Saturday, August 12, 2017
Friedrich Christian Delius’ Bildniss der Mutter als Junge Frau (Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman) is an oddity, a great Christian war novel. There are no battles in the book and no one dies. No generals plot strategic victories and politics is scarcely referenced. Curiously, this short book – it is really a novella – most resembles the theologically inflected fictions of the least warlike of all modern writers, Marilynne Robinson, President Obama’s favorite novelist and the author of the highly regarded Gilead.
Literary influence is a matter of intuition. No professional writer sets out to write like another author – except, I suppose, in cases of satiric parody. Rather, I think, a writer absorbs influences without conscious volition – the milieu in which we write is our climate, the air that we unconsciously breathe. For this reason, I think a critic may legitimately rely upon instinct in teasing out influence without necessarily demonstrating intent to imitate. Since source material is ambient and, indeed, may reach the writer by indirect circuit, it’s questionable to claim that a certain precursor necessarily has influenced the author of a later text. Rather, it may be simply something in the environment, some common denominator difficult to precisely categorize.
Furthermore, I think we should acknowledge that influence can take many forms. Debussy admired Wagner but the German composer’s influence on the French musician is mostly negative – Wagner’s cultural significance is too great to be denied, but, also, a paradigm to be avoided. Some instances of influence arise from simple misreading – Baudelaire’s understanding of Edgar Allan Poe is based on a creative misprision of the earlier writer’s methods and intentions. In other instances, overt influence conceals or screens a much more profound influence that the author has repressed. Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo claims jazz precedents, but the book’s real source lies in Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid Crying of Lot 49.
Instinct tells me that Friedrich Christian Delius’ magisterial 2006 Bildnis der Mutter als Junge Frau (Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman) has roots in Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead (2004). But this intuition is probably demonstrably incorrect: a prefatory note advuses that the book arose from the author’s 2001 sojourn in Rome at the Casa di Goethe funded by a stipend from Daimler-Chrysler. This would suggest that the book was actually written before Gilead was published in the United States. Furthermore, the German book’s title alludes to James Joyce – of course, his first novel was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Delius has written a portrait of his own mother "as a young woman." Further, Delius’ novella takes the form of a long monologue, a single sentence comprises the text’s 124 page narrative. This device, an enormous sentence simulating a woman’s stream of consciousness directly invokes Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, although the tone and texture of Delius’ prose is completely different. Another German-language precursor to Delius’ book is Peter Handke’s portrait of his own mother, Wunschloses Unglueck translated into English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Both Delius and Handke mournfully consider the trauma of war and the impact of corrupt ideology on their mothers and both books occupy an uneasy terrain that lies somewhere between personal memoir, biography, and fiction. Once again, however, Delius’ novella, although perhaps deriving in part from Handke’s famous book, is written in a very different key – Handke’s book is about speechless suffering, repression, and defeat (his mother kills herself); by contrast, Delius’ book ends with the author’s heroine planning to put her thoughts in "a long, long letter" to her soldier-husband – far from being defeated by history, Delius’ mother emerges triumphant. Handke’s book is about mute suffering, speechlessness; Delius’ novella ends with a commitment to communication.
It is this tone of serene and gentle triumph that drives me to compare Delius Portrait with Robinson’s Gilead. Indeed, the two books feels like pendants to one another. In Gilead, an elderly dying pastor, Rev. John Ames, composes the text as a letter to his young son; Delius’ Portrait takes the form of a 21-year old woman’s address both to her unborn child and her soldier husband who is serving on the African front during World War Two. Both books are monologues, although Delius presents his heroine’s thoughts in the third person, a voice, however, so closely affiliated with his titular character as to affect the reader as a first-person narrative. Delius and Robinson’s books each contain muted references to war and the justice of war – Gilead concerns the impact of one of Ames’ forebears, an abolitionist pastor who preached his flock into war; the effect of World War Two on Delius’ mother is integral to his book, a subject advanced and explored on just about every page in the narrative. Robinson’s book addresses American problems of racism and the legacy of slavery; Delius’ heroine is concerned with the justice of the war in which her husband is entangled – just as Robinson confronts an American history rife with racial hatred, Delius poses his mother against a stark background of Fascist and anti-Semitic ideology. There is almost no overt action and very little plot in these two books – both are situational, that is, the exploration of a historical and existential dilemma confronting the two protagonists. Both books concern that rarest of all literary subjects – the man or woman of unassuming good will and virtue. Kindness, forbearance and patience are not generally thought to be amenable to literary representation. But both books celebrate protagonists whose goodness, by no means perfect or immaculate, is mostly instinctive.
Handke’s mother is a creature of Beckett’s barrens, a suffocated victim of a world without meaning. Joyce’s Molly Bloom is the embodiment of Leopold Bloom’s own soul, a pagan animism throbs in her words and affirmation of life – she represents a polytheistic, heathen world: we understand that Molly, the earth goddess has spent the day disporting herself in bed with the solar deity, Blazes Boylan. By contrast, Delius and Robinson are both Protestant writers – their characters are Evangelical Lutheran and Calvinist respectively. Fundamentally, I think that the resemblance between Delius Portrait and Robinson’s Gilead (and indeed the other two books in her trilogy – Home and Lila) probably must be ascribed to the Christian dispensation underlying these books. For a Christian writer, narrative themes are circumscribed: Handke’s form of bitter tragedy is inadmissible – God is loving despite the evidence of the world and, in the end, all will be well. Similarly, Joyce’s pagan celebration of the senses is also fundamentally off-limits – in Delius book, as well as Robinson’s novel, an abundant and sensual life is praised but only in the context of salvation. Delius’ father was an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and his Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman is about his mother’s condition of blessedness. Gilead is a reflection of Robinson’s lifelong engagement with the writings and thought of John Calvin – her hero is fundamentally a Puritan, although not in the life-denying or censorious way imagined by popular culture. I don’t know if Delius is a "believer"; Robinson, however, has openly expressed her Christian faith. Curiously, both writers were born in 1943 – Delius is present in his book as a kicking, restless fetus (he was born in February 1943); Robinson’s birth was ten months later, November 1943.
On the evidence of Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman, Delius is a master of German prose. Although his book has certain limitations, I think it is a great work. The reason that I have summoned Marilynne Robinson to testify in this note is that, I assume, many of my readers may be familiar with her novels, or, at least, Gilead. Since the tone of Delius’ novella is unusual, I have compared the book with Robinson’s novel, also a work that is profoundly counter-cultural, both as narrative and style. I want you to understand what the experience of reading Delius is like – and, in this respect, the comparison with Robinson is instrumental: the tone of both books is very closely similar. The notion of influence, with which I began this essay, is probably spurious in any event – after all, as Borges’ notes, influence is a two-way street: Kafka can be imagined as influencing Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann; late Stravinsky was a formative influence on Mozart; what if James Joyce were the secret author of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola? What if a certain Pierre Menard, a contemporary of Joyce, wrote Don Quixote? My contention is that we can productively imagine Delius as having written Gilead and Robinson as being the author of Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman – these speculations tell us something about both books and the Christian Weltanschaung in which they are rooted.
Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman is set on a splendidly bright and temperate day in Rome in January 1943. An unnamed young woman from northern Germany ventures forth, walking for about one hour to attend a mid-afternoon concert in a Protestant Church. The young woman is pregnant, about four weeks before her child is expected, and her doctor has encouraged her to walk as much as possible – the outdoor air and exercise will strengthen her child and better equip her for the rigors of labor. We know from the title that the woman is Delius’ mother. And we know from his date of birth that he is the child squirming in her womb. German lends itself well to long sentences – syntax is loose and it is easy to write long dependant clauses and, in any event, disparate ideas and concepts can be loosely sutured with the copula und ("and"). (Hegel often lost himself in his sentences and many of the paragraph or page-long sentences in his writing lack a verb or noun – it might be an interesting exercise to study Delius’ novella grammatically to determine its actual controlling noun and verb, but, the exercise would likely be fruitless; the text seems to me to be composed in discreet clauses, either dependant or independant, that are between 40 and 80 words in length.) The clauses combined as a single sentence are set forth with spaces between them – as German critics have noticed, the effect is like a virtuoso singer, pausing every half-minute to take a deep breath. The subject of the book is the young woman’s thoughts and observations as she makes her way on foot to the church. (She is afraid to take a bus because she was groped by an Italian man when she earlier traveled on a public conveyance.) The novella ends with an account of the concert and, in the book’s last paragraph, the protagonist makes plans to write a lengthy letter to her husband, Gert, who is serving in the Wehrmacht in Tunis.
In the course of the book, we learn that the young woman is 21 years old, a staunch Lutheran, and from northern German. Rome is intimidating to her, an Irrgarten der Vergangheit – a maze-like garden of past history conceived as error. She is afraid of the Italians and looks down upon them. In her mind, Luther’s theology has repudiated Rome and so she feels herself a stranger in a strange land. The young woman was married when she was nineteen, but has spent only a few weeks in the company of her husband. Gert served first in France and, then, on the Russian front where he sustained a leg wound. The wound has resulted in cellulitis, an infection that has not been well-controlled and, so, Gert was transferred to a desk job in Rome. Upon his transfer, Gert’s wife traveled to live with him – a move away from family and friends that her parents opposed. After a few weeks in Rome, the defeat of the German forces in El Alamein results in the order that Gert be transferred to North Africa to a desk job – typing and answering phones in Tunis. No bombs have yet fallen on Rome, but, in her heart, Delius’ mother knows that the war will be lost and that, soon enough, her world will collapse in fire and ruin.
