04 July 2006

An archaeology

Sealed in a wall of a house in the Pohangina Valley is a copy of the first Pohangina Valley Newsletter—a message from the mid 90s, waiting to be found. When? Decades from now? Already the message has been waiting 12 years. Who will find it? Will the reader remember or wonder?

Here you still find old houses with walls covered with scrim. Hessian, rotted with age. Sometimes, beneath the scrim you find old newspapers. Messages from the time when war was still “The War”; when everything was scarce except memories of loss; before television; when families listened to the radio in the evenings; when tobacconists sold Kauri flake in tin cans. The time when engineers calculated with slide rules and people wrote letters by hand, with fountain pens. I’ve torn faded wallpaper from old walls, pulled the scrim from sarking[1] walls and read those brittle scraps of newspapers; stood among the dust, the fragile past.

You find builders’ names pencilled on dwangs[2], with a date before you were born. Calculations in feet and inches. Sometimes you find a coin—a penny perhaps, or a sixpence or a florin[3]—and you wonder whether it fell or was placed; whether the person who left it still lives.

Someone, somewhere in Canada, writes a poem on a basement floor; someone else covers the floor; eventually someone removes the covering and finds the poem. Will the reader remember or wonder?

In a set of handmade bookshelves a small, hidden compartment contains a little scroll of paper, on which is written a simple message from the woodworker to his partner. He made the shelves for her years ago and sealed the message inside. They are no longer together but the significance of that time is there, still, in the wood.

Before customwood and modern glues—when, to be a cabinetmaker you had to know more about how wood moves and twists and shrinks and swells than about how to set up machinery for a production run—dressers and drawers, desks and chests and other items often included secret compartments. Press a certain part of the underside of a desk and a panel popped open or a drawer slid out, revealing an unsuspected hollow; a space, waiting. Blanket chests often have false bottoms. Some fine-furniture makers still incorporate these in their cabinets; some not-so-fine-furniture also includes simple secret spaces.

How many of these secret compartments are now known to no one? The old desk at which you sit, scribbling shopping lists and reminder notes, might contain a hidden compartment, or two, or twenty-one. Perhaps in one of those, a message waits. Perhaps it’s a trinket, a postage stamp, a lock of hair from someone now anonymous—someone who may or may not still be alive. What remains to be found; who will remember; when will the past become a present?

What have you hidden? What’s behind your walls? Who will tear them down and read your messages? Will the reader remember, or wonder?


Notes:
1. Sarking has various meanings; here I refer to boards nailed across walls to act as a lining. In old houses the sarking also functioned as strengthening before dwangs came into common use.
2. Dwangs ("noggins" in the UK) are the horizontal cross pieces between wall studs.
3. A florin was a two bob (i.e. 2 shilling) piece. New Zealand changed to decimal currency on 10 July 1967, and the 20 cent coin became the equivalent of a florin.

Photos:
This is my granddad, my mother's father. He was 85, going on 86, when I photographed him at the wedding of one of my cousins in February 1983. I came across the photo recently and copied it, hastily, in poor light, simply by snapping a photo with the digital camera.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

23 comments:

Clare said...

Interesting Pete.

I left coins (all 2006) in our walls. Probably a dozen in all. And in one wall pictures of us. I don't know what motivated me, apart from some vague idea of someone coming across them long after I'm gone.

GreenmanTim said...

Gorgeous writing. Renovating a small cottage beside my Grandmother's rambling Victorian on the shore of Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts, we found a record in faded pencil of the amount of oysters (in bushels) brought into the household in the 1890's. The cottage was evidently the cook's before the walls were finished.

Dave said...

Geez, i didn't know about all those secret compartments! Now you've got me wondering about some of the old furniture around the place...

A great post all around (I swiped a little bit for my smorgasblog). I especially liked the line "When will the past become a present?" which would make a good closing line for a poem, I should think.

robin andrea said...

A couple of months ago, fellow blogger Floridacracker was renovating his son's bedroom, which meant tearing down walls and constructing new ones. He blogged about it, and I suggested that he print out the comments page from that post and put it in the wall. Someday, someone will find this strange document with comments about the wall, in the wall. I thought that would be very cool. I love the idea of secret compartments, how much like a shy human heart they are, waiting for their secrets to be uncovered.

zhoen said...

