Saturday, 17 June 2017

The mysterious meanings of markers

The thing about pre-literate societies is that they are separated from us by a veil of mystery that we penetrate only with difficulty. Because they have left no written records of their beliefs or explanations of their actions, we’re left guessing at dimly suspected truths. It’s like reading a thriller by one of the better authors.

  • Just what was Stonehenge for?
  • Why were Neolithic burial mounds shaped like their houses?
  • Were those long mounds really for burying people or for something else and, in either case, why?

In North America too, pre-European societies have left behind traces of their culture over which archaeologists, or tourists, can only wonder and scratch their heads.

Cherokee marker tree from the Appalachians
One such phenomenon is the so-called “marker tree”. Native Americans would tie down a growing sapling so that it was forced to bend to one side and grow horizontally for a time, before growing vertically once more. The result was a shape that spoke “man made” in an unmistakeable language. By following a trail from marker tree to marker tree, others could find their way to a sacred spot, a source of water or perhaps a safe river crossing; conversely, they might understand the tree as a warning to keep out of someone else’s territory. No one quite knows. You see? A wonderful sense of mystery. Enhancing the charm.

It was a pleasure to learn about Indian marker trees when my friend Becky visited us from Texas and introduced me to the notion the other day. She’s the daughter of Mexican immigrants who was never allowed to forget it, when she was a student at her massively white, ostentatiously wealthy school. Her father, though, established at least one excellent relationship with a white, the owner of a local farm where he worked as manager.

If anything, they got on rather too well. At least, for the taste of her mother. It became something of a habit of theirs to share a bottle or two after work, making the evening a lot of fun for them, though far less for the family.

“Later he stopped drinking altogether,” Becky told me, “but at the time it was a major leisure-time activity for the two of them. They particularly enjoyed it when they took heavy farm equipment out for a joy ride after a drinking session. Two drunk men driving a combine harvester? You can imagine the scene.”

The farm has long since been sold and converted into a golf course. The designers of the course were careful not to disturb one of its key features: a bent tree, showing the characteristic signs of human manipulation that make marker trees.

“I used to hear women golfers cooing as they interrupted their game to admire it. You know – ‘I wonder what it meant. What it was pointing to. How much it meant to the people who made it what it is’. They were really awestruck.”

Becky's tree. She knows just what it marked
Again, you see? The sense of a mysterious presence, of a lost culture, whose sentiments one can only guess at. But Becky had reason to see an even greater charm in the intriguing appearance of this strange link to a distant past: she knew that the past that marked the tree wasn’t quite as distant as the golfers believed.

“My Dad and his boss took one of the farm vehicles out after several hours on the bottle. They managed to drive it straight into a fine mature tree in one of the fields and knock it almost flat.”

“And?” I asked, guessing where she was heading with this story, and wanting her to move on after her pause.

“Well,” she continued with a smile, “they thought they’d killed it but they hadn’t. Its roots clung on in the ground and it just kept on growing. They tried to right it several times, but there was no way they could move it – the tree was far too heavy. Instead, the new growth bent upwards as the trunk extended, so it resumed its proper, vertical direction. In fact, it ended up growing three great limbs looking like three trunks. Giving it the appearance of a marker tree.”

“But not an Indian artefact at all?”

“No. A Tex-Mex one. Lubricated by a great deal of liquor.”

Sadly, the tree has gone now. After evolving from farm to golf course, the next stage of that land’s existence is to be housing. The twisted oak has been cleared to make way for the new build.

It seems sad. Because if there’s charm to the mysterious old, there’s humour to spice it in the mysterious old explained by an unguessed recent truth. Still, that’s builders for you: no respecters of culture, of traditional significance, of the transcendent meaning that links us to our past.

A crying shame leading to a sad loss, I say.

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