This is guest blog written by Dawn Marano. I met Dawn in the 90's when I was a designer and she was an editor at the University of Utah Press. Then we didn't see each other for decades until she appeared at a women's group I attended a couple of years ago. Dawn called me on the phone out of the blue several weeks ago, and ended up telling me the story of her experience on this land in Florida that is very special to her. It gave me chills . . . and so I asked her to write about it. Enjoy!
November 2003. Pine Island, Florida.
An acquaintance guided us to an undeveloped parcel of property adjacent to his home that his neighbors owned. The land, amounting to more than fifty-three acres, was lapped by Pine Island Sound and had been donated by Donald and Patricia Randell as an archaeological site to the University of Florida Foundation. Our guide, my husband and I, and our two friends were walking on what had already been recognized as significant to science. On this, the Pineland site complex, the Calusa Indians had established a village more than 1,500 years before. If our guide mentioned any of this, it was lost on me. We’d been on a nature-tour, boating with him all day in the sun among the barrier and inland islands of the sound, and we were ready for . . . refreshments. I was, at least, ready for something, anything, familiar: I spike out on any introvert scale/test you care to administer and that day I’d experienced enough new and overwhelming sensations to keep me sleepless for a week. (I exaggerate — I was stimulated, awake, and exhausted in a kind of good way.) But first, our guide mentioned, after he’d secured his boat at his dock, we needed to pick a few fresh limes and lemons from — okay, next door. The property was thickly overgrown, native and non-native flora intertwining willy-nilly, seeking access to light. It felt like an Eden of a sorts, as entranced as I was, because there were, indeed, ripe citrus for the taking, star fruit, too. A clump of oysters that had been harvested an hour before was on the grill, the gin and tonics were poured, and I had my first inkling of what living-off-the-land (albeit for a BBQ in the 21st century) might feel like. But there was something else, too — and me, being me, I didn’t mention it. I had felt like a trespasser on that land we’d just foraged; not one trespassing on the current, amiable property neighbors . . . no, something else.
I ache sometimes over my naïvete that day, because our guide had also led us to the top of what he explained was an historic shell mound that, in its time, absent the rampant overgrowth and the lowered sea level, would have offered an incredible vista on waters that lifted, receded, and, in our most simplistic understanding, sustained and given meaning to a people long gone. Long gone . . . but not?
Now the worried gnome in my head natters: If only you could tell this story properly with an acceptable titration of fact and feeling, then people wouldn’t look at you funny. The gnome and I are old friends. S/he tries to help me communicate: I live comfortably enough in consensus reality, but I also live in a psychic intuitive place. The gnome wants me to tell stories in a way that won’t make eyes roll, wants to protect me. It is March 25, 2017. This evening, I take a chance.
I’m at a party for donors to the Randell Research Center (RCC) on Pine Island where my husband, Don, and I now own a home. Linda says, “We received a check from you and here you are! We didn’t know you. We were wondering . . . why the donation?” We’re new, almost full-time residents on the island; that part is simple enough to explain. We care about where we live; we dig in, even if all that means at the outset is sending a sliver of paper with a dollar sign on it. The next part is where I hesitate: the year before Don and I had been walking on the RCC grounds again after a long lacuna — fourteen years! Archaeological and restoration work had been ongoing in the interim. The invasive and introduced plants were gone (goodbye limes, lemons, and star fruit), the first interpretive trails and signs were in place, and now it was clear to me that this acreage, where I’d once casually plucked fruit, had been HOME to many others in the way-before. I’d felt something, I told Linda. I had stopped in my tracks. I had sensed people turning to look at me from another time: “Who are you?” A visitor. “You may come.” I had felt invited and necessary in some way — in the witness way, is all. “What worries me about saying all this is that it makes me sound as if, because I sensed something,” I told Linda, “I’m thinking I’m the one who’s important. But I’m not; they are.” Another woman, an experienced archaeological volunteer and author, also standing in this small cluster at the party agrees: on her first dig at RCC, she’d had to stop and sit. She’d felt a pressure on her chest. She’d heard murmurings. She’d asked whether what was going to be done here was all right. And she’d heard an answer: We’re on a different plane of existence now. Do as you will.
March 29, four days later. I’m again walking on hallowed ground. (My white-person-editor-self wants to delete the word hallowed.) Start over: I walk on ground that others have walked on, many others — fed on, loved and lived and died on. A few stunning artifacts have been discovered here over time: my favorite, the head of, perhaps, a sandhill crane, carved from wood. The head and the mandible are drilled in such a way that it can be surmised the two were strung together and articulated, capable of creating a rattling-squawk. This day, I am in need of something. I am greedy and angry and empty. I want that bench near the sand burial mound, is all I know — a significant structure still, a path winding clockwise to the summit and counterclockwise to the base, surrounded by a hand-dug canal, a moat separating life from death, where the Calusa Indians buried their dead. None of this I would know without the patient archaeologists who have walked here, recently, before me, revealing what time in its way obscured: the pepper trees encroaching, the cabbage palms encroaching, the canal obscured, sucked dry between seasonal rains. Now, it is before me: a cemetery. Theirs. Do we not, in our time, understand that kind of sacred? Of course, we do. Yet not too far from here, a settler once scraped away a good part of an enormous shell mound, another kind of sacred place the Calusa built, in order to make way for his house. I have no animosity towards that person who lived several decades ago. He did not know that he was eradicating a precious history. We all have done that, one way or another. We all have made unknowing choices, clearing the way for ourselves and our children.
I have made this sort of pilgrimage before, sought healing or respite selfishly, elsewhere: once on Boulder Mountain in Utah, hiking, I found a coprolite from a turtle in an evanescent spring. Honestly, that day a fossilized turd felt like a blessing, so desperate was I then for any connection with what had been . . . and still was. Now on this day, sitting near the burial mound, my desperation is different, has been different since November 8, 2016, when I went to sleep weeping and woke up weeping in the morning, deranged by an election. I do not need to take anything physical from this place. I wait.
How many friends and strangers do I have to meet in this life before I trust what I sense/know/want to share, having no proof of what I sense/know/want to share? I have been on this earth sixty-one years and this question still pricks me in the most insistent, even rudest and painful way.
Above me, an osprey calls. My only witness of my witnessing. I just wait. Perhaps I will hear again: You may come. Home.
Dawn Marano is grateful to have edited dozens of manuscripts over the past twenty years on their way to their own destinies: some found publication, some had unpublished journeys to complete for their authors. Now, she is on a journey herself, destination unknown.