As the Good Book rightly foretold, when I was a child I thought like a child and acted like a child. That means I did many foolish things.
Probably the most foolish thing I did was give away several tin cans filled with Native American artifacts that I had found in the fields of my family’s southern Illinois dairy farm.
Well, I didn’t exactly give ‘em away. Some I sold, usually for a $1 a can.
Once, I traded a to-the-brim can of native beads, musket balls, rifle flints and arrowheads for a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum that I knew cost a nickel. (Have I mentioned foolish?)
Another time my brother, David, and I swapped some artifacts for two, well-used football helmets and shoulder pads from Southern Illinois University. Oh, they were the real deal — real leather, real Bakelite face guards, real cotton padding — as were we: really foolish.
The really dumb thing is that I still have the dumb helmet. I suppose I keep it to show just how galacticly stupid I was to hand over a Busch Bavarian (my father’s brand then and now) can full of irreplaceable native history for two pieces of completely frivolous Americana.
That I had so many artifacts was no mystery. One June day my father came to the dinner table with a flint spear point. He had found it that morning while cultivating soybeans in the field just north of the farmstead.
Cream-colored and maybe 3 inches long, it was extraordinary; the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.
A half-hour later, after Dad had moseyed off for his midday nap, I was in the bean field. He was tired; I was afflicted. He rested; I never did and the search became the passion it remains.
Forty-five years on, I still return to that field and to the search.
Success (then as now) is aided by the accident of birth. My family’s farm, at the confluence of the Kaskaskia River with the Mississippi, has been known for generations as Indian Farm.
The name extolled the land’s native tenants, the Kaskaskias, a tribe of the-once powerful Illinois Confederacy that, in the early 1700s, made their home in the flat, fertile Mississippi River bottoms.
Stand in the bare, late winter fields of Indian Farm today and you can see what drew the Kaskaskia to it.
On its west flank is a long, shallow slough fed by the Mississippi that remains home to ducks, geese, muskrat and beaver. In the distance, gray-barked pecan trees reach to the heavens and continue to yield their bounty every fall. Limestone bluffs rise to the north and two rivers crowd it on the east and south.
In fact, if not for the thatch of corn stalks at my feet and a picket of telephone poles marching toward the levee, most of the land’s native beauty remains.
It’s captivating and, more often than not, I spend more of my too-brief visits listening for whispers of wisdom and lore than looking for arrowheads and beads. What parts, I wonder, of the many lives that walked where I now stand remain hidden in the shadows of those centuries-old pecan trees?
Did the sight and smell of April’s fresh earth move them to thank their Creator, too? Did the soft touch of a spring breeze also carry them gently and happily into a promising tomorrow?
For 35 years I have returned to Indian Farm, when I can, to replenish what it first gave me as a child. Now I return to listen. Beads are now beauty. Arrowheads now peace.
And one day, perhaps soon, I will return to add my whispers to the eternal wind.