When the church I grew up in replaced the old marble altar, they found all sorts of trash in the walls, a surprizing number of beer cans. When I heard about this, all I wanted to do was sort through the finds.

pohanginapete said...

Clare: Actually, I'm not surprised you don't know why you left the coins in the walls. I suspect many, or most, people have some kind of similar urge and share the vagueness about the reasons.

GMT: Thanks! :^) Records like that really do provide a glimpse of how people lived. Quite a find.

Dave: Good hunting, and do let's know if you find anything! Cheers for the smorgasblog snippet (great idea that).

Robin Andrea: That's a wonderful idea. It also says something about the relative permanence of paper and ink compared to modern media — in 100 years the paper might be brittle, but most CDs will be toast, and even if the CD's intact, it might be hard finding something to read it. On the other hand, you could get an entire blog on a CD...

Zhoen: ... hoping to find a full can? [kidding of course ;^P]. Seriously, I can't imagine anyone not wanting to fossick through the finds. You never know what you might find...

Duncan said...

My favourite archaeological sites in the old houses I've worked on over the years have been under the faded and worn linoleum. People used to cover the uneven floor boards with liberal quantities of newspapers as a kind of underlay, and I've spent quite a bit of time catching up on ancient history. Can be quite an education, especially the ones that covered the war years, Always used to get a laugh out of the ads for patent medicines, eg Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills!

yllstonewolf said...

a charming post about secrets and leaving a trace. when we were kids, my sister and i buried a 'timecapsule" with drawings and letters. that was many years and several states ago. i still wonder about them occasionally. btw...you bear a strong resemblence to your grandpa.

pohanginapete said...

Duncan: Yes, now you mention it, I do recall old newspapers under lino. The ads were certainly fascinating and I'd wonder, as I read them, what readers far in the future might think of us based on our ads. Not encouraging...

YSW: Those are the really interesting time capsules — those left by individuals. Official time capsules, sealed up on behalf of cities (for example), to me seem far less fascinating.

I trust I'm a little less wrinkled than my granddad; hope I've inherited a fair amount of his sense of humour, though ;^D

chuck said...

Some of us seem destined to rummage in the hidden, the cryptic,
the inadvertently left behind...as if more secrets are revealed therein than in the intentionally and overtly bequeathed.

Thought-provoking post.

DivaJood said...

There's intent in these finds - they're left in order to be found, to continue a history. But secrets hide in dark places with a different intent - to not be found, to not see the light. People hide behind their secrets, but they glow in the memories of accidental finds.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Fabulous post, Pete - and I agree with Dave...a definite resemblance to your granddad *smile* Of course, lacking a few of his years but not necessarily his wisdom. The photo's are lovely, really capturing an essence of the human being in them.

I have just spent a couple of hours fossicking around in an old antique writing desk stored in my garage - looking for secret compartments....! There is a possibility there - unsure if it is a "compartment" or just slightly a different grain and type of wood in that particular place, to complete the workmanship.... Loathe to pry too hard in case I damage something...but the curiosity has gripped me. Dilemma!

I found an old diary once, under the floor boards of an abandoned shack on my uncle's farm in Taranaki. The writing had faded almost beyond readability - but one legible line stuck with me till this day: ".....and when the rain came after the hay was cut all us kids sang all night with koro and koe. We lovd it"

That line pulls me in - and I am there when I read it. We think the diary was my Auntie Paki's, so at the time we found it, it would have been about 70 years old. Thank you for reminding of that, Pete - a special memory of the heart.

Lulu said...

D'you know what it is -- I've figured it out -- it's maybe not so much that you love the words; it's more that they love you. Lovely as ever, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Chuck, so true. I'm sure that in many cases what gets left in the walls and compartments says more than what was intended — if the intention was even known. But, as you suggest, some people are more drawn to searching than others, although how anyone can lack curiosity about those things is beyond my imagination.

