DUCK SOUP: Ancestral Voices

Walking a wilderness beach on the Gulf of Mexico I looked at sea shells and heard my mother's voice. "Moon shell," she said, pointing at a beautifully polished globular spiral snail. "Sand dollar," she announced, holding a delicate flat disk with a flower etched on its center. Then, "Angel wing, sea urchin, lace murex, and olive shell," echoed in my mind. There were whispers of my grandmother's voice as well, while my memory stretched back almost forty years to another walk on another beach: Sanibel Island with its crunchy sugar sand and a ferry boat ride where I watched manta rays and dolphins slide through crystal green water."Sand dollar," I repeated as I picked one up, intact, and brushed sand from the pattern.The timelessness of that experience was striking. I carry traces of an oral tradition stretching back beyond history: the hunter/gatherer education system that predates language. Once there were apes who taught their young what was good to eat and what was poisonous by example. Perhaps there were grunts of approval, later there were words. "Clam. Snail. Edible. Toxic."Hearing my mother's voice seemed to resonate some deep chord of order and belonging. Though she was teaching me the name of beautiful hollow shells valued for ornament instead of food, the process was the same. And, of course, even ornament is a tradition from our deep past. A Native American mother would have pointed out the quahog clam to her curious child, treasured not just for food, but for the purple shell which would be cut and drilled for wampum beads.Mother to child the important cultural information still flows. "Levi, Lee, Calvin Klein, Jordache," is the litany in the shopping mall. "Folgers, Choc Full O'Nuts, Taster's Choice," count the cadence in a grocery. Though the sorting and choosing of a shopping trip may not have the same immemorial quality as a deserted beach buffeted by a salt wind and the crying of gulls, the function is the same. Another generation on, a middle aged man will hear whispers of maternal guidance as he picks a pair of pants. The urge to provide for ourselves, to forage for that which sustains us, is as natural as breathing. If the wilderness search for edible berries and mushrooms has segued into hasty collection of microwave dinners and boxes of pasta, it is because the wilderness itself has been supplanted by pavement. Our needs remain and the words, "Home cooked," have a power that has not been completely erased by commercial use. Home cooked is what mother fed us saying, "Eat your peas. Peas are good for you." I have heard it said that shopping malls are popular because they are a safe place to act out our hunter/gatherer instincts. No doubt that is part of the comfort many folks find in excursions there. More than once I have heard people say they shop when they are depressed and it cheers them. It must be those ancient echoes of a time when successful gathering meant survival, when looking and picking up and evaluating were the most crucial acts in a day. At a beach, watch the people moving along the strand. They stoop and examine and exclaim. They look out to the horizon, briefly, and look down again. A piece of sand polished broken glass or a piece of driftwood catches the imagination. "This looks like a fossil! This looks like a running deer!" Pictures from an exhibition on a cave wall. Shadows from the past. We are so much composed of what we have been, so much the result of history and genes, it is usually hard to pick out the threads that have woven to make the cloth from which we are cut. The powerful emotion that swept me on that wilderness beach was a moment of discovery: the naming of names, the singing of my mother and my ancestors, the chords of life that tie us one to another in an ancient dance."Moonshell, sand dollar, angel wing," I hear the voices of the ages and understand. The tapestry is seamless. I am in and of the earth.

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