Tag Archives: history

from the trenches

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Mary started paddling today from Fort Defiance so that she could have her own experience of the confluence, and had planned to do thirty miles, but the headwind was very strong, and it took her five hours to make it to Columbus, only fifteen miles downriver. I had gone down on the Missouri side to wait for her, and I was really relieved when she texted me: it’s the first time in all these months of traveling that I was really worried about the whereabouts and safety of my traveling partner. Rather than driving back up to the bridge at Cairo and down the Kentucky side, Google very kindly told me to take the ferry at Hickman, and routed me north to Columbus over really beautiful back roads.

After I gratefully retrieved Mary, we decided to stop into the diner in town for lunch/dinner and were reading the chapter about Columbus in Life on the Mississippi when Jim Kerr came in to check out the folks with Vermont plates and the red kayak on the roof. What a delight this man is: the last of a family who settled here in the 1810s, he is a self-described radical who spearheaded a successful effort to keep a giant garbage dump from being located here, has worked towboats and dredges on the river, hauled racehorses on land, worked in real-estate and insurance, and has a soybean farm in the bottomlands. He drove us over to a beautiful crumbling house with an incredible view of the river that he rightly thinks would make an excellent artist’s colony; and then showed us to the state park, which has an equally gorgeous view. It also has trenches that were built by confederate soldiers during the war; our hammocks are hung from trees that line the trenches. I imagine I will dream tonight of honorable boys dying valiantly for the wrong side.

flow in flux

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Leaving St. Louis was sort of hard: spending time with Amy and Frank and Emma and Spencer is fun under any circumstances, and my excellent uncle Joe arrived Tuesday night, adding to the pleasure, but hanging out here is especially comforting when I feel a bit like I’m about to launch into the unknown. I’ve spent very little time in the south before now, (Los Angeles doesn’t count!) and St. Louis is the last place along the river where I have family or close friends, where I know I can land for a while if need be. And it’s rainy and gray and unseasonably cold out, so it really took some self-discipline to get in the car and drive down to Cliff Cave Park, where Mike told us we could put in to avoid the crazy-busy port of St. Louis.

We got to the park, which is the antithesis of North Riverfront Park — all manicured, with a gorgeous shelter and bathrooms and everything, but of course it’s in a wealthier area — but there’s no official boat launch, so Mary helped me get the kayak down to the water, and I put in and paddled off, uncertain until the very last minute if I had enough juice to do it.

And of course, once I was paddling I was no longer cold or uncertain. For one thing, it’s really fun to be able to do thirty or more miles in the time and effort that twenty took before. The current is really moving, there isn’t much traffic other than towboats pushing barges, and they are the best drivers on the river, and most of the logs and stuff are already downriver ahead of us because we’re behind the hump of the highest water. The trees are turning, so in the midst of all the gray-brown water and gray-white clouds, the reds and yellows and greens of the trees on the bluffs look positively gaudy. And now and again huge flocks of birds will fly over, dancing against the clouds, turning in the wind, and I just stop paddling and watch them go. Yesterday the clouds were really low and the wind was pushing them at about the same speed and direction I was traveling in the water. Only the land was still, everything else visible was moving together in concert down towards the delta.

We have camped out every night, and it’s been pretty cold, but there have been an excellent succession of campsites: Magnolia Hollow was a tiny hunter’s hideout way up a back road, three fire pits and a few picnic tables; at Kaskaskia State Park we hung our hammocks in a stand of pines away from the official campsite; and at Trail of Tears State Park, we had the tent camping area all to ourselves. It’s beautiful country, rolling hills and farms, and fewer towns than anywhere I’ve been on this trip except maybe at the very beginning.

The Trail of Tears is well-documented in the visitor center at the park, and also commemorated in highway signs in this whole area, as are the paths of Lewis and Clark and Marquette and Joliet. When I then add the multiple layers of Mark Twain (Huck Finn and Life on the Mississippi), it feels like I am traveling with hundreds or thousands of people, and the virtually unpeopled landscape that is actually before me is really surprising. There are places on the river where I can see five or six miles up and down and not only not see anyone, but also not see evidence that people currently inhabit this place, even though I know that this part of the river has been settled by Europeans for centuries now, and by Native people for millennia.