In an essay on Marcel Ophuls documentary on the Nuremberg Trials (and Vietnam), The Memory of Justice, a German lawyer is quoted as saying: if you were ignorant of what was going on (in the Third Reich), you were a fool; if you knew, but looked the other way, you were a coward; if you knew and took part, you were a criminal. No other categories are available. So where does Delius’ mother fall on this spectrum? On the basis of her age and innocence, Delius seems to characterize his mother as a sort of holy fool – she is complicit with the regime to some degree, and, indeed, struggles to regulate her unruly defeatist thoughts, but her primary instincts are pacifist. Although she is not hesitant to endorse the war against the "godless Bolsheviks", she can’t reconcile her Christian beliefs with the Fascist injunction to hate the French or English or Americans – enemies that she regards as fellow Christians. Indeed, one of the leit motifs in the book is the conflict between the young woman’s happy memories of nature-hikes and singing around the campfire as a member of the Fascist BDM (Bundes deutsches Maedeln – German Girl Scouts) and her Lutheran upbringing. This is particularly problematic for her because her father, a badly damaged World War One veteran, is a circuit-riding Evangelical pastor. The first world war hovers as an uneasy and menacing presence over the book – Gert is a "war orphan" and many of the heroine’s uncles and male relatives seem to have died in that conflict. At the Spanish steps, Delius’ heroine imagines Jacob’s ladder to heaven and this leads her to contemplate the Jewish people, the tribe of Jacob. Here we are unsettled to read: "(it made her uncomfortable to think of the Father of the Jews) here where one was Aryan and didn’t dare to speak about the Jews or even the figures in the Old Testament, somewhat suspicious characters, such as Jacob, who had been, she had read, admonished to expand his people of Israel in all directions of the world and,indeed, that was precisely the problem with the Jews, guilty of unhealthy mixing of the races, as she had been taught in school and the BDM, the doctrine of race / perhaps there were even Jews in Rome, she didn’t know, she couldn’t remember having seen them with their yellow stars on their coats anyhow and none of her Roman acquaintances had even heard spoken that tricky word ‘Jew’..."
Delius recognizes that our inner monologue is musical – that is, themes repeat again and again albeit with slight variation. Thoughts conceived as monologue are redundant, overdetermined, ruminative. According, the novella is a mosaic of symbolic or thematic leit motifs repeatedly intoned. There are hieroglyphs on obelisks and Latin inscriptions that the young woman can not read – an uncanny world of writings that seem vaguely menacing to her. Arrows are posted on buildings marking the way to air raid shelters and, whenever she sees these emblems, she thinks of bombs and prays that Rome will continue to be spared – Rome is a Kultur-stadt, a place of ancient and beautiful culture and Delius’ mother thinks that the gentlemanly English and Americans will refrain from bombing the place. Musically repeated, we hear the admonition of the young mother’s obstetrician that she should laufen – that is, run or walk for her health. She recalls spending happy afternoons with Gert exploring the city and broods on her husband’s promise that they will share "Roemische Freude" ("Roman joys") one day together. (Gert is something a classical scholar and good guide to the city and he has left his child-wife a Baedeker, encouraging her to sightsee in the Eternal City in his absence.) Everywhere she goes she sees stone and bronze eagles – ultimately, the emblem of the eagle comes to symbolize Fascism, the Roman legions that once marched forth from the city, and the eagle attribute of St. John the Evangelist. During the climactic concert in the Church, the young woman is vouchsafed a vision of all mankind living harmoniously under a great canopy of music, a Himmelzelt ("tent of heaven" ) to which she is lifted by a great and noble eagle. She recalls Glueck’s opera Orpheus und Eurydike, an emblem of the plight of separated lovers – she attended it with Gert during their courtship. A painting by Caravaggio, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus that Gert has shown her in one of the Roman churches symbolizes her growing conviction that the war will be lost. Repeatedly, she passes through narrow streets and alleyways – Gehet ein durch die enge Pforte ("Go in through the narrow gate") – and these enclosures signify both the slender and perilous path that leads to heaven as well as the birth-canal through which her child will soon pass.
The concert with which the book ends consists of music by Schuetz and selections from Cantatas by Bach (as well as a performance of a Haydn string quartet). The soloist, a tenor hails from Germany – the concert was previously scheduled for November 1942 but had to be postponed because the railroads had then been damaged by bombing and the singer could not reach Rome. In the mind of the heroine, November 1942 was relatively peaceful compared with the present – there is rationing now and the people are obviously unwell and starving and invasion seems imminent: at any moment, aerial attack is expected, although the heroine refuses to believe that the English will bomb the city where Keats and Shelley are buried. The war seems to be expanding – soon it will be everywhere and there will be no respite. A thread concealed in the fabric of the prose is the heroine’s fear that Gert will be killed – other women in the church-dormitory where she lives have lost their husbands (or learned that their men are prisoners of war); this terror is so great that it remains implicit – never fully articulated.
Despite all of these fears and privations, the tone of the novella is celebratory – the young woman’s faith in God is not shaken. God will protect the righteous and preserve order and justice in the world. Although there is turmoil all around, Rome is beautiful, the weather is good, and the young woman, at least for now, is healthy and well-nourished, looking forward to the birth of her child. Even amidst the devastation of war, Delius mother feels herself at ease – God will save her. The term "irony" is not exactly correct to describe the citation of Martin Luther’s great hymn "Eine feste Berg" ("A Mighty Fortress"), a consolation to Delius’ protagonist because it embodies both God’s sheltering love as well as the fortress of Europe, the Fascist continent fortified against attackers gathering on all sides. Her walk through Rome leads her inexorably to a final vision of a peaceful future, mankind united under God and Bach – the two great figures intensely entangled in the heroine’s imagination of a world without war.
The book is intensely lyrical. Like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, it is too long for its subject matter, too repetitive – but this is intrinsic to religious belief and mirrors the superfluity of inner monologue. One who has faith sees God (or Christ) in everything and the world becomes a radiant system of mirrors always reflecting the divine light that suffuses all things – this is a remarkable and transcendent vision, but it isn’t dramatic or dynamic and has little social or political relevance: the problem with the universal is that it reduces everything to One, a falsification of reality although also a vision that can be very beautiful when it is not simply suffocating. Delius’ highly poetic style prevents the book’s religious theme from crushing the life out of his writing.
Here is a sample of the book, an account of the courtship of Delius’ mother:
"in wonderfully pretty October weather, it was the first time that she had dared to go for a stroll with a young man, from Wartburg upward through Mariental and at the end of the long afternoon his question, the decisive question, if he might call upon her again, from Kassel through Eisenach, and as she was given to understand, before he had to travel to Rome
yes, she had said, but so softly that he had to ask her again, yes, she said a little more loudly and, then,her face was red, it had never been more red, and a few days later
he was there again with pralines, candy that he had bought for her in France where he was a soldier, purchased, not looted, as he emphasized to her, they wandered through the woods around Wartburg and ate the pralines and, in the evening, he surprised her with his cautious question if he could use the word "thou" with her because the formal address was too dreadful and after that first "thou" it had all been quick as a bolt of lightning and they were engaged..."
(The italicized "ja" or yes reminds us of Molly Bloom’s affirmation at the end of Ulysses – there is a hint of the war in the word blitzschnell – like Blitzkrieg – to describe the progress of their romance from Gert’s first use of the German familiar du or "thou" and the couple’s subsequent engagement.)
"(she was) in the Via Sicilia, where she was now walking, going by foot, pregnant and with these thoughts wandering back to her betrothal, always astonished and trembling with thankfulness about these incidents...on her still, unerring way through Rome, Wartburg was always in her head, as a symbol for the steadfastness of love and belief and for her lovely Germany, also as a Protestant protesta against St. Peter’s church, Luther’s fortress, Luther’s speech, Luther’s strength, Luther’s invincibility, Luther’s beautiful words..."
And near the book’s end:
"(everyone singing) also the soldiers, as they had early sung with Old Fritz, all the generals, on all the fronts, Christians, heathens, Jews, Communists, all had to gather their breath and sing in unison one mighty Praise to the Lord, just as her father, the captain in the Great War, had sung so loudly, so that one could do nothing more but sing together with full-throat and praise the mighty King of all honor
and it all happened under the heavenly tent of music, also the wondrous silence that followed the end of the last bar... a happy silence that was hers, that was the same as her peace, and that led her to the thought that in time of war the most beautiful thing of all is stillness..."
Friday, July 28, 2017
An interesting contretemps appears in the letters section of the July 2017 Scientific American. The dispute is documented under the title "A Cosmic Controversy". To the extent that I can follow the debate, the divisive issue is nothing less than the applicability of the scientific method to cosmology.
In February 2017, Anna Iljas, Paul J. Steinhardt and Abraham Loeb published a Scientific American article called "Pop goes the Universe." This essay reports on mathematical speculation that the universe did not begin with a "big bang" – that is, an extremely rapid expansion – but instead "with a bounce from a previously contracting cosmos." Mathematical models based on a "bounce" predict that our universe is a bubble among an infinity of other bubbles, each representing another universe. The laws of physics in our universe may differ radically from the physical and mathematical laws applicable in other universes. This cosmology implies an infinity of universes derived and functional according to an infinitely varied set of constitutions defining their physical characteristics. In this setting, the authors say that inflationary cosmology "cannot claim to be evaluated using the scientific method" and, further, assert that the proponents of standard form inflationary cosmology" have "discard(ed) one of (science’s) defining properties: empirical testability". Thus, inflationary cosmology is "some kind of nonempirical science."
