Ancient Neighbors

June 23, 2008

It was really the simplest thing, a grayish square, maybe a quarter of an inch across, lying against the 1/8-inch screen. A little flake of chert, what most of us would call flint, though it’s not.

I picked it up and dropped it into the palm of my right hand. It is Onondaga chert, found from an area that stretches from Albany, New York, west to Detroit. But not here. It is a flake left over from resharpening a spear point, a knife, or a hide-scraper.

I was there to write about an archeological team from the state museum, working on the first exploratory dig of a site discovered in the 1930s.

In the early 1950s, a man named Witthoft combed the surface of the 40-acre site and found more than 400 tools, 53 spear points and approximately 1500 chips from sharpening and making tools.

I got the tip from Brad Miller, one of the volunteers, who emailed me a photo of himself holding a stone hide-scraper.

“Somebody made that,” said Brad, pointing at the flake. “Somebody sat right here and chipped that off a piece of stone, 11,000 years ago.”

Stone tools are sharper than razors when first chipped, but they become dull with use, or break. The archaeologist in charge, Kurt Carr, said he went through about six blades one time when he skinned and butchered a deer. He said it takes about five minutes for an experienced knapper to recreate a new scraper or knife blade.

The theory is that these people were nomadic, following the game, the deer, elk, and possibly caribou.  They seem to have traveled in a circuit from near Buffalo, through New England and south until they reached this place between the kinked and rugged landscape of central Pennsylvania.

I wonder who these people were, and what became of them. What did they look like? Who were their gods? Were their lives as Thomas Hobbes  (1588–1679) said,  “nasty, brutish, and short” as we must imagine they were? In whose veins does their blood now run?

I stood for a bit between interviews, trying to imagine the place as it might have been. It would have been cooler, there at the end of the last ice age. The hardwood forests now covering Peter’s Mountain would have been spruce and hemlock. The glacier’s edge came no closer than a couple of counties north, but I would bet that with the wind blowing from the north, you could smell the ice.

These were modern humans, Carr said. Probably bug-infested, I would imagine, and dressed in hides, but inside, and between the ears, where it counts, it’s you and me, with poorer personal hygiene. Give them all Harleys and they would look like the cast of a 1970s biker film.

So long ago, I thought, and then thought again. Is it really? 11,500 years, that’s fewer than 500 generations. Standing side-by-side, holding hands, they would be about three feet apart. That would make a line only a quarter of a mile long, give or take.

A quarter of a mile. A distance you can cover in a couple of seconds in a fast car. A little shorter than the distance from my little gravel-and-asphalt lane to the main road. On a good day, with a still wind, you might be able to holler loud enough and make the folks at the other end of the line hear you. Maybe not understand what you’re yelling, but at least know you’re there. And at least give a wave.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like that long ago. And it makes me want to go back to that field, to be very still and quiet and listen. Well, you never know. A quarter of a mile isn’t too far for neighbors.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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The meeting ran a little late. By the time I filed my story and placed something on the paper’s website and made it home, it was around midnight.

I stretched out on a recliner, thinking wryly that the coffee I had drunk to stay awake on the way home was likely to keep working until one or two in the morning. I cranked up the laptop, watching music videos, and replying to emails.

Kitten Kaboodle chewed on my hand, the one that had been keeping time to the music. She’s at that age, when anything that moves is prey. It’s like having an animated cactus for a pet.

She got crazier and crazier and when she started drawing blood I had to slow her down. Not an easy thing with a cat. She spent the next hour boinging and pouncing all over the house, killing furniture, terrorizing the dust bunnies.

In a way, this is my favorite time of the day, after midnight, when the world shrinks to the reflections on the inside of the library windows, and the big ceiling fan whooshes overhead. The world is somehow, briefly, manageable, a bubble of light rimmed with books and a cat or two, my bloodied hand tap-dancing on the keyboard, words, changelings all, stuttering out past the fatigue and caffeine to the world.


A blistering hot afternoon on U.S. Route 15, heading north on an errand. In the sky, innocuous, puffy white clouds drift in the hazy blue air.

Suddenly, straight ahead, a bolt of lightning, bright blue-white, cracked the sky and tore the air with its incandescent sound and was gone.

I blinked. Did I just see that?

I looked all around…not a storm cloud in sight.

