WOULD KEATS ODE TO THE EARTHWORKS MOON?
There is a myth that the great poet, John Keats, sat in a museum, pondering over the Greek pottery which would inspire his immortal classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Although I do not know if this story is true, I imagine him in that museum wearing the modest clothes of an early nineteenth century poet. His shoulder length hair is feathered and still. He is sitting in a wooden chair with his elbow perched on his knee and his chin resting in his palm. His other hand stretches out. Would the museum allow him to touch the urn’s smooth outer surface? Would he have felt the ribbed areas of excess clay, if any, that still clung to its inside or the crevice of its handles? Would he have been able to hold it in his palms and run his thumbs over the static images? Probably not. The urn must have been so close, and yet a world away from his reach. And there he sits for hours, staring at one frozen image in time that “cannot fade” (line 19).
For me, that is the secret the urn hides and the poem reveals. Somehow, against reason, against rationale, there is this moment in time that’s frozen. Keats found it. He saw more than what was there on the surface of that urn. He played the unheard melody. Keats gave us the secrets that the Ancient Greeks left for people of later times, for us, to discover. Maybe he really did look at one urn to see all of this, or maybe he looked at several, or maybe he crafted a poem that captured the essence without actually having a physical model. But Keats was able to look beyond the moment and see something powerful that the naked eye forgot to record. He saw what lay in front of all of us who take for granted the truth.
It is no mistake that I mention Keats and these moments he found frozen in time, for I had a similar moment in my own life. Like Keats, my moment involved an amazing testament to the brilliance of ancient people. My moment involves the 2000-year-old Native American built Octagon Mound of Newark, Ohio. This place, like Keats’s time in the museum, revealed a marvel to me that I had always seen but never recorded with my eyes.
The townsfolk of Newark, Ohio speculated that these mounds held a deeper function than, say, that of an ornamental structure. Of course, all Native American structures held great significance to their people; most mounds, specifically, were sacred burial places. I had heard the rumors that this mound measured lunar cycles. A study in the 1980s had pointed to this fact, but few had had the privilege to gain a firsthand account. It always seemed so farfetched, spiritual mumbo jumbo. I mean, this was the same significance that scientists or spiritualists always try to place on ancient structures in order to elevate their importance. So I probably drove past the Octagon Mound daily, never attributing any grandeur to it beyond the rumors.
Truth was I never gave much significance to the mounds because they are located on a private golf course run by The Mound Builders Country Club. As hard as it is to comprehend, this marvel of Native American invention has men in polo shirts chasing little white balls between its earthen walls. Beyond the knowledge that suggests the piece of land is reserved for the enjoyment of Newark’s elite, then, it held little significance for me.
My first chance to become more intimately aware of the mounds came in a class I took during my undergraduate studies at Ohio State University, a rhetoric-themed class centered on community identity. The course was designed by a passionate professor, Dr. Elizabeth Weiser. Late within the quarter Dr. Weiser introduced our final project. As my classmates and I sat in our seats waiting for class to begin, she entered the room, stood at the front of the class, and announced that she had just had a conversation with Dr. Richard Shiels about the controversy surrounding the mounds. I was not aware there was such a controversy. Dr. Weiser explained that for years Dr. Shiels and other prominent researchers at Ohio State and other institutions had been negotiating with the golf course in order to study the mounds further. Although the golf course does not in fact own the land because the mounds are actually owned by the Ohio Historical Society (OHS), it had an exclusive lease. This meant that The Mound Builders Country Club could restrict people’s access to the mounds. Because this was an exclusive club reserved for only the elite members of Newark’s society, OSU’s scholars faced an uphill battle in obtaining rights to conduct research and to observe the lunar cycles that this mound recorded. So here was our final project of the course: as a class, we set out to contextualize the argument set forth by the three parties, Ohio State, The Mound Builders Country Club, and OHS, in order to gain perspective as to why an agreement could not be reached on access to the Octagon Mound. For constructing this massive essay, Dr. Weiser assigned each of us duties to perform, such as interviews and research. I was given the role of head editor.
As the weeks progressed, my classmates conducted interviews and research, writing a section capturing the essence of the material, and e-mailing their written sections to me for inclusion in the grander project. I was always privy to new information. As I constructed the fragments of this argument, I saw the different arguments of the invested parties come into view, revealing the importance of the mound. The brilliance of the mounds lay in their ability to measure the movements of the moon over an eighteen year period. The mound itself is a giant octagon, bigger than four Roman coliseums, attached to a smaller circular mound. It is the open space in the walls running between the two mounds that line up with the moon during each of these thirteen shifts, and it is likely that the circle mound represents the moon’s position in the sky.
