Tag Archives: ghosts

St. Louis bits and pieces

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Monday morning, after a stop at REI (the Minneapolis REI had been full of depressive unhelpful staff, but the folks at the St. Louis REI were great: they taught us a new knot and some handy tarp tips so that we can avoid hammock baths in the future) we headed back to North Riverfront Park to put in for a quick paddle down to the arch. Two fisherman showed up to marvel (“like Tom Sawyer,” Kermit said) and generously helped us get the kayak through the mud and into the river. I have now gotten in and out of the river more times at North Riverfront Park than any other launch on this river, and I have to say it is by far the worst-maintained I have used on the entire trip. I have never been to this park when there weren’t many people here, fishing, hanging out, whatever, and I find it completely obscene that a major city can’t manage to pave the road to be driveable, keep the boat launch functional (it’s technically closed because no-one but canoes or kayaks could actually manage to put in here), and supply minimal services like portapotties, etc. to the people who use this park. Does the city really feel that poor people don’t need even minimal maintenance on the parks in their neighborhoods — only the rich need fresh air, fishing and boat access, and views of the river?!? It’s really outrageous. Someone could organize a Habitat- or CCC-like park construction project here and do a great service both for and with the people of this neighborhood.

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Paddling down to the arch was fun! Instead of four mph, I’m averaging about six, so everything’s just a bit snappier, and you definitely want to plan in advance for where you’re getting out so you don’t overshoot the ramp. I got out right at the base of the arch, right past the Eads Bridge — two engineering marvels of two different centuries are cheek by jowl — and a little boy was putting two turtles (given by a pet shop that can’t sell them anymore) into the river. We had a fine conversation about boats and turtles and rivers, definitely subjects of shared interest between us.

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On Tuesday morning, Mary and I got up really early in order to be at Cahokia for the dawn. The cloudy day made the dawn pretty diffuse, so I didn’t experience the solar/astrological significance very viscerally, but it was really wonderful to wander around the mounds listening to the ghosts of the city of 20,000 that flourished here around the first millennium. The structure of the main mound was strangely reminiscent of the Asclepeion of Kos I visited with Despina not long ago, a series of squared-off mounds which create a sense of drama as you climb up to each successive terrace.

The interpretive center at Cahokia is very well-done, and full of school kids on field trips (overheard: “Okay, we’re done with the list of questions, now we can really look around”), which was quite a contrast to the park we had had to ourselves for hours, so we headed back to the arch, where I had planned to get on the bike and head downriver. But when we got there, we discovered that you can actually go up in the arch, something Mary and I had somehow never understood, so we rode these odd and fun 60s-era pods to the top of the arch and down, and we watched the giant-screen movie about Louis and Clark, and explored the really beautifully-done museum (whoever curated the quotations and the historical context: bravo! I expect great pictures and visuals, but I could hardly stop myself from reading every printed word in the whole place…)

By then it was clear I wasn’t going to do a bike ride, so we headed back to my cousins in Clayton, stopping at the wacked out Cathedral of St. Louis, which really is as gaudy a church as I’ve ever seen in America, and I was particularly happy to see Ezekiel in the dome overwhelmed by the heavy hand of God, and the fishes and pelicans in the narthex. In front, there’s a sign designating this cathedral as a Minor Basilica: I thought a cathedral was a cathedral, but apparently there’s a hierarchy there, too; and if you come on particular days, you get a plenary indulgence just for walking in the door. I don’t really know what a plenary indulgence is, exactly, but I think I want one!

hidden cultures

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There’s a really great bike path from Savanna all the way down to Rock Island called the Great River Trail, so I decided to do a biking day today to take advantage of it. The last time I biked I was beginning to curse my heavy hybrid and wish I had a road bike, but for today, the hybrid was the perfect choice. A few miles down there’s a gravel trail that loops out into the sloughs and wetlands for a few miles, allowing me to really feel like I was biking right on the river itself. Later the trail goes through a sand prairie for a while, and then up onto a levee for several miles, very cool. Eventually I got to Albany Mounds, which was a center of Hopewellian culture that flourished here from 200 BC to 300 AD, with extensive trade networks that spanned most of North America. I biked around the park on grass trails, completely alone, surrounded by tall grass, mounds, mosquitos, and ghosts. I knew nothing at all about this culture before I began this trip, my friend Lauren Gould emailed me something about it and that was the extent of my awareness, and now I’m finding all these amazing sites tucked away where I would never have found them except by traveling this way.

