It’s funny, looking back. We think we’ll remember the big, sparkling moments when we reflect on our lives, but it’s so often the dusty, small ones that have made all the difference for us.
This has been the case more than once, when it comes to my experiences as an artist. One small, suspended moment in a fluorescent-bright classroom made me see the possibilities words represented for the first time.
A single sentence from a teacher lives in that moment and fuels me even now, after I have passed so many milestones in my career as a professional writer. This is just one example, of course, and not the one I’m sharing with you today.
The moment that mattered the most was as powerful as it was unassuming. It began with a sneeze, a faulty lightbulb, and a collection of lost moments etched in stone.
Moments that had been waiting patiently for someone to find them, touch them, and tell the human stories they’d been holding onto for at least ten thousand years.
The Beginning Of The Beginning
Here’s the scene. A person with brown skin and strong arms sits by a fire that smells like home. Above her is a sky so dense with stars, it seems as if the firmament has burst into a riot of gemstones and light.
She is focused, hands moving with the confidence of practice as she casts art from stone, turning a piece of glittering white quartz into something that will keep her and her family alive: a tool, salvation made of sharp edges and a single point.
Everywhere around her, there are stories. They are unraveling in the night, and she is telling them in a way that will last far longer than the alien world she inhabits now.
Clovis points are not the oldest form of projectile point in North America (most people think of them as ‘arrowheads’ or ‘spear-points’). They are, however, one of the oldest we can firmly categorize.
At an average age of 10–12,000 years, these stone blades were once affixed to darts and used to hunt Ice Age animals like mammoths and bush-antlered deer. They are one of the many, many kinds of projectile points that may be resting under your feet at any given moment.
Clovis points are my favorite kind of lithic (stone tool), and they were one of the first types I became intimately familiar with. These points and many others are the pulse of the story I am telling you now: the beginning of the beginning, crafted in the hands of a person who was much like you or me.
A storyteller. A creator. A human being.
My life-changing moment was built on the backs of many others. It grew from stone worked into many forms, points with names like ‘Big Sandy,’ ‘Palmers,’ and ‘Adena.’ Each arrowhead or dart-point belongs to a different period in time, a different pair of hands working by sun or firelight long ago.
They all found their way to me, traveling through years of change and soil and loss, washing up on the shore of my life at the precise moment when they would make the most impact on who I was and who I am.
I was not looking for them, but they were looking for me. Perhaps it was their muffled voices that called me to them as they hid in the most unlikely of places.
At The Meeting-Point Of Moments
A long time ago, my family's land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was populated by tribes such as the Manahoac, the Cherokee, and the Susquehannocks.
There is little evidence of them left — on the surface, at least. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find yourself touching the debris of hundreds of lives long past.
My great-grandfather purchased a large parcel of land when he retired from his life as a civil servant, and now there are just under 200 acres left to us. He, like many neighbors, dug himself a garden on the land he had bought. And, also like his neighbors, when he dug up the soil, he found a lot more than earthworms.
Arrowheads appeared like little jewels where his plow had revealed them. Projectile point is the proper term, but only because most Native Americans didn’t use the bow and arrow until about A.D. 700. Many of the points you’ll find across America are far older than that and belonged to darts cast by a tool called an ‘atlatl.’
My grandfather and his neighbors often kept these points, but many collections were forgotten over time. They disappeared, were dispersed along with estates, and dissipated into the opaque mists of history. Luckily this wasn’t quite the case with my great-grandfather’s collection.
The collection was forgotten, mostly — but only for a little while. Long after their finder’s death, his great-granddaughter was digging around in the dim light of a storage closet neglected in the years since his passing.
There, ensconced in old letters and army records from WWII, boxes of trinkets and photographs yellowed with age, was a simple white-and-blue shoebox. Unassuming, unlabeled, and covered in dust, it wasn’t anything to look at. I took it out without opening it.
That would have been the end of the story if not for my father — I was not courageous enough to brave the allergens at that time and fled before the soft song of ages could reach me.
But the connection had been made, and I like to think that this was why the story didn’t end there. Fate had already set it in motion millennia ago.
To Hold The Soft Light Of History In Your Hands
Another scene. The sound of the shoebox clinking as my father laid it on the table caused me to look up from the crisp pages of a novel. A bit irritated, I glanced at my father’s expectant face with a bit less than eager expectation in my demeanor.
“This is so cool,” he said, indicating the box. “Remember when I mentioned my grandpa and the arrowheads in his garden?”
I remembered vaguely. I recognized the shoebox, too. “That’s where they went?”
Birkenstock was splashed across the cardboard, and I would never have thought anything besides old, musty shoes could be in there. How could I have known that the weight of centuries was inside of such an unassuming receptacle?
I can’t really recall the rest of the conversation, because that moment flashed away the instant the next began. I opened the box, and there, wrapped in felt, was my epiphany.
