Tuesday, September 25, 2018
The City of Winnipeg was built where two large, sluggish rivers intersect on the flat Manitoba plain. No hills grace the city and it has no lakes, only the great confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Near this confluence, called "the Forks", Manitoba’s legislative building rises, a polished limestone block with allegorical figures at its cornices surmounted by a pinched dome. Atop the dome, a naked figure with gold skin bearing a torch and a sheaf of wheat runs northward – this is the so-called "Golden Boy". About 800,000 people live in the cheerless provincial capitol.
Around 1982, civic leaders in Duluth finally accepted an unpleasant economic reality: the city’s industries, mining and grain storage, were moribund. Employment was declining and those who worked at the elevators or loading taconite on the huge iron piers extending over the seaport were poorly paid. Mining is unsustainable in the long run and commodities hostage to unpredictable business cycles. Duluth was poor but beautiful, dramatically situated in a deep and intricate harbor where the great St. Louis river flowed into the turbulent inland sea of Lake Superior. And, so, the place was re-visioned, re-invented as a city catering to tourists – the waterfront dives were transformed into airy bars and dining rooms where women and children were welcome. The nasty slums around the harbor were cleared and replaced with luxury hotels. The utilitarian piers extending into the brutally cold waters of the great lake were restored and, then, loaded with boutiques and food arcades. The city’s ancient, moldering train station became a museum. In this way, the city was saved but, in a meretricious form, unrecognizable to its older inhabitants.
Thunder Bay, the twin ports in Ontario at the head of Lake Superior, was similarly transformed. And, now, it seems that the city of Winnipeg has embarked on this sort of metamorphosis as well. An enormous museum dedicated to the history and commemoration of human rights rises over "the Forks". The city built this vast and spectacular building because, of course, there are humans living in Winnipeg and they have rights and, so, why not commemorate that subject in a destination museum – a facility with aspirations to be like Bilbao’s craggy Guggenheim, a place that would attract tourists. Downtown, the humble Winnipeg Art Gallery ("WAG") is excavating foundations for another wing on the curious wedge-shaped tract of land where the museum stands. WAG has a world-famous collection of aboriginal art, mostly soapstone and ivory carvings from First Nations people living in Northern Manitoba and Labrador. Clearly, the objective is to make this museum a tourist destination as well. Like Duluth and Thunder Bay, Winnipeg is a place in the process of re-imagining itself – but this transformation is infinitely more difficult, I think, in this city because there is in the place something inherently, and resolutely, opposed to glamor.
Three landforms meet at Winnipeg. A few miles to the East, the territory is raw with granite outcroppings and swift rivers that plunge through stone gorges connecting networks of wilderness lakes – this is the Laurentian shield, terrain that extends across upper Minnesota and Ontario to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Pines cluster around cold, stone-girt lakes, water surges over cascades and falls. North of Winnipeg, boreal forests enclose vast tracts of tamarack swamp. The forests surround enormous, frigid lakes – Lake Winnipeg, about 100 miles north of the city of that name, is the tenth largest fresh water lake in the world. Beginning near the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red River of the North, flat, featureless prairies run west 800 miles to the Rocky Mountains.
Presumably, people in Winnipeg enjoy winter sports. The city is famous for hockey. But there is no place for downhill skiing, not even a hill sufficiently imposing for a decent toboggan-run. The rivers flow in barren gullies about thirty-feet deep. Outside of town, there is a place called Bird Hill. This is a conical prominence, unnatural in appearance, possibly a garbage dump where the detritus of a hundred years has mounded to forty or fifty foot pyramid clad in brown prairie grass. (Guy Maddin’s film, My Winnipeg, confirms this impression – in fact, the place was a garbage dump.) A couple pathetic ski-runs are gouged into the side of the hill and there is a sort of plexi-glass structure on stilts at the top of the chutes used for sledding – the plexi-glass structure looks like a post-modern deer stand.