I had read about “bolts from the blue,” but never seen one before. They’re real enough, and can be deadly, particularly to golfers, who might be standing on a hill ready to tee off, hear thunder in the distance and figure they’re safe as long as the storm is not overhead. And then they raise their driver over their heads and the next – not to say last – thing they know…ZAP.

A “Bolt from the Blue” is a regular, General-Issue lightning bolt with a case of wanderlust. The National Severe Storms Laboratory says that the peripatetic bolts come out of the rear end of a thundercloud and can travel up to 25 miles horizontally before it turns earthward and smites something or someone, rather like an afterthought.

Intellectually, I reject anything that hints of the supernatural, from the Jehovan to the impish. Still, lightning out of a clear, blue sky seems rather like a dirty trick, if you ask me.


A good friend who is always making my mind stretch sent me a photo of an amoeba’s house.

Don’t be fooled by the photo. The real thing is the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

This kind of stuff tickles me cross-eyed.

This particular variety of amoeba surrounds its little shapeless body with tee-tiny pebbles and squats happily indoors, doing whatever amoebas do when they’re not eating bits of organic material by wrapping around it and reproducing by splitting in two. Maybe watching Sponge Bob Squarepants re-runs.

Anyway, the little house has a little scalloped doorway and little projections sort of like fins in the back. It’s shaped sort of like a cartoon rocket ship.The House that Amoeba built

This is what Liz said:

“I loved the description of what happens to the second generation – one gets the house and the other gets the pile of building materials that the “parent” saved up to start a new one. It just seemed so humble and simple and fair – and yeah, flabbergasting. It also made me think we probably make too much of our own achievements. We may stack ’em higher, but I’ve never seen anything cuter or sweeter in a house. Just the right size, safe and cozy, mobile, home-made (I almost said “handmade”), a real masterpiece of folk art by some teeny tiny folk.”

No, there’s nothing random about it.”

The “random” remark came about because we both know that Creationists would point at this little house as somehow “proving” that life is way too complicated to have occurred by chance, which is how they misconstrue evolution. But evolution is not a crapshoot. It is perfectly logical – and demonstrable – system of thought. The Creationists might as well argue that the fact that bees wear stripes rather than paisley is proof that god wove the fabric himself.

The little house is a delight, plain and simple, because over billions of years of life on earth, it’s just one of those wonderful surprises that evolved along with the rest of us. And every gasping, wriggling one of us is a freaking miracle.


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

I’m afraid that we’ve had so much war in recent years that we have forgotten that heroism comes in many guises.

Sometimes the greatest acts of heroism come not from the use of weapons and force, but rather in acts of beautiful defiance that are simply breathtaking.

Only recently I learned of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist of Sarajevo.

It was 4 p.m. on May 27, 1992, two months into the three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nasty war involving more than a half-dozen factions that changed objectives and allegiances several times during the conflict. In short, it was a dog-pile of a mess, and there were no winners. Not there ever really are.

Smailovic, then in his mid-30s and principal cellist with the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, was watching from his apartment window as an artillery shell landed amid a bread line in front of The National Library. The explosion killed 22 people, scattering stone, bone, blood and body parts.

The next day, Smailovic, dressed in his tuxedo as though preparing for a performance in one of Europe’s great halls, took his cello and an old stool and sat in the center of the shell crater and began to play. It was exactly 4 p.m.

He played Albinoni’s Adagio in G, music that can make you believe in angels.

He finished playing despite continued shelling and gunfire nearby. And then he left.

The next day, he was back, and played the same piece, paying no mind to the mayhem around him or to the risk.

And the next day. And the next. Until he had played 22 times, once for each of the 22 who had died before his eyes.

He played, not to cheering crowds in their finery, but to cratered streets, rubble, to bone fragments and terror and the smell of smoke and decay. He played for more, I think: To that in us that is better than our familiar role of angels of death, of harrowers of the innocent. He played, perhaps, for what is possible, for what Lincoln called “our better angels.”

A journalist at the time asked him if he thought he was crazy, playing on a battleground.

Smailovic reportedly replied: “You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

He was right, of course. By the end of the slaughter, more than 100,000 were dead, and nearly 2 million had been displaced.

Why is it so hard to see which of those two actions – the destruction of a city and the lives within it, or a sole man defiantly standing up to the insanity and horror – is the act of madmen.

If Vedran Smailovic is crazy, then I say God bless the lunatics, and give us more.


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites: