A compass and the distant crack of a rifle

It was early summer when I returned to the Potomac River bluff where I had found the rock with the carved cross. I removed the piece of rotting tree limb I had placed over it on my last visit and brushed away the fallen leaves. As the image came to view I thought how it always looked smaller and more crude than I had remembered, but just as enigmatic, with its main shaft topped by a diamond-shaped head and a line like a carpenter’s angle draped over one of the crosses’ arms.

Shaped like a sharks tooth, this
flake of quartzite could be
an Indian scraping tool.

I still had no idea what the image signified, or anything else about it, even after many visits. I’ve found plenty of fascinating clues, but none of the bits of glass, pottery, stone, and some oddball things as well, added up to anything. Each was a little story completely in and of itself. It was like astronomy before Newton.

This time, though, I was a little more optimistic. For I had come armed with an idea and some new information.

North to where? First, my idea. I took out my cell phone, flicked on the compass app, oriented the arrow north, and laid it alongside the cross. Just what I suspected: The digital age and the age of stone crosses lay in almost perfect alignment.

It was a “eureka!” moment. But while Archimedes’s flash of insight led to many scientific and technological discoveries, mine went nowhere.

What did it mean that the rock image pointed north? Why would a north-pointing rock be of any use to anyone? It’s not like people might forget which way is north, and needed a reminder. Was it a navigational aide for Santa Claus?

So as far as I could determine, my clue didn’t point to anything—except north.

Cleanly cut piece of post looks like concrete,
but it’s not.

Crinoid connection? Next, my new information. On my previous visit I had found what looked like a four-sided concrete post. Only the surface didn’t feel like concrete. It was smoother and more cushy. I had slipped a little piece in my pocket to check it out at home.

When I later looked at my sample under a lens, I saw that the ‘”concrete” was actually a mass graveyard of fossil marine fragments, a lot of them the familiar mini-donut segments of crinoid stems. It was limestone, probably formed sometime in the Ordovician period, around 450 million years ago. The closest limestone deposits occur about 30 miles away in the Hagerstown Valley.

A lens reveals that the post is made
from a mash-up of marine fossils.

Why would anyone go to the trouble of bringing carefully squared limestone posts to this place? Are they markers? Are they related somehow to the north-pointing “compass” rock?

I had already searched the web for old property markers. None looked anything like my stone. I did another thorough survey of site, hoping to find more limestone posts whose position would relate to each other in some way. I did find a couple more, but their placement appeared to be random.

Northward bound. Kneeling by the rock, I stared again at the cross, waiting for it to send me some signal. Maybe it was telling me to go north to find the answer. (Or maybe I had read too many Dan Brown thrillers.) At any rate, I set off, pushing through bushes and scrambling over rocks and logs. But aside from some broken bottles and rusty beer cans, I didn’t find anything, at least nothing that I could decipher.

See sidebar: Clues that go nowhere and beyond

This was getting frustrating. Could the rock be signaling some astronomical message? A lot of famous stone relics were created to mark astronomical events. Could my stone be a kind of mini-Stonehenge? I looked up to the heavens, but everything seemed in order—no eclipses, solstices, or meteor showers, just a Red-bellied Woodpecker hammering away at a dead snag at the top of an oak tree.

Shot from a tiny rifle casing echos
across the years.

Distant rifle shot. I resumed my search along the bluff that overlooked the river. I found more glass shards and a few intact bottles, some old, some recent. Also rusted fragments of a car and a little rifle shell casing.

I carefully brushed away the dirt on the base of the casing and just barely made out “WRACO 25-20,” aka Winchester .25-20. You don’t see many of these any more. The cartridge was first introduced in1893 for the famed Winchester 1894 lever action rifle of Buffalo Bill and John Wayne fame. It hung around for years as a favorite of farmers, trappers, and pot hunters, since it’s relatively quiet and does minimal damage to meat and hides.

Farmer John was no match for
the crafty fox.

I  imagined what might have happened here many years ago. “John, John!” cried the farm wife. “The grey goose is gone, and the fox is on the town!”  Out ran John, just in time to see the fox—and the flapping goose—disappear over the hillside. John took a shot just to please his wife, and the crack of the rifle came back as an empty echo. The ejected casing landed where I found it.

Clues but no conclusion. Then there was the matter of that shallow pit near my stone. I slid down into the bed of leaves and broken branches, and started to feel around with my hands, hoping that copperheads by now had found cooler and moister refuges down by the river. I felt something metallic, which I pulled. It was a rusty metal strap, anchored below ground. To what? Without a shovel, I had no way of knowing.

