Walking on Bones

I wonder what it’s like to live on top of someone else’s bones.

When it was recently announced here in Sturgeon Bay that the city council had recognized the historical significance of a Cardy Paleoindian Camp, I headed straight for the address given for the site. Two addresses, actually, adjacent property on a street I’d traveled on many times.

It didn’t suddenly look any different. Two white houses, both with current residents. One of them was quite old, with an old barn sitting nearby, but certainly not in a league with the Paleoindian, or Paleolithic, era. There’s still controversy over what those dates are, but 21,000-9,000 BC is among the ranges given.

That’s old. Actually, the word “paleo” comes from a Greek word that means just that: old. The people from that period are the earliest known humans of the Americas. They lived in the age of giant animals, like mastodons, and they used stone tools.

And, according to the evidence, they lived–or at least spent some time–right here in Sturgeon Bay. The idea made me look at that site with a sense of reverence.

I don’t know enough about that ancient time period to visualize what the area could have looked like. It might have been thickly forested; or perhaps the big trees hadn’t come along yet. The water level of nearby Lake Michigan might have been much higher–or much lower. The climate could have been much different from ours.

For me, none of that matters. What I find intriguing is that on that spot, ancient, ancient people hewed out an existence from the natural world around them. The world of expressways and shopping malls was more unthinkable to them than three-headed space aliens are to me.

On that spot they may have hunted, or camped long enough to dry meat or gather fruits and berries. They undoubtedly huddled together in meager numbers for protection from the other wild elements in their world. They ate, talked, played, made love, watched over their kids, made tools–and left some of those tools behind for us to find as evidence of their forgotten lives. Some of them may even have died there, their bodies gradually returning to the earth that fed and clothed them.

The ages came and went and human generations continued to migrate and change, to grow and develop. The earth reshaped itself as plants and animals were born, lived, and died, layering themselves on top of the bones that came before them. Eventually, our own era intruded, land was cleared, houses were built, fields were farmed, orchards were planted–and someone found a stone tool.

If it were checked, would there be an ancient fingerprint upon it? If touched gently and reverently, would something of its maker communicate itself even yet?

I’d like to sit upon that ground and feel the heartbeat of that long-ago civilization. I’d like to be still and just listen–not to the noise of passing cars, or to the whistle of the nearby shipyard, but to the echoes of ancient voices. Surely, if I listen hard enough, those echoes will be there.

I’d like to sit and think what it must be like to live in a place hallowed by the artifacts that were found, to walk each day over the bones of ancient people, to play where earth’s very young children once  left footprints. What must it be like to look out a modern back door and see the elusive shadows of those who came before, seen only peripherally, the way we focus on the Pleiades in the night sky.

Today I drove by and looked once again at those houses, at that land. Then I drove the few blocks back home, envious–until I realized that the only difference between my land and theirs is the existence of a stone tool. My land is just as ancient and once played host to just as many of those people-returned-to-dust.

From now on, in my own yard, I’ll tread softly. There may be bones here, too. At the very least least, there are footprints, lost to sight, covered by time. I, too, tread on holy ground.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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8 Responses to Walking on Bones

  1. drzl4 says:

    This is wonderful, Monica. I really enjoyed it!! You are a beautiful writer. I feel you could do very well writing a book, maybe something non-fiction history. Or a non-fiction life experience. Whatever you chose would definitely be a seller!! I am really enjoying this blog. Very nicely done, my friend! Patty

    • Monica says:

      Thanks so much, Patty! I’m not sure I have the staying power for a book; I’ve done these “short bursts” for so long, it’s what I’m used to. I’m having fun with this, though!

  2. Stephen says:

    I would certainly welcome your columns in the Door County Style. We average about 25K site visitors each month and have a large following on Facebook as well. Your work is a perfect fir with our magazine… on the arts, nature and the heritage of Door County.

  3. Denise Doyle says:

    Awesome article, Monica! We should all be treat our earth with more respect. In doing so, hopefully our great-grandchilden will still be able to enjoy it as much as we have.

    • Monica says:

      I like how the Indians believed in thinking seven generations ahead, or something like that. We tend to take care of ourselves and not worry about what happens when we’re gone.

  4. Trudy Herbst says:

    Hi Monica, Thanks for a thought-provoking reminder. I found your blog when searching for information about the Cardy site for the Door County Historical Society. Sincerely, Trudy Herbst, Executive Director

    • Monica Sawyn says:

      It’s always fun when someone stumbles upon my blog. I talked with Mr. Cardy and sent him some photos after I wrote this, and I’ve been back to take more. So impressive to have a site like that, that we know about, so close to my home!

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