This argument is met with outrage in a letter signed by 33 astrophysicists and cosmologist affiliated with Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, the Planck collaboration and others. The scientists are international – there are French, American, British, Canadians, and Russians represented by the letter. I assume the writers are a who’s who of cosmology – the list of authors includes Stephen Hawkings. The gist of the correspondence is that all of the participating signatories believe very strongly in empirical science and the scientific model. They adduce several arguments for the proposition that empirical test data (or observed natural phenomena) support their "Big Bang" inflationary cosmology. Several paragraphs argue that mathematical predictions as to the mass-density of the universe predicted by their inflationary cosmology have, in fact, been confirmed by measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In this context, they cite measurements made by satellite experiments, specifically the Planck satellite and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (A cynical observer might say that these 33 scientists are obligated to maintain that their cosmology model is testable to support very substantial public and private grants as well as other funding upon which their livelihood is based – for instance, the scientists affiliated with the "Planck collaboration" would seem to have an investment in the "Planck satellite." If there’s nothing to test, then, no money needs to be dedicated to experimental work.)
The authors of the original article (Iljas, Steinhardt, and Loeb) respond that "the outcome of inflation is highly sensitive to initial conditions." Therefore, they write that "inflation generically leads to an eternal inflation and, consequently, a multiverse – an infinite diversity of outcomes." Further, they note that "if inflation produces a multiverse...(in which) ‘anything that can happen will happen’... it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about predictions." The cosmic bounce that Iljas, Steinhardt and Loeb imagine as the inception of our universe also "gives an infinite diversity of outcomes with none preferred over any other."
In fact, the adversaries to this controversy seem to be talking past one another. Indeed, I’m not convinced that there is any dispute. Stephen Hawkings and his 32 allies seem to be saying that within our universe, a place constitutionally governed by knowable physical laws, evidence suggests that everything began with a rapid inflationary expansion, a Big Bang. But there may be other universes in existence that have a wholly different morphology, are governed by different mathematical laws, and that, therefore, have different characteristics. We can’t know about these universes – at least, at present and, therefore, their characteristics are a matter for speculation, but not scientific study. Hence, the controversy between the two groups of scientists turns on the definition of "reality." For Hawkings et. al., reality is defined as the system that we can empirically test, that is, subject to mathematical analysis with objectively replicable results – in our universe, Hawkings et. al say that the "scientific method" is alive, well, and useful (and supports a rapid inflationary model). Steinhardt and company take a larger view – for them, reality contains an infinite number of universes in which anything is possible. If anything is possible, then, the scientific method does not deliver a true or useful outcome in all universes – if this correct, and the three "bounce" cosmologists believe it is mathematically plausible, then, reality defined as containing multiverses does not always follow principles that are objectively testable.
Simply stated, objective empirical evidence supports Hawkings’ view that our universe proceeds from a Big Bang. The three dissenting scientists, probably, wouldn’t contest this notion. Their analysis however asserts that "reality", a concept infinitely larger than the inflationary universe in which we happen to live, contains an infinite number of universes and, therefore, an infinite number of places where the scientific method doesn’t apply – that’s because there are infinite number of universes where our rules don’t exist or where there are no rules at all.
This point, I think, is conceded in this text from the letter signed by the 33 physicists. Thus: "...although the possibility of a multiverse is an active area of study, this possibility in no way interferes with the empirical testability of inflation. If the multiverse picture is valid, then the Standard Model (rapid inflation from Big Bang) would be properly understood as a description of the physics in our visible universe, and similarly the models of inflation that are being refined by current observations would describe the ways inflation can happen in our particular part of the universe..."
These arguments spiral into metaphysics in part as a result of the mathematics of infinity. This morning, as I was brushing my teeth in my basement toilet, I noticed a black beetle, about a half inch long, trying to burrow into the space between the carpet and the baseboard of the wall. I thought about killing the beetle by crushing it with a magazine or rescuing it by lifting it off the carpet and hustling it outside. The conflict between these two ideas paralyzed me and I didn’t do anything. But there is a universe in which I crush the beetle and flush it down the toilet – not one universe, in fact, but an infinite number of them. And there is a universe in which I rescue the beetle, iterated an infinite number of times. And there is a universe in which the beetle is brushing his teeth and I am wriggling into into the crevasse between the carpet and wall – in an infinite number of those universes, the beetle rescues me and sets me outside; similarly, in an infinite number of those universes, I am crushed and flushed down the toilet. Finally, there are an infinite number of universes in which the beetle and I occupy different spaces but are also in exactly the same location – that is, violating rules of our universe – but consistent with the rules of another universe, or, more properly stated, an infinite number of such universes where separation in space is exactly identical with occupying the same space. There is a universe where you apprehend this argument by telepathy alone, a universe where this text was typed by a million million monkeys hammering away at a million million typewriters. And there is a universe where this sentence contains a typographical era and a universe in which the typographical error states the exact name of God.
Anton Gag (rhymes with "jog") was born in Bohemia in 1859 and migrated to the New Ulm, Minnesota about 20 years later. A skilled artist, Gag earned his living by painting and making murals. His art work decorates the dome and walls of the New Ulm Catholic church.
New Ulm was attacked by the Dakota Indians in the summer of 1862 and was the site of ferocious house-to-house combat. The beleagured German settlers ultimately repelled the Dakota army, probably more than 1500 warriors, but the town was burned to the ground with many casualties among the defenders. The town’s heroic defense is an important subject in Gag’s work – there is a majestic canvas by the artist in the State Capitol showing a war party of bronzed Indians, heroic figures with classical proportioned bare torsos attacking the burning village. The Dakota warriors led by a chief on a beautiful white horse have taken cover in a corn field and smoky flames rise from the outbuildings of the city. In the Brown County Historical Society, there is a barrel head from a beer cask painted with a lively impressionistic scene of combatants huddled behind a barricade of beer barrels similar to the one that has been here used as a commemorative canvas: smoke rises from the defender’s rifles and orange flames gut buildings and the attacking Indians are a sort of colorful wave rising around the chief on the white horse. The paint on the barrel head is impasto, thickly applied, and it has an embattled quality. Gag’s most ambitious painting is a panoramic mural, made to be unscrolled frame by frame, for a paying public. The mural shows various scenes from the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and was designed and painted by Gag with several other New Ulm Bohemian artists. The panorama is in a poor state of preservation and there are no funds available to conserve an object with literally incendiary subject matter – many of the images are lurid portraits of Dakota atrocities. It is a shame, however, that this impressive work can no longer be seen – the panorama was designed to be illumined by candle or gas-light projected through the huge scrolls translucent panels; therefore, the paint application is extremely dainty and subtle and the panorama’s pale translucent washes give the impression of a giant, exquisitely executed water-color. No matter how lurid the massacre shown, the landscape is always gorgeously rendered and gives the impression of the fresh, vivid light of dawn.
Gag raised 7 children in a big Queen Anne style house in New Ulm. You can visit the place, now open as a museum. The museum is not so much concerned with Anton Gag as with his talented daughter, Wanda. Gag passed on the secrets of his craft to Wanda and regarded her as exceptionally skilled. He probably understood that her graphic sense and design skills exceeded his own. Anton Gag died of tuberculosis when his daughter was 15. He left with these dying words: "Was der Papa nicht tun koennt’, muss die Wanda hab fertig machen." – that is, "What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to complete."
Wanda Gag went to enough school to earn a teaching license. She worked for one year in a country school, then, moved to Minneapolis where she attended the Institute of Art. Ambitious, obviously talented, and stylish in the manner of a Twenties flapper, Gag ended up in Greenwich Village in New York. Pictures show her sporting a black helmet hairdo, a ‘bob’ like that of Louise Brooks. Gag collected older man as lovers, generally kept the peace between them, and worked on engravings and etchings. She sold her graphic work through the Weyhe Gallery, a New York institution owned by Carl Zigrosser (one of her boyfriends). Her engravings are highly atmospheric, sculpturally modeled still lives – she cuts linoleum blocks into images of the barn interiors, rustic equipment, furrowed fields, and, in one remarkable image, a stair well at Macy’s with a firehose coiled like a great serpent.
In 1926, Wanda Gag published a highly celebrated autobiographical essay: "These Modern Women – a hotbed of Feminism." At that time, she was affiliated with the artists associated with Edward Steichen, including Georgia O’Keefe. Her 1928 children’s book, Millions of Cats, was a triumph – it remains in print today. With the book, Gag pioneered the use of double-panel illustrations for children’s books. She wrote the somewhat macabre story – it features cannibal cats – and cut the woodblock letters explaining the colorful prints that comprise the book. The book won the Newberry Award and assured Gag’s continuing fame. In 1935, Gag consolidated her reputation for feminism with a children’s book: Gone is Gone: the Story of a Man who wanted to do Housework.
Gag despised the saccharine style used to animate Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She was generally familiar with German fairy tales and their harsh "magical realism" from her childhood growing up in New Ulm. Carl Zigrosser gave her a book of Grimm’s Maerchen in the original German and Gag was fascinated by it. This book inspired her involvement with Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, an interest that resulted in her translations with illustrations in four volumes between 1936 and 1947 – the last published posthumously. Gag died of lung cancer in June 1946.
Carl Zigrosser wrote the Foreword to Gag’s last book, the posthumous More Tales from Grimm (1947). Zigrosser was himself an immigrant to the United States from Austria. He operated galleries that sold prints in Greenwich Village and was a fixture of the avant-garde scene in that neighborhood until the Depression. In 1936, he published a compilation of famous graphic works under the title Six Centuries of Prints. This book became a best-seller and went through many editions. On the strength of this volume, Zigrosser was appointed curator of prints, drawings, and rarebooks at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. He continued in that role until the sixties. His last publication was a catalog-raisone of the graphic works of John Marin.