Divajood: "...to continue a history." Yes, also so true, even if the hider of the object wasn't aware of it. However, I do think some "secrets" are hidden so they will be found — but far into the future. I think T.S. Eliot said something to that effect about his letters. You're right though: I imagine some people have secrets they hope will be irretrievable, or at least impossible to ever associate with the person. Even then, there seems to be an urge towards eventual disclosure, even if it's partial — perhaps this accounts for the enormous popularity of the PostSecret blog?

KSG: A find like that's a true taonga, and a line like that's a poem. Something of the quality of haiku in it; I know what you mean you say you're there when you read it, although for you, knowing the person, it must be something particularly special.

I'd be surprised if there isn't a compartment somewhere in the old desk. A knowledgeable antiques dealer would probably be able to make some good suggestions about possilbe compartments and release mechanisms if you took in a photo: interested to hear how you get on :^)

Lulu: Interesting thought; I do know I often sit back after writing and wonder where on earth the words came from — a feeling very much as if the words chose me rather than the other way round; as if I haven't used a language but been used by it. From discussions I've had with other people, I'm sure that everyone who writes has experienced that feeling. And, thanks! :^D

pablo said...

I've hidden complete editions of the local newspaper in walls. I've written notes on the inside of walls before I sealed them.

In the book Harscrabble John Graves writes of tearing apart the chimney of an old settlers cabin in Texas and finding a note within cursing whoever toar apart the chimney. Graves used the stones for his own chimney, and he left a note for the next destroyer.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

thanks for that suggestion re the desk, Pete - will definitely give that a go (far preferable to damaging that beautiful piece of work...!)

I had noticed the rhythmicity of that line but had not actually thought of it in terms of a poem, or haiku before - and you are absolutely right. I've always felt that those words "dance" to a tune of their own making. I never did meet my Auntie Paki - she died when I was quite young - but I felt as if I knew her as a peer when I read those words as a 12 year old. For me, the past became a present :-)

Patry Francis said...

I don't know about my walls, but about 20 years ago, I left a journal on a bus. When I went back to inquire about it, they said someone else had already claimed it. I still wonder where it is, and what the recipient made of my wild ramblings.

pohanginapete said...

Pablo, thanks for pointing to Hard Scrabble; it's a pity the local library here doesn't hold it. The story reminds me of the inscription on Shakespeare's grave.

KSG: Good luck with the investigating!

Patry: I suppose it says a lot about the value of your writing — that what you call "wild ramblings" should be fascinating enough for someone to want to claim the journal? A good lesson in nonattachment, too. It can be hard to let your own words loose into the world; I know it felt very scary when I first started blogging. I wonder if the knowledge that your journal, containing your words, had escaped into the world ultimately helped you release more of your words?

Debbie Lee said...

Pete,
I love the way you have positioned your grandfather’s photo—at least on my screen, he seems to be looking over at your photo in the (virtual) present, and looking back, at another person, but also to a past. You are so right: history, even when it is in plain sight, does have that hidden compartment quality, because it can never be fully recuperated. But I wonder about the fragility of the past. Doesn’t the distant past, and even the recent past, also have a ferocious tenacity?

lené said...

Another great post, Pete! If you haven't already considered it, I think you should toy around with the idea of publishing a collection of your blog posts. Your thoughts are so well expressed in words and photographs that my day is changed everytime I stop by.

You "favor" (as they say in the deep south/USA) your grandfather.

pohanginapete said...

Debbie: yes, I agree; the past can refuse to let go — or, we can refuse to let go of the past. Sometimes this creates anguish, sometimes joy; the choice is ours (I believe). (Nice phrase: "ferocious tenacity"). :^)

Lené: Thanks — I really appreciate that comment. :^) I have considered collating what I've done here, or using it in some other way as the basis for something less virtual. All I'll say right now is that I've had similar enquiries and suggestions from others, and I'm taking them all seriously. Thanks! (BTW, I've replied to your comment on the index page — I missed it for ages, as blogger didn't email it to me when you posted it).

lené said...

Thanks for letting me know about the index reply. I'll head over there. I used to check, but after a while, I spaced it. :-)

adagio said...

i see your photographic prowess has been developing for some years. lovely studies of your grandfather pete. i must say, i wish more people smoked a pipe.