A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

The Drum Portal
by Gordon Eskridge (Nov 2012)

Have you ever imagined while you were walking in the woods, that you may be the first person to have been walking here? Or do you think about those people who may have been here before you? Have you thought about what the trees have witnessed and if you only knew how to communicate with them what stories they could tell?

In October of 2010 I visited the living museum of James Town, Virginia, the Indian Village and English settlement. On the way back to the car parking lot, I walked in the woods nearby. The trees were so tall and close together they cut out nearly all the sun light and most of the sounds of the people nearby. I felt that I was walking out of the present and down a path into the past. I thought I could see flashes of someone walking off to my left and I could almost feel their eyes looking at me. I stopped walking to see if I could see them better or hear them moving through the woods. I could not see or hear anything unusual, so I moved on until I came to a creek and then followed it down stream to the shore line of the James River.

Looking out over the water it was a beautiful sight, the dark blue water of the river meeting the light blue of the sky with the white cotton ball clouds slowly drifting to the north east. The small waves on the James River were rolling before a breeze, blowing toward the shore with the sun light glinting off of them. It was so quiet I could hear the waves hitting the shore. I watched the waves as they broke on the dark gray rocks with their bubbly foam. The clear shallow water run onto the multi-colored sand and then receded back to the rolling water of the James River.

The harsh cry of Sea gulls nearby caused me to turn and look for the birds. I watched the birds with long narrow gray wings and backs with white bellies and heads, with dark round eyes. Their darks orange webbed feet were folded to stream line them and dangled like the rudder on a boat as they glided just above the waves. They often would make a short quick turn to the left, and then dive into the water. Soon the gulls were bobbing up from the water with a small fish in their mouth. They would sit on the water for a moment while seaming to say, “Look what I got.” Then, with wings flapping hard and with a tiptoeing run on the water the gulls would launch themselves into the air and quickly fly away.

Turning back toward where I had parked my car, I heard or seemed to hear a voice coming from back up the creek. I followed the direction the voice came from and found a smooth rounded surface of what seemed to be a large black rock about the size of a truck tire embedded in the side of the creek bank. When I touched it I found it was not a rock but wood that was blackened with age and exposure to the elements. It seemed to call out to me so I started to dig around it with my hands and found that it was going to be too large to dig out by hand.

Deciding that I was going to need help digging it out, I returned to the museum and found a park ranger by the name of Rodger West. He was of slight build and stood about five foot six in his brown uniform with a park ranger patch on his shoulder and his gold name tag on his chest. He wore a broad brimmed ranger hat and highly shined walking boots. I told him what I had found. He told me about the archaeologist, Dr. Bill Kelso, who was working nearby. So we walked through the building, past the exhibits of early James Town, and out the back door of the museum.

Ranger West led me down a path to a place that was roped off for the archaeological dig. The sight director Dr. Kelso was a man about sixty years old gray hair and beard, wearing a brown suit with a brown hat, brown boots. Dr. Kelso was standing with a clip board in one hand and a pencil in the other taking notes about what had been going on at the dig that day. Ranger West introduced us and I told Dr. Kelso what I had found seemed to be manmade. He wanted to see it, so we returned to the spot where I had found the object.

He was very excited about the find so far off the beaten path. He told me that he would get a team over here to remove the object, but it would take some time before they could make a proper dig. I asked him how long it might take and he said perhaps a week or so, but that he would contact me and keep me informed about their progress.

Several months and E mails later Dr. Kelso told me that what they had recovered was a very large drum and that it was in remarkably good shape. He sent pictures of the drum as it was dug up, cleaned and refurbished. The drum in the latest picture seemed to say, “Return to James Town,” and because I was living nearby I went.

The drum was now on display in the museum and it was enormous: it was over five feet across and over two feet thick. Bill Kelso told me that it was a pow-wow drum made of a hollow white pine tree from the coast of New York and that I could see the drum for a closer inspection after the museum closed. Dr. Kelso and I went to dinner together and during dinner he had told me many things about the drum.

