Moats: Lost and found

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(HOST) Dig around an old house – to put in a garden for example – and commentator David Moats says you’re likely to unearth a few surprises. 

(MOATS) My house is a kind of archaeological site. It’s been there since 1845, and I’ve been there since 2004. There’s a lot of history just beneath the surface.

Novelist Castle Freeman wrote an essay for the latest Vermont Life in which he extols not the constant mobility of Americans, but their considerable immobility.

His house in Newfane was built around 1787, and it was in the hands of one family for most of the 19th century. His family moved there in 1975, and his finds include a Connecticut coin from the 1780s and a British coin from the 1760s.

I haven’t found rare coins, but I’ve found almost everything else. There was a pile of stuff that included rusty old bikes, old mattress springs, even the beds of two pickup trucks. There were bits of tools and parts of old machines. Every time I till the garden something else turns up – bits of glass, old clothes. Just this spring I found a small, rusty old leghold trap – holding only itself. I’d say the backyard had everything but the kitchen sink, but it also had the kitchen sink.

I keep some of this stuff. Old soda bottles of long-discontinued brands make good vases – like the ones where the words and images are raised in the glass itself. One of my favorite finds is a plastic octopus that I keep in the bath tub, much to the surprise of unwary guests.

This old stuff is mostly junk, and I’ve taken five or six loads of it to the dump. But some of it shows the marks of time in interesting ways or speaks of a distant past. Some of the glass is smooth and worn in pleasing ways. There are those old machinery parts that suggest a time when machines had parts you could see and understand.

All those bits belonged to something once; they had a useful function in what was going on. I’ve found old square nails that may have been made at the mills just down the way, which are just foundations now.

Castle Freeman’s description of people rooted in the same place for decades doesn’t apply to me – and probably not to most of us. However long the people stayed at my house, they eventually moved on, for one reason or another, leaving behind their traces.

It makes me wonder what this generation will leave and how it will resonate. Lately, I dug up an old warped LP. There’s no label. It could have been a record of Perry Como, or Three Dog Night, or the Eagles – not exactly immortals of music, but preserved maybe forever on unplayable vinyl.

I’m trying not to leave too much stuff behind. But maybe centuries from now people will find Gus, my octopus. Maybe they’ll conclude that people way back when made a fetish of eight-legged mollusks. And maybe they’ll be right.

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