Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile: About the book before I read it

Coverby Jane Lane

After ordering several of my last books on Kindle, I received in the mail today a lovely little used book that I purchased for a few dollars and as soon as I brought it out of the envelope, I loved the look and the feel of it.  My “new” copy of Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile by John Hanson Mitchell reminded me of how much I love books – not just the words in them, but books as an entity, a species, a treasure, a warehouse of black print and white spaces on leaves of paper, which, in the case of this book, are soft and comforting to the touch, like a favorite flannel sheet with worn edges.

The cover is painted in earthy faded sepia, yellows, browns and pale greens and is a sketch of a single wooden chair sitting in the grass beneath the trees of an orchard.  On the inside cover is a sepia sketch of Scratch Flat which the notes tell me is “neither to scale nor complete” and includes the Hazard House torn down c. 1914, the Lignos Barn, torn down in 1980, the point of land where Tonupasqua danced, the Larch Swamp, Beaver Book Marshes, an Indian burial ground, the poor farm (1825), Tom Dublet’s Fish Weir (1670s), the plum grove behind the Barnes/Mitchell house,  another Barnes house which burned down at Halloween in 1979, and other similar attractions scattered among the trees within an area bounded by Beaver Brook, Forge Pond and The Great Road.

The book is a deep map of just one square mile in Massachusetts. William Least Heat Moon’s book PrairyErth was a 600-page long historical and short nose to the ground analysis of a county in Kansas. Centennail Time covers fifteen thousand years in 222 pages.

Mitchell describes the location of Scratch Flats as anywhere and nowhere, with a population of 150 people and two hundred cows, fourteen pigs, five horses, fifty-six chickens, eight turkeys, four Guinea fowl, three ducks, one donkey, seventy dogs and forty cats. He listed chief crops as dairy products, green beans, strawberries, beets, asparagus, and apples, which were cultivated among a long list of native plants, grasses and a wide variety of trees that surprised me, as I live on a square mile with three inhabitants and in what is practically a mono-culture with four irrigated circles of corn, winter wheat planted in the corners around the circles, and non-native trees planted around the three houses for shade or windbreak.

Before I began to read the book, I flipped through the pages and this sentence caught my eye:

“The understanding that less is in fact more would be of paramount importance, he said, and the people would have to understand at a deep level that the essence of civilization is not the multiplication of wants, but the elimination of needs.”

I’m intrigued and looking forward to holding this comfortable little book in my hands.


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