Anyway, I really got carried away with this bike day, ended up logging something like 60 miles, and towards the end I was passed by two obviously experienced bikers on a tandem. When I arrived at the Port Byron library, Lori had already met Bruce and Becky, and they generously invited us to stay at their house in Port Byron. The two of them have biked all over the lower 48 and Canada and Alaska, how cool is that!?! They are definitely kindred spirits, and it seemed like they totally get this journey of mine. It’s funny, in nearly two months of traveling and meeting people, I have yet to meet anyone who even watches TV, let alone supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doesn’t want to reform health care in this country. I’m out here in the heartland of America, but I am fully aware that I’m not in fact meeting an authentic cross-section of Americans. Is that because I’m biking and kayaking, so generally meeting people who exercise, which skews against TV watchers? Is it because I’m so obviously a scary artsy-dykey type that only NPR-listening newspaper-reading locavores will even talk to me?! Or is the country so divided that Red Staters and Blue Staters are simply invisible to one another, living parallel but completely separate lives in the same places? I really wonder about this.

turtle crossing

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Wabasha just gets better and better! I walked into the bookstore around noon and met Nancy, the proprietor, who greeted me like a friend and told me she had noticed me at the riverfront park yesterday afternoon and thought I had been dancing. (I was just talking on the phone with my friend Cori, but that’s a fine reason to dance, why not!) Nancy grew up in Cass Lake, and like Guy, the excellent man who sold me the now-slightly-famous 17 foot kayak, has a degree in anthropology. Guy, too, spent some time in Cass Lake, so I’m beginning to feel that Cass Lake anthropologists are one of the ongoing threads of this trip. Nancy’s father was an Episcopal priest, and her mother still lives there, and Nancy has paddled many segments of the river, and went to summer camp on that stretch of land between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake, and we agreed that there are definitely ghosts there, both good and bad.

Nancy told me her father spoke Ojibwe but he didn’t teach her the language; and of course, I have the same relation to the Armenian language, I don’t even know 300 words and the present tense in Armenian despite the fact that it was my father’s native tongue. And I am thinking that the scars of exile can be subtle as well as obvious, and perhaps the former is more dangerously destructive: something you know you’ve lost can be mourned, memorialized, and perhaps even constructed anew, but something you don’t even know you’ve lost is obliterated forever.

Anyway. I asked Nancy where we should go to church Sunday, and she recommended the Episcopal Church because it has an especially excellent Tiffany window. And she invited us to come to rehearsal of the gospel choir she sings in on Sunday evenings. And then she told us that the turtles were being born and gave me very precise instructions about where to find them crossing the road. And by this time it was clear I was not going to paddle on Sunday, that we would take the day off to follow up on all these treasures.

(And check it out fellow Interlochen campers: the music that accompanied this whole conversation was Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony “the Romantic.” OMG! I don’t think I’ve heard that piece in twenty-five years, thirty-five even? but I bet anyone who went to that camp, no matter how many years ago, can sing every note of every voice of that theme. okay, laugh, if you like, corny, yes, but it really is pretty fabulous.)

So after I picked up Mac from his kayaking day, we all headed out to the turtle road. Nancy had said they are really small at this phase, no bigger than a 50 cent piece, so we walked down the road a while, and I actually found one! And then Mac found a bigger one, a Painted Turtle maybe?, and the walk itself, on this back road in the late afternoon light that is really special and gorgeous in Minnesota, was a really excellent end to an altogether wonderful day.

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Okay, can I just say I am particularly loving Minnesota today?! Mac and I headed out this morning to Fletcher Creek landing and stopped on the way at Little Elk River, which the sign says had been inhabited by native people since at least 400 BC. The westernmost outpost of the French fur trade was located there in the 1750’s, and more recently, Chief Hole-in-the-Day (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig) lived there, and a mission and townsite were there as well. It’s prairie now, and Mac and I had a bit of a walk as the fog dissipated. A beautiful spot, full of ghosts.

After Mac headed off in the kayak, I drove over to Belle Prairie County Park, where I am sitting completely alone in a pine grove that the DNR map tells me is tended by the Franciscan sisters who have a convent nearby. I waved at Mac as he passed in the kayak — the pine grove overlooks the river. And if all this weren’t enough, there is a power outlet in the shelter, so I am charging up my computer as I write. Gotta love it!

I think I’m going to have to learn some Ojibwe. I finished reading Michael McNally’s book last night, and the few little threads of Ojibwe language that he explains in the book make me understand that there is huge richness in this language I would like to know more about.

For example, the verb nagamo means both to sing and to pray; ”song and prayer being linguistically inseparable.“ [p. 119] The word gashkendam ”combines in one semantic field associations with lonesomeness, grief, affliction, dejection, homesickness, and melancholy.“ [p. 119] And ”Larry Cloud Morgan closely associated the drum (dewe-igan) with the heart (de-) and with truth (debwe-) and with sound (wewe-), a morpheme that itself connotes particular kinds of wavelike or circular, returning motion.“ [p. 187]

Mac and I have also been dipping into Henry Schoolcraft’s journal most evenings: he’s this totally entertaining combination of adventurer and nerd, and you can’t help but be tickled by him. Here are a few excerpts relating to language specifically:

from late 1822:

In going out to dinner at 3 o’clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.

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Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.

1823

5th [Jan] Gitche ie nay gow ge ait che gah, “they have put the sand over him” is a common expression among the Indians to indicate that a man is dead and buried. Another mode, delicate and refined in its character, is to suffix the inflection for perfect past tense, bun, to a man’s name. Thus Washington e bun would indicate that Washington is no more.

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The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug.

