When I was barely a teenager in the late sixties living on the south side of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we lived on eight acres. The house my dad built was on the outskirts of, then, Baton Rouge. We had a rather small size of woods on all sides of our house, maybe on the order of tens of acres. However, the woods were big woods in that the trees, many oaks, were very tall at least one hundred feet. In places the underbrush was thick, and the overall effect was that the woods were dark and hidden. I used to go out almost every day after high school with my shotgun to hunt squirrels and rabbits. Yes, we actually ate them in those days – effects of the Great Depression in the Deep South on my parents. Anyway, I did not go out to kill small animals but just to walk in the woods after a stressful day of high school. I have never told anyone this story, but the story has always haunted me to some extent. Not in a bad way, but in an oddly quiet, hurtful but ‘full’ way. Not too far into the woods on the north side of my house was a strange place I would just sit and, I don’t know, feel, think commune with something, someone… The place was a place that, as far as I knew, no one knew anything about except myself.
What was unique about this place in the wood was that there was obviously a small house which had been there at one time. There was no structure there, no rusted tin, no old timber, there was a small, barely visible but distinct outline of a square frame maybe twelve feet by twelve feet. Inside the frame there was fragments of what could have been clay vessels which was probably the kitchen area. Next to the frame was a square pit, about four feet sides, that was around fifteen feet deep. I took this to be an old well. Behind the house frame there were, barely visible, but distinct rows as if a garden was there at one time. Tall trees and shrubs had almost leveled it out, but it was definitely a garden at one time. The garden was more or less visible for about four acres behind the house to the west side. At the end of the garden area was what was obviously some kind of old, highly overgrown, pond with trees which had grown up inside it. It was small, almost like a small, cow watering pond and, while shallow, still had water in it most of the time. To the north of the old house frame was a really odd and old road, more like a wide path, that ran diagonally towards the west. The road was not visible at all near the house frame but picked up a small distance into the wood in a strange way. There were no trees in in the old road, but it was lined with very old, tall trees which made it dark. Along the sides of the road were a flurry of palmetto leaves which were not uncommon for that part pf Louisiana but were configured too symmetrically along the old road path to have been natural.
Slightly to the northeast of the old house frame were two oblong mounds which extended about eight feet in length and three feet wide. There were perfectly parallel and there was a smaller one in parallel that was about four feet long by two feet wide. They were obviously grave sites for two adults and one child. Next to the grave sites was an odd clearing which could have been a very small shallow pond at one time. By the size of the trees, overgrown in the garden, the homesite must have gone back to at least, the civil war days and likely before. There was no way to tell if these folks were white, black or native American, but it was obvious that they lived in isolation from any communities of people.
When I reflect on it, I think these folks left, barely visible, almost erased, traces of a probably short but happy life. They were probably barely known by anyone else – I may have been one of the few that ever picked up on this practically invisible site. They grew their own food, perhaps had a couple livestock but spent some unknown but happy years in that secret paradise. Their life was hard and tragic, but they endured and, for those days, thrived. Their legacy was my secret and private privilege to somehow enjoy for those days when I would just sit and ponder.
From what I know about that area now, it has all been developed and bulldozed over many times, so I was probably the last to know about that trace, that moment, that life-place. As a teenager, which are not known for being the most astute in these kinds of matters, I felt a sadness and a fullness for those phantoms which once were not so. They disappeared into oblivion, but they had their special moment in the sun…and I was there to witness the final gasp in anything we might recognize as their reality. They shared that with me and I with them and quickly thereafter, all vanished.
I do not know why I did not tell others about the place or perhaps inform LSU about a possible archeological site but who knows what teenagers think. I do find that my life, especially after the loss of my dear, twenty-year-old son to suicide recently, has something in common with that quiet, solemn and lost place. I will also go the way of oblivion, my memories, my loves, my desires and my tragic hurts. But I had my life-place and my loves, my time in the sun and I was content in the gardens I toiled with. I have no expectations about exceptionalism or uniqueness, but I do not need or require that – I am content – I simply need make my own ways into my moment in the sun with my loves, my toils, my tragedies. That will be enough, and I, like those bare traces of vanishing sojourners I momentarily met in solitude, will disappear into the night of the living…and whatever else an odd universe may decide or not.