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):
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:
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.
Okay, I’m seeing that probably every one of my posts will begin, “Wow, Evie…”
First of all, tell Richard that every fiber of my dramaturgical soul is JEALOUS! His library visits are my geeky idea of Heaven (at least a big part of Heaven….For more details, see me….)
Re the “timber rush”: Do you know PAUL BUNYAN by Benjamin Britten and WH Auden? Two young British visitors’ vista, c. mid-1940s, on this bittersweet chunk of American history. Brilliant, and, for so so so many reasons, you’ll be in tears by the end.
Yes, the Mississippi may be “indifferent”, but it’s we humans, not the river, who obliterate human history. We gorge ourselves on the land’s resources, and when they’re gone, we move on, leaving ghost towns, empty pop cans, and shuttered Walmarts behind. But it’s only humans who can reclaim our history, just as you’re doing. As you say, the birds, reeds, and the river itself remain. So your mission, should you choose to undertake it: Listen to their stories, too, and build your own musical Macchu Picchu!
PS: Wanagan chef: Now THERE’s a job for me! 😉