In the Foreword to More Tales from Grimm, Zigrosser recounts that he "was delighted when the German edition of The Tales which (he) gave her in 1931 bore such beautiful fruit." Zigrosser says that he edited the book with Earle Humphreys – Gag married Humphreys, with whom she had lived since 1931, in 1943. (A free spirit, Gag moved from New York to "All Creation" farm at Milford, New Jersey – she continued love affairs with others notwithstanding her commitment to Humphreys.)
Zigrosser notes that Gag had completed all of the illustrations for the volume, along with the translations, and that they existed in pen-and-ink iterations. He observes that some of the pictures published in the book are not entirely finished. Then, he states:
Mention should be made of the drawing for The Soldier and his Magic Helpers ... because it reveals how Wanda Gag, in spite of her capacity for meticulous detail slipped up in a minor point. In the text, the Blower always functions through his nostril, whereas in her preliminary sketch he is definitely shown blowing through his mouth. Undoubtedly had she lived, the artist would have noticed the discrepancy and corrected it in the final drawing. It will be interesting to discover how many readers are sharp-eyed enough to discover the lapse.
The drawing at issue shows a plump figure wearing a Phrygian hat seated on a floral ornament, a kind of hybrid flower and tree that represents a wooded hill. The figure’s cheeks are puffed out and Gag has sketched a widening stream of air, shown as a curved and straight dashes emitted from the man’s lips, crossing an open space, and, then, spinning the rotor of a distant windmill located on a grassy knoll. The windmill’s motion is similarly depicted by some rotary streaks connecting the blades.
I disagree with Zigrosser and think the picture is complete. In the text, a soldier encounters a "man holding a finger over one nostril while blowing mightily through the other." When asked what he is doing, the man says that he is blowing air to turn the rotors of "seven windmills...two miles from here."
Let’s assume that Wanda Gag illustrated this passage literally. She would have to show the plump figure with a hand to his nose, pressing shut one nostril. From the other nostril, she would show a stream of air, made visible series of lines and arcs curving toward the remote windmill. As the picture is now printed, the image shows a stream of air turning a windmill. If Gag had drawn the image according to the text, the picture would show a peasant expressing a stream of mucous from his nostril across the air at a windmill. The dashes and arcs that we construe as "wind" or "breath" would read instead as the flight of snot through the air. This would be unacceptable in any book, let alone a children’s volume. Thus, I think Zigrosser’s speculation on this point is not only wrong, but painfully wrong, displaying a sort of naviety that makes me question his qualifications to interpret and assess imagery in general.
In Anton Gag’s paintings of the Battle of New Ulm, one staple feature is a burning windmill. It is interesting to think of the burning windmills painted by Anton Gag in the context of the little toy windmill with rotors spinning because of the gust of air blown at it by the seated figure.
In the effervescent multiverse originating at the Big Bounce, there is presumably one bubble in this champagne of variegated world in which God exists and His adversary, Satan. Perhaps, this is our world. So among the literal-minded inhabiting this planet, the question arises: What is the distance between Heaven and Hell? (It’s a question that Carl Zigrosser might ask.)
In William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the 14th century poet tells us Christ "knighted ten cherubim and seraphim" gave them "myghte in his majeste", taught them the truth of the Holy Trinity, and, as archangels, expected them to be "buxome at his biddying" and "nought elles." (In this application, "buxom" derives from the Old English "buhsam". "Buhsam" stems for the verb "bugen" – to bend or be pliable. It’s not clear to me how buxom morphed into a term for having large breasts.) Lucifer, who was the "loveliest" of these beings of light, "brake buxumnesse" (that is, become disobedient) and fell from the fellowship of angels, in the likeness of a fiend, into a "depe derke helle." More thousands of angels than could be numbered fell likewise into Hell. These angels fell because they believed Lucifer’s lie that he would be like "the most high" - et similis ero altissimo – a point that the poet tweets to us in Latin. According to Langland, all those who hoped for this "none Heven mighte hem holde,/ But fellen out in fendes liknesses (ful) nyne days togideres" – "Heaven could hold not a one of them, but they fell, in the likness of fiends, for a full nine days together." We are told that this fall took place before God "staked out Heaven" so that it became stationary and stable and "stonden in quiete."
Thus, Langland establishes the dimension between the pearly gates of Heaven to the "deep, dark Hell" as being "nine days fall." We can calculate the distance between Heaven and Hell assuming that there atmosphere between the two places and that a creature in a "fiend’s likeness" falls outstretched like an unconscious human. A human being in free fall will reach a terminal velocity of 122 miles per hour in about three seconds. Falling for nine days, accordingly, Lucifer (presuming that he has a generally human shape) travels this distance: 9 x 24 x 122 miles per hour or 26,352 miles. The circumference of the earth is 24,941 miles.
A favorite passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost seems roughly parallel. This is the fall of Mulciber, Milton’s name for Haphaestus or Vulcan, described at Book I, 740 et. seq. Milton is chronicling how the rebellious angels, after their fall, became identified with pagan deities or demons. In Milton’s imagination, supernatural figures in world mythology correspond with fallen angels. Milton notes that the hierarchies of angels and archangels resided in a heavenly palace, "a towered structure high". The "hand" of this tower’s architect is also demonstrable in the "ample spaces" with "smooth and level pavement" under an "arched roof" that is Pandemonium. The architect of both the heavenly towers and the "brazen" and vast Pandemonium is Mulciber, well-known Milton tells us, "in ancient Greece and in Ausonian land." Mulcibar was thrown by "angry Jove/ Sheer over crystal battlements" so that he fell "from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve/ A summer’s day..." Milton says that the Greeks believed Mulcibar pluunged into "Lemnos, the Aegean Isle...dropped from the zenith like a falling star."
Mulcibar’ fall lasts only half a day – from dawn to sunset. The space between Olympus and the earth is "fabled" to be 12 x 122 miles per hour or 1460 miles – about the distance between New York City and Wichita, Kansas. What accounts for the discrepancy between Langland’s estimate as to cosmic distances and Milton’s account of Mulcibar’s fall? First, Mulcibar’s plunge is from Heaven to Earth; the rebel angels fall from Heaven to Hell, that fiery realm, apparently, being very far beneath Heaven. Second, Milton is committed to a scheme that glorifies Christian mythology in comparison with the mythologies of the ancient pagans – thus, his cosmos is larger, more complex, and his heros bigger and more powerful, whilst his demons are more titanic and terrifying than those known to the ancient world. Everything in Milton is – to use advertising parlance – Bigger, Bolder, Zestier. Hence, it is not surprising that Milton pictures the cosmos known to the ancients, a world that is merely "fabled" as he points out, as conspicuously smaller than the vasty heights and depths of the Christian universe.
And, in fact, Milton observes and confirms Langland’s measurement at line 50 in Book I. There, Milton tells us, "nine times the space that measures day and night / to mortal men, he (Satan) with his horrid crew / Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf..." "The space" that measure day and night would seem to be one rotation of earth, or one 24 hour day. Milton suggests that Satan and the fallen angels are motionless, immured in fire and despair where "(they) lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf." My impression is that there are no landmarks in the fiery gulf that separates Heaven from Earth and that the "rolling" devils are, in fact, falling through a featureless void – this explains the odd notion of their "rolling" and the curious use of the word "space" for "time". Space and time, of course, are related in the movement of an object and, therefore, I read Milton’s account of this nine day hiatus between the fall of Satan and his rebel angels and Satan’s wakening to consciousness in the flaming great dungeon and furnace of Hell as measuring the depth of the fallen angel’s plummet from Heaven down to Hell. This allows us to draw a comfortable correlation between Milton’s cosmogony and that of William Langland in Piers Plowman.
The windmill burns because it is in Hell.
On July 27, 2017, the great Satan, Donald Trump, in his White House Pandemonium tweeted something about denying transgender people the right to serve in the military. The tweet was taken as yet another indication that President Trump was willing to "brake buxomnesse" with respect to the ordinary conventions of political discourse and deliberation.
Of course, the news commentators reported that this was a distraction that Trump was advancing to divert attention from the ever-deepening, if still inconclusive, scandal involving his campaign’s collusion with Russia.
One of Trump’s surrogates was asked whether tweets, presumably the product of a moment’s whim, should be construed as establishing national policy.
The surrogate, pivoting away from the question, said this: "Well, if you are asking me if Trump’s practice of disintermediating is a good thing or a bad thing. I think it is an unmitigated good thing."
Hence, the surrogate was saying that disintermediated communications – that is, tweets – are an unmitigated good thing..
The surrogate was pretty sure that the interviewer didn’t know the meaning of "disintermediate". Perhaps, he thought that the interlocutor would construe the word as meaning that the best mediation between two positions is via something that has been "disinterred" or "excavated" – hence, I aim to negotiate toward your position by "digging something up" and interposing that cadaverous entity as a mid-point between us.
In fact, "disintermediate" is a wholly legitimate term from the dismal science of economics – it simply means to devise a distribution system from producer to consumer that eliminates the so-called middleman. In this context, the word means to communicate directly with someone without intermediaries. Clearly, the Trump surrogate thought that the word had a sexy sound and that it "dissed" or disrespected the media.
Thus, just another day in Hell.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
The forbidden exerts a powerful lure. Who has not encountered a no-trespassing sign when hiking alone on a remote trail? What impulse do you feel? When I see signs of this sort, almost always I climb over the fence and walk another two or three-hundred feet to see what the no trespassing posting protects. Nothing incites trespass more than a no-trespassing sign.
