Critters, Culture, and Compost: There and Back Again

A couple months ago a friend contacted me asking if I wanted to help him unravel a bit of a mystery on an archaeology site located along the Etowah River in north Georgia. More than 2,000 years ago, indigenous peoples had lived there, leaving evidence of their structures in the arrangements of circular stains in the dirt. The stains marked the locations of wooden posts that made up, in this case, the walls of a structure, and determining the purpose of the structure was my friend’s goal. 

My husband and I worked out the details and away I went for a week of digging and sweating and trying to tease out information from nearly invisible stains in the soil. It was heaven! 

As usual, we ended up with more questions than answers. But aside from questions about the site itself, it got me thinking about the meandering path of my life and how – even when it seems I’ve come so far from where I wanted to be as a professor and archaeologist exploring the past – I’ve unexpectedly found myself with something surprisingly close to that dream, or at least to the essence of it. 

Growing up, it seems, is a process of constant negotiation and renegotiation of dreams and priorities. After graduating high school, I practically lived and breathed archaeology – the period and geographic location where I wanted to spend my career varied, but the passion and joy I found in answering enduring questions about past peoples never did. 

I was living in southern Virginia, working as a professional archaeologist, when I realized my dreams had taken on a new element. I wanted to be closer to home and my family. The 14-hour drive and seeing my family and friends once every six months had taken a toll. No problem, I thought, once I earned my PhD, maybe I could find a university position nearby and have the work I loved and proximity to the people I loved. 

The hardest moment, though, came when, having achieved candidacy – a formal stage of the PhD program that clears you to begin your dissertation research – I struggled with factors both in and out of my control. At the same time, I found myself unsatisfied with the thought of being closer to home. I wanted to be home, with a garden and land, growing much of our food, becoming more sustainable. I wanted to return to the kind of life I grew up with, in the place where I grew up. Ultimately, I walked away from my program, yet again reprioritizing and renegotiating my dreams. 

When I left my degree, I fully believed I was finished with archaeology. There are no words for the loss I felt in knowing that my longest, most persistent dream was dead. And yet, a chance message launched me into a new field: a university press was looking for a copyeditor with an archaeological background to review academic books. Even a tangential link was better than nothing, I shrugged to myself, plus, it’d mean I get to keep learning. 

Two years ago when we bought our place in beautiful Cass County, I dove into the county’s and my own family’s history, discovering that my ties to the area went deeper than I’d known. There is a richness to the county’s intertwined Potawatomi, European, and African American history that I’d never learned in school, or maybe never appreciated.  

Earlier this year, the Cass County Board of Commissioners saw fit to appoint me to the Historical Commission. As part of the publications committee, I’ll be editing and updating books that share our history with anyone who cares to read about it. Will there be an opportunity for more archaeology, maybe here at home? I’d like to think so, I hope so. There are many, many questions to be answered and stories to be told. Give me a couple years and we’ll see what I can do. 

All in all, I’m constantly amazed and grateful for where my journey’s taken me. We have a house with land, we’re home near family and friends, with 3 massive gardens and a mess of critters. And just when I thought I was done with archaeology, archaeology decided it’s not done with me. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. 

Amy East is a freelance copyeditor, wannabe homesteader, and recovering archaeologist living in Cass County. She loves her family, her menagerie of animals, and her garden, although depending on the day, the order of those may vary. 


Any views or opinions expressed in “Critters, Culture, & Compost” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

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