Back in the late 60s, I was a mudlark. A mudlark is a person who looks for usable debris – trash, in other words – in the mud of a river. There are mudlarks everywhere. You may be a mudlark and not even know it.
When I was a boy there was a stream at the bottom of a shallow ravine behind my best friend Jamie’s house. I don’t know where it came from — what larger entity — or even remember wondering. Was it a mile long, or two – or a hundred? We didn’t care. All we knew is that it was just there, a stream that began in one place and ended in another and part of it went through his backyard.
It was so narrow – maybe a foot – you could jump it without having to think about it twice. I was ten years old; now I’m sixty. Hard to believe this was fifty years ago. Jamie lived not far from me, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up. But this stream (rivulet, runnel, rill, so many great names for tiny rivers) could be anywhere, trickling in the shadows beneath a bunch of pine trees and oak. There were places where a backlog of sticks slowed the current and created small pools of water. You could see to the bottom and the fine sandy granules of dirt.
We would spend large amounts of time here, by this stream. Much of it was spent picking up rocks and seeing what was beneath them: crawdaddies, salamanders, frogs, tadpoles. But kneeling in the mud you could find other things too. We found glass. Old Coke bottles, and the insulators on the top of electrical poles that looked like abandoned parts of alien spacecraft. Lodged between the river rocks were smaller pieces of glass, in the deepest hues of green and blue, small shards of glass worn down until their edges were as soft as a wedding ring.
I remember finding an old fork there once, tines bent, and burnt as if in a campfire; I found some old coins —pennies from before I was even born — a bird’s bleached bones. And I also found license plates for cars, rusty metal license plates, buried in the mud or hidden beneath a pile of leaves. This was a mystery to me. How did a license plate—which was made of metal, and the length and height of a shoe box — get down here? Could it have floated in on a tide during a rainstorm when this stream became a baby river? Or was this wooded ravine a place where people came to disappear? To change their old lives by getting rid of everything that marked them as who they were? They gathered around a campfire, eating beans with this fork, playing card games with pennies, and in the morning set out into the world, never to be seen here again.
There are stories in objects, in the most random things, and this is when you know you’re a mudlark, when you see them and tell them to others.
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