Dr. Kelso described the Eastern White Pine trees that had long been considered sacred to the Indians of the north east coast of North America because of its strength and long life span. He continued, “The average mature white pine lives to over 200 years and some live as many as 500 years. While the average tree today is about 100 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter; in colonial times many were over 200 feet tall and up to 10 feet in diameter.”

“The Algonquians collected the inner soft white bark during the hard times of winter starvation. When dried and then pounded; it was used as flour in place of other starchy products.

Pine resin has been used to waterproof baskets, pails, and boats. The sap is antimicrobial and has been applied to gangrenous wounds successfully by the Chippewa Indians. Pine tar mixed with beeswax or butter was used as a salve to prevent infection. Pine tar is produced by slowly burning pine roots or green branches in a partially smothered flame.” I was fascinated with his knowledge of the various Indian cultures.

He added, “For 11,000 years the American Indian has been making drums that combine animal and plant life into an instrument that rings not only through the air but across time. The circle of life is found in its shape and all the elements of Nature, both plant and animal are used in the creation of the drum.” Then after dinner, he brought me back to the museum after it closed. The guard let us in and we walked back to the early history part of the museum.

Dr. Kelso opened the display case then said he had to go catch up on some paper work and he left me alone with the drum. I looked at the drum and it seemed to look back at me as if it was judging to see if I was worthy to know its secrets. The archeological team had replaced the drum head with an American Elk skin that was probably from a male animal because their hides are larger and thicker and make a deeper tone than females. It was a beautiful job of restoration. The drum looked great and I told it so as I reached out and stroked its dark smooth side.

As my fingers made contact with the drum head, there was a flash of light in my head and a deep voice resonated like a massive drum beat which made my body vibrate as though I was the drum. The drum’s voice in my head said, “Look over there.” My body slowly sank to the floor, but I held on to the drum while pictures began to form on what had been the wall of the museum. As I leaned against the drum I was given a bird’s eye view. There below me was a small valley which had a view of the ocean at one end and the other was tree covered rolling hills. In this valley there were three very large white pine trees, one had fallen and was laid out in the sunlight on a dark green sward of grass.

The voice said, “This is where I was found by some young Lenape Indian children that were playing in the woods not far from their home. As they ran into the valley they stopped with a gasp and pointed to where I laid the once proud leader of my tribe. I had been brought to this valley as a seedling to be part of an Osprey nest but as she flew across this valley I was dropped to the ground where I took root and that was almost five hundred years before the Indian children found me.”

“The white pine trees are the largest conifers east of the Mississippi and we do not have leaves but five needles clusters and each needle is three to five inches long. As a young sprout my bark was smooth and gray green, and as I matured it turned gray brown and became rough. By the time I was fully grown I had several broad scaly ridges 2 inches thick that ran up and down my sides.”

“I grew very quickly in the sandy loam of the valley with plenty of sunlight, water and the valley walls to protect me from the winds and the cold. Many animals visited me here like the mother black bear that would bring her cubs to climb my rough bark trunk and lay in my big branches to rest. Bald eagles or Osprey would often nest higher in my branches where they would be within easy reach of the fish in the ocean.”

“The children ran down the hill to inspect me and I heard one of the girls warn the others to watch out, there might be a bear in the hollow of that tree. The boys slowed down, but, kept coming. They stopped to pick up rocks and when they were close enough hurled the rocks at me. As the rocks hit my side I called out to them with deep thumping sounds. The children responded with glee at the sounds we had made. Soon they were pounding on my sides with sticks and I responded with my deep resonating voice. They sang songs and danced as their elders did until the sun went behind the ridge. The children were still dancing, laughing and singing as they left my valley. Soon it was quiet and peaceful again.”

Early the next morning as the stars faded into a graying sky, the sun a very large orange ball climbed up out of the dark black ocean and the deep purple skies were quickly turning to bright blue. The sun changed into a warm golden pulsing orb that appeared to grow smaller and brighter as it ascended into the heavens, now king of the daytime.