Some years ago, I saw an internet note that the Nature Conservancy had acquired a tract of land in Fillmore County – that is, about forty to fifty miles from where I live. This site was notable because it contained an algific talus slope, one of the rarest landforms on earth. Of course, I wanted to see this place, but the Nature Conservancy’s website advised that the property was off-limits and, indeed, such a valuable resource that its location would not be identified. Human access to algific talus slopes inevitably, it seems, results in their destruction. None of this deterred me from driving around rural Fillmore County for eight hours, exploring the back lanes in hope of finding the place. I was unsuccessful, of course – the site was hidden and stayed hidden in the lush hardwood forests tangled together in the green and nameless ravines.
Recently, I read another posting, noting that the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit consortium that acquires fragile habitats to protect them, had purchased another algific talus field, again concealed somewhere in the driftless region of Fillmore County. This site was called "Bluebell Hollow." (The other location was named, I think, "Saxifrage Hollow".
This internet information inspired me to set forth again to search for algific talus slopes in northern Iowa and western Wisconsin. I made this expedition on Thursday and Friday, June 1 - 2, 2017. This was at the time that President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords claiming those voluntary agreements to be disadvantageous to American business and, therefore, workers. In announcing the United States withdrawl from the climate accords, President Trump said that he had been elected to serve "the people of Pittsburgh not Paris". Radio commentators were quick to point out that the City of Pittsburgh had voted for Hilary Clinton by a margin of 80 percent.
What is an algific talus slope?
"Algific" means "cold-producing." "Talus" is small, fractured rock that has broken from exposed bedrock and rests at the foot of the cliff from which it has fallen. When talus has slumped into its angle of repose, it is called "scree." In rare circumstances, cold air vents through the talus slope. This can occur on north-facing slopes in an area characterized by karst geology.
A karst landscape is one comprised of limestone bedrock. Rain penetrates cavities in the limestone producing a mild acid that dissolves subsurface rock into caves. Where these caves have partially collapsed, the landscape may be cratered with sinkholes. Algific talus slopes arise when rainwater enters cave systems through sinkholes piercing the bedrock. Water flowing in underground passages is cooled to a temperature that equates to the average annual temperature both day and night in the climactic zone. In Minnesota and Northern Iowa, this means that cave temperature, and the water flowing through those caves, is cooled to about 37 degrees – this is the temperature of subterranean water in all seasons. When water in cavern streams seeps through cliff walls, it cools the fractured stone through which it is seeping. This results in moist vents leaking refrigerated air through the cliff face and its talus slope – the result is an "algific" or cold-producing field of scree-talus. Winter snow and ice are retained much longer in the crevasses in these slopes and, accordingly, the cliff-side continues to be cool throughout the year – these talus slopes exude cool air at temperatures about 37 degrees to 50 degrees even when the ravines and densely wooded valleys are steamy with summer heat.
An algific talus slope is a micro-climate – the cold, steep cliff face with its bed of talus is an island of arctic or sub-arctic climate. As a result, these places harbor plants and animals that can not survive in the adjacent, much warmer woods. The most notable cold-climate animal found on these slopes is the inconspicuous Iowa pleistocene snail. Thought to be extinct before 1955, colonies of these snails were found thriving in the loose rubble of algific talus slopes. The slopes also blossom with plants otherwise unknown to this area – flowers and ferns that characterize the tundras of northern Canada and Siberia. Examples of this plants are the Golden Saxifrage, Walking ferns, the Limestone Oak fern, the Rose Twisted Stalk, and the delicate Northern Monk’s Hood flower.
Algific talus fields have been identified as unique for only 30 years. Prior to that time, the landform did not enjoy any distinction and had not really been named. (In popular culture, algific talus fields are sometimes termed "ice caves" – but this describes only a limited subclass of these landscapes.) In 1985, it was thought that there were approximately 600 algific talus slopes in southeastern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa, and western Wisconsin – the majority of identified locations where in the driftless region of Iowa, that is Clayton, Winneshiek, and Allamakee counties. These sites are highly sensitive to human interference – anything disrupting the ventilation of cold air through fissures in the hillside will destroy the site. Simply climbing on an algific talus slope may rearrange the rock, dislodging scree to block crevasses through which the cold cave air is exhaled. To a significant extent, the talus slopes can’t really be studied without destroying them – a researcher collecting snails, for instance, or rare ferns on the scree slope may well cause collapse of ancient structures that have resulted in the existence of the algific landform in the first place. Since the phenomena was named, the number of slopes is said to have decreased from 600 to as few as 200.
When I set forth on my expedition, I had one serious disadvantage: I didn’t really know how an algific talus slope looked. I knew that they were at the base of north-facing limestone bedrock cliffs. But I couldn’t exactly picture what these places would be like. Similarly, I have no idea what golden Saxifrage or Northern Monk’s Hood or any of the exotic plants growing on these rock slopes look like and, so, would be unable to identify them.
I had some notes as to places where it was admitted that these slopes existed. And, so, I set off to inspect them.
A weekend before my principal expedition, I commenced my search at Beaver Creek Valley State Park. This is a Minnesota State Park located in a remote hidden valley in Houston County, the State’s most southeastern county bordering with Iowa to the south and the Mississippi and Wisconsin to the east.
I have downloaded from the State Park’s website a transcript of a MP3 program that you can access with your cell-phone. The program’s audio track is commentary on a nature trail that hikers can walk at the park. The very first station on the loop trail is marked with the numeral 1, inscribed supposedly on a wooden bench. The notation for this location, stop #1 says: Because it is relatively well-camouflaged you might not be able to see the algific talus slope in this area, but there is one around here.
The day is clear at the meridian, fleecy shreds of cloud dispersed to the horizons on all sides so that you feel that you are driving under a great celestial amphitheater. Not only is the talus field at Beaver Valley well-camouflaged, so also is the park. No signs mark its entry – the ubiquitous "dead end" signs on gravel lanes in these hollows don’t necessarily mean that a park is hiding behind that marker, although this is the case with Beaver Valley. In most instances, narrow winding roads just dead-end on someone’s property between a collapsing chicken house and an old barn. According to my cell-phone map, the park commences just on the other side of a landmark called Schech’s Mill. The road runs in a swampy wetland between two ridges and I can see the high, ungainly mill beyond several lagoons next to a small creek running between dirt banks. The mill looks like the Frankenstein monster, clumsy and rectangular, painted a scarlet red and about to fall face-forward, it seems, into the tiny unassuming creek. Beyond the driveway to the mill, the grave road runs through a gate and into the farmyard of a man who has gone just ahead of me in his pickup truck – a fellow with the neck-beard and scrawny aspect of an Amish crackhead. I turn around as his dogs assault my car. Surely, the park is around here some place.
After a few more false starts, I locate the park entrance – indeed, it is marked only by a yellow "Dead End" sign. The State Park is a narrow valley with bluffs with stony cliffs rearing up over a creek-bed. The creek sings between the hillsides and ends, ultimately, in a arena made by hills with a swamp at its center. The algific talus slope is supposed to be near the rustic bench marked #1. But the first bench, I encounter, a little brown settee overlooking the creek is unnumbered. I follow the trail and reach several intersections marked on the park map, but can’t find bench #1. Indeed, the first bench that I encounter is #7, the numeral painted in yellow on the side of the bench. The next bench is #11 and not located anywhere near where landmark #11 is shown on the trail map. With Jack, I spend the next two hours hiking through the woods cupped between the hills, but I never find Bench #1 – indeed, for some reason, the first five benches are entirely missing. Perhaps, they were swept away in one of the periodic floods that ravage these entangled and green valleys. Or, perhaps, a cabal of naturalists who want to hide these talus slopes from casual onlookers such as myself has, in fact, suppressed these landmarks, concealed them within a shed at the park headquarters.
After our hike, we go to the other end of the park, where the rims of the valley are tied more tightly together. This is where the so-called Big Springs supplies its water as the source of the creek running between the bluffs. The Springs are downhill from a grassy lawn on which there is an (unnumbered park bench) – below there is a pond the size of a small room, half of it floored with white sand and the other decorated with a green filmy bed of sea-weed. At the edge of the pond, water is bubbling up from the base of a gloomy-looking cliff. The cliff is shrouded in growing ferns and, a few yards, upstream, there are little green grooves in the moss where water is sliding down from the porous rock.
A sign near the Big Springs remarks that the valley contains "seven algific talus slopes (ice caves)". Is "algific talus slope" a synonym for "ice cave"? This seems incorrect to me. But I don’t know.
A week later, I drove to Iowa to search for algific talus slopes. My first stop was an exhibit on this unique facet of northeastern Iowa geology said to be located at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
Cedar Falls is about a two-hour drive in the country from Austin. The sky was absolutely cloudless and it was warm, low 80's with high humidity. On the radio, President Trump was making a speech. He said that he was withdrawing the United States from participation in the Paris climate accords. "I have been elected to serve the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said, citing the agreement as disastrous for the American economy.
The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) is all new – it looks like the university has been manufactured in one fell swoop on prairie once at the outskirts of Cedar Rapids within the last several decades. If there was previously a shady quadrangle and old ivy-covered buildings, they are not in evidence today. In fact, the entire campus, as far as I can see, is treeless, a flat preserve of concrete Brutalist buildings with big grey pillars marked with imprint of the forms used in their construction. No signs show the lay-out of the buildings and the place is eerily quiet – the sidewalks between the big shoals of concrete are entirely empty. At the center of the place, a sinister carillon tower rises over a huddle of three or four story classroom buildings. The tower seems an artifact of UNI’s earlier aspect, perhaps, before Dutch Elm disease stripped the trees from the place.
