Thursday, March 22, 2012


If you go for a walk, you are likely to pick up some small thing: a stone, a feather, a leaf. A Blackfeet here on the high prairie might pick up an iniskim, a small fossil, a segment of the fossilized contents of a baculite, a squid-like creature of the deep past that -- with a little imagination -- looks like a buffalo. Especially if you have bison on the mind all the time, which Blackfeet did until a century or so ago. So you look at this four-cornered stone and the ghost of a tiny animal forms through it and then a story and who can resist making the little thing “gallop” ? If you’re an old-timey Blackfeet you begin to sing a song, the song that belongs to it. You’re bound to know it.

Consider the Middle Eastern preoccupation with beads, spheres drilled and strung (what skills must develop first, including carving wood into a ball or glass-making?) which captures number magic, one thing after another after another. Maybe grouped, like an abacus, so that the string of beads becomes a hand computer, keeping track of sequence. Mix that with repetitive prayer and you have a rosary. Arithmetical ecstasy, a ritual presumption.

When the book with pages was invented, owning and carrying a small volume of prayers was a mark of both piety and wealth, in short, privilege. Now it will be an iPad, not I but II or maybe even III. More magical, more technical, connected all over the planet and even outer space.

Times change, materials and skills change, meanings change, but religious connection through small objects is so rooted in human anatomy (grasping hands, scanning eyes) that I can’t think of a society that doesn’t keep them. If the people have no pockets, they wear the objects on strings or tied in their hair. When people have clothes, objects become attached, possibly as buttons or netsukes. They legitimate the invention of pockets.

When people are wealthy enough to have more than one set of clothes, one set will be newer, maybe better quality, maybe assigned to occasions, maybe signifying status. Then come the “possibles kits”, the sporrans, the briefcases, the backpacks. And after that the conveyance of goods: canoes, Red River carts, donkeys, trucks and cargo planes. Hands holding paddles, hands holding reins, hands holding steering wheels, hands pressing buttons.

Even creatures with no hands will carry things along, most notably birds and dogs and esp. bird dogs. The birds will stash their loot in nests, whether it is a magpie’s sparkly barrette or a dog’s smelly bone. But could we consider this sort of thing an animal religion? Do animals have fetishes?

Some small objects must be carefully protected: coins; rings of heritage, entitlement or betrothal; keys; credit cards; motel door cards; communion wafers. Objects of access, always a religious concern. Objects connected to other persons (who’s in that motel room?), objects of good luck. And if the object you keep is to others a piece of junk, who cares? If the object is slick, mass-produced, dime-a-dozen, if it’s your mojo connection then that’s what counts. In this context it’s no one else’s business. You might die with it clutched in your hand instead of a button off your killer’s coat.

In beach houses, even rented ones, people bring back walking sticks, some as big as staves and others that can be broken over the knee and added to the fire. Corners become stacked with these driftwood travelers’ aids, waiting for some impatient person to pitch them out so the accumulating can begin again, because it is the process that carries the magic.

People give lectures about small objects of material culture. There are journals. Museums of small objects. Innocent, pretentious, mislabeled, peculiar. Archeologist troves of bits and pieces. Costumers’ findings: useless (broken zippers) and elegant (silk frog kimono closings). The Custer battle was entirely reinterpreted according to the patterns of spent cartridge cases discarded in the grass. A single paper shotgun shell (not plastic, so it’s old) was run over flat by trucks in front of my house. Figurines with heads knocked off -- or not. Small clay tablets with marks that must indicate something.

My brother’s MFA project was suits of armor for small skeletons he found in the woods: a robin, a mole, all suited up in copper or aluminum. The best was a little creature, made like a clam, with no skeleton but instead the found guts of a discarded toy in it -- a friction motor. When you ran this feathered-helmet-with-no-body across the floor, its visor suddenly flipped up and two fierce yellow eyes -- nothing else -- glared out at you. Then the visor slammed down. But even non-motorized objects have an aura, an attitude.

A bone, a tooth, something specific to a creature or even a person. My ancestor, confined at the Andersonville prison, whiled away the time by filing a horn button into ring. I do not know where he got a file so small or why he had it. I have a single earring, pendant, that I don’t discard because of where I wore it when there were two. At different times I’ve held in my hand a live mouse and a dead bird and a hard-boiled egg, still warm.

The oldest fist-sized objects of interest seem to be a basic cork shape with even rows of dots on it, like a kind of rogue dice (er, “die”), and then a set of two bits just alike, one marked and one not, very much like the markers to be hidden in a Native American bone game, though they were found in an ancient African cave on the eastern coast. This is leaving aside the little Venus figures with pointed feet that can be stood up in sand or earth, markers of risk as potent as any with mere wealth at stake. And perhaps the objects with import that can be handheld include bits of the body, one’s own bits or those of another, the ones that are sometimes cut off, including hands themselves, but maybe not severed, maybe still attached. Ears, fingers, noses, toes and . . . I’ll stop there.

Does the word “tactile” refer to hands alone? It seems as though hands are nearly sense organs that deserve a name of their own, like eyes. Temperature, texture, squishiness, movement, hairiness, all are felt with hands -- though other skin surfaces might feel them. It is our hands that reach out, slide along, curve to fit, grasp, caress and cradle -- or curl to rake with nails.

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