It was through my time working on this class project that I also had the opportunity to become more acquainted with Dr. Shiels. The Octagon Mound intrigued me. It was no longer this golf course I passed by in town; now it was a living, breathing testament to human past. It had a story it told. And so, I would make my face known to Dr. Shiels, occasionally providing him an update on the class project. Eventually, the class finished the project, and I e-mailed a copy of the polished fifty-six page essay to Dr. Shiels. I hoped that if he was finally granted access to study the moonrise at the mound, he would extend an invitation for me to join. Class ended, a few weeks passed, and there it was: an e-mail invitation to attend an exclusive viewing of the moonrise. The Mound Builders Country Club had finally agreed to allow Dr. Shiels to take a small party out on the golf course for the next lunar shift.
The night of the event finally arrived. I hopped into my little Ford Aspire. The streetlights washed over as I made my way down West Main Street to the mound. I gripped the steering wheel. I smiled. I cranked up some music. Wolfshiem’s “Once in a Lifetime,” if I remember. I felt a static charge in the air. The trees, the brick buildings, the lampposts seemed brighter. Everything I looked at seemed to emanate light. The discussions, the research, and the hard work employed to understand the mound’s place in the city culminated in this one event. Here was my chance to experience the mystery that the Octagon Mound held.
As I reached the parking lot and parked my car, I saw the small group of people gathered by some leafy trees that lined the edge of the golf course. I got out of my vehicle and walked over to the group. There was Dr. Shiels and his wife, some other researchers and scientists, a local representative of the county, and a few other individuals. Dr. Shiels was talking with the local representative. He saw me walk up to the group. He nodded his head to me and continued his conversation. I stood, waiting with the group, until it was time. Dr. Shiels waved his hand and led us out to the mound. We walked over the six-foot, grassy, sloping wall and into the structure. We walked to the darkened center of the octagon, positioning ourselves to view the alignment. I stood alone, about ten feet away from the group. There we waited.
I overheard Dr. Shiels mention to the local representative that the moonrise was to occur at 9:20. I read 9:12 on my cell phone. My palms were sweaty. Here it was. The moment had arrived. I was going to view this amazing achievement of ancient man, which had probably not been seen in over a thousand years. I took a breath. I stared at my cell phone as the minutes ticked by. 9:16. 9:17. 18. 19. And I looked up to the purplish sky. Here was the moment. All the hype had led to here. I heard someone whisper, “It’s 9:20. It’s time.” I crossed my arms and stared. Then someone whispered it was 9:21, then they said it was 9:22. A few more minutes passed. Well, it was nature. It didn’t run on a Rolex. I looked at the group and noticed that people had stopped looking up. Dr. Shiels once again returned to his conversation with the local representative. Occasionally his head would look back at the sky, and then turn back to the representative.
My neck grew tired, but I continued to stare up into the void. “9:46” I heard, and everyone resumed looking up at the sky. “9:47.” Was it ever going to come? “9:48.” Then it happened.
The few remaining clouds parted. The purple haze from the light pollution cracked open. A little white ball formed in the sky. It was blurry. An out-of-focus screen. It jittered. Then it bounced around as though caught between two paddles in a game of Pong. It stopped moving. It bled to a bright orange. Then it unraveled like a circular flame. The moon blossomed like a flower, and filled the sky.
I had never seen the moon rise before, for it was always just there. That is how I saw it. It was just a presence that existed in the sky, once the night took control from the day. But in this moment I saw more. I felt more. I could sense the Hopewell watching with me, feeling the same sense of wonderment. Not in a mystical sense, but in a real sense of physical space. When Keats stared at the urn, did he sense the ancient Greek artists with him? I bet he did. He was in that moment with them. That was what he meant when he said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,/ that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats 49-50).
All is true and beautiful within the experience of this moment. Just as Keats found those moments in ancient pottery, I experienced something special that people over two thousand years ago had waited to reveal.
I looked to the center of the mound. The local representative spoke, “Would you look at that. It lines up perfectly.” I looked back up at the sky. I smiled. I stood there for . . . I don’t know how long, and I stared. People returned to their conversations. They turned restless. How long could they stare at the sky?
The moon did as expected. It appeared. It must have been a great payoff for these researchers and scholars to have validation for their research. It seemed to be a small payoff as well for the other voices involved; perhaps showing they weren’t as elitist as I had thought. And for Dr. Weiser’s class? They had to feel proud as well. For me, however, it was a moment in time where I experienced the moon for the first time. Just as I am sure Keats wouldn’t care if anyone believed there was a real urn or not, I didn’t care anymore about the arguments, the research, the discussions on who was right or wrong. I just treasured this amazing gift given by ancient scientists and artists from beyond the span of my time. It truly was beautiful.William Brown is an alumnus who currently teaches English at Columbus State Community College.