Mudlarking

by Elizabeth C. Creely

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My friend Vicky, who leads the Bernal Heights History Project, just returned from England, which is where she was born. She “mudlarks”, which is to say she goes looking for the past in the mud of tidal marshes or on the banks of rivers. She found an oyster shell and gave it to me, explaining that the hole in the center of the shell might have been made by a person making a button. She also found these pins which are very old, probably Tudor-era, and brought them for me as well. The pins were hand-crafted, as we say today when we want to market an object—chocolate, or beer, or some other comestible— carefully, to separate it from mass production and endow it with artisanal fussiness that is supposed to confer authenticity. A pedigree.

She gave the pins to me and I felt a rush of pure pleasure and love. Oh, I love these! Thank you! I gasped. Pins, needles, and thread are domestic objects I always have on hand. I learned to sew when I was little; basic sewing, like hemming pants, or using a whip-stitch to join cloth together. (My cousin Piet has inherited this industriousness too, and makes entire garments, which I have never done). I have the homely habit of keeping my clothes intact and always have done, even when that was the only part of me that was, especially in the tumultuous years of the nineties when I lived on the corner of 22nd and Valencia Street, frightened at a world which moved at a pace I was unaccustomed to. I remember waking up at 3 AM because the Red Man was sat on a fire hydrant, kicking his legs and singing a song. Fog rolled down Valencia street in thick sheets and I wondered, what will become of me?

Well, one thing that has happened is that I answered the call of the olden days and started working with local history. I have been toggling back and forth between the past and the future this year, with Irish nationalists repping the past, and the San Francisco Bay and the upcoming climate dramas ushering in the (my?) future. There’s been a sense of duty that’s attached itself to both projects. I work with the Irish-American past because their voices have always spoken to me. And it’s easy. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I know where the Project stands, the project of dealing with the Irish in America with their florid patriotism, their long-ass letters to each other, their officious meeting minutes, their pain, their anger, their parades, their picnics. Their determination to not let go.

And the bay? I grew up next to one that was half deep-water harbor, and half engineered estuary, and even though I have a hard time remembering is it 200 or 20 million cubic meters of sediment that needs to be sourced and placed in the San Francisco Bay so it doesn’t drown?, I know in some ways that fact is there and non-negotiable and even if I forget it, I can find it, and what is not so easily retrievable is what I know, personally, about bays: the gloppy mud, the minute and often unlovely plants, the fish that flash through the water unexpectedly, and the mudflats that will grab you and pull you down into an underworld of crablike invertebrates, and the bones of animals and ancient fish and refuse from other people who lived among them thousands of years ago. I, Elizabeth C. Creely, know what belongs to me: that cold mud.

1485 is when Henry VII killed Richard III and in doing initiated the Tudor period. My Tudor-era pins could have been made at any point between 1485 and 1603 on any day, by anyone. These pins ended up in the mud somehow. (I don’t know why people throw useful things away.) When I saw them, I thought oh I want to go to England, I haven’t spent enough time there. I saw the flat yellow light of the air of England and saw out over the North Sea and felt cold air hit my face, and felt my solar plexus contact with love for the homely objects thrust through the red cloth and the history they make because they were made.

A pin is a finicky thing and slips out of your hand easily unless you have something to grasp. That’s what the tiny head is for: to help you push the metal through the fabric, and sew and sew and sew and bring the thing together. Whoever made these pins knew that and shaped the round heads carefully, so they’d have something to hold onto.These pins and this shell have been buried in the mud of the Thames for a long time, and now, improbably, they’re here, in my house, tiny scraps of a small nation with big problems of its own.

They are small and real, and corroded by time and water and the usage of many hands. They are magic. I am so happy to have them here.

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this is the shortest and quickest post I ever wrote, but the days are short and the shadows are quickening. a storm is coming; is your house in order?
Happy October!

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