Wild city: Treasures

I read in the newspaper recently that an Austrian man came across a trove of jewels when digging in his back yard. The article presented the “sensational” find as though it had just happened, but I have since learned that the man actually came across this buried treasure back in 2007.

He stuck away in his basement the approximately 200 dirt-encrusted rings, brooches, belt buckles, and fragments — items made of precious metal and adorned with gems, pearls, and fossilized coral.

Two years ago, sorting through his things when selling his house, he took another look. It isn’t clear when he alerted the authorities.

The attention of the officials and the press is, understandably, on the loot. According to the estimates, the treasures are 650 years old and worth a pretty penny.  

My attention went elsewhere: Why would a person who found buried treasure leave it sitting in his basement for years? Had he forgotten about it? Was he procrastinating? Had he underestimated the value of his find? Did he dread the paperwork? Was the question of ownership troubling? Did he fear it would change his life?

When he did come forward he asked for anonymity, but was identified as “Andreas K. of Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna” in several articles, so at least one of his fears may have been partially realized.

I know the satisfactions of digging. It is just one aspect of gardening that I enjoy. Growing up in Cloquet, I spent many happy hours in our backyard sandbox, which, as I recall, was made up of four boards nailed together in a square. It didn’t have a bottom. We dug through the sand and down into the dirt below, believing that if we dug deeply enough we would get to China.

I am not sure where we got this peculiar belief. It created a strange perception of geography. We used the term “Chinamen” for the Chinese. I pictured a caricature of an Asian person, a little man with a black ponytail rising straight up from the top of his head. When I dug through to the bottom of the globe I expected to find Chinese people standing there, feet on the earth, but upside down, with heads toward the sky.

There were plenty of racist and ignorant ideas floating around Cloquet in the 1950s and 1960s, as there apparently had been earlier. In “We Made It Through the Winter,” a memoir about growing up in Cloquet at the turn of the 20th century, Walter O’Meara writes that there was only one Chinese person in town back in the early 1900s, a laundryman named Sue Shong.

He was different from the other townspeople: he had a long braid, wore his shirts outside his pants, and ate his rice with chopsticks. Shong wrote on his customer’s clothing using Chinese characters. It was rumored that some of these were criticisms.

O’Meara writes: “It never occurred to us how lonely Sue Shong must be, but on October 20, 1906, the Pine Knot printed a short notice that he had killed himself in his laundry.”

I haven’t discovered precious jewels when digging in my present backyard, but I have found some interesting objects that I have saved. The prettiest are the marbles, which must have belonged to a child who lived in our house years ago. Perhaps these felt precious, like jewels, to the young one who owned them.

I have also found nails, a half-squashed metal canning lid, and my favorite thing, a small plastic statue. I grew up Catholic, but didn’t go to Catholic school, and wasn’t fully indoctrinated in the lore of the saints. It took a little research to learn that the statue was St. Joseph, whom I found buried upside down in a flowerbed next to the house.

The earthly father of Jesus and a carpenter himself, St. Joseph is the patron saint of married couples, families and carpenters. Somewhere along the way this saint of home life became associated with home sales. Specifically, it is believed that burying his statue according to certain specifications will speed up the sale.

My husband bought our house before I came on the scene. He was going through a divorce. An only child who had never spent much time with small children before becoming a father, he was scrambling to learn how to take care of a 2 year old on his own.

He and our daughter chose the house together. I like very much the idea that they picked a place with a statue of a tender father buried out front, a man associated with good home energy. My husband might, too, have felt a little upside down at the time, but he soon righted himself.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.