When I later viewed the pit from a different angle I noticed what seemed to be a ring of rocks around its perimeter. Maybe it meant nothing—what else do you do with stones you find when you did a hole? Or maybe it told a story.

Before leaving I took a final look at the rock inscription before covering it over with leaves and the chunk of rotted tree limb. Clues were piling up, but so far they added up to absolutely nothing. Maybe things would start to come together on my next visit.

Or maybe I’ll never solve the mystery of the “compass rock.”

At the same time, my many hours on this bluff have taught me a great deal, things maybe even more important than the meaning of that particular rock or any of the other shreds of evidence I have found. What I have learned is this:

Here was a patch of forest overlooking the Potomac, lovely in its own right, but otherwise seemingly unremarkable. Yet, as I discovered through the bits of glass and flakes of stone, the circles of rocks and odd bits and pieces of human detritus, that spot has a conscious dimension that stretches back—who knows?—decades, centuries, maybe much longer. Even on a silent winter’s day, when nothing moves except the river, there are voices here.

Clues that go nowhere and beyond

A good friend of mine prepared for a visit to his doctor by compiling a thorough documentation of his medical history.  His doctor took one look at the spread sheets and the columns of numbers, and said something to the effect of, “I’m not interested in data.”

My friend—a doctor himself— was shocked. For him, as a member of a scientific and medical tradition stretching back to the ancient Hellenic philosophers, empirical evidence is the basis for knowledge. But my friend’s doctor probably already knew what specific data he would need to make a diagnosis and design a treatment. He wasn’t interested in seeking knowledge, but in solving a problem.

Unlike my friend’s doctor, I have no plan or methodology for finding the clues I need to pierce the enigma of the cross carved in stone I found on the bluff overlooking the Potomac River. For the most part, I just stumble around in the forest, happily finding clues, many of them intriguing, but none that have actually brought me closer to understanding anything significant about that odd carving. This is hardly surprising, because it would take the training and the skills of an archeologist to know what to look for and how to make sense out it, and I’m not an archeologist.

But through it all, I have found something important that goes beyond the enigmatic rock. As I write in my main article:

Here was a patch of forest overlooking the Potomac, lovely in its own right, but otherwise seemingly unremarkable. Yet, as I discovered through the bits of glass and flakes of stone, the circles of rocks and odd bits and pieces of human detritus, that spot has a conscious dimension that stretches back—who knows?—decades, centuries, maybe much longer. Even on a silent winter’s day, when nothing moves except the river, there are voices here.

Here’s a visual summary of what I’ve found.

Is the Potomac back?

“So, what’s new?”

I ask the question each spring on my first visit to the Potomac. Maybe a massive silver maple has fallen after many years of leaning farther and farther over the water. Or perhaps the head of an island disappeared, replaced by mountain of logs and smashed docks. Or the river might reveal to me some new plant or creature.

Change means life, and the Potomac is a living river, always coming up with surprises, always something new.

That’s the way it’s been in the past. But how about this year? I wondered because the year before it seemed that the river was struggling to survive, as if it were a covid-19 patient on a ventilator. Hardly any fish, birds, insect life, just the sparkle of the sun dancing on the waves, pretty, but deceiving.

The reason for the downturn, I had concluded, was the back-to-back floods of 2018 that had scoured everything in their paths, like armies on a scorched earth campaign. (I later learned there was more to it than that.)

First impressions. Emerging from the creek I turned onto the river and headed upstream. The current ran strong, so I hugged the shore where logs and fallen trees created pockets of slack water where I could make progress. I looked for any clue that the river was healing.

Nooks and crannies on the river bottom
give cover to a well-camouflaged fish.

The first thing I checked out was the river bottom. Last year it was covered with a layer of silt deposited by the floods, as lifeless as the outwash from a construction site. But now, although the water was a little discolored, I was able to see the familiar mosaic of stones and shells, the river equivalent of the nooks and crannies of an English muffin, creating micro-refuges for fish and many other creatures. I felt encouraged.

I was also happy to see tough, sturdy plants poking up out of the river bank, holding the promise of a mini forest of blue and yellow blooms. In contrast, all last year the shores lay bare and covered with foul mud, as if they had been bulldozed.

Birds called in the branches above me and I saw flashes of movement. A cuckoo briefly emerged, its sleekly pointed wings and long tail giving it the agility of a stunt plane as it pursued a luckless insect. Back out of sight it called with a throaty kao-kao-kao followed by a series of staccato ka-ka-kas.

