High Tech

I read a lot of blogs as a means of keeping in tune with what people I admire have to say about all kinds of issues, incidents and items: falling leaves, clean kitchens, the war in Afghanistan, New York City, global politics, ice fishing in Idaho—a multiplicity of info.

A lot of times I make comments to those blogs if they spur me to think about something related to their subject matter. But before you can add your two-cents, most blogs require you to pass what I call the “humanity”test.

The “humanity” test is a little box at the bottom of a blog entry where you, the reader, have to enter a set of letters that match a set of letters that the blog provides. Those letters often look like crooked ironwood walking sticks, a brisk wind in the limbs of a mesquite tree, water pouring over the edge of a basalt cliff. They never spell a real word, at least one I ever heard of. This is to keep internet spammers, I think, and machines from making comments or stealing info or names or identities or whatever data untrustworthy internet machines, spammers, hackers and hijinx creators are after.

For a long time, when I first started encountering these weblog gatekeepers (as I like to imagine them), it was hard to read the letters and sometimes I couldn’t get them entered right and found myself relegated to the same garbage bin as spammers, hackers and other nefarious characters. But someone must have, besides me, complained, really complained, because some time in the last year or so, these “humanity” tests have gotten simpler.

Simpler, but no less mystifying to me in regards to their place in our written word environment. The crooked-letter words we are required to enter into the weblog gates are usually not real words. They are almost words.

For instance, the other day I ran on one of these gate keys that I was supposed to replicate that read “cherd.” As far as I know, the word, “cherd” is not really a word. I know of a couple of words that are close to “cherd,” both chert and chard.

The vegetable chard is a dark, leafy green akin to bok choi, collard greens and the like. I could wax on about chard and its cousins, and how I learned to love them. But that is a tale of lies, deviousness, exposure, retribution and redemption that is long enough for its own blog.

Chert is another word with which I am familiar. Chert is a classification of rock with a number of varieties known by such familiar names as jasper, flint and agate. In ancient times chert was useful as the raw material for fashioning tools like spear points, arrowheads, awls, and scrapers.

When I was a young kid, my sister went to college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.  During summer school sessions, my mother and I would make the long trek up from Casa Grande in the heart of the Sonoran Desert to the high Colorado Plateau to visit her. Back then, there were no interstates in Arizona, so it took a long time to travel what is now a relatively short distance. Often we would stop in Black Canyon City, just north of Phoenix, for a head call and a Coke. There was a “trading post” there where the woman who owned the place traded Native American jewelry. My mother possessed a lot of old baskets, turquoise and silver squash blossoms, turquoise and coral beads and she was always on the look-out for a bargain. While the two women stood around and haggled and visited, I would slip out the back into the sandy bed of the New River, which never had any water in it when I was a kid. Just sand, and a lot of palo verde and ironwood trees along the banks. I would dig around the banks and the sandy bottoms and sometimes hit the jackpot with scorpions, centipedes or arrowheads made of the local chert, flint, or maybe red or purple jasper. Back then, arrowheads were common in Arizona. I found them all the time and looked at them for characteristics that might make them unusual and then tossed them back onto the sand if nothing really caught my eye.

Closer to my home, we used to go out along the banks of the old channel of the Santa Cruz river, not the new channel that runs south of Casa Grande, but the old channel that runs north. If you showed up in the evening on the west side of the road to Phoenix, artifacts from a native past glinted into your sight like pieces of shattered glass. But instead of silicon remnants from beer bottles, these remnants were much older, pieces of pottery from the locals, the Pimas and Papagos and Maricopas (that’s what we Euro-Americans call them). Often we found arrowheads there too, but usually tossed them. Big, painted pieces of pottery were much more to our liking. I was around eight or ten years of age when I did most of this archeological work. Later I became more interested in sports and girls. Out there on the banks of the Santa Cruz, twice I found entire black-basalt metates (the implements for grinding grain or grass seeds or acorns) along with their pounding implements, the manos. I took those home along with any unusual pieces of pottery and if I found outstanding examples, chert tools.

The riverbeds and arroyos of the Sonoran Desert are not bedded in rock, but are bedded in sand and are in some ways ephemeral, so that after a big rain and the resultant flood, the course of the waterways will be changed and then you might find a new trove of chert tools and likewise, the places you mined for these artifacts might be buried in thick layers of fine clay. Kind of like life, the rivers and arroyos moving back and forth over the big mesquite tree flats like diamondback rattlers. The Santa Cruz is like a serpent out there between the Gila River Indian Reservation and my home town. Back then the wind, too, like floods, moved the sand much more than we ever did, hiding archeological artifacts. Back then the developers had no use for the desert flood plain. They were still tearing up Phoenix and LA.

Nowadays, all that Native-American stuff is generally protected by acts of Congress as well they should be. If you dig it up, you’ll be fined or jailed or maybe both, if caught. Nowadays it’s thought proper for those kinds of artifacts to be left alone in the spots that have special significance to the native peoples who survived the invasion of their land by Americans and Mexicans and Spaniards.

More than once, I’ve considered going to the mountains and finding some chert and teaching myself how to knap it into an arrowhead or a spear point. But though challenging and maybe fun and intellectually fulfilling, the work would be slow and trying and with one wrong blow, the chert would disintegrate and I’d need to start over. I have too many things to do instead; work on my computer: write, account, portray on my computer, computer, computer.

Three thousand years ago, in the desert, knapping flint and chert was probably considered pretty high tech. Now we have computers that control the tools that make our weapons and tools. We use computers to create art, create machines, fashion wood, help us think and make war. Instead of humans with stone-tipped weapons at the gates of our towns we have guards at the gates of websites and blogs with “humanity” tests, words (or almost words) that look like leafy greens, or like weapons.

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