Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Debris as artifact

Back in the middle of June, I took my first kayak run down the Crow River near St. Michael. By that time, I had engaged in an email exchange with a gentleman by the name of Curt Oien, who has many spent years, paddled many miles, and conducted many clean-ups on the Crow over the last seven years or so.

My run was quite simple, putting in near Berning’s Mill bridge, and paddling against the current until I made it a mile or two upstream.

Among the few debris items I found that day: A fragment from a pottery crock. This is the only piece of the crock I found… but it holds the number “2,” meaning that it held two gallons of either butter, lard, or other commodity. And beneath the numeral, the partial stamp of a red wing, indicating that it came from the Red Wing pottery company in Red Wing, Minnesota. (I found the photo of a full-sized Red Wing butter crock on e-Bay. You can enlarge either photo by simply clicking on the picture.)

Obviously, the fragment is worth nothing. But a Red Wing crock like this--if intact--can fetch hundreds of dollars to collectors. The Red Wing pottery company was a big business in the early years of Minnesota, and its products have avid fans to this day... my wife among them. (There is even a Red Wing Collector's Society.)

The crock chip supported Curt’s assertion that much of the debris in the Crow River was put there by early settlers and farmers… who often discarded items there, knowing the river would magically wash it all away. This was, of course, long before any environmental movement had taken hold, so there was no malicious intent to the practice. The earth was young, wide-open, and self-renewing, from their perspective. Resources were to be used… and it was better to place trash in the river that pollute the precious fields and farm land they had worked so hard to clear of trees. Again… all of this was more a reflection of environmental ignorance than apathy.

The find was a reminder that generations—indeed, ages—have lived and died along the banks of our waterways, drinking from the water, hunting among the wildlife that did the same, using the waterways for irrigation and agriculture... and disposing in the river those items that were no longer useful. Consider the full length of the north fork, south fork, and confluent Crow River... or the mighty Mississippi she spills into. From the headwaters at Itasca, to the Gulf of Mexico, how many cities, towns, farms and settlements have burdened the rivers with their debris during the period we would call, civilization?

© 2009 Mike D. Anderson, St. Michael, MN. All rights reserved.

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