But then I remember that this part of the river keeps changing its mind, moving course so as to orphan towns away from the river or flood them into oblivion. Islands appear and disappear, attach to one shore or another. Nothing here is permanent, everything is in constant flux. The maps Nick gave me are out of date here, 1991 is too long ago to accurately document the river of 2009. It’s a strange sensation to look at this imposing, serious river and think that it will be likely flowing some yet new way in another twenty years.

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!

confluence

Today was one of the best days of my life.

I got up and went to First Presbyterian Church in Alton with Wita, which maybe was backsliding in a way, since I’ve been aiming to go to churches that are theologically and liturgically less familiar and comfortable to me as the journey continues, but I was really glad I went: the people there were so very welcoming and kind, and the sermon (on that tricky passage about the rich camel going through the eye of the needle and all that) was really excellent. A guy who quotes Hank Williams as a spiritual advisor is a guy I am happy to listen to.

After church, we headed out to brunch with Dale and Linda Chapman, the President and Dean for Academic Affairs, respectively, of Lewis & Clark Community College, an institution that gives me a whole new understanding of the phrase “community college.” What a team those two are! They are building a River Research Center just down from the Alton Dam that is going to be an incredible place for research on all aspects of the river, and after brunch they took us for a tour of the nearly finished structure, which is completely self-powered (hydro and wind), built of limestone layers (really beautiful) with a green roof, and full of labs that will allow scientists to study the river on a scale and intimacy that has never been attempted before. And this is just the start: they are planning the second building as this first one nears completion, and we can all hope that this will be the Woods Hole for river research, an international center for understanding rivers. How cool is that?

But this was just the beginning of the day.

We said goodbye to Dale and Linda, and to dear Uncle Bob and Wita, and drove over the bridge to the boat launch just south of Alton Dam, where beloved Mike Clark, who I paddled with last week under the full moon, had within a matter of a couple of hours managed to get a canoe up to Alton and to wrangle Steve to be a shuttle driver so that Mike and Mary and I could go out on the river together.

Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.

I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.

We paddled on for a bit and then stopped at 4 pm for Mike’s river version of high tea on an island, and then Mike took us through the vaunted Chain of Rocks, which were safe riffles as opposed to the murderous rock course it would have been a week ago, and we paddled down to Mosenthein Island, where our campfire of a week ago is under 14 feet of water today, and we stopped to visit the cottonwood tree the beaver is almost done with, and I found an intact and beautiful turtle shell, and then we paddled hard across the channel to land at North Riverfront Park, where not only Steve but also Scott were waiting to take us back north to the car.

Mike has been telling me bits and pieces about Scott Mandrell and his re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a project he has been doing in segments for years now. Scott is an incredibly charismatic man: I could immediately regard him as the Captain after being in his presence for about thirty seconds.

It turns out Scott and Steve had returned this very day from the last phase of their re-enactment. They had been riding horses through the wilds of Tennessee yesterday, living out the 200th anniversary of the last day in the life of Meriwether Lewis. Scott is absolutely certain that Lewis did not commit suicide, and he has a totally thrilling theory about what actually happened in those woods 200 years ago, but I will not tell that here, leaving it for Scott to explain in his own time.

The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.

darkness visible

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After all the adventures of the past few days, despite the amazing generosity and warmth of everyone I met in Burlington and Fort Madison and the miraculous recovery of all my stuff, I really hit a wall Thursday night. I keep thinking about Gary, the protagonist of the Stephen King story, The Man in the Black Suit, a story I’ve been working on turning into an opera for several years now. (You can find the story in Everything’s Eventual : 14 Dark Tales.) Gary escapes a visit from the devil completely unscathed — he, too, finds that nothing terrible has in fact happened — but nothing is ever the same for him, and at the end of his life he is still waiting for the devil to return and destroy him. The Man in the Black Suit is a cautionary tale about a loss, not of life, limb, or property, but of faith, which is the most unrecoverable loss of all.

I drove down to Quincy Thursday night, past the reach of the newspaper stories and back into anonymity, but I was spooked enough that couldn’t bring myself to camp out alone, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find and spent the whole next day exploring Quincy, a wonderful town, full of great old houses (Maine Street is like Park Street in Brandon on steroids, one excellent house after another), visiting the crazy Moorish house right on the river that serves as the Visitor Center, and being given a long private tour of the house that belonged to the founder of the town, John Wood. I bought a book, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House, by a local woman whose kids found a secret room while playing hide and seek one day, had an excellent lunch of spanakopita and Greek salad at one of the two(!) Greek restaurants in Quincy, hung out at the bookstore run by gentle and friendly folks, and then headed down to Hannibal for another cheap motel night.

