Essay II. An Archaeology of Stories
This second essay, entitled "An Archaeology of Stories," poses the question that lies at the heart of the series: with Grandma's passing, would I be able to establish my own relationship to the region and become a storyteller in my own right?
Very quickly after her death, I redefined the social contacts that kept me coming—a transition that my dad's younger brother helped facilitate. For nearly two months I lived in Grandma's house in order to box up her papers, and for the first couple of weeks Uncle John was there too.
Usually we'd start our days with coffee at the Stone House Cafe, where he'd josh the waitress and chat with the group of customers who came there regularly. Afterward, we'd swing by the Corner Store to say hello to its proprietor. And periodically (as breaks from our work cleaning up Grandma's house) we'd visit with neighbors.
When the time came for Uncle John to leave and for me to continue on my own, he advised me to follow his example and establish a presence in town. The lesson was new to me, though having followed him around I knew what he meant. To some extent, I continued his pattern—stopping occasionally for coffee at the Stone House Cafe and visiting neighbors across the street. But I also struck out on my own, to establish a presence that was mine and not his. In particular, I began driving to Bath for meetings of the Bath Area Writers Group.
All of the essays in this series were read at BAWG meetings, and all reflect the ensuing discussions. But establishing my presence in the area required something still further. If I wrote essays, what would I write them about? If I came to the area for visits—apart from attending BAWG meetings-what would I end up doing?
I've long been fascinated by the idea that traces of the past still exist as layers of buried artifacts awaiting the archaeologist's spade. When I was a boy, for example, my favorite passage in the library book All About Archaeology (by Anne Terry White) was the story of Heinrich Schliemann's search for Troy. Convinced that the events of Homer's Iliad had actually taken place, Schliemann located a promising site near the Dardenelles and began to dig. Unexpectedly, however, what he discovered was a whole series of cities—one on top of the other.
The complexity of the site meant that Schliemann and the archaeologists after him faced a dual challenge: not only did they have to determine which layer coincided with the Troy of Homer's poem, but they also had to reconstruct the stories associated with the site's other layers.
Over the years, I found myself facing similar problems with Grandma Cornell's stories—which, from the outset, had subtle relationships to physical artifacts and to various features of the landscape.
On visits to Campbell, I might find Grandma eager to tell me about a particular document or photograph or object. Sometimes the item served as her point of departure. But more often than not she held the item in her lap, awaiting the right moment to bring it to my attention. As I listened, the artifact would slowly acquire a glow—a storied aura—that I hadn't noticed before.
Also during my visits, Grandma and I sometimes took drives together, and at the appropriate places she would have me pull over and stop. At first, all I'd see would be an old building or a vacant field or whatever. But gradually, as she talked, I'd catch sight of the stories that covered the landscape, layer upon evanescent layer.
After Grandma's death in January, 1990, I feared losing touch with the world she had shown me. In part, I worried because her stories involved so many places which I'd never been to-places which I didn't even know how to get to. Equally troubling was the rapid dispersal of the many things that had accumulated in her house and barn over the span of nearly three-quarters of a century. Like floodwaters from a dam break, the artifacts had rushed away in an overpowering, unstoppable flow.
Fortunately, I managed to keep together (at least temporarily) most of her papers, and I began the work needed to link that material to her stories. Similarly, I began deliberate efforts to visit the places she had told me about. In other words, I made progress at linking her stories to artifacts and places.
Yet there lingered a deep, nagging concern that the ties between stories, on the one hand, and artifacts or landscape, on the other, came to me solely through Grandma—that I knew how to make these connections only because she had first shown me. Could I do anything more than just keep fresh what I had learned from her? Could I discover for myself the storied glow of artifacts or the landscape's rich strata of stories?
The third essay, entitled "My First Visit to the Hammondsport Glen," describes an early effort to interact more directly with the countryside. One of the essay's distinctive features is the poem it includes. Looking back on both experiences—the act of writing, as well as the trip—I now see that the poem surfaced at a critical moment: when I began wading in the stream, I ceased merely observing the scenery around me and became instead a full participant.
While exploring the glen, I also discovered something I hadn't expected to find, namely, a large waterfall.
One Saturday afternoon in early May 1991, I drove down from Rochester, in search of the Hammondsport Glen. Upon reaching the village, I parked my car in the lot behind the Curtiss Museum and started exploring on foot
After a short distance, Main Street "T"ed into Pulteney Street Between there and the hillside, and stretching for several blocks in either direction, was the newly-completed channel for Glen Brook. Because its main purpose was to carry flood waters to the lake, the concrete structure seemed awkwardly oversized for the modest flow that I observed. Although moving rapidly, the stream was only a few inches deep and no more than about three feet across-making the channel an attractive play area for a group of grade-school kids in their bathing suits.
The kid's voices trailed off as they moved downstream. But from the other direction, I could hear mechanical droning sounds punctuated by occasional clanks. Following the channel, I found that it curved into the glen and then fanned out to create a large concrete arena where a group of older boys were skateboarding.
Beyond the fan, the rocky stream bed had been leveled as part of the overall project. Here I was still able to jump back and forth across the shallow current. Here also the air around me was warmed by the ravine's sunlit walls.
But then I entered the natural glen, where the stream tended to pool up and broaden and where the steep, wooded hillsides reached down to the water's edge. The season was already far enough along for the trees to be leafing out, and above me the sun's light turned the yellow-green canopy to gold. In the shade at the base of the glen, however, trillium still bloomed-and the air lost its earlier hints of summer.
Ahead I could see a small waterfall, with an overall drop of maybe three feet. Wanting to explore at least that far, I took off my shoes and began to wade.