The Archeology of a Life
This past weekend Susan and I drove one of our favorite backroad paths through NH and VT. We’ve taken this trip about twice a year for the past five or six years, the first time a happy discovery, the rest a delightful escape from whatever’s happened the day, the week, the month before. It’s beautiful and idyllic, old towns, small towns, towns where church suppers and grade school fairs are still important events and where oaks and elms and pines are taller than the tallest white church steeples and the dead of all wars are honored equally in a single graveyard beneath a well worn flag. Some of these towns are on dirt roads still, an indication of how little traffic and visitors they get.
This trip we noticed a greater than usual number of yard and garage sales. One, there was enough traffic through these small towns to warrant the effort?
But more important and two, why now? What was different this time through? Were we simply more attentive to such things? Were they always going on and this was the first time we drove through at the correct time to see them?
Researchers, we stopped at a few and talked to folks. But not before doing the required bargain searching. In northern New England (and perhaps elsewhere), there’s a protocol to such things. You don’t just stop, get out of your car and start talking. You must demonstrate the proper level of interest or you’re just a nuisance and northern New Englanders are amazingly intolerant of such people.
So we looked for missing Rembrandts and stolen Michealangelos, for D.B. Cooper’s parachute and the Pope’s Nose, picking up a few things and putting them down. I went through old books, more interested in inscriptions than the books themselves.
And at a certain point, we started seeing what was out for sale rather than looking for something worth buying.
Lives were on sale. Histories of families and individuals, for a dollar and on display. I was reminded of Hemingway’s response when asked to write the shortest story he could — “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Training as an archaeologist kicked in. What could I tell about the society, the people, the culture, based on what I was discovering on this “dig”?
As is common to such things, both quite a bit and not much. In groups, get a large enough sampling from the same era and area, and you can tell quite a bit about the culture, about their society, beliefs and so on. But as individuals? Sans context there is no real content. A shaped shard may or may not be a bowl and only has value if someone decides so. In it’s time it had value to those individuals who used it. We know this because it was found where different aged individuals gathered rather than discarded in a place where we found common trails — indicating traffic — but pieces and piles — indicating refuse rather than re-use.
“Do you have yard sales very often?” I asked. No, they replied. “What’s prompted you to have one now?” Time to move on, they said, time to lighten their loads.
Was this the reason archaeologists could find massive debris fields spanning hectares and ages then nothing? Did societies decide it was time to move on, to lighten their loads? It took our ancestors generations to realize agriculture involved some horticulture, that land had to rest and refresh so it could be reused. We know this from seeing changes in cooking methods and waste products preceding whole societies moving on. At a certain point and in the relative blink of an eye, most cultures began staying put, recognizing letting some land lie fallow allowed for greater harvests each year there-after.
Right now one of the big pushes in marketing and advertising is Green. Everything needs a Green tie-in, some kind of Re-use factoid needs to be part of the pitch.
Probably because with a 7B+ planetary population, we’re running out of 1-use land. In a culture where everything is designed to be disposable, land, still, is not.
Whole societies still move on as mentioned above. Instead of picking up whole tribes and moving on — somewhat impractical these days when nations are still defined by ethnic and racial rather than ideologic boundaries — they’re moving from financial munificence to obsolescence. This is a move of psychologic, of cognitive, landscape, not geographic landscape. Several European countries and the United States are moving from wealthy nation status to greatest debtor status.
But debts of this nature never appear as ledger lines in accountants’ books, they show up in political and business machinations.
The ledger lines are still there, it’s how the debt is written off that’s changed.
But the moving on of whole societies? That remains. Whole cultures move on. We don’t learn to re-use so much as we learn to use something we didn’t use before. Example: the US moved from a gold standard to an imaginary one in 1972. Currently the US dollar is worth what the world market says it’s worth. Of course, the world market has a definite stake in making sure the US dollar has significant value because the world market is currently holding most of the US’ treasury bonds, hence if the world market decides the US dollar is worthless then their investments in treasuries are also worthless. For that matter, no countries are currently using the gold standard. Nothing backs up their “dollar” except what they and others claim it to be worth.
This “it’s worth what I say it’s worth” concept shows up in garage and yard sales all the time. Something I want is marked for $5, I pretend not to be interested and say “I’ll give you 50¢ for it.”
Depending on weather and time of day and mood of seller, I may get a bargain or I may be told to push off. It’s happening right now in real estate. Property being sold for $300k is being bought for $125k. People who had something here move on to have something there.
What will the long-term memories of our lives be at this point in time? What will the archaeologists find in one-thousand, two-thousand, two-hundred thousand years? If everything is disposible except the land, archeologists will determine a people highly in flux, mental wanderers with no place called home for long, who decided to go green while refusing to lie fallow.
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- “The Future of Social Networking: 140 Characters at a Time” at the 14 Sep 2011 Harrisburg University Social Media Summit
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