Winnipeg is an unsightly city: it has few public parks and most neighborhoods are humble, small brick or frame houses tightly assembled along nondescript residential lanes. Despite the nightmarish cold in winter, it seems that most of the smaller homes don’t possess garages with the consequence that cars are parked along the streets at curb-side. These parked cars narrow the streets and create siphons too narrow for two vehicles to pass one another in opposite directions. If this is how the streets function in the warmth of early autumn, what is it like when the lanes are further narrowed by monstrous accumulations of snow? Because many neighborhoods were built for one-car families, before most house-wives drove, small groceries, hardware stores, and dry-cleaning businesses are interspersed among the homes. To ameliorate the town’s ugliness, artists have been commissioned to paint innumerable colorful murals on any wall that is the size of semi-truck trailer or larger. But this amenity isn’t uniformly successful – some murals are gloomy, enigmatic, or simply executed poorly. Along the side of a hair-stylist’s emporium, three gents with Edwardian moustaches and military hats look down upon the street – these are Canadian heroes from the Great War and the painting is drab -- its colors which were mostly dun and ocher are now fading. One of the Wild Things as imagined by Maurice Sendak lounges in an easy chair in a small room. Fur traders and Indians transact business. A First Nations man, who looks drunk, leans against a street lamp that emits a scream of expressionistic yellow light – the man outstretches his hands as if crucified and vignettes show other Native men, some of them dressed as soldiers or playing in rock bands or kicking soccer balls. The side of a bakery is decorated with faded aquamarine images of large, predatory fish swimming among parking meters and cars and, on another wall, a Buddhist luck god, fat and merry as a sea lion, stands in a landscape blue and green and white with waterfalls. The murals are innumerable – even people who live here have not seen them all. Some of the paintings are like fever-dreams emanating from the morose commercial buildings that they decorate. Winnipeg is an unreal city – it seems to be always sleeping.
An endless commercial street runs east and west. At one point, a mostly treeless golf-course is on one side of the road. The zoo is on the other side of the road. People go to the zoo to experience a hike called "Passage to Churchill" – this is a series of curving walkways that leads to a great, barren enclosure where polar bears are kept. The path descends along an imperceptibly sloping ramp until the visitor is within a concrete grotto. The grotto leads through a glass tube to a viewing station situated so that the spectator can look into the murky blue depths of a plunge pool agitated above by simulated cascades. Some aerodynamically-designed, sea lions with eerie white eyes – it seems that they have cataracts – are effortlessly propelling themselves through the depths: oblong shadows with whiskers that perform loop–de-loops showing their slick black backs on the up-stroke and their white bellies, navel-puckered on the descent. A big polar bear stands on a ledge overlooking one of the plunge-pools and worries a soccer-ball sized slab of salmon. The polar bear is also designed for swift swimming – on land, it is ungainly, a kind of white torpedo supported by stubby legs, but the beasts prowl the water with the lethal aplomb of a shark. "He is a sweetheart," a zoo guide tells the people marveling at the vast creature. "Very gentle." The bear’s paws are a half-a-yard long decorated with obsidian claws each the size of my hands.
Beyond the underwater observation grotto, an exit (sortie) leads to a road. The road runs a hundred yards to a mock-up of Churchill on Hudson Bay, a remote village that is Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port. (Churchill is 650 miles directly north of Winnipeg on the 57th parallel – train service from Winnipeg passes through the Pas in Saskatchewan and, then, curves back to Churchill, a distance of 1063 lineal miles or about 1700 kilometers.) Most people in Winnipeg have never been to Churchill and it is an exotic place for them – the encampment at the zoo displays a couple of Snowcats, two quonset huts and a replica of a saloon facade. The saloon facade, in fact, is the entry to the Tundra Café, a little cafeteria where you can buy foot-long hot dogs and hamburgers. A great glass wall with a vista of barren grassland and boulders, faux-tundra, displays a small blonde woman dressed like a janitor and wearing knee-high rubber boots. The woman pitches heads of cabbage, strewing them across the fake tundra. Then, the polar bears come, ambling clumsily across the uneven grassy hillocks. They graze on the cabbage heads like cows, showing their white and furry rumps to the people who are likewise feeding on foot-long hot dogs in the tundra café.
Over the weekend, 34 bears had to be trapped in Ottawa, some of them within a few kilometers of the Canadian capitol buildings. It’s been dry and hot in Ottawa and there is a huge natural preserve, the Parc de Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa river. Bears are good swimmers and they paddle across the river and, then, wander the streets of Ottawa looking for food that the drought has otherwise denied them. Cars smash into the bears and they climb eight or nine meters high in trees and lounge there and so the beasts must be trapped, inspected for disease, and, then, carried deep in the Gatineau preserve to be returned to the wild.
Also over the weekend, tremendous rain fell in Winnipeg. More rain fell in 12 hours than is normally measured for the entire month of September. Low spots in parking lots were flooded and some of the fields outside town reflected acres of gloomy sky in water ponded there. This part of Manitoba is flat – the water simply spreads out across the sodden plain. The sky is angry-looking and congested. In the city, everyone wears coats and windbreakers and, even, woolen gloves – this seems odd to me since the temperature is always between 56 and 70 degrees. But it’s autumn and a few of the trees show golden in the groves lining the Red and Assiniboine rivers and people here know that the weather is unpredictable – in the course of a few heartbeats, the rain can turn to snow and the winds can whirl into a tempest and, then, all the world goes polar-bear white.