I am hereby proposing that the early 20th century expression ”heebie-jeebies” is a rhyming expansion of the Ojibwe word for ghost. Richard, you’re the linguist, what do you say?!?!

remembering Big Sandy Lake

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Big Sandy Lake is the site of one of the unforgivable events in US-Native American relations. The DNR map chooses to ignore the event altogether, which really disturbs me. In 1850, the US government decided it wanted the Ojibwe bands that were spread over the upper Midwest east of the river all to move up here to Big Sandy Lake. So they told them all to gather there in order to receive money and food from the government. In good faith, about 4000 people gathered in late October, the government’s deadline, and waited. No money was forthcoming, and the food the US gave the Ojibwe was spoiled and killed about 150 people from dysentery. In early December, the Ojibwe finally decided to give up waiting, and on the trip home another 250 died from exposure and starvation.

Somehow this story embodies for me all the greed and bad faith and yes, pure evil, that our government has manifested in relation to the Native peoples. I mean, come on, you want to trick these people into relocating, fucked up in the first place. And then you give them spoiled food and renege on the promised funds? The people in charge cannot even pretend to justify themselves: it’s genocide, pure and simple.

And I was terrified that I would show up at Big Sandy Lake Recreation Area, which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and be confronted with a nice campsite full of RVs and overweight vacationers, and this appalling history would be conveniently invisible. And in fact, the campsite is exactly as I’ve described it. As I sit here looking out at the Lake, a powerboat full of folks is going by blasting 80’s classic rock, but there is also a memorial set up by the Ojibwe right in the middle of the campground, and at the overlook up on the road, there is another marker placed by the Minnesota Historical Society. I burst into tears at the overlook: the marker starts with a quote from an Ojibwe leader, Flat Mouth, saying “I hold the US government responsible for the children we have lost.”

I don’t know why this particular atrocity gets to me so badly. (After all, there is no shortage of terrible stories about the US government’s dealings with the Native peoples, including the government of our very favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.) Perhaps it’s because there are echoes of the Turks’ forced displacement of the Armenians from their ancestral lands in what is now eastern Turkey, another mostly ignored genocide, which is excused in sort of similar ways. The Native peoples (and the Armenians) were simply in the way, they needed to be moved so the new state could take root, we didn’t really mean to kill them off, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of nation-building.

And I end up getting very very interested in people like Henry Schoolcraft, and Archdeacon Gilfillan, [8/22/09: or maybe not Gilfillan; as Richard is reading further, he’s not such a sympathetic character] the white men who repeatedly argued for the rights of Native Americans at a time when everyone else seemed just as happy to kill them off or push them far enough away that they couldn’t make trouble. The analogous people in the Armenian genocide are Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and the American doctor Clarence Douglas Ussher, who wrote impassioned letters and articles documenting the genocide as it was unfolding, but sadly not successfully enough either to prevent a million deaths or to force an acknowledgment of what happened.

So what is the point of all this, really? The point, I think, is that we should remember the dead of Big Sandy Lake and Lake Van the way we remember the dead of Dachau and Auschwitz. We should remember Schoolcraft and Morganthau the way we remember Schindler and Bonhöffer. Attention must be paid. It must.

the earth remains forever

While I was paddling from Bemidji to Cass Lake today, Richard spent some time in the library in Bemidji and found some microfilms of early nineteenth century local newspapers – a fascinating trove recording the lives and voices of lumberjacks, shopkeepers, etc. who were part of a temporarily flourishing economy in the area not unlike the gold rush farther west. It was a timber rush, and after the trees were downed and floated down the river, towns that had sprung up overnight to support the lumber trade disappeared nearly as quickly.

The first night of our travels, we stayed at Wanagan’s Landing, wanagan being not the name of a person, but of a traveling kitchen boat that moored along the river to feed the loggers. we learned this from Keith Butler, who lives just up the road from the campsite, and who came down to visit and tell us stories. He also told us about a ghost town called Mallard, a couple of miles away.

Here’s a picture of the town at its height (from an information board posted at the site):
Mallard Then
and here’s a picture I took of the same location on 2 August 09, after going to the church I told you about the other day:
Mallard Now

Makes me think of Ecclesiastes more than Jonah:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. [1:4]

It’s an interesting thing: we read each night about Schoolcraft, Tolliver, and Sibley, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day and Little Crow, but as I paddle along this river during the day, no matter how well I keep in mind the layers of human history this river has witnessed, there is very little in the way of actual markers or voices to embody that history. The Mississippi River is not the Parthenon or Stonehenge or Macchu Picchu. Quite the contrary: it obliterates human history, or is at least indifferent to it. The bones that the Ojibwe buried on the ithsmus between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake where I pulled out this afternoon have been washed into the river. And no traces of the mission the Episcopalians built there remain, either.

The birds remain, the reeds, and the new trees that have grown to replace the ones cut down in early nineteenth century. And the river itself: that definitely remains.

In a way, it’s all very melancholy to think about, but I find it oddly comforting. Walmart and the Super 8 and Applebee’s will also disappear sooner or later, and probably no one will lament their loss.