When I woke up Saturday I realized it made no sense to continue traveling on in this frame of mind, so I drove back up to Quincy to take a look at the Eells house, home of another leading citizen of Quincy who was active in the Underground Railroad, before driving down to St. Louis, where I joined up with an absolutely great guy named Mike Clark, who among many other things, organizes monthly Full Moon Floats where he takes a group of people out on the river for a night paddle and dinner. On the way to meeting up with Mike, I stopped at a gas station in a sketchy part of town, and during the two minutes I was in the bathroom someone tried to clip my bike off the top of the car, no joke! So I put my big NYC chain and lock around the bike and the roof rack, now both my kayak and my bike are pretty seriously locked down to the top of my car, and I’m hoping we’re done with this theft story for good.

Mike and Betsy and I set off in a canoe around 6:30. It was cool and overcast, seemed like a pretty unprepossessing night for a paddle, but I just needed to get out on the river in the company of people who get it. Wow, it was totally totally the right thing to do! We put in south of the confluence with the Missouri, so this Mississippi is a whole new story: no more is it a series of pools created by the network of locks and dams, it is a free-flowing river with more than twice the volume now that the Missouri has joined it. Just crossing over to the island (i.e. not the whole width of the river) was a real undertaking: you have to find an eddy and paddle upstream a good ways before heading across or you’ll end up downstream of the island you’re heading to. We landed on this island and headed to a spot which is under the river during high water but turns into a huge sandy beach with blue holes, pools up to 25 feet deep of river water that connect to the main channel deep underground. You can see some daylight pictures here.

We gathered some wood and lit a fire and finished cooking up some excellent jambalaya and opened some wine, and suddenly the clouds parted and there was the full moon rushing upwards, creating an open space in the clouds and shining through and illuminating the whole scene, including a coyote off by the tree line who imitates the bark of a domestic dog so well that you can only tell he’s a coyote by the telltale upward yip-howl he can’t entirely suppress. And the talk was wonderful: Mike has paddled the whole Mississippi a few times, and the whole Missouri, too — he is a real river rat on a level I can’t even aspire to attain, and to talk river on both the practical and the mystical level with these wonderful folks in this amazing secret place in the middle of St. Louis was healing and inspiring on so many levels. Wow.

I got to my cousins’ house at 2:30 am, totally fried and totally happy. Thank you, Mike and Betsy, with my whole heart!

sure to be saved?

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This morning I went to the Joy Baptist Church in Fort Madison. I think it’s the first time I’ve been to a Baptist church, and it’s a step towards visiting a form of Christianity that is pretty foreign to me. People were very warm and inviting, there was lots of enthusiastic singing of hymns that are definitely not in the Episcopal hymnal, and the pianist was really good (the song-leader guy said she used to be an opera singer in NYC, check it!) And the sermon was a discursive journey through Philippians by a pastor who evinced utter certainty about the efficacy of beating children (it was Family Day), along with the utter certainty that he is saved. Towards the end of the service, we were asked to raise our hands if we are sure we are saved, sure that we are going to heaven. I couldn’t raise my hand, (as I left, one man patted my shoulder and said “Keep coming back,” sort of like at a 12-step meeting) and it got me to thinking that probably according to these folks I am not really a Christian, not really a believer at all. I left the service thinking hard about what it might do to a person’s life if one were to live it in the utter certainty of salvation and forgiveness, sure of a beautiful upcoming afterlife. One might embrace his sinfulness and brokenness, as this pastor did in his sermon, but insist nonetheless that heaven certainly awaits him. He said at one point, “I am not interested in justice, I am interested in mercy.” Yes, I can follow that, I can, but I don’t like the self-satisfied certainty of this guy’s approach, which colors all his pronouncements, all his opinions. God’s mercy is very strange indeed, (as Graham Greene so beautifully articulates in Brighton Rock,) but I don’t think I would want to live in the certainty of mercy as opposed to justice. I think perhaps faith in justice and hope of mercy might lead to a more generous and honorable life, but what do I know?

