Fingermarks on Bricks

On a blustery February day I am visiting the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center nearish to Georgetown SC for a guided trip around this property, willed to the State for perpetual conservation purposes by, you guessed it, Tom Yawkey.  While this aspect of his legacy is appreciated, his reported resistance to integrating the Boston Red Sox is not.

Although the purpose of the trip is birding, we also stop at some historical sites, including a tower built before 1820.  It survived reportedly determined bombardment by Union ships during the Civil War because, I guess, they never actually hit it.

Narrow brick tower from pre-1820

Just above eye level along one side are some fingermarks from the folks who pulled the bricks out of the forms and laid them out to dry and harden completely.  Were they enslaved folks?  Likely, given the time and place.

Marks from fingers in pre-1820 bricksThe Center’s ranger says these fingermarks were also likely left by children, whose smaller hands wouldn’t have fit around the whole brick.

Just using a word like “fingermarks” makes me feel as if I’m one of  Inspector Murdoch’s turn-of-the-last-century crew, but looking at the fingermarks on these bricks makes me feel as if I’m part of this turn-of-the-previous-century crew.

As I reach up and touch these small depressions, I wonder about those workers — male and female, adult and child.

Did they fuss about the minor imperfection in these bricks?

Did they feel any purpose or satisfaction in their forced labour or in the tower it built?

Did they ever think about a woman standing in the same spot, 200 years later, staring at their handiwork?

I know that I find it easier to think back to what and who was, than I do to think ahead to what or who might one day be.  Although I know intellectually that I’m part of one long relay race, I find it easier to feel the connection to those who have gone before me than to those who will come after.

This tower with its imperfect bricks connects me to the real people who built it, and reminds me to consider how my work and my life might look to those who stand here 200 years from now.  How my life and my work might affect them.

It reminds me to think about what fingermarks I am leaving on what bricks, and what I am helping to build.


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  1. Tom Watson

    Your thoughts about what fingerprints you will leave, and on what bricks, are very profound.

    In a similar vein, I think of one’s life being one chapter in a continuous story. What, of interest, will our chapter contain?

    In a recent episode of Murdoch Mysteries, George Crabtree goes undercover as a professor at a boys’ school, to try and discover who committed a murder. In one class, he asks the boys to write a paper stating what they think their legacy that they leave behind in the world will be.


  2. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

    I wonder how many people have that epiphany? or are leading lives of quiet desperation? What must a slave have felt? That is what art in its many forms tries to convey. It is why I read.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Oliver Wendell Holmes (or Benjamin Disraeli or Mary Kay Ash, take your pick) said, “Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.” Purpose as a topic Looms Large in our lives, I’d say.

      1. …yes, or thinking there is a “normal” and can’t just be themselves. I tried for 15 years to break into this self-defeating problem when I asked people to draw a toilet, refrigerator, piece of cake, bicycle, toy airplane. After telling hundreds and hundreds of people I wanted “folk art” — I don’t want “good” or “correct” — not one person (that told me so) could recognize their own work in any other terms than “not good” — I gave up. Those little drawings are wonderful and FAR, far better than anything in The New Yorker magazine. You’ve seen the posters.

        1. Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – As they say, everyone could draw when they were 5, but no one in university can. What happened? In some measure, I think it’s about learning to see “better” or to a higher standard. That’s not completely wrong, but I take your point.

          1. Jim Taylor

            I’ll venture that too many of us (and I’m thinking of some people quite close to me) have been humiliated into thinking that their efforts — musically, artistically, even personally — don’t measure up to someone else’s standards.
            As a society, we’re much more proficient at belittling than begreating.
            Jim T

          2. Isabel Gibson

            Jim T – Yes, I expect that school of a certain vintage has something to answer for in this regard. A tricky line, though, don’t you think? We aren’t all good at everything, are we?

  3. Laurna Tallman

    This photo and your comment speak strongly against the hegemony of elitism in our social judgments. My folklorist husband would have much to say on this subject. I also appreciate the questions it raises about our inability to appreciate the folk in ourselves and about overlooking the valuable contributions of others that are not recorded in any way.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – I’m going to feel so much better about singing badly. 🙂 Seriously, it’s true that by making entertainment a commodity to be consumed rather than an activity to be pursued, we lose a great deal.

  4. Judith Umbach

    A very moving commentary on such a strange monument. At least the builders left the imperfections for us to see. In our machine age, only perfection would have been acceptable. And, thank you for helping us to see beyond the obvious.

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