The children returned and with them were three men who followed them to where I lay. One of them carried a hoe made from the scapula of a large Elk attached with rawhide to a pole about four feet long. All of the men carried bows and arrows, stone knifes and axes. The men were soon mumbling to each other pointing at me and passing up and down the length of my trunk tapping with sticks and comparing the sounds that with which I responded. Soon they had made a decision and measuring about one third up the length of my trunk they stopped. Making a few more taps one of the men started digging a trench under my side and about six feet farther up a second man started making another trench. The third man and the children started gathering wood.

As soon as they had gathered the wood it was separated into three thicknesses and the third man cut a notch in a slab of bark with his stone knife and from his quiver he withdrew a stick, a little thicker than an arrow shaft and fire hardened on both ends. From a pouch at his waist he took out a smooth stone with a pit in the center. He rapped the string from his bow around the center of the shaft put a few grains of sand in the notch of the slab and inserted the sharp end into the hole and holding the rock with the pit on the other end of the shaft began to saw his bow back and forth. Soon smoke rose from the slab and the glowing ember was dropped into the tender. Swinging the tender around his head and throwing it to the ground it burst into flames. Scooping the fire with hunks of bark it was placed into the awaiting stacks of wood in the trenches using the smallest ones first. By controlling the burn they separated me into three parts. My center part was rolled all the way back to their camp and all the men and children were needed to roll me.

Arriving back at their camp many of the tribe came to admire me and tapping me with sticks jabbered with glee. I was rolled to a place near a large lodge and I watched as they measured me and then dug a large circle trench in the ground nearby which they soon filled with hot coals from their fire pits. They doused one of my edges with water then laid it on the coals where I sizzled and steamed. Soon I was lifted out and the general shaping began with scrapping with an adz made of flint.

After several weeks of scrapping, firing, chipping, and sanding I was rubbed with a mixture of bear fat and pine tar and that last part felt good. While this was going on a large Elk skin was soaked, stretched, scraped and pressed with Elk brains to make the hide strong and supple. The hide was measured cut and shaped to fit my side and attached with wet raw hide sown through the holes punched near the outer edge of the skin. The hide was sanded in some parts to change the pitch and then a final coating of bear fat and bees wax was applied to it and rubbed in.

The chief and council members prayed, chanted songs, smoked pipes, and stroked me with reverence. Soon eight drummers surrounded me and the lead drummer raised his deer hide wrapped feather bejeweled drum stick and bringing it down firmly on my drum head, my first note was struck and it was deep and pure like the sound of mother earth’s heartbeat. Smiles and whoops of joy filled the night. We stayed up late that night.

I feel that my sound truly reflected the tribal sound that they had hoped to achieve. I was cared for as the sacred object I had become. I was kept warm and dry and my drum head was kept soft and pliable with the bear fat mixed with bees wax. I stayed with the Lenape tribe in the Hudson River valley for many years. The tribe had eighty settlement sights around the region. Often they would assemble seasonal summer campsites on Manhattan Island, where they grew maize on communal land and caught abundant fish in the river and bay.

I watched the Lenape Indians in canoes meeting Giovanni Da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to enter New York Harbor, in 1524. Later on September 12, 1609 I saw Henry Hudson an Englishman who worked for the Dutch East India Company extensively mapped the area. He continued up the river to Albany where the Mohicans tribe lived. When the news reached Amsterdam of the high quality of furs that Hudson had traded for with the Indians of the Hudson Valley, the fur trade began.

By 1640, epidemic diseases such as small pox, measles and typhus wiped out ninety percent of the Indian population killing over 15,000 men, women and children. I watched their bodies fall and heard their anguished cries.

Later I was hauled on board a Dutch ship as a souvenir but, after a few days was thrown overboard near here because I was so large. The waves carried me into the creek where the silt covered me and I stayed there until you answered my call last year.

Hearing the sound of someone walking down the hall of the museum broke the spell and the voice slipped away. My head that had rested on the drum dropped forward and my hand fell into my lap. As contact with the drum was broken the imagery like the sound faded. As Dr. Kelso reappeared around the corner of display case I stood up stretching the cramped muscles of my legs and back. To ease the ache in my head I rubbed my temples then said, “Dr. Kelso, I have a great story for you.”

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