A few other little things I am beginning to notice. The regional accent has begun to change. Maybe south of Davenport it began — certainly by Burlington you can begin to hear vowels that sound vaguely Southern to me. Also, the church activities are divided by gender (I began to notice this at the Presbyterian Church in Le Claire last week, actually) — the men are asked to do maintenance work on the church and the women (ladies, actually) to cook and serve lunch, for example. And it gets me thinking about how gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture, in most cultures of course, and how very lucky I feel to go to churches in both New York and Vermont where you aren’t required to have breasts to serve on the hospitality committee and don’t have to have a penis to preach.

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I had planned to do a second split day of paddling and biking after church (yesterday was my first day of implementing this wacky plan of putting the bike at the pullout point, paddling the kayak down to the bike, and biking back up to the car, and it was very cool to have this doubled experience of the river from both the water and the land), but when I got to the launch where I had left the kayak, I realized the wind was against me at about 13-15 mph, and would definitely make for too long a day on the river. So I decided to check out the restored Fort Madison, a very early 19th century settlement that was once the only stop between St. Louis and Prairie du Chien. The soldiers had burned the fort to the ground when they abandoned it in 1813, and it was reconstructed about twenty years ago by volunteers from the maximum security prison here in Fort Madison, led by a lifer named Walter Smith. I ended up having a long conversation with the historian who runs the place, (I didn’t get his name), who was dressed up in period clothing as the Lieutenant of the fort. The actual Captain had been a brutal man, so awful that the doctor assigned to the fort had complained to the authorities about his behavior. I got a detailed description of the various tortures the Captain regularly visited upon the fifty or so enlisted men under his authority. Do you suppose he also was sure he was saved?

Walter Smith, the prisoner who headed up the rebuilding effort, is in his seventies now, if he is still alive. Perhaps he is at the penitentiary still. I’d be interested to know how he thinks about his several years’ work heading the team that re-built the fort. Do you think he is sure he is saved?

just say no

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I put in this morning at the boat launch in Port Byron and paddled down to Bettendorf, passing under the I-80 bridge, which I have driven on more than a couple of cross-country trips without hardly even registering the Mississippi. It’s interesting how the small river towns make the river the centerpiece of the community, but the larger cities almost ignore the river, turning their backs on it as if almost ashamed of the very reason for their existence. You can see that the Quad Cities are working at rebuilding their waterfronts, but I’m sorry to say that most of it still feels pretty vacant, sort of like the urban renewal projects of the 20th century, rather than authentically organic vitality.

I pulled out just after the I-74 bridge pictured above, and Lori and I headed over to the one non-Starbuck’s cafe we could find (thanks, Jane!!) and then to Arsenal Island, where I bought my very own set of sexy river maps that will cover the rest of the trip. (There is such a thing as map porn, and the Army Corps does a pretty good job of scratching that particular itch.) We drove around looking for the museum to no avail: we were pretty tired, but there’s also a strange secretive lack of information on this Army-run island: maybe better signage to the museum would incite terrorists, I don’t know. But we had no trouble finding the cemeteries: rows upon endless rows of white headstones, a segregated cemetery for the confederate soldiers who died in captivity here (I gather there was a sort of concentration camp, a northern Andersonville, here, during the Civil War) and then the national cemetery, where we were alone except for two young women and a small child who were gathered at the freshest graves. In a moment I looked back, and one of the women had wrapped herself around a headstone, and I couldn’t help but picture that Iowa or Illinois boy, just about Mac’s age, the fresh young love of this young woman’s life, the father of this toddler, blown to pieces by an IED, bleeding to death in the dust of Iraq.

Black Hawk and the post office

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My paddling day yesterday ended at Battle Island, site of the last Native-White battle fought east of the river, on 1-2 August 1832, killing so many of Black Hawk’s band that the river ran red with their blood. Is it a coincidence that the perpetual prayer of the Franciscan sisters in La Crosse began on 1 August as well, some 46 years later? I would like to think not. I would like to imagine the Franciscan sisters repenting on behalf of the white soldiers, on behalf of all of us, and I would like to think that redemption is somehow possible.

Mac and I drove up to Ferryville, where we stopped at the post office to mail off a ridiculously late nameday present to agapimeni Despina, and were welcomed by Margie, the postmaster, who has decided to retire after 44 years of working, first in the La Crosse PO and then down here in Ferryville, where she grew up. She loves this place immoderately, and wants time to enjoy it fully before (as she put it) she’s “pushing up daisies.”

