Time Out of Mind

SHEILA BURNFORD is a Canadian doctor’s wife whose tale of three animals, entitled THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, has become a classic of its kind. The following essay is taken from her new book, THE FIELDS OF NOON, which will appear next month under the Atlantic Little, Brown imprint.


THE first story I ever remember having read to me was Robinson Crusoe. Later I read and reread it myself, starting again at the beginning the moment it was finished, just like painting the Forth Bridge. The Swiss Family Robinson was even better, a wonderfully fat volume, profusely illustrated and crammed with useful tidbits of information on how to improve one’s lot and live more graciously on desert islands. There were directions for making windows from sturgeons’ bladders, training ostriches, or manufacturing sago — and even waterproof boots. One merely took a clay mold from one’s sand-filled sock, then painted it over with layers of latex tapped from the nearest rubber tree. For years I daydreamed of starting from scratch on some island utopia. (It would have been a luckless man Friday who made his imprint on my solitary sands; only too well informed, thanks to that ingenious pedant Papa Robinson, I would have been a fearful bore to live with.)

But sooner or later, a fearful, nagging doubt seeped into every installment of my dream. What if one had not been so lucky at salvage as the Robinsons, and had not even a knife, goat, or gun to start with? Or, worse still, had not read Swiss Family Robinson? How on earth did one go about forging steel for that most necessary knife? What, for that matter, was steel? The mind boggled wearily. I would look up steel in the encyclopedia some other day, tomorrow.

But of course school life began to take its inexorable, mundane hold, which workaday and family life maintained in their turn; and my daydreams flowed down narrower channels. Not until last year did I begin to ponder again the fascinating question of bare-handed survival. And it was not on an imaginary island this time, but on real and familiar ground: the glacial moraine of my home in northwestern Ontario.

A dozen years previously, the small but archaeologically important Brohm Site had been excavated here. Weapon points were found—of the same type as the Plainview and Eden Valley points discovered in Texas and Wyoming — where they had lain in conjunction with the skeletons of animals, and could therefore be dated by the carbon 14 test: most of the animals were long since extinct, and the approximate carbon date was between six and seven thousand years ago. Until the Brohm excavations it was generally thought that the ice cap would not have retreated far enough north by then for plants to have become established here that could support browsing animals, hence man. However, professional archaeologists and anthropologists are, with good reason, a cagey race. It was thought in some quarters that these Brohm people might have been a small, adventurous advance guard of the Pleistocene pioneers, camped, one infers, on a glacier, waiting for a nice sunny day to melt it and bring hordes of mastodons galloping over the instant vegetation.

At that time I was totally unconcerned with archaeology. And even now, as an entranced amateur, I prefer to utter my incautious statements from a safe perch, far out on the limb of ignorance. The professionals will surely not trouble to saw it down. But of this I am sure: not one of them will ever have a closer understanding of old time, live with it so intimately, or make such interesting unscientific discoveries about it as I did last year.

It was last year that a friend, Hugh Cummins, found what was probably the manufacturing or workshop site of a people who lived by hunting along the shores of what was then a Pleistocene lake. They lived here, that is, from nine thousand to three thousand years before Lake Superior dropped to its present level more than two hundred feet below. It is an enormous site, its area to be thought of in terms of miles rather than the usual yards, and its discovery must surely dispel all doubts concerning the Brohm Site. On the same postglacial level, and apparently of the same period or periods of culture, many Plainviewand Eden-type points were found, testifying that Man was here, enjoying game in abundance, when by geographical rights his appearance was premature by several thousand years.

For a long time Hugh had been searching for such a place, convinced that it must exist where massive outcroppings of jasper were to be found in close conjunction with the ancient beaches formed as the glaciers retreated, but looking for such a site, even over a comparatively restricted length of shoreline, is a herculean, lifetime task, unless one is lucky enough to know an observant farmer who, when plowing his fields, will recognize an artifact for what it is, as happened at the Brohm Site. One day, when Hugh was exploring some country in company with the twin sons of a local farmer, they picked up one perfect point. Hugh recalls,

... as the boys appeared interested I described to them the type of location I sought. . . . Eventually we came to a quarry, the hill above which seemed to meet with all my requirements. . . . The northern approach up which we walked was a long gradual incline with low gravel and shale ridges caused by bulldozers having pushed material down the slope to the quarry below. On this hill, within an hour, we picked up some twenty artifacts; flakes and fragments of jasper were apparent everywhere.

