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James R. Stout

Artifacts and Ownership

            One thing that most people don’t ever really grasp is the fact that while we may “own” something, the reality is our ownership is temporary. Some things are temporary by nature and only exist for a short period of time. I wore a very wide leather watchband that was much in style at the time when I was about 17. I doubt that I wore it for more than a year or two. By the end of its run, it was a worn-out piece of leather that I threw away without a thought. It likely ended up in a Houston landfill and by the time I was in my mid-20’s it had likely rotted away. But it was never really meant to last forever or for even a long period of time.

            In 1977 I purchased a new Dodge van. It was a panel van with two side doors that each had windows, two rear doors the same as the side doors, and only two seats for the driver and a front passenger. I bought it for work. I think that I paid about $4500 for it new. That price included two dealer upgrades that I felt were absolutely necessary. An A/C for the hot and humid Houston weather and an AM radio to keep me company in Houston traffic. Oh, I would have loved to have a great stereo, but money was tight. I only owned that van for about 7 months. I think it had about 11,000 miles on it when I sold it. I sold it because my job changed, and I didn’t need a van anymore. I have no idea what became of that van. The odds are pretty good that it no longer exists today. It’s not like it was something special. A slant 6-cylinder engine that made going over the Houston Ship Channel Bridge exciting, a “3 on the tree” standard transmission, plain white, and about as plain inside as you could get. It likely died sometime in the 80’s and was parted out for other vans to be repaired with the parts. I doubt seriously that the Chrysler Corporation felt that particular van was going to last very long and one day become a “classic”. It just wasn’t meant to be something that lasts.

            One thing that does last, but wasn’t made by man, is land. When we buy a piece of land, we may think to ourselves that we’re the owners of that land, but we’re really just the caretakers for a little while. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In about 1912 my great-grandparents bought some land in Houston County, Texas. You can trace it’s ownership back to the original Spanish land grant in the 1700’s. My grandparents were gifted 100 acres of the land as a wedding present in 1921. My mother used to say that it was my great-grandmother’s way of keeping my grandfather nearby!

            One of the first things that my grandfather had to do with the land was to clear it of trees and brush. My grandmother used to talk about those early days and how she would look out their kitchen window and see smoke from some of the burn piles that my grandfather had going. After Grandpa cleared the land, he had to plow it and level it for growing crops. His main crop in those days was cotton. Of course, he also grew corn, peanuts, had a huge garden, potatoes, and various other crops. But that land had to be plowed well. He didn’t have a tractor until 1939, so he plowed the fields with a mule. Here’s where history came into play. The history of the land, that is.

            During those first couple of years and likely for the next 15 years or so, my grandfather walked along behind the mule with the plow straps around his shoulders. As he plowed the fields, he would plow up arrowheads and spearheads. Over the years he had quite a collection of these artifacts. I remember as a kid looking at them with wonder. He kept them in a big glass jar. The jar was probably a two-gallon jar that had originally held a grain of some kind such as rice. There must have been several hundred arrowheads and spearheads. Sadly, all but a very few of them do we still have. My mother had taken 7 of them and had them on display in a shadowbox. Sometime during the 80’s thieves broke into the farmhouse and stole several items including that jar of artifacts.

            The point is that as my grandfather would pick up each of those arrowheads and he would be reminded that he wasn’t the first human being that ever “owned” that land. Far from it. I’m no expert on how old these artifacts are, but my best guess is that they are hundreds if not thousands of years old. I know that in the area where the farm is located the Caddo Indians were prominent for several hundred years. As late as the 1840’s the Comanches would attack white settlements in the area. Going back to the 1600’s they were known as the Komanche Indians to the Spanish. But humans have been living off that land for a very long time.

            There’s a particular place on the land that I like to go to and just sit and think. It has two very old oak trees and a creek with a wide wash area. I’ve set there and had a picnic lunch and while munching on a sandwich I would think about who might have sat there 200 years ago or 500 years ago for that matter. I can just imagine a prehistoric human chipping flakes off of a piece of flint making an arrowhead or spearhead. Perhaps he stops and digs into a small leather pouch filled with pemmican and eats while he continues to chip flint. These were the people who “owned” the land then. Some people of today think that white Europeans who came to America stole the land from the Indians. Well, perhaps they did, but the truth is the Indians stole it from someone who was there before them. This has been the way of mankind from the beginning of human history.

            And so, today in 2019 I “own” some of this land. It’s not only a part of my personal heritage, but it is also part of mankind’s heritage. My job is to care for the land and make sure that it is still worthwhile to those that come after me. The best way that I can do that is to leave it alone for the most part. Yes, there are some cattle that graze on the land and there will be remnants of my being here years from now. But the fact is I likely won’t leave as much of a mark on the land as many of my predecessors. What I hope is that a hundred years from now it will not be much different than it is now. Trees will come and go, but a small oak tree now may become an old oak tree then reaching outward and upward showing off its beauty. That wide wash and creek will become deeper and wider than now. There’s a creek on the property now that didn’t even exist 100 years ago. After a big rain, water would pool over the lane that children would walk to the one-room schoolhouse on. My grandfather got his plow and mule and dug a small trench across that lane, now a county road, and for a hundred yards or so on both sides of the road. This was to allow the water to flow off of the lane making it so the children didn’t have to walk through water. Over the years that trench became a creek. It is now a very long creek that winds around for miles. There are parts of it that are 25 feet deep. In his own way, my grandfather left his mark on the land. A mark that will continue to be there for a very long time. In the 10 years that I have lived on my part of the old farm land, I have made some changes that will leave a mark. My house stands on what was a pasture for the past 70 years. It still is a pasture and part of it is planted with hay. I have maintained the land here and built upon it. I cleared a large swath of trees (mostly yaupon) and brush which now allows me to see the majority of my land on the other side of a creek from my house. When I moved here you couldn’t get from the pasture where my house is located to the rest of my property any way but by hiking through that thicket. Now I have improved the creek, installed a large 3-foot diameter culvert with rock and installed gates with fences that allow me to drive to the rest of my property. The fences are to keep the cattle from getting at the hay in front of the house. The point is I have already left a mark on the land and I consider it a good mark. I haven’t scarred the land.

            I’ve attached a couple of pictures to this post. One is of those is of the 7 arrowheads and spearheads that we still have that my grandfather found. The other is a picture of the same type of mule and plow that my grandfather cleared his original 100 acres with. I’m not some kind of tree hugging nut, but I do love the land and it is my goal to do no harm to it and to leave it in better shape than when I got it. I’m thinking of burying a time capsule somewhere on my land with some “artifacts” to be dug up some day long from now that will tell the people who “own” this land then a little about who once lived here. Any ideas for what to put in that capsule?


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