WAG was mostly closed. A flooded pit stood next to the windowless prow of the current gallery. A new larger museum is under construction. Architectural renderings of the new museum show floor to ceiling cases filled with art objects made by aboriginal people from the Arctic. Open galleries in WAG feature large sculptures of sea mammals and birds with human faces embedded in them. The sculptures are Brancusi-smooth and seem inviting to the touch, cool and slippery as a fine glass paperweight and some of them are the size of large suitcases. There is some scrimshaw ivory delicately incised and paintings that show ravens and bears bearing lunar human faces in their bellies. One statue shows a glaring, hideous troll with strings tangled between prongs in her hair – the statue is labeled "Grandmother String Game" and it is from Nunavik, that is, made by a First Nations’ sculptor in Dorset Bay. A wall-sized pen sketch, elaborately hatched and shaded like an engraving, shows a squat native man stretched between a huge raven with scimitar-shaped beak and a missionary pulling the hapless Indian in the other direction. Almost all of the art is visionary, based on the experiences of First Nations’ shaman. Shaman are practical mystics, people who can inhabit the bodies of birds and orca and polar bears – they know the future and can heal the sick.
Nunavik is the northern third of Quebec, the part of Canada that was once called Labrador. It is vast, comprising territory larger than the state of California – about 12,000 people live there. The Atlantic coast in the Arctic is an autonomous zone with uncertain political affiliation to Canada. This territory is occupied by Inuit people who claim self governance – this claim is opposed by some corporations with mining interests in the area and the Metis people, the half-blood Cree or Dene and French population. Much of the art displayed at WAG comes from this area.
What do you call a female shaman? A shawoman? Usage varies – some writers favor "shamaness"; others use the word "shamanka", applying the "ka" that signifies "female" or "woman" in Russian to the term. The idea of the "shaman" derives from Russian ethnographic studies of its Siberian and Arctic natives.
My wife once knew an authentic female shaman. Each year, an organization called Split Rock conducts seminars in Duluth. These seminars are geared to affluent women who have the leisure to paint or write elaborate diaries or compose poems and short stories. Seminar participants live in dormitories on the University of Minnesota high atop the bluffs overlooking Lake Superior – those dormitories are empty during the summer and, therefore, ideal as lodging for the women enrolled in Split Rock programs. During the day, the teachers instruct the students in pleasant studios overlooking the great bay where the St. Louis River pours itself into the icy inland ocean. My wife’s friend, a talented artist, enrolled in a class in print-making and painting conducted the shaman, a native woman from Alberta, Canada. The shaman is now quite famous, in fact a member of the prestigious Order of Canada – I will refer to her as "Sue."
Sue was a skinny woman born in the early 1950's. Once, she had been beautiful, with exotic Asian features and dark skin. When my wife met her in Duluth, she was still striking – her long hair was grey and straight and she was skinny to the point of emaciation with perfect, erect posture. The artist told her students that she was a shaman. She pointed to scars on her arms and legs that marked her as a result of healing other people from illnesses and taking their pain into her own body. The shaman was from a tiny hamlet far north in Alberta, a place where sea-planes landed on a huge lake that flowed like a river. In the summer, no roads access that village. During winter-time, there are treacherous ice highways that lead to other hamlets on the tundras. Trucks cross innumerable frozen lakes and rivers transporting goods and, often, the drivers pick up native girls fleeing the isolation of their tiny villages, offer the hitchhikers passage to Winnipeg or Edmonton and, then, after raping them, throw their strangled bodies into the rivers to be swept away when the ice breaks up. There was no electricity in the hamlet where Sue was raised until 1959.
Sue’s mother died from tuberculosis when she was 6. She was raised by the German schoolteacher’s widow, a German woman who scarcely spoke English let alone the Cree language that was the little girl’s tongue. The schoolteacher had fled from Germany. He was an educated man and had a picture of Hegel framed in his little study. Hegel understood that life is transformation, one thing becoming its opposite and, then, transforming into a third thing – this is the essence of shamanism. Sue was sent to a residential school in Edmonton and, later, attended college where she took a degree in cell biology. In the evening, she attended art classes. Her art teachers recognized her potential and Sue went to graduate school in New York City at Columbia. She became a world-famous artist – her work is the National Gallery in Ottawa, and featured in the collections of the great art museums in Montreal and Toronto. She frequently shows in Paris and is represented by the Bear Claw gallery in Edmonton where she now lives. Her paintings are