On this hill and the surrounding area, within the next few weeks, I picked up some two or three hundred artifacts; flakes and fragments of jasper later became apparent everywhere around me as I passed some two or three thousand centuries.

Hugh had been most generous in including me in the extremely small group of people who knew of his find and were to help him investigate it. The site was a paradise for amateur archaeologists, for the area was honeycombed with quarries, down the steep, sandy sides of which the artifacts had rained out from the darker humus level at the top, like currants out of a fruitcake, when the land was sliced through. Bulldozers had obligingly scraped off the humus to gravel or rock level on the hill surfaces, churning up little treasure troves of well-stocked ridges or exposing artifacts peeping coyly out of the gravel. Even the bulldozed trees held excitement among their roots, some of my best specimens being plucked like blueberries from the still adherent soil.

I say the site was a paradise for amateurs because there is nothing more destructive or infuriating to the professional archaeologist than Sunday afternoon seekers who make unscientific excavations, digging holes and pulling things out on the Little Jack Horner principle. To be of any acceptable value, excavations must be painstakingly mapped out, then worked and sifted stratigraphically and with much delicate accuracy. Here all we had to do (and what is more, if we did not do it, some new bulldozer might arrive, or gravel truck load up and eventually dump our treasures in a new sewer project) was to pick up the exposed artifacts, number them by code with a chalk, then mark their location on a survey map. We were sworn to secrecy. We were not even to tell our families of the location, as it was obviously important to keep Rabbit’s Friends and Relations from swarming over the site and possibly removing something of great importance. Hugh’s plan for the weeks left to us before the first snowfall was to make as large and representative a collection as possible, documented and photographed; then to write a full preliminary report in the hope that this tantalizing bait would lure an official party of excavators out of museum basements and up to Lake Superior in spring.

ONCE I had learned to recognize the work of human hands, however crudely executed, and was not taken in by likely looking but naturally fractured and water-washed pieces of jasper, quartzite, or taconite, I found that my eye responded very quickly to its new knowledge, often picking out the genuine article at some distance, even when it was among a pile of bulldozed fragments. I became more and more absorbed in my new pastime, spending hours in and around the quarries armed with my favorite archaeological tool, a two-pronged steel weed extractor with a long wooden handle, and accompanied by Raimie, my doppelgänger dog, who found picking up dull stones the most abysmally boring of all our outdoor pursuits.

Sometimes I scrambled up and down between the quarries; sometimes I sauntered along the beds, plucking scrapers and blades at eye level from the steep sandy sides; or sometimes I wandered along rutted tracks between young jack pines, spotting artifacts in the ruts or the banks at the side. But my most rewarding finds came when I crawled on hands and knees across the hills and ridges, and most of the time I covered the countryside this way. One of the group had found a tiny awl, about an inch long, and even though it was like looking through a haystack on the off-chance of a needle, I wanted to find one to match. My slow crawl baffled and frustrated Raimie; he could never make up his mind whether to slither slowly after me on his belly or wait until I had covered ten yards, then drag himself to his feet, pad wearily after, and with much overdone melancholy sink down again. For some reason the place made him uneasy, and he would not leave me for the temporary private explorations which he usually enjoys when I am mushrooming, for example. I soon learned to avoid his accusing eye by never looking behind me. and the martyred sighs following in my wake, sounding like a seal at a blowhole or a soul in extremis, soon became nothing more than a peaceful accompaniment to the soughing of the pines.

