I will give a false name that is very true: I am Sam Bakki.
I’m a collector, a mound-maker. Perhaps an installation artist, if you allow the pretension.
What’s left of whatever I use goes into my heap. My autobiographical shell-mound on the shore, near my trailer.
It has to be on the shore, just like the original sambaquis: Sambaqui (n), from the Tupi Tamba (shells) and ki (piled, heaped)– prehistoric kitchen middens found on the coast of Brazil.
So what were the sambaquis? Basically, they were part trash heap, part museum, part cemetery, part monument, part watchtower, part ritual ground. Some of them took over a thousand years to deposit, stood up to 150 feet tall, occupied as much as 400m2. Most are two thousand years old, but some go back as far as seven thousand years. Egyptians built pyramids. Coastal Brazilians built sambaquis.
As the name suggests, they were mounds of shells—mollusks, mostly—, but there were also the bones of anything else they ate, from sharks to birds and otters. Tools and artifacts were added too—pots, axes, figurines—, as were the bodies of relevant dead. Ritually laid out, with gifts. Meal by meal, offering by offering, burial after burial, the mound grew.
How they chose where to deposit their mounds is anyone’s guess, but someone saw that flat sandy ground and said “Here! Here we shall raise our sambaqui!” A shell-mound, like a culture, like a history, starts small and grows. The first shells in the mound don’t look like a mound. But you must see the mound in the shell. That’s the trick of human imagination, after all, seeing the painting in the first brush stroke, the book in the first line. That’s how cultures happen. They are the futures that shape the present. Just as histories—time’s own sambaquis—are the pasts that shape it too. The hands of history and culture stretch in different directions, but meet in the middle, in the now, that’s where they dabble. So the shell-mound was more than the sum of the parts, it was culture and it was history: “This is what we’ve done and what we are and what we want—watch us grow!” The Greeks built temples. The Brazilians built sambaquis.
Today, our mounds don’t stand proud like they once did, but are buried underground. You must follow the vultures, the itinerant children, the stench to find them, and all you see is landfill. The mound-makers were proud of their consumption—look what we managed to harvest and hunt from the sea! But not us. We’re ashamed. Take it all out in black sacks, bury it somewhere, deep, far away. I’ve seen mini-mounds that last only briefly: ribs on a plate, chicken wings, cigarette butts, beer cans, but soon it’s binned and taken away. Mound? What mound? No mound here. If you don’t send your garbage to the tip, you’re a hoarder, you’re a pig.
So call me Sam Bakki, and behold my shell-mound. It’s a tad different, I’ll admit. There are obstacles to creating a sambaqui today. First, it’s individual, not collective. That’s a real drawback, obviously. Another problem is that most food these days is deboned, so it’s hard to build up a mound of bones, and I’m allergic to shellfish, so the clam shells are out. So what I’ve decided to do is opt for symbolic substitution instead. I use the packaging: plastics, cardboard, aluminum, paper, wood, whatever. It all goes into the mound. Now, consumption is a word that casts a fairly wide net, so my sambaqui includes old tools and tech—TVs a foot thick to under an inch thick; cellphones big as bricks and small as candy bars, old clothing (80s on), a written-off Corrado and a couple of banjaxed bikes. There’s furniture in there too, and scrap from engines. A broken toilet, a swapped-out ACU. When it comes to music, I throw in the sleeve or case and keep the contents. Same with books. I tear off the covers and on they go. I’ve got reams of print material in there. Of all kinds: glossy, hardback, bargain-basement, ad material, text books, instruction booklets, copies of every résumé, contract, summons, fine, Dear John letter, bank statement I ever received. Every toothbrush since the age of 18. Ear buds. trainers, deodorant bottles. Pillboxes. Used condoms. A removed plaster cast from the time I fell off the roof. It’s all in there. School reports. Wedding invitations. Concert tickets. Of course, now that everything’s online, the amount of material thingery has declined. That’s a problem for the Sambaqui curator. At least food’s not virtual yet, so until they invent those pills that explode into a salty-bittersweet-astringent-pungent-umami fireworks display on the tongue, I’ll have plenty of packaging to keep me going. But that worries me, it’s a worrying development, the virtualization of sambaqui-worthy deposits.
Of course, I want to be buried in my sambaqui (The dogs—Coal and Mustard—are already there). I figure it’ll be over 80 feet high by then, so I’ll have to rig some way they can get me into it. I’ll need to mine out a tunnel and improvise an air stair. It won’t be hard.
Sometimes I sit in the beach grass outside my trailer and watch my mound grow dark against the setting sun, and I feel the sea wind blowing up its sides and over its crest, sending tins and cartons tumbling down the other side, and I think, ‘It’s so beautiful, so intimate, the wind rustling my dune, the dune of me, as the sun goes down on another day’. I am my mound and my mound is me. Someday it will become just another hillock, another sand-reed knoll. And finally the sea will take it, take me, and the fish and crabs and eels will hide in my crevices. And on and on it’ll go, into deep time, compressing into strange minerals.