It takes me some aimless wandering to find the Rod library where the algific talus slope exhibit is located. A breathless internet account of the exhibit, written by some eighth grade girls, says that the exhibit is "very cool" and that, when you press a button, the diorama exhales into your face cold that simulates one of the sedimentary stone vents on the north-facing talus slope. The Rod Library is another pile of raw concrete, air-conditioned and, apparently, empty – I don’t see anyone moving among the steel stacks where the books are displayed. The UNI museum is down the steps on the basement level. It consists of two elongated rooms displaying yellowing posters of rock ‘n roll shows – faded images of neatly groomed boys wearing identical blazers. Some old guitars are on display in cases. Outside the music exhibit, there are African drums and a sort of carved wooden lyre from Nigeria. A corridor leads past a glass wall. Behind the glass wall, I can see artifacts resting on shelves, mostly preserved birds and pelts or curious crystals, a few weapons as well, and items of Victorian clothing – it seems to be a panorama, as it were, of the museum’s holdings, none of which are on display.
A fat woman with her arm in a sling sits in an office to the side of the corridor. Above her, on a broad shelf, two stuffed lionesses glare down at me. I ask the woman about the algific talus slope exhibit and she shrugs. "I don’t know about that, but, maybe, Darrin does," she tells me. She gets up and leads me to a door opening into the warehouse space with the industrial steel shelving. Darrin is a heavy-set young man wearing blue nylon gloves over his surprisingly small and dainty hands. He has granny glasses and sports a white lab coat and he, also, has an Amish-style neck beard.
Darrin shakes my hand, still wearing his blue latex gloves. I wonder what he has been handling with those gloves. He takes me back into the office where the woman with the injured arm is sitting idly behind her desk. "We gave the slope to a conservation official," he says adding: "In Winneshiek County." "Winneshiek County?" I ask. "Yes," Darrin says. "That’s closer to where they are located." I nod my head. The county seat of Winneshiek is Decorah and, indeed, that is a place where a number of algific talus slopes are located. "Where did it end up?’‘ I ask. "I’ll give you the address," he says. The young man types a few words into his computer, still working with the blue latex on his hands. Then, he calls to the woman with the injured arm – "Can you get me the file please?" A few moments later, she glides into the room with a single sheet of paper in a numbered manila fiber. "It went here," Darrin says.
The address is: "Barbara Schroeder, Winneshiek County, Conservation Board, 2546 Lake Meyer Rd., Fort Atkinson, Iowa 52114." Darrin writes this address on a yellow post-it note and hands it to me. I thank him. "She was very, very happy to receive the exhibit," Darrin says. In a little glass case, there is a stuffed baboon infant. Next to the baby baboon, on a slightly higher shelf, there is a mount of a baby bear, stuffed so that the creature seems to be smiling.
Outside, on the deserted campus, I look for a toilet. I got into the Maucker Student Union. It’s a concrete bunker splayed out between slabs of vertical cement, all pocked like osteoporotic bone. The Union was designed before the Americans with Disability Act – it contains innumerable levels and steps, so many that I can’t tell where one floor ends and another level begins: the structure is a sort of vertical Piranesi-style maze, empty except for a studious-looking woman conducting what seems to be a job interview with another younger woman in one of the wells beneath the various slanting ramps and concrete balconies. A couple of students on work-study are pushing vacuums through a cafeteria carpeted with a brown fabric. It’s a bewildering place with flights of steps leading to places midway between levels, small pedestal, ledges the size of a grand piano, elevated walkways, the whole interior now rationalized with long wooden ramps suturing the different levels and sub-levels and half-levels and quarter-levels together.
Outside, a pretty co-ed is spraying water on some plants growing alongside the arboretum. The sun is bright. The girl is working next to Wright Hall, an older building – on the lintel above a side-door, deeply incised letters read: DO NOT DO WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE, a curious motto that, I must confess that I don’t understand.
The Bixby State Preserve, the site of the most readily accessible algific talus slope, is a couple of counties to the east, north of the main freeway to Dubuque. This is the territory where the Zeilingers, the maiden name of my father’s mother, resided. The Zeilingers were all German-speaking theologians, educated in Oelwein and Dubuque, Iowa, pastors who topped-off their Lutheran theological studies, as it were, with a semester abroad at a Evangelisches Kirche seminary in Dresden or Wittenberg. As far as I know, these were very learned, rigidly conventional, and abstemious clergy – although they ceased their European studies at the time the United States entered World War I, the Zeilinger’s spoke German at home, at least through the era of the Great Depression. I suppose that the Zeilingers wooed their women in the watery, green parks of northeastern Iowa, at picnic tables perpetually cooled by nearby algific talus slopes where they quaffed lemonade and, on rare festive occasions, Falstaff beer. I thought of old postcards showing creeks with shaggy bluffs above them and little gazebos in cleared meadows near the water – the old postcards had been hand-colored with mellow tints that seemed like the sun setting so as to suffuse the landscape with a golden radiance.
The Bixby State Preserve is three miles north of the tiny village of Edgewater. The lane that leads to the park is called Franklin Avenue in Edgewater. The lane leads past a particularly cheerless trailer court. Trailers are supposed to be temporary housing, yet, these old, grey mobile homes seem to have been on the edge of this little village since log cabin days – dilapidated and antique, the trailers are scattered haphazardly among mournful trees. A few yards away, there is a spooky-looking house made of yellowish fieldstone with round barrel-shaped towers.
The lane is marked "minimum maintenance" although I didn’t think it was difficult to drive, just scary because narrow and winding through a dense woods and, then, alongside a stony creek bed with forty-foot sandstone walls comprised of cyclopean blocks furry with moss. It’s one-lane and I don’t know what would happen in you met an oncoming car on that path down the steep slope and through the canyon. Where the gorge levels out, there is a big two-story stack of field stone, a sort of massive chimney that once, I suppose, named the State Preserve but that now gestures inarticulately, a mute giant, at the traveler. Beyond the road dips to cross the creek and there is a parking place on the edge of an odd oval-shaped clearing. A single fire-pit dimples the clearing and, at its upslope side, the CCC erected long ago a big shelter, heavy rustic timbers with field stone walls. The clearing is hemmed in by steep wooded slopes on all sides and the air is heavy and congested. A stone trough with shallow steps, maybe a hundred of them leads through uphill behind the shelter. It’s a strange path, only a foot wide and clogged like a drainage channel with dead leaves and twigs and, at the top, there are some dark boulders with trees growing through them and another ruinous CCC shelter, this one without roof, crumbling walls supporting lightning-slashed fallen trees. I went up the little trough-like set of steps, explored the CCC ruins on the slope and, then, descended again to the curious little meadow. Another trail ran through the high-grass to a sod bank, cut down to the mud where water splashed over some rocks. The stream looked to be about a foot deep and people had heaped some stepping stones in the current, but the water was sluicing over their top and some of the rocks were covered with moss. The creek nudging against some of the flat stones, haphazardly stacked atop one another, caused them to wobble palpably. Beyond the crossing, I could see a trail, muddy-looking, winding away into the trees. On the Internet, I had seen pictures of rough columns of black slabs of rock with a gabled threshold built into the hillside – this was the ice-cave and, apparently, the algific talus slope. But I didn’t see that structure anywhere nearby.
I picked up a half-dozen loaf-sized pieces of sandstone and dropped them in the water to enhance the crossing, but when I tested my new stepping stones with the tip of my tennis shoes, they wobbled unsteadily. I was alone and didn’t want to fall in the creek and, so, after several attempts to cross the eight-foot stretch of running water, I gave up. Biting gnats were swarming up from the mud around the creek and there were stagnant puddles swarming with sperm-shaped black tadpoles. If there were algific talus fields around, I didn’t see them.
I drove back up the narrow track to the rolling cornfields and, then, the town of Bixby. Then, I went across the high lands, huge valleys opening on both sides of the road, watersheds were streams or rivers were flowing toward the Mississippi about 15 miles distant. I stopped briefly in Elkader where the Turkey River is forced over a dam and hangs like a silvery veil in the middle of the town, an old arch bridge humped up to cross the water. Ancient brick buildings lined Main Street including one of them with an eccentric steeple that looked like the spear-shaped sting of a manta ray. (Elkader is named after Abd al-Qadr al Jazar’iri, an Algerian sheik who resisted the French occupation of his country – the men who founded the village in 1848 admired al-Qadr and named the place after him. When the Turkey River flooded a few years ago and devastated part of the city, the Algerian government offered relief.)
A few miles later, I passed through the tiny river-town of McGregor and, then, followed a narrow blacktop at the base of high bluffs overhanging the west channel of the Mississippi. There’s a big bridge by the river-boat casino at Marquette arching up and across to Prairie du Chien. All the public buildings in Prairie du Chien are made from butter-colored local sandstone, a very soft and yielding kind of masonry that makes the structures glow faintly in the dusk. An old fort sits on a terrace over the river and the courthouse is also built of soft, glowing sandstone as well as the old Villa Louis, situated on a mucky island that seems always flooded or at risk of flooding.
I checked-into a Motel SIX on the south side of town. The room was humid with bad air blowing from the swampy airconditioner.
The Night Clerk recommended that I take the old river road through town and eat at a place called "The Barn" on the northside. "It is beyond the little nine-hole golf course and the marina," the girl told me.
The road ran through the flood plain where the City of Prairie du Chien has bought out and relocated the old housing, demolished the ancient river-front warehouses and taverns and brothels. The highway twists along the river, so close that the Big Muddy has flooded fields up to the shoulder of the road, even extending fingers of murky water across the oncoming lane. As I approach one of the areas where half the road is flooded, a Bald-headed Eagle swoops down, a great moving vector of talons and beak and wings, slashing like a saber the surface of the pool of flood water covering half the highway. Whatever the bird was seeking for its supper, it was unsuccessful, sailing over over the line of trees half-drowned on the edge of the channel.