An older gentlemen came in and burst into tears (pride? grief? both?) when he told Margie that his granddaughter was heading off to the University of Minnesota. After he left, Margie allowed as how she loves men who cry, that she cries very easily herself and that she’s not going to give a retirement party because she would cry all the way through it. She had told a little girl at bible camp that she was just going to fly away on a broomstick (she’s retiring on 31 October), and the little girl had answered, very worried and serious, “You know, there’s no such thing as magic.”

Upon learning where we’re from, Margie told us that she herself hadn’t done a lot of traveling. She said she’d like to visit Vermont someday, that she’d been to Boston once and touched Teddy Kennedy’s sleeve at a meet-and-greet, and we laughed about the trope on “Who touched me?” Talk about redemption, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Margie or Teddy was more in need of it.

She also told us she’d been to Salt Lake City once, where she had come upon a man begging with two beautiful dogs reposing on each side of him, like the lions flanking the entrance to a library, and that he seemed to be an extremely successful beggar, because, as she said, ”People love animals much more than they love one another.“

I love Margie very much, and feel very very lucky to have met her, and I hope her retirement is full of joy and adventures and peace in just the balance she seeks.

self-made

Leaving the Cities, and the kindness of Philip and Preston, is sort of slow going this morning. On one hand, I’m really eager to be back to the river and small-town America and the rhythm of life we have created on this journey; on the other hand, I could easily spend another week here visiting friends and colleagues, mulling over the implications of the trip so far, and maybe even making some music, now that Mary Kay has brought my DP install disk, so that I can get it running on my replacement computer.

One thing Philip said seemingly almost offhandedly the other day is really helping me think through this whole undertaking. He mentioned something about how the point of the journey is for me to have my own take on the river: not so much to gather other people’s takes as an (ethno)musicologist might. I’ve been feeling sort of guilty and inadequate that I have little or no interest in going to hear music at the State Fair, for example; I would much rather look at the hundreds of species of rabbits, listen to the auctioneers sell off cows, and study the crop art (did you catch the crop art iPhone I posted the other day?!) Philip and Preston seemed to immediately understand this, and even though they certainly know about lots of interesting music in Minnesota, including their own, they didn’t push me to explore that now. The fact is, other than at church each Sunday, I have heard no live music at all on this trip. Unless you count birds and wind and train whistles and industrial sounds. Which I definitely do.

I feel like I am emptying myself of other people’s music. And it’s a bit scary, actually, since lots of the music I have written is in one way or another a response to music that already exists. I’m not sure what music I will be moved to write. I’m (mostly) okay with this emptying even though it creates a certain amount of mild anxiety in me. It’s sort of like a large-scale version of the emptying that comes before any new piece. But Philip’s comment somehow gave me permission to be squarely in this state, not to try to escape it, and I am really grateful to him for saying it.

It’s Mac’s paddling day today, and because we have a second kayak, Heather and Mary Kay can each get a half-day of paddling with his company, which seems like an excellent way to get them started on the river. Heather started out with Mac in the morning, so Mary Kay and I wandered around Mendota a bit, which was a curious experience. Mendota barely exists now, but it was a town long before St. Paul or Minneapolis came into being, and there are a few exquisitely maintained stone structures: St. Peter’s Church, Governor Sibley’s house, etc. right near where the Minnesota RIver joins the Mississippi, not far from Fort Snelling. They are made of the limestone that creates the bluffs we have just now started seeing, and there’s something great about how local these structures are. Makes me definitely want to build my Vermont house out of stone and wood gathered from my own land.

The trade-off point for Heather and Mary Kay was a boat launch just down from the US 494 bridge: maybe one of the biggest bridges we’ve seen yet over the Mississippi, and it’s under huge construction to double the lanes. An old man was sitting on a bench there: Ken has been coming out to watch the construction every day for months now. He had worked for years in the stockyards of South St. Paul; born in 1920, he grew up here the youngest of eleven children of parents and grandparents who grew up here, and most of his four children live nearby as well. I got to thinking about how some families have one person who did the big move of emigrating and then everyone settles in the new place for generations to come; while other folks seem to have immigration in their blood and they themselves and many of their offspring end up moving repeatedly all over the country or the world. I feel like I have both sides in me: my father was a wanderer by nature (or was it an adaptation to his circumstances?), and my mother always claimed she would have been happy to live in Farmington or Plymouth (Michigan) her whole life. But of course she didn’t, and I don’t know that she could have, despite all her voiced longing for that alternate settled life she never lived.

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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.

*

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.

*

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?!?!