January 29, 2020

The Trace of Humanity

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

As a species, we always leave things behind.

I’ve discovered hosts of lost and discarded items on this farm, usually during the fall trim-up.  This ground has been farmed for more than 200 years.  It’s been inhabited far longer.  Usually what the trimmer uncovers, hidden under leaves and three-quarters buried in humus, is nothing of consequence.

Ceramic fence insulators, broken glass, bottles, bent and rusted nails, pieces of chain, square-headed bolts, pitted axles and that sort of thing.  I’ve found broken stone arrowheads, too.  I pick up as I work.  There’s a trash bucket in the trimmer cart for exactly this reason.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to matter how much I find, there’s always more.
I’m not thrilled, but I learn things.

What’s located is frequently corroded or covered with mold but only rarely unrecognizable.  It takes thought to identify some of it.  I worry at the edges of  the problem, pulling it apart as I work.  What do I have to go on?

Sometimes there are only stitching holes in a fragment of leather, the thread long gone.  But broken harness straps can be usually be identified by still attached hardware.  Brass rivets or buckles, green with verdigris give the answer away.

I’ve found two brass sleigh bells.  I kept those.

A pair of boots were deduced from the heels.  Like the harness bits, they were leather.  The shape of those laminated scraps was all I could positively identify.  The rusted and concentric nail holes helped.

I’ve found a lot of tobacco tins.  They took a long time to identify.  There wasn’t much left of the majority.  Finally the trailing edge of a word, a stenciled ‘RTH’ isolated by rust on a remaining corner of faded blue paint provided the answer.


Someone who lived and worked here smoked a pipe.

Not infrequently, I’m surprised.  And not just by the sheer volume of what we discard.

Last year I stepped in a leg-hold trap that had waited for untold seasons to catch something.  Me.  It worked fine.  My heel landed right on the pan.  Snap!  Happily it didn’t hurt.  It did startle me.  I hope no one saw my dance, hopped to the tune of a two-cycle motor and brought up short by the keeper chain.  My boot took the abuse.

I thought about that for a long time.  I’d mowed that section annually for more than a dozen years by the time I finally sprung that trap.  The tree to which it was attached had grown around the chain.  It took bolt cutters to remove it.
Sometimes ― rarely ― what’s uncovered is useful.

I found a steel pulley complete with hook and an opening casement.  (That’s to allow its attachment mid-cable, a very helpful feature.)  Yes, I had to press it apart, clean, repair and repaint it, too.  I also installed a grease fitting on the pulley shaft.  Never mind that.  The point is that I’ve used it on several occasions since.

Unfortunately, sometimes what I find angers me.  Invariably these are the new arrivals, the potato chip bags, beer and soda cans and assorted trash from today.   Because what all this proves is twofold:  Not only is litter a problem today but has been for a very long time.

How sad that every age leaves behind the detritus of living.  If I didn’t pick it up, it would be there for the future, distinguished from past deposits only by the materials, plastic instead of leather, aluminum in place of brass and steel.

I think about that as I mow.   Undeniably, the trace of humanity is trash.  I suppose if you’re an archeologist, that’s useful.  But speaking personally, wouldn’t you prefer our legacy was great art, moving literature, evocative music or profound thought?  Perhaps all of the above.

We’re certainly capable.

But as it is, we’ll know that we’ve finally advanced as a species when we visit a spot, deliberately leaving behind only the worthwhile as evidence of our passing.