"The Barn" is the kind of place that you find only in rural Wisconsin and it is highly recommended for that reason. The dining rooms are immense, acres of darkness within rustic-walls, timbers supporting the bare roof overhead and pilasters of logs cut in half and polished along the walls, tiny candles in apple-shaped glass goblets flickering on the tables. I came into the restaurant through the bar, climbing a flight of eight or nine heavy-set log steps and, inside, there were two bar-maids wearing bikini tops and cut-off jeans sluicing cold beer into big frosty mugs for the customers sitting around the pine-wood bar. In the tavern, a big window opened out to the road running parallel to the river and some lagoons where boats were stranded, one huge barge landlocked in an elbow-shaped pond that had now dried-up – the big prow and high shelf of the cargo-holds sitting incongruously in the middle of field where goats and sheep were grazing.
My prime-rib came with salad bar and a thick barley-soup and there was also asparagus, perfectly seasoned and cooked. Everything about the restaurant was praise-worthy. People know how to eat in Wisconsin – the food is simple, portions are massive, and everything is nourishing and fresh. And you get to eat in a broad room with retired farmers and their children, big men in feed caps and crowds of blonde children and equally blonde wives, even the old ladies sporting platinum blonde hair, two or three generations gathered at the big tables, the salad bar glowing under daisy-colored lights and, through some chinks in the log walls, you can look out into the long, blue twilight, some horses in a pasture, the high shaggy bluffs covered with green trees as if the restaurant were in the jungles of the Yucatan.
The next morning, I drove south through intersecting river valleys and, then, up onto the farm land occupying broad ridges, farms set at about the interval that you can see across in green shelter belts, small villages with their church steeples dwarfed by the big fat grain elevators on their outskirts. After some missteps and a few false leads, I dropped down into a channel between the bluffs and rode it down to Glen Haven, a hamlet built where the steep, slender valley opens out onto the river-bottom.
By all evidence, Glen Haven shouldn’t exist. The steep-walled valley has no level ground and the houses, mostly crumbling bungalows are tilted. The main street runs between a half-dozen ancient brick commercial buildings, stacks of red or brown stone with limestone cornices perilously perched atop them, and there are no sidewalks, just deep concrete-walled drainage channels running parallel to the road on both of its sides – this means that the bungalows and the commercial buildings are accessed by stepping across little wooden and metal drawbridges. The houses next to the wall-like slopes of the valley seem to be dug into the cliffs – people park their cars in dripping grottos. At the base of the town, where the hillside levels out there is a big berm, probably 25 feet high, an earthwork to which the asphalt road leads. The road, in fact, goes right up the side of the berm and, from the crest, the traveler is alarmed to see that there is nothing on the other side of the dike but a broad, turbulent-looking channel of the Mississippi River – the road expands into the asphalt apron of a boat-launch and it drops precipitously into the brown flood that here is about the width of two football fields. The lay-out reminds me of certain villages that I have seen in north Japan where the driveways descending down from the homes where the fishermen live drop directly into the cold and stormy ocean.
According to internet sources, there is an algific talus slope under the protection of the State of Wisconsin 1.2 miles north of Glen Haven on Dugway Road. Dugway Road is not hard to find – it is the only road running north, parallel to the river from the hamlet. This is also a "low maintenance" road but, certainly, easy enough to drive unless you encounter an oncoming vehicle. The road slides along the very base of high river bluffs, occupying a terrace that is about 35 feet above the grade where the railroad tracks run. The road winds, has no guard rails, and a mistake could be catastrophic here, but the way is reasonably graded and the lane has been patched in places where floods pouring down ravines have ripped it apart. About three-quarters of a mile from Glen Haven, the dirt road passes under some overhangs, rock actually extending out over the lane so that, for a hundred feet, you feel as if you are driving in a tunnel. Local kids have covered the sandstone with graffiti.
Nothing marks the nature reserve. I drove for three miles, found no sign of the reserve, reversed my direction, and stopped, at last, in a swale among swampy lagoons festering with mud and rotting vegetation, a place where a watercourse, dry on this day, snaked down between two overgrown bluffs. This was, perhaps, the nature conservancy, but I found nothing there – another elliptical or oval clearing had been opened in the impenetrable woods and, even, a little lawn planted there, a mowed green grass patch with a fire-pit at its center. To the south were low, shaggy cliffs abutting a hip-high thicket of fiddlehead ferns. A path ran up the valley to a gate on which there were posted very alarming No Trespassing signs – the gate wasn’t much of an impediment: it wasn’t attached to a fence, just some iron bars hanging on a rusty hinge with a few strands of errant barb-wire wrapped around a metal post. The No Trespassing sign declared that anyone entering through the gate, or around it, would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Next to the gate, there was a bucket upturned with a piece of lathe piercing its bottom, a makeshift sign declaring: ALL HUNTERS ENTER HERE! These seemed to be contradictory messages. I slipped between the bucket and the gate and walked down a muddy trail for a hundred feet. The trail was clear, but I couldn’t see that it led anywhere, and, so, I went back to my car parked in the grass on the edge of the oval clearing. If there were algific talus slopes here, I didn’t see them or couldn’t reliably recognize them.
I felt oppressed by the claustrophobic meadow ringed by the blackwater of the swamp and the low, overgrown cliffs. The air felt unclean and I didn’t like the faint animal cries coming from the thickets. We all want to interact with Nature, doesn’t want to interact with us. Heraclitus wrote: "Nature likes to hide." And, in any event, what would it be like to really interact with Nature. How would that encounter end? I retreated to my car and, then, drove north, another five winding one-lane miles to a place where another, broader valley descended down into the river bottoms. There was an asphalt road in that place and it led me back to Prairie du Chien and, then, across the river to Effigy Mounds National Monument.
On the Iowa side of the Mississippi, the landscape north of McGregor is intricate with high bluffs hanging like green clouds over the great river’s channels. The bluffs are transected by narrow valleys where tributary rivers, most particularly the Yellow, plunge down to join their waters with brown flood of the Mississippi. On the west side of the bluffs, the river and creek beds spread out like capillaries or the branches on a tree, a complex network of narrow and steep valleys, some of them with palisade cliffs, and knobs of land up to tillable acreages where there are scattered farms. It’s an area that feels very wild and remote, with unmarked roads snaking up gloomy, jungle-like ravines. Because this part of northeastern Iowa is so poor and rocky, so much up and down without level ground, large expanses of the area have never been cultivated – this means that hundreds of Indian mounds dot the hilltops and the terraces above the Mississippi and other rivers flowing into its two great channels. In most parts of the Midwest, these mounds were eradicated, plowed under when the sod was broken, but the woods are so dense in northwest Iowa that tracts of archaeologically significant earthworks, some of them dating back to a thousand years BC can still be seen.
These monuments were not the object of my expedition and so I will scant my description of them in this essay. It suffices for me to say that I spent three hours hiking the high bluffs in Effigy Mounds National Monument, a steep climb up switchbacks to the rolling, densely wooded hilltops where the mounds were built. There are three scenic overlooks above the river along the trail that I hiked. In this area, the riverside bluffs are so vertical that, from atop them, the hiker has the sense that he ran fast enough and flung himself wide of the stony cliffs underfoot, he might be able to dive straight down into the river, the great looping channel marked with enigmatic buoys at its center.
Internet information advised that there was a newly discovered Algific Talus Slope in Yellow River State Forest, a tangled octopus-shaped woods located about 12 miles north of the National Monument. I asked the park ranger at the desk about this place. "Talus slope?" he asked. "Those are all over. If you hiked up to the bluff-top mounds you passed over some talus slopes."
"But are they algific?" I asked.
The younger park ranger said: "He means cold-producing."
"Oh, I don’t know about that," the older man replied.
I said that I had been looking for them. "I was down on Dugway Road," I said.
The older man looked at me and squinted. "You drove Dugway Road?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "Is there an algific talus slope there?"
"Don’t know that," the older man said.
"I was at Bixby," I said. "Yesterday."
The younger park ranger was relieved. "Well, if you were at Bixby, then, you’ve seen an algific talus slope," he said. "That’s where you go to look at them."
"But I didn’t see any," I said.
"Did you see the ice cave?" He asked.
"No," I said.
"It’s just on the other side of the creek. Just a few hundred feet from where you cross the creek," he told me.
"It was flooded," I said, "I didn’t cross the creek."
"Oh, that’s too bad."
"Well, what about Yellow River?" I asked.
"Don’t know anything about that," the older man said. The younger park ranger chewed on his lip a little.
Some elderly people hobbled into the museum. They were too old to hike up the steep trail to the effigy mounds, mostly bears and a bird, above us on the bluff top. The younger park ranger told them that the movie about the mounds shown on rotation in the small auditorium next to the wildlife displays was about to begin.
I went into the museum and looked at the exhibits. The star of the museum is the so-called New Albin tablet, a pentagonal shard of polished red pipestone about five inches tall and two inches wide. On the smooth surface of the tablet, a stylized human figure has been incised into the shiny red stone. The artist cut the human figure as an etching or intaglio into the catlinite, a fine, mirror-smooth specimen mined at the ancient quarries 300 miles to the west. The figure either has the head of a bird or wears a raptor as his headdress – his esophagus or windpipe has been drawn as a column around which his broad-shouldered, geometrically stylized body has been incised. The figure wears a loin cloth and it appears that a zig-zagging discharge of lightning emanates from his groin.
The thunder god is displayed in a round or convex case at the head of some columns of ceramic shards. The tablet was found in New Albin, a tiny village on the small, muddy terrace overlooking the swampy North Iowa River, a couple miles from its confluence with the Mississippi. It was 1915 and someone was shoring up the foundation of a house – the basement had collapsed due to the sandy soil and the tablet was found buried in that sand.