I am one of those people who are at once extremely distractible and equally obsessive, depending on the circumstances. The box of projectile points caused me to dive head-first into the latter tendency. I looked up everything, everything I could find on arrowheads, lithics, and stone tools.
I bought books, I watched excavation videos, and soon I was spending hours looking down at my inherited collection of dusty, mud-spattered rocks with the awe of a collector finding a lost Da Vinci.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I went hunting for a few Da Vincis of my own.
Feeling Your Way Back To The Past
Virginia is a state that hides many secrets under its rolling hills and blue-toned mountains. It is a forested world with pockets of history hiding in the brush, and the strangest things can happen when you go out into the trees and let that history reveal itself.
Still, my thoughts weren’t quite so poetic as I labored for the fifth hour in a row on what could be generously called a “fool’s errand.”
I was the fool, in case that isn’t clear by now.
To make a long story short, I had somehow discovered a long-extinct creek hiding in the woods right by the family estate’s driveway. Naturally, I decided to start digging.
Apparently, “extinct” doesn’t always mean…well, extinct. That creek is currently flowing again thanks to my aforementioned obsessiveness, along with a little of what I am tempted to call magic.
It was with my hand buried elbow-deep in mud that I touched my first Da Vinci. Most arrowhead buffs will tell you that it can take months, years to find your first perfect projectile point. I didn’t know that at the time, which may explain my tireless enthusiasm to some extent.
All I knew was that arrowheads were hiding in the dirt, and the old creek seemed like a good place to start looking for them. Truly, I would never have found what I was seeking if there hadn’t been some element of the bizarre to my life — I reached into that mud because I could have sworn I heard someone talking behind me.
That someone wasn’t there. Not physically, anyway, or perhaps not in the current plane of time.
The sound of an object striking a creek-bank had me inexplicably focused on shoving my entire arm into the clay and grasping for a miracle. That miracle was a near-perfect, beautifully sharp, exquisitely knapped Rowan point conservatively dating to around 7000 B.C.
It was a vision in shimmering white quartz, and I cannot explain to you what it felt like to first hold that object in my chapped, mud-soaked hands. This was when I really, truly believed in miracles for the first time. I haven’t stopped believing since.
And So From Stone Is Brought The Lifeblood Of Stories
Biblical scholars have debated the story of Moses drawing water from a stone many times and from many angles.
If you ask me, water is not half so miraculous as what I found waiting within the rocks and gravel.
I began this story with the assertion that great things often begin with small moments. The greatest thing in my own life is what most would merely call “writing.”
Personally, I prefer the term storytelling.
Stories are what I drew out from the stones of Shenandoah, and when I first touched that Rowan point, all of them came into focus and began to flow.
Holding thousands of years of human history in your hands is an experience like no other. I learned that many projectile points are made of stone sourced hundreds of miles from where they were found. Ancient people would go on long journeys to reach the quarries that contained white chert, jasper, hornstone, obsidian, and other kinds of knap-able rock.
Many anthropologists have theorized that this was far more than mere practicality. They see reverence within the stones, a sacred kind of care that turned tools into the most poignant and powerful art. The points contain journeys that would have been extremely dangerous at the time, trips that would have taken weeks to complete.
They contain humanity: each and every one of them.
I have written all my life, but I credit the moment I opened that dusty shoebox as the moment I became a storyteller. It opened something in me that will likely pour out words for the rest of my life.
The little stone memories I found hiding in the dark will always be among my first and greatest muses.
When I take out the box, unwrap the points, and hold them soft and gentle in my hands, I am transported to the place where time holds its breath and waits for two distant points to reach out and touch one another.
I can feel the hands of ancestors, and they tell me of things both shared and secret. They tell me what it is to be alive — and from them, I have learned more about what it means to be human than I could have from anybody else.
No one knows for certain what those ancient people were like. We can only guess how they looked, how they spoke, and what they believed in. Much of prehistoric anthropology is learning how to make educated and imaginative guesses — it is learning to weave stories from the forgotten chapters our predecessors left behind.
To touch the cool grooves and surfaces of those chapters is a privilege that will always be among the greatest I have ever known. Feeling the power of storytelling so viscerally is the kind of magic that can turn a person half-mad with the weight of it all.
Perhaps, in the end, this shared madness is what forges the common threads that make us who and what we are.
What makes us — in so many profound and gorgeous ways — human.
I have found other arrowheads since I pulled that Rowan point from a forgotten creek, and, hopefully, I will find many more.
Museums have little need for these artifacts — they are more common than you might think — and in my home state, it is legal to pick them up and keep them when they’re found on either public or private land.
I’ve found these stone stories poking out from clods of dirt and hiding under rocky overhangs. I’ve seen them sparkling in stream-beds, resting under roots, and pushing up from fallow fields. I have even found them in my own backyard, restive and quiet in the ground.
Stories are everywhere. Sometimes, all you need is the courage to dig beneath the surface of everyday life to find them.