I started keeping mental notes. Great blue herons flew off of snags at my approach. Gangs of shaggy cormorants perched on half-submerged logs out in the mainstream. An immature bald eagle flew past me, and far over head a mixed flock of black and turkey vultures rode the thermals.

It did seem like the river had come back to life. But so soon? The experts I had consulted in my last article—an ancient Greek poet, Dr. Antonio Fauci, a legendary microbiologist, a roomful of government biologists, and a shifty trickster named Potowmack—agreed that nature will decide what ultimately happens to the river, and when. That sounded ominous, not surprising since that same nature also has bestowed us with what cognitive psychologists call a negativity bias: We fixate more on bad things than on good things. Biogeographer Jared Diamond calls this “constructive paranoia,” the idea that it makes more survival sense to prepare for the worst than to lie back whistling Happy Days Are Here Again.

Butt-bobbing birds. But maybe the happy days had in fact returned. Continuing up the shoreline I was seeing an unusual number of stilty-legged birds probing the mud for worms and other invertebrates. They would take to the air when I got near, fly a hundred yards up the river, and in a few minutes we’d do it all over again.

These are solitary sandpipers, one of my avian favorites. For one thing, despite their nondescript plumage, they’re easy to identify from their idiosyncratic butt bobbing. The other thing is their migrations. With just a couple of ounces of bone and muscle and a brain the size of a pea, they somehow get from the Amazon Basin, up through the US, to finally breed along the lakes and streams of Canada and Alaska.

Also impressive in their own lumbering way were the turtles. They formed lines on nearly every log. The big ones cannon-balled into the water when I got too close, followed by the plops of the little ones. A muskrat swam toward me and then disappeared in a tangle of exposed tree roots.

Were the soft rushes always here,
or are they new this year?

I was about to leave the shore to head for a string of little gravel bars on the Virginia side when I noticed something new, at least to me. It was a patch of stiletto-tipped rushes that looked familiar from my years of slogging through salt marshes. But those were dark and rigid, while these, called  soft rushes, were lighter green and not as stiff.

Maybe the rushes had always grown along this stretch of the river, and I just never noticed them. Or perhaps the flooding produced some change that gave them a foothold. In any event, the soft rush is a very common plant, though far from ordinary. Like houseflies, humans and killer whales, it is a cosmopolitan species, native to every continent except Australia.

An uncertain sign. At the gravel bar I pulled my canoe onto a mat of yellow-green roots and got out my fishing rod. I cast a few times down one eddy line, then down the other, and was not surprised at the non-results.

Then I dropped my lure directly downstream from the bar, and immediately felt the pulsating energy of a fish at the end of the line. It was a smallmouth bass, and it was determined to do the opposite of whatever I wanted it to do. I guess that pretty much defines the allure of fishing.

I knelt to pick up the fish, admiring its golden brown coloration and the vertical bands down its flanks. It was plump and healthy, with no sores or tumors that have raised alarms about the health of fish in the Potomac. I took a picture of the two of us and slipped out the hook. The fish paused for a moment at the water’s edge, and then vanished.

Handsome and healthy: icon of the
Potomac (referring to the fish).

Was the fish a sign that the river was back? Or was it just a fish? I turned to Patowmack the Trickster for an answer. He replied with a riff on Aristotle: “One bass does not a fishing season make.” As if for emphasis, a wild turkey let loose a mocking gobble from the nearby woods, and continued gobbling as I began my downstream paddle.

Ancient ritual. Now the sun was descending over the rapids and I began to see pale yellow insects, their bodies arched and their translucent wings erect as they lay on the surface, then rising into the air like spirits. There were thousands of them.

I was witnessing one of nature’s great rituals, a celebration of life and its perpetuation.  These were mayflies, an insect that spends most of its existence as armor-bodied nymphs, scuttling about on the underside of rocks on the river bottom. Now, responding simultaneously to some signal, they were transforming themselves into airborne creatures to search for a mate, reproduce, and then die.

I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Up and down the river I could hear the splashes and slurps of the fish as they feasted. Swallows joined in, swooping down to scoop up the tiny morsels and leaving behind little splashes that sparkled in the last light of the day.

Mayflies are part of what biologist E. O. Wilson calls the “little things that run the world.” If the mayflies are OK, there’s hope for everything else.

To which Patowmack the Trickster would reply, “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”