Returning to the rangers at the front desk, I asked them if the famous glaciere or ice cave in Decorah, Iowa, fifty miles to the west was part of an algific talus slope. "Could be," the younger man said. It was obvious that he and his sidekick had exhausted that topic of conversation. "Will be 88 degrees tomorrow," the older man said. "Yahoo," the younger pare ranger replied.
My notes told me that an algific talus slope existed along the Oneonta or Trout Run Trail, a hiking path in Decorah, Iowa. In fact, one internet reference suggested that there was some kind of display, a marker or plaque directing attention to the talus slope and advising as to its unique characteristics. I reached Decorah around 2:50 pm, but found that it was difficult to orient myself in the city and that the places where my notes told me to search weren’t clearly marked on the map. The algific talus slope was said to be marked on the Trout Run or Oneonta Trail in Phelps Park just off "Dug Road." The road name bothered me – another algific slope in Wisconsin was supposed to be accessed by Dugway Road. Was it possible that there were two roads relevant to my search with such similar names? Or had I written one of these notes down wrong?
Decorah’s city limits extend far beyond the town itself and the town’s residential and commercial buildings are scattered between several intersecting valleys. As far as I can determine, the town’s streets make a shape a little like a hollow Iron Cross with a tangled wood-overgrown hilltop in the middle of the municipality. Big steep bluffs rise up precipitously from the river bottoms where several spring-fed streams collide and join with one another – the green mass of the bluff where Phelps Park is located rises up over the valley and town like the fin of a shark.
Immediately upon entering the city limits, far from the town itself in an idyllic valley adorned with a trout stream, I encountered signs directing me to Trout Run Road. The valley was wide enough for there to be a few acreages planted in corn between the stony heights and there were pretty and graceful pedestrian bridges over the stream. (Decorah is a college town and kids were zooming around on bicycles on the paved trails.) Trout Run Road ends where silvery water plunges down a sort of stepladder above the old Teutonic-looking buildings of a trout hatchery – from a distance, the place with its castellated tower and Gothic windows looked like a brewery, a bit like the Schell’s buildings in a similarly green and shady ravine at New Ulm, Minnesota. There were a lot of people scrutinizing the trout in the hatchery and just downstream of the aerated ponds, kids were gathered the grassy banks of the river casting their fishing lines into the rippling creek. This wasn’t the place that I was seeking and so I used the map on my phone to navigate through the valleys to Phelp’s park.
One-way streets protect Phelp’s Park and its hard to find the way up to the heights. The place occupies the summit of the high bluff dividing the downtown from the bucolic pastures and meadows of the college to the north. Houses line the streets up to the old park where there are some gazebos on the rocky slopes and a grassy mound with tennis courts ascending to a wooded conical mound. Next to the park, an old mansion occupies public land – this was once the home of the brick manufacturer whose construction materials built the town: there are some beehive-shaped kilns where the bricks were fired. The steep slope overlooking the flood plain to the north is sheer and densely entangled with trees and vines. A trail, the so-called "Trout Run Trail, initiates in a curious stone walkway between two 19th century observation towers. This trail is marked at one mile and it runs just below the top of the hillside, along a cliff plunging down precipitously 120 feet to the valley floor. The trail is narrow and, in places, treacherous and the consequences of a misstep at many locations during the hike could be deadly. After about a half-mile skirting the tree-covered escarpment, the trail dips into a dell, a little wild and rockgirt canyon where there is a fairy tale arched bridge made of field stone and some old steps leading down to the span over the gorge and, then, ascending again up the side of the steep hill to the head of another stony and wooded ravine deeply cut into the bluff and about a quarter mile away. The trail climbs over the ravine, reaches a meadow on the top of the bluff and, then, peters out in fields overlooking a tract of suburban housing. In the dell, I saw a few clefts in the rock that might have been venting cold air, and, when I held my hand near those fissues, I imagined that I could feel a temperature gradient, but it certainly wasn’t obvious to me that these steep, black cliffsides, always shadowy and damp with their depths filled with ferns had anything to with an algific talus slope.
On my way back to the parking lot at Phelp’s park, a garter snake poised to cross the trail hesitated, politely waited for me to pass and, then, slithered away downhill. I looked down the sheer slope and could see a river below, rippling with white lacy rapids, and what appeared to be a broad asphalt trail between the base of the cliff and the stream. I looked at the clock on my phone – it was still about 3:30 and so I thought I would drive around the base of the bluff, following the roads closest to the bottom of the hillside. That would be my last hike and I would, then, visit the ice cave and depart for Austin, about two hours away.
At the base of the bluff, on its north side, water spilled down a concrete channel, dropping brightly over a weir at the top of the slope. The water slid downhill and, then, fell foaming into the river that was undercutting the dolomite bluff. A bridge spanned the watercourse and the lane ended at a parking lot. A flat trail, surfaced with asphalt led from the parking lot to the base of the cliff and, then, ran parallel between bluff and the river, banks about 12 feet above the water.
A box riveted to a post offered a guide to the Nature Trail and its numbered features – this was the Oneonta Trail. Feature number 16 was an algific talus slope. A couple bicyclists were spinning down the trail and there were two college boys debating politics as they walked side-by-side through the shadow and shade.
About an eighth of a mile from the parking lot, the asphalt path spanned a gash in the steep hillside, where torrents had torn open the bluff, cutting the slope to its quick of fractured dolomite slabs. A big sign announced that this was an algific talus slope, north facing and vented so that cold air maintained temperatures of 30 to 57 degrees on the broken rock faces. Vines dangled down into the steep dell and fallen boulders clogged the bottom of the canyon, pinning deadfall from trees dropped from above. On the sign, a diagram showed how an algific talus slope is made, water percolating down through sinkholes atop the bluff and, then, freezing in innumerable fractures in the porous hillside. The deeply cut ravine was impressive but I understood that the sign was intentionally inaccurate – this was just a steep and wild gorge. The sign’s author did not want to casual onlookers to know that the slope itself was another two-hundred yards down the trail, marked with a little post dug into the ground beside the path.
The post, numbered with a yellow 16, was at the foot of a 45 degree angled slope, densely overgrown with ferns and broad-leafed deciduous plants. The slope extended from the trailside uphill about twenty or thirty feet to where the grade increased sharply into a limestone cliff. Some small cracks cleft the cliff but I could see that the angled slope, was comprised of rubble shaped roughly like broken bricks, a heap of loose rock concealed under the tapestry of dense ferns and broad-leaf plants. There were no flowers, nothing really extraordinary to direct the eye to the algific slope, itself not at all dramatic, just a slumped steep hillside rising to the base of the shaggy cliffs. The densely green ramp rising up to the sheer cliff was at the angle of repose that you would expect if a load of bricks were spilled off the top of the palisade and left in the natural position into which they had fallen. The algific slope exuded a faint breath of winter or early spring and smelled like a wet basement. It was obvious that the vegetation cloaking the slope was different from the grasses and wildflowers on the other side of the asphalt path – clearly there was a temperature differential resulting in one type of flora on the north-facing slope and another, different sort of plant-life, more like what you might see on a prairie hillside above the swift-flowing brown river. The vents exhaling cold onto the slope were not dramatic. Up on the cliffside, there were some overhangs and deep dents in the rock, winter chiseling into the slope, but, below, there were no grottos or deep crevasses – rather, the whole slope was porous, a loose heap of rubble.
I had been at this exact site many years ago, before the path was paved, and, in fact, then it was merely a mucky game trail, winding along the foot of the cliff. I recall the grass in the Fall when I hiked along that way as being higher than my head and laden, I suppose, with deer ticks and, therefore, Lyme disease. The path ran close to the talus and I recall skidding and slipping in the loose rubble under its net of green fern and broadleaf roots. But there was no sign, no marker of any kind, and I had walked past the slope without knowing what it was. Even, now, the slope was inconspicuously marked – the big diorama-sized sign down the trail was, at least, 200 yards from this place.
I took some photographs with my cell-phone. Later, I examined them and they showed nothing - some green shadow, a fern curling as if to invite me to look more closely, a shard of rock protruding from a mat of green...
The rocky bluffs around Decorah are sieves and water trickles through them. There are springs everywhere, places were water bubbles out of mysterious hollow in the rock. Seeps and oozes abound, moist moss glistening in the leafy shadows. The town’s ice cave is so famous that it has a road named after it – this is the largest glaciere east of the Rocky Mountains. A river meanders through the valley and the afternoon is very humid. There’s a small parking lot beneath the stone cliffs where the cave is located. Some old stone steps lead up to an alcove in the cliff-face. Tilted slabs of sandstone for a high shadowy recess, a majestic gate twenty feet high opening into the rock. The actual cave entrance is at the base of that stone gate, a narrow cold crevasse that you would have to stoop to enter and that seems to divide into two descending fissures a half-dozen feet under the rock lintel. A sharp wedge of stone cuts the crevasse in two. I take two steps into the darkness and, then, sense the black mud underfoot, and recognize that I am unable to see anything, even, here at the very entrance to the chamber. So I retreat.
I’ve stood at the threshold of this cave, perhaps, five times in my life and have never been properly equipped to enter. The essential equipment that I have lacked is courage and the resolution to go into the darkness.
Some children are hooting on the sheer hillside overhead. Below the cliff, in the parking lot, three girls wearing bikinis get out of their old car. On their feet, there are flip-flop sandals. They are carrying towels as if for a trip to the beach. The girls go up the old fieldstone steps, whisper to one another, and, then, the vanish into the crack in the rock.
The ice cave is not an algific talus slope. First, there is no tilted slope and no mat of tangled vegetation. I don’t see any talus gathered at the foot of the cliff. And the hillside is south-facing. Algific talus slopes are found beneath north-facing cliffs.