Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"I could have been a signpost, could have been a clock/As simple as a kettle, steady as a rock."

The Song: "One of These Things First," Nick Drake. Words & music by Nick Drake. Track 4 of Bryter Layter, 1970.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 2004.
Listen/watch here.

My elementary school library was small, but at least three shelves were dedicated to Bobbs-Merrill's "Childhood of Famous Americans" series, biographies that humanized the great names of American history by showing us episodes from their early years. These episodes may or may not have been true; the books were meant to be moral guides as much as anything else, and most people who become famous as adults don't have biographers keeping track of their childhood achievements.

Typically, my favorite of these books made no pretense at all at nonfiction. This was Virginia Dare, Mystery Girl by Augusta Stevenson, who wrote about a dozen of these books, including volumes on Benjamin Franklin, Molly Pitcher, Buffalo Bill and the Wright Brothers. Virginia Dare was, of course, the first English child born in the New World, part of Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony. She disappeared with everyone else sometime between 1587 and 1590, but legends persisted of a blonde girl who lived among the Chowanocs, and an 18th-century surveyor reported meeting Hatteras people who had gray eyes.

Virginia Dare, Mystery Girl was pure speculation about the young Virginia's life as an adopted member of a native tribe (adopted by the chief, naturally). The book was originally published in 1958 and has not been brought back into print with other titles in the series -- maybe because it was fiction, maybe because its treatment of native cultures would now seem ignorant and insensitive. The book's hard to find; I'm seeing only two copies on ABEBooks.com right now, one priced at $30, one at $87.19. My birthday's in November . . .

Anyway, I read the book so many times my mother told me to stop checking it out of the library, and what I remember about it was a climactic scene in which the young Virginia proved her standing as a member of the tribe by beating a rival at something called "mudwalking." According to this book, the Chesapeake Indians hunted waterfowl in the swamps, and used their children to walk across the surface of the marshes in order to retrieve fallen birds. The mud is like quicksand, full of sinkholes, and adults were too heavy; children were light and could move fast enough to get across and back without being sucked in.

That image of mudwalking, of moving fast enough to avoid breaking a surface, captured my imagination. According to Ms. Stevenson, the key was to keep your feet moving, and not look down. I tried it myself, in puddles and muddy fields, but could never get it right. My feet stuck, and I knew that if I'd been Virginia Dare, I'd have drowned in quicksand.

But I never forgot the image or the metaphor, and sometimes I think I've been mudwalking ever since. As another month ends and another season turns, I understand that my days of mudwalking are coming to an end. At some point I will have to stop moving from task to task, look down, and get real about all those other things I could have been or done.

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