It was a most glorious fall, a real Indian summer, and I was engaged in a most tranquil occupation; the quarries were deserted, and during most of those still cloudless golden days the only other sounds accompanying Raimie’s were the soft hush of sandfalls down the long sloping banks, the rustle of leaves, and the whisperings of the drying grasses. Later on, flock after flock of geese were to pass directly overhead, sometimes so high that, although I could hear them in the still air, I could barely make out the V’s; sometimes low enough for me to see that there were snow geese among the great Canadas, so that the mixed V’s looked like strange, checkered boomerangs sailing across the sky. We saw deer quite often, and once we startled a young moose and watched him canter off like an ungainly colt across a low ridge and into the shelter of the trees. These idyllic hours were interrupted only when the deer season opened and occasional hunters used the quarries for rifle target practice. Raimie and I on all fours in our muted and golden browns would have made an irresistible target for some trigger-happy hunter, so I unearthed a red cap and jacket, and tied a red scarf in a voluminous bow around Raimie’s neck. All my ingenuity, which included adhesive tape and elastic bands, could not keep another red bow on his dangerous tail — dangerous because its almost-white undersurface could be mistaken for a deer’s scut.

The world, when viewed at a continuous close level as I crawled happily across it, had a new and fascinating perspective in which pebbles became boulders, little ridges, mountains; and for the first time I saw and isolated the minuscular rainbow colors of water-washed sand and gravel, smooth and polished by waves that lapped there thousands of years ago. I remember looking up from the ground one afternoon to a flock of cedar waxwings, gossiping in a poplar above me, and from my Lilliputian world, where ants and beetles were normally sized, the waxwings looked as big as turkey buzzards. There was a strange other-world remoteness about this place, an atmosphere peaceful yet definable of presence, that I can compare only to that sensed once in a remote Highland glen, as I suddenly came upon the tumbledown outline of a croft, almost obscured by bracken, and had the feeling that the glen was listening for something.

THE enchanted tranquil days slipped by, and I have never been so content. I took my lunch with me and returned home only when I could no longer see in the dusk that comes so swiftly. Usually when one is walking, pottering along, or gathering something that requires no mental effort other than observation, the mind becomes either a delightful vacuum or a still pond, its surface rippled only by the occasional fleeting thought. At first this was the case with me, but as I returned each evening, with bulging pockets, and as the piles of jasper were laid out in rows on the ping-pong table in the basement, it became increasingly easy to understand the uses of the weapons and implements and to resolve problems of categorization. I became completely absorbed in the task, until one day I realized that my thoughts were no longer floating in a vacuum but were positively churning up the surface of my mind into whitecaps: the tidal forces were flowing; the past was taking hold of me, and its people were coming into focus.

Often one found what seemed to be the exact site where a worker had sat by his lake and chipped away at his spearpoint or pick or blade. Once I found a broken blade and later matched it to its missing part on the ping-pong table; another time I found the two broken halves only a few yards apart, and could almost hear the grunt of disgust as its maker had thrown it away. Once I prodded loose a shelf of earth by an overturned tree, and a pile of fragments rained out, along with a hammerstone, two perfect ovoid blades, and one halffinished one. I was curiously touched by the mute eloquence of the little pile at my feet; apart from the light dusting of sand, it was just as though their owner had left them only a few minutes rather than thousands of years ago. I found myself indulging in all sorts of fancies as to why he had never come back. Had he spotted some buffalo and rushed after them, then forgotten where he had been working? Had the dusk fallen suddenly, as it did for me, or had he crawled out of his cave in the morning to find his site covered with snow? Or had someone jealously bopped him on the head with one of those massive, worked clunkers of jasper that I often came across, which would have been heavy enough to make a brontosaur stagger in its tracks? It was like some tantalizing half-finished conversation overheard in a bus — one would never know.

I would go home, wash the sand off my day’s finds, and add them to the collection. Then I would sit in the middle of it, like a broody, possessive hen, thinking of ancient man and his artifacts. I had my favorites by now, some that so exactly fitted my hand I felt they must have been made by someone of my size. One piece of jasper was banded by layers of color, and the edges were so finely worked, the surface so smooth and handled, that it seemed whoever had owned this blade had loved it too. Some blades were exquisitely slender, their entire surface covered with the oblique and consummately executed technique that I had learned to identify as “pressure flaking.” There were scrapers with such a fine saw edge that it was appreciable only under a magnifying glass. Three or four of the treasured Plainview points were there; one I dearly loved was so wafer-thin that the gray, jaspery taconite felt almost metallic. Yet the majority of the artifacts were quite startlingly crude, and still others looked as though they had been executed by a spastic ape in a rough sea. These were exactly like the illustrations of the first crude eoliths, the dawn stones that the first hairy paw had picked up and banged on a rock in the hope of fracturing to a more convenient and sharper form for killing or skinning.

I found out, even though the books were so guarded that they hardly said a thing without attaching a safety rider to it, that there were several stages and hundreds of thousands of years between these dawn stones and the beautiful slender refinements resulting from the flint-knapping technique of pressure flaking. The first forward step apparently involved the coordination of both hands: banging your stone with another stone so that you chipped off flakes with a definite end in view. Next, some primitive perfectionist discovered that if he interposed a pointed stick or bone splinter between the flint and hammerstone, he could produce much finer and more controlled results with his chipping. Then came the final step, the important discovery of removing flakes by pressure alone. Someone, Neanderthal man probably, beneath whose unprepossessing exterior dwelt the soul of a craftsman and a philosopher, noticed that if he just took it easy and pressed slowly, firmly, and continuously over the surface of his work, he could control to a miraculous certainty the flaking of the chips. And as Neanderthal man was probably the first to survive thousands of glacial winters in his cave, he had plenty of time to perfect this technique and dream up all sorts of pattern variations.

All this information only puzzled me more: thousands and thousands of years spanning the gap of achievement from crude hunks of flint to pressureflaked products meant that our first Cummins Site man must have been living not just on the fringe but under glacier — not a very practical thing to do really. However, I decided to leave that for the professionals to worry about. What baffled me was the chronological gap that seemed to have been accepted by everyone else so easily. I brooded and brooded over it: thirty thousand, forty thousand, perhaps even more than fifty thousand years. What had man been doing with himself all that time? Surely if he had had the intelligence to pick up his stone and bang it, he could have progressed just a little more rapidly? After all, he had early known the properties of fire: I had seen several pictures of him, undoubtedly simian and beetlebrowed. quite cozy in his cave, a nice fire burning at the entrance.

The more I thought about him, the more maddeningly retarded he became; and when I read that the wheel was unknown in North America until the coming of the white man I became positively angry and frustrated, with North American man in particular. Surely he could have thought of a wheel if he had managed a bow and arrow; a simple old wheel, just the slice off the end of a log, was not asking too much. What had he done with himself then, to be in such a suspended state of progress for positively millenniums? — and then to accelerate with such hideous speed in the last two centuries.

I became increasingly convinced, as I brooded, that I most certainly would have thought of a wheel; I would not have lounged around the centuries so long, content with an infantile dawn stone; starting from scratch, in fact, I would have — What would I have done? A familiar baffled feeling rose slowly to the surface from the depths of my subconscious: I didn’t have a goat or a gun or, worst of all, a knife. How did one go about making a knife? Steel — where was it, and how in heaven’s name did one forge it? Papa Robinson had not told me; what would I do?

THIS was the desert island of existence, and flintstone was my medium. I was Man and had just risen, unsteadily, to my hind feet, leaving my forefeet free to deal with more immediate problems than swinging through the forest. I was finding the winds at the dawn of time decidedly cool; worse, it looked as though another of those glaciers were approaching; my own personal fur had been thinning out for several centuries too, and if evolution were going to go on this way, I would have to have some more. I must, therefore, kill an animal, skin it, scrape it, then wear it.

How would I do it in that empty early world? Pick up a stone, of course, and bring it down on the head of a slow-moving three-toed giant sloth. Sloths looked as though they had nice warm coats, and would provide dinner as well. Silly to use this blunt stone for scraping — bang it on a rock and make it sharper; now bang more judiciously; why not pick up another stone and bang it with that, after all you have two hands, haven’t you? And then a nice sharp knife for cutting a roast off the carcass.

I would start learning to flint-knap immediately, and prove once and for all that a ridiculously unnecessary number of centuries had been wasted: I would equalize myself with Abbeville man by reducing the years of my life expectancy into hours and dividing them into his 450,000 years. It was now the end of October and fortunately still quite warm for this part of the world. I found a sheltered dip in a sandbank at the end of one quarry and set to work. The first few thousand years passed in an hour; by then, banging a hunk of jasper against a rocky outcrop on the quarry bed, I had produced a fairly sophisticated dawn stone, quite adequate to slay, skin, and scrape a three-toed sloth. Well pleased with myself, I went in search of a hammerstone for the next stage, nobly resisting the temptation to use the ready-made one on hand. By the time I found a suitable stone, most of the afternoon had gone, and so. of course, had several weeks and several hundred years. Worse still, I had squandered those weeks of evolutionary infancy, for my hammerstone turned out to be a clumsy failure, and I had to fall back on my ancestor’s stone. By dusk I was still banging frantically away, racing the centuries, until I realized at last, and hungry Raimie whined his dismal agreement, that I must lead a normal life and confine my evolutionary activities to the afternoons.

I do not care to admit how long it took me to produce my first recognizable hand ax with the hammerstone. I doubt if it would have hewed down a raspberry cane; a Pleistocene four-year-old could have done better, and without macerating his fingers either. My scraper was better and would have produced quite a supple saber-toothed-tiger tunic. But perhaps I cheated a little by using a piece of jasper that was naturally fractured into a fairly reasonable shape to start with and that only needed a little touching up here and there. At least I wasn’t Eolithic anymore after these results: I was using both my hands, and soon my little red-rimmed anthropoid eyes would be peering around, about to light, any century now, upon a splinter of bone or wood.

There was no hard wood available in the quarry, but there was a magnificent selection of bones from the moose, deer, or bear carcasses dumped there over the years. For the first time Raimie showed some enthusiasm for my project; when I helped myself to some, he quickly followed my example. I was later most grateful for his interest, as his slow, thoughtful chewing rewarded me with some readymade bone tools of a far more manageable size than I could produce myself.

Stage two, which involved coping with so many things at once, turned out to be unbelievably hard to master. I suspected Zinjanthropus of still having prehensile toes and of using them. I was trying for an ovoid blade; we had dozens in the collection, ranging from “finely worked on all edges” to “coarsely worked on both surfaces with crudely scalloped edges.” I was not setting my sights higher than the latter, and, to be honest, they barely got off the ground; eventually I graduated myself from the class of 50,000 B.C. only because the days were growing shorter and colder, and I thought that if I did not allow myself to shamble off soon and register in the Neanderthal School of Advanced FlintKnapping, I would still be in the Stone Age when I reached the age of ninety — according to the Burnford scale of progressive ability. Forward, then, to pressure flaking.

I TRIED and tried; and as the long-dead leaves whirled and skittered down the quarry and piled up inch by inch in nooks and crannies, I used them to start fires to warm my purple hands, and tried again. Later, I used the fires for experimental purposes too. I used to think a lot as I chipped my days away in my gravel pit, the centuries blowing past me on the wind that carried a portent of snow now. Far back behind the mists of time man had progressed beyond these intricacies of flint-knapping which I could not master now when space capsules were orbiting my world and present-day man would soon be starting from scratch on the desert island of the moon. My hairy-fisted, danglingarmed, prognathous ancestor had gone on to the bow and arrow and learned all by himself how to smelt copper for his arrow tips, and make fishhooks and gaffs from copper too; all by himself he had thought of pottery and agriculture, religion, belief, morals, and art — all by himself, with no pontifications or guidance from The Swiss Family Robinson or the how-to-do-it books; all this he had done, and I could not even pressure-flake myself out of my prehistoric cave. I knew that the Battle of Bannockburn was fought in 1314, the square of the hypotenuse equaled something or other. I could ride a bicycle, decline some irregular verbs, and make a charlotte russe, but to what avail? I could not pressure-flake. The world would have spun out the centuries without my contributing one drop of cultural oil on its axle. But I would not give up trying.

One of the books had hinted vaguely that extremes of heat and cold were used in manufacturing implements, so I baked pieces of jasper like potatoes in my fire, and when they were red-hot raked them out and let droplets of water fall on them from a gull’s feather. No result. I reversed the procedure, cheating in a way, by freezing jasper in the deepfreeze at home, then applying a red-hot knitting needle stuck through a cork handle (I reconciled the deepfreeze with the glacier, but there was no justification for the knitting needle). No result, except a burned finger, but I was expecting that. I found in a book a very clear picture of ancient man sitting on a log, placidly applying pressure with a long stick to a stone clutched between his toes. The pressure was being applied from his chest as he bent over, and his chest was protected by a curved piece of wood — or possibly it was a human scapula — neatly lashed to the top of the stick. Again I cheated miserably to gain this effect: I used a vintage shooting stick with a double handle that opened out into a seat and made a most comfortable chest protector. The ferrule was handily tipped with steel. But the results of this long-range flaking were equally dispiriting, and until I substituted boots for moccasins, painful as well. Closer work, which needed about the same control and action as whittling wood, fared no better.

It was becoming very cold indeed. Now strange, furtive people appeared occasionally in my hitherto solitary quarry and dumped their loads of garbage. They came as harbingers of winter, confident that the snow would cover up their misdeeds and the “no dumping” sign. They met with Raimie’s full approval, and he spent many happy hours checking over items. Sometimes I wandered over to join him and stretch my stiffening legs, and I would think about the humus which would gather slowly through the centuries to obliterate the piles of tins and tires and bottles until some archaeologist a thousand years from now would dig down and rediscover us. “Heinz Man” we would probably be termed, which saddened me; and perhaps the little Old Dutch Cleanser Woman would be exhibited in a museum as a fertility symbol, with controversies raging about the significance of her pointed cap, which saddened me even more. I hoped my little pile of chips and fragments of pre-Neanderthal culture, found beneath the humus of the future, would throw him into utter confusion. How humiliating it would be if he labeled them Eolithic. I redoubled my efforts.

My efforts would have made a Neanderthal teacher weep. I myself could have wept at my inadequacy. But mercifully the snow came and put an end to my humiliation. I watched it, over the hills and ridges and quarries of the site, as it safely concealed until the spring thousands of undiscovered artifacts and released me from the pressure of the centuries.

I brooded now over the vast collection laid out in rows in the basement at home, and the more I pondered the progress of civilization the more humbled I became. A simple, mentally chastened woman now, fresh from my Pleistocene cave, I looked around me with new wonder. What brilliant mind conceived, planned, and executed hinges, for example? I vacuumed the house in reverence and awe of all the things that went on inside the machine. I stirred a sauce (consider inventing a sauce), and my mind reeled at the intellectual processes that had produced the spatula — the latex from the trees, the mold, the mold machinery, the plastic handle. And at the thought of the limitless horizons that stretched before me, of plastic and the mind that gave it birth, I felt quite faint. Some other time, I thought tiredly, some other time I’ll think about plastic.

Someone should explore the psychological benefits of my experiment: flint-knapping your way up the years of your life from the moment of birth to the present day must be a far better and more economical therapy than lying on a couch merely recalling the years. I speak from experience: not only did I emerge from my Pleistocene cave clutching my graduation scraper, but I took my place again in present-day civilization considerably humbled, facing squarely the fact that the wheel would have continued to go uninvented on the North American continent by me, and finding endless cause for renewed wonder and delight in the world around me.

The winter has passed, and even now the snow is receding from that ancient workshop site; pick points, burins, scrapers, blades, and hand axes will soon be peeping through again in company with scillas and crocuses. Somewhere down east the dust is swirling around museum basements and the archaeologists are setting the wheels in motion that will bring them to the lakehead to make planned scientific digs in undisturbed areas. Carbon 14 tests will be applied to charcoal, fossils, and bones; artifacts will gather and multiply and be grouped and regrouped; learned reports will be written with a wealth of scientific caution, peppered with possibles, probables, and perhapses. The archaeologists may inspect our thousand-odd specimens. I hope to be there if they do, for I have infiltrated my best scraper and hand ax; and if they pass muster undetected I shall look upon this as my official matriculation from, at least, the Zinjanthropus school.