Toad in the Hole

September 14, 2006

Tumbling, After

Reading teju cole, who muses on the memory of place:

I'm thinking about how many layers of "sub-mundus" lie literally as, well as historically, in space as well as in time, under the surface of a city like New York, like San Francisco -- where builders have obliterated not only land and human history but the fertile edges of the Bay itself -- and under the house I'm sitting in in Berkeley. Troy seemed a fable until Schliemann, digging under the soil there, found buried walls, then streets, then the rest of what we use to infer a civilization we can barely understand.

I drove past the intersection of Shellmound Avenue and Ohlone Way (Sorry, Malcolm!) yesterday, where the gung-ho city of Emeryville has permitted a brace of shopping malls to be built over the eponymous shellmound, and experienced that odd combination of snarl and shiver one has when confronting such a blithe obscenity as those street names. At one side, there's a hump of soil planted with grass, some kind of fake waterfall, something else I couldn't pay attention to because I was driving. I'm very much afraid it was supposed to be commemorative.

A shellmound is a strange sort of memorial, to some of us, and not well understood at least officially. It's just that, a mound of shells, sometimes hundreds of feet deep; there are several around the Bay and some are supposed to be 5,000 years old. They get called "middens," but that has a garbage-heap connotation that misses the mark. Humans have been found buried in shellmounds, evidently with ceremony, and so have the bones of other species that probably weren't dinner leftovers: dolphins, coyotes. Artifacts, too. The people who lived here could justly be said to have been rich; there was lots of food easily obtained (as witness the size of the shellmound, just to account for oysters and mussels!) and an easy climate. They didn't raise brick walls or stone towers, though. In a place prone to earthquakes, that would have been patently insane.

Is patently insane.

Most of the things they made or used have returned decently to the soil, to feed the lives after. Their shelters were simple, made of bark and withes and vegetable weavings, and their other artifacts -- weapons, jewelry, household goods -- were on the biodegradable side too. What hard stuff they contained, the stone and shells and beads made of both, were held together by leather and plant matter, and lots of the rest was feathers. Feathers are miraculous for retaining color for centuries, but they must first be preserved from natural recycling forces like moisture and insects. We have very little of theur material culture left to see now, and almost none to hear.

So that shellmound, the one now supporting the shopping mall, is a museum of sorts, though its exhibits aren't visible, and a monument, and a marker more precise than the crossed streetsigns over it. We lack the ability to read it, but it's a marker all the same. We can still muse (though it's hard with all the traffic noise) upon what we can see of it. Those of us who can see it at all.

Mostly, that means those who know and remember or learn that the mound is there, under the mall.

The mall's very near the current edge of the Bay, so it's on the sort of ground, aside from the shellmound, that goes to jelly when a serious earthquake strikes. So someday, sooner or later, those walls will be rubble too, like Troy's, and they'll lie atop the shellmound they have already hidden, and maybe something else will be built on top of them. As on the walls of Troy. If our remnant descendants have more sense than we do, maybe it will be farmland or pasture, or saltmarsh growing more shellfish, actually productive of something more real than abstract electronic economics. Maybe the mall walls will be as dimly remembered as Troy's. I wonder if the shellmound will be remembered too. I hope so. It would mean that there's a civilization here again.

I wonder how to name the difference between the putative descendants of the Trojans -- building, farming, living, on the soil that covers those ruins -- and us, our civilization, so different from that of the peoples' before us and mostly imposed by invaders and the descendants of invaders. There is a difference, but I suspect there's a lot of noise that will have to die down before the name or dimensions of it can be heard. If you try to tell me what it is, I'll listen and reserve both judgment and belief.

There's a sense in which a genius loci is as evanescent, as breathlike, as any other spirit. It's a living thing, and we living things have the hope of continuing life only in the sense that we bequest it to other living things. It's not in our grasp, though it is our grasp; like the air that's been around the planet a few million years and has passed through every other living being, it's something we get to use only a little while, and we can't hang on to it without dying faster.

It's in our nature to live by consuming the past. The very soil that feeds us, the surface we live on (and live on), comprises, along with the pulverized remains of mountains and the lithified remains of shellfish, the decayed and decaying bodies of our ancestors and our brethren. The decay is what makes it fertile. Some of what went before us we can thread together with that perilously organic and mortal cord, memory. What else can we do but hope we're worthy inheritors of our own lives?

Posted at September 14, 2006 04:32 AM



Posted by: Kat at September 15, 2006 05:21 PM

Shit! They're doing WHAT in Emeryville?!?! Building WHAT? WHERE?

(Sorry for screaming.)



Posted by: Sara at September 15, 2006 06:43 PM

Kat, thanks.

Sara, not "building": built. The usual objections etc. run roughshod over. There's barely a sliver left of the mudflats where the shorebirds come, and I'm sure that's only there because it's west of the freeway. Emeryville's all boomin' 'n' shit, until of course it starts sinking.

E'ville's got Pixar and Chiron too, of course. Quite the tax base, insofar as their lawyers can't quite get them out of paying some token of when they ought to.

(Don't try to parse that; I'm only half-coffee'd up.)

Posted by: Ron at September 16, 2006 02:50 PM

it's true, sara -- hotels, home depot and all the chain box stores, chichi condos, ikea... i think a lot of it is built over former industrial sites, but once this development train got rolling, it picked up a lot of steam. there were a few changes 15-20 years ago [around the start of the live/work loft conversions of industrial space], but the past 5-10 years it's been pretty stunning.

Posted by: kathy a at September 16, 2006 11:18 PM

ron, the mall of which you speak -- it is that bay street thing? [shudder.]

Posted by: kathy a at September 17, 2006 03:25 AM

That's the one. Ah, but it's an _urban_ mall -- it charges for parking.

Posted by: Ron at September 17, 2006 04:57 AM