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Jeff Gundy


I’m fine. How can I complain? My salary still turns up in the bank on time. Food and beer and spirits are still within our means. Power and water and information still flow obediently, though the information is not responsive to my desires.

It was a great spring for birds. We have a whole buffet of feeders, and have to refill them every day. Goldfinches, jays, nuthatches, etc. We put up an oriole feeder—oranges and grape jelly—and just as I moved it to the hangar a pair came by to try it out, brilliant and casual and fine.

Most days I’m all right being quiet, hours at the desk, breakfast lunch dinner, the news, a bike ride with my pal Perry, some talk with my wife. She is Canadian, still boggled by the toxic behavior of certain Americans, and desirous of lengthy and arduous analysis of such behavior. I am equally boggled, but my capacity to engage it conversationally wavers.

I’m tired like everyone of trying to bear up under the deluge of bad news far and near. Weary of the foolishness of human beings, our vulnerable bodies and unreliable minds, our evidently limitless capacity for bad choices. Weary of bad information, and of battles that need fighting over and over. Wary of the fall, when my school will try to open again under conditions none of us can really imagine or predict.

And yet I’m grateful. For young folk, some my former students, who have become warriors for justice and truth, and sad for those who still don’t get it.

I’m grateful that after weeks of empty streets, a tenth of the people in my red-and-white little town turned up, masks on, to march for Black Lives Matter. One old guy in a golf cart hung scowling around the edges, and somebody else raced his pickup engine at the corner where the police made him turn away, but we mostly managed to ignore them.

I’m grateful that last weekend we snuck away for a marvelous if possibly risky few days with our kids and grandkids, socially distancing as best we could but also basking in the presence of these others precious to us. We were all careful, we think. So far, so good.

How can I complain? But sometimes I still do.

I have a summer project, which has advanced slowly and shifted unexpectedly. I know far more about Pontiac’s War (1763) and the Hopewell Culture (A.D. 100-500, more or less) than I did. On our way back we visited three Hopewell mound sites and the Great Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. What we know about the people who built these grand earthworks is scant and fragmentary, but they left behind thousands of mounds and massive earthworks, most along rivers and streams in southern Ohio.

The Hopewell established no empire, but they traded across most of the continent, Yellowstone to Florida, and left behind many treasures: bird claws in mica, serpents carved in stone, obsidian blades, artificial noses made of copper. They dressed the bodies they buried extravagantly, sometimes covering them with pearls. The mound sites were only for what must have been spectacular ceremonies; they lived in small, scattered villages. To make their mounds and walls, vast squares and circles, not perfect but not so far from it either, they moved millions of square feet of earth. The scholar William F. Romain argues that their unit of measure was 2.106 feet. He believes that each mound “represents a reenactment of the mythical creation of the earth.”

When settlers came, many mounds were plowed flat, others destroyed for army bases, roads, houses. And yet some remain, tended, fenced, restored, managed, with good signage and lists of rules for visiting. In the midst of so much turmoil, loss, sickness, and fear, they persist, silent, enigmatic, not as they were, but stubbornly present.

Even our name for the mound builders, Hopewell, comes from the man who was farming one of the biggest sites when it was excavated in 1892. We will never know their name for themselves. Some think they built fortifications and gathered in larger groups near the end, threatened from outside, but the evidence is thin. Likely they lived on, in the tribes and peoples that came after them—and surely traces of them still persist, in the blood and bones of scattered men and women.

Apocalyptic thinking is easy these days, too easy. The grand American experiment, full of shame and glory as it is, seems to be spiraling into something different, but who can say what? Frightening as these times are, there may be room for hope in them, hope that whatever follows will be a gentler, more generous tribe, or set of tribes, people who think more of each other and less of themselves.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020