I’ve been a book person my whole life but I never was much of a margin scribbler. Sure, I had used highlighters as a kid and underlined things here and there but I was more of a visual recollector. I could sort of see in my mind where on the page things were that I wanted to remember which felt more relevant as a method than double underlining. Perhaps it was sloth though.
I know that there are particular note taking techniques for books but I never really learned one that worked for me. But also there was something about the integrity of the book itself that somehow mattered to me. I didn’t want to mark them up.
But recently I’ve been reading a lot of the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who I hold in very high esteem, and found out that he was a serial marker of books with his notations and thoughts. Prodigiously so. Always with a pencil. His grandson showed me books of his that he still has that are grey in the profile from all the pencil marks.
So I’ve taken to try to mark up books more and see what I can learn by the practice and, like Marshall McLuhan, I use pencil to do it. I don’t use pencils a lot but I did find an old Dixon Ticonderoga #2 that I used briefly until the tip broke and I didn’t have a pencil sharpener. Then I found a mechanical pencil in a drawer that I had forgotten alongside a container of pencil leads. Long, thin, and gray pencil hearts. But as I was holding this pencil and these delicate leads I wondered a bit about the history of pencils.
The Nipmuc people who lived close to the Massachuset, Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Mohegan people had a place dear to them — Tantiusques: the place where blackness gathers between two hills. There never was a Nipmuc tribe as such. Nipmuc is a geographical classification given to the native peoples who lived in central Massachusetts and the adjoining parts of southern New England. They lived in independent bands and villages, some of which at different times were allied with, or subject to, the powerful native confederacies which surrounded them. Massomuck, Monashackotoog, and Quinnebaug were Nipmuc. Each known by their place.
That little spot near what we call Sturbridge, Massachusetts has, close to the surface, an ancient break in the skin of the earth where the most stable form of carbon has collected— graphite.
Graphite is a funny name because it’s first use in this part of the world, as far as we can tell, was for the ceremonial painting of skin, of tools, of ceramic. Not for writing as the ‘graph’ in graphite might suggest. Names can be a powerful thing.
The spot was “purchased” from the indigenous people there in 1644 by John Winthrop the Younger, son of the first leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and began a commercial graphite (and other metals) mining operation. Eventually the mine came into the hands of Frederick Tudor, a wealthy Boston merchant. Tudor died in 1864. The mine then came into the hands of John Dixon- one of the employees of Tudor. Dixon started a new company that would eventually become Dixon Ticonderoga, the maker of the iconic pencil.
When Henry David Thoreau set out for a life of semi-isolated self-sufficiency by Walden Pond, he made an account of all the necessities he bought for his time there: food, clothing, farming needs, and even the materials he used to build his own house. But something has been strangely omitted: a writing utensil, which he must have had in order to write the memoir later published as Walden. In fact, despite all the mentions in Walden of his reading and writing, Thoreau never mentions using a pencil — quite odd, considering that before Henry David Thoreau was a famous writer, philosopher, and key player in the Transcendentalist movement, he was actually a brilliant pencil maker who revolutionized the way pencils were manufactured in the United States. He probably relied on some of the wealth he generated for his family business to make his Walden venture possible.
Before Thoreau, American pencils were fragile and smudgy and not nearly as good as British pencils. Independent of the European discovery of mixing clay with graphite Thoreau, inspired by a different process, using a different mix of graphite and clay made a superior pencil lead. His inspiration? The lining for coating crucibles.
When John Dixon took over the mine the name of his company was the ‘John Dixon Crucible Company.’
This is the container that can stand the tribulation of the fire without the bottom falling out. The Nipmuc crucible held up to allow the lead to turn the greasy and sticky stones into ceremonial markings. The John Dixon Crucible company used the same material to make pots that could hold molten iron, steel, and other metals.
The word ‘crucible’ comes from Old Middle High German ‘kruse’ meaning an earthen pot.
The earth herself might be the crucible that can hold the many fed fires of our days. And they cook us surely. Can a trust in a place be so cultivated that you could know that the bottom won’t fall out while we sit in the pelvis of this grand earthen bowl? Could such a thing happen now? Where you are? It is not easy to imagine. But such a thing has happened. Regardless, the source of this strength, if it to be found, is deeply not human.
Might it be, though, that with every scribbled love note, every hastily jotted down shopping list, every bubble filled in on multiple choice forms, and every scrawled strike you mark at your AMF/Brunswick bowling alley is a sign of such a trust being remembered in your hand and by it.
That by holding that graphite you are holding an ancient sign of devotional beauty-making in the world. By sketching or writing the beauty making is bound up in the very shadowed marks left on the substratum.
Your name at the top of your paper at school. Your doodles. All of them are a reminder that the bottom hasn’t dropped out yet.
Primal Derma and our tallow might, might, might, serve as a similar reminder. This fat, those cows, that patch of earth. Still being tended to.