alleys, which, as Gill explained, tend to follow the natural lay of the land rather than being graded like regular roads. That allowed us to see subtle swells and uneven stretches that align, more or less, with where the walls leading into the earthworks once stood.

The Newark site was surveyed by Squier and Davis in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, a book published by the Smithsonian in 1848.

“These works are so complicated, that it is impossible to give anything like a comprehensible description of them,” Squire and Davis wrote.

While Ancient Monuments is flawed in many places, it’s an invaluable reference guide to the mounds scattered across middle America. Many of the sites Squier and Davis surveyed have been destroyed by “progress” in the intervening years. In fact, a key part of the Newark Earthworks, the Octagon, is now Mound Builders Country Club, a golf course that allows public access to the mounds only four times a year, and that only begrudgingly. A recent court ruling provides hope of greatly improved access, possibly even removal of the golf course and restoration of this archeological treasure.

Jeff Gill, wearing hat, discusses the Wright Earthworks during our tour.

This tour, unfortunately, is not held during a public access day, so all we can do is stand across a busy road and view the Octagon mounds from a distance. It reminds me, vaguely and strangely, of the first time I saw Templo Mayor in Mexico City decades ago. I marveled at the urban swirl around an archeological dig exposing the remains of the Mexica’s main temple in their capital city of Tenochtitlán. While urban Newark has little in common with Mexico City, it does share this pre-Colombian grandeur intertwined with the mechanics of 21st century life. It’s also a mortal reminder of how small we are in the stream of time. So much came before us. So much will (hopefully) continue after.

My favorite HDR shot from my trip to Machu Picchu in 2007. I took the first bus up to the site that day and was rewarded with this view.

That trip to Mexico in 1990 was the beginning of my fascination with archeological sites, ranging from Machu Picchu to Teotihuacán to Chaco Canyon to Cahokia to Serpent Mound.

At the base of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. Photo by BUG.

Shortly after moving to Athens, I learned Ohio is dotted with thousands of mounds, prompting me to explore Serpent Mound, Newark Earthworks and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in short order. Even the local trails at Strouds Run State Park lead me past the remnants of mounds.

Serpent Mound in Ohio. This is the first site in Ohio I visited after moving to Athens.

While cycling in Athens, I’m constantly — sometimes painfully — reminded that brick roads tend to spread and undulate as the roadbed beneath them shifts over time. But here in Newark, Gill points out a brick alley that is more than 100 years old, each brick remaining level and true. That suggests, he says, a foundation beneath it that served as a road bed long before we arrived, the constant pressure of foot traffic compacting the soil, preparing the perfect site for this alley we’re now standing on. As he speaks, I flash to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, which sits atop a towering sandstone mesa. Walking up to the site, visitors tread a path marked by the indentations of human foot traffic dating back nearly a millennium. It’s all connected. Somehow.

Footprints worn into the sandstone over time. I think this is from my visit to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico in 2003. The first time encountered something like this was at Acoma Pueblo in the 1990s.

As we viewed the Wright Earthworks, a site tucked next to a welding yard off Newark’s beaten path, several local residents said they had never been to this spot. It struck me how important it is that we educate ourselves about what came before us. Gill repeatedly cited newspaper accounts to bolster or diminish theories about the site. What will happen 100 years from now, when newspapers are long gone and digital archives spotty? Will the decimation of local media sever us from our past?

Even the street names in Newark give hints of ancient origins. Roads like Ridgeview, where there is no ridge in view, suggest that when it initially was plotted, there was in fact a ridge (part of the earthworks) that has since been leveled. Intimations of immortality are everywhere. One just has to pay attention — and find the right guide.

Gill, an engaging, erudite mashup of a preacher and John Lithgow, proves the perfect leader for this tour of Newark. He’s quick to say “I don’t know” when the answer is uncertain. Archeology can reveal only so much, leaving us to speculate about what the material facts add up to. He is, in fact, a man of the cloth, though not one who seems inclined to traffic in dogma. The walking tour takes the better part of a Saturday, leading us on a circle that starts and ends at the Cherry Valley Ellipse. This is the mortuary area, where the Hopewell buried their dead, and it’s also where the Shaman of Newark was unearthed in 1881. It’s believed the deceased were left on nearby hilltops until only their bones remained, which were then bundled up and brought to the Ellipse for burial.

At the end of the tour, there are more questions than answers. What does this all mean? What were the Hopewell trying to accomplish in this sprawling complex. Only part of it — the Ellipse — appears to have been funerary in purpose.

“The site may be more like a pre-Colombian Large Hadron Collider — a vast machine, or device, designed and built to unleash primordial forces,” posits Bradley T. Lepper in The Newark Earthworks, A Monumental Engine of World Renewal in The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings.

During my first visit to Newark, I was surprised to see what appeared to be moats at the earthworks. But they were inside the walls. Why the hell would they put moats inside? Perhaps these ditches weren’t for defensive purposes. Lepper suggests they might actually have been designed to contain the spirits of the dead within the circle during the rituals conducted there. Lepper also notes that later peoples continued to treat the earthworks as sacred space. He cites Allan Eckert’s The Frontiersmen, where protagonist Sam Kenton notes the Shawnee were making pilgrimages to this area long after the Hopewell were gone.

It’s all connected. Somehow.

While visiting Peru’s Sacred Valley in 2007, I saw these folks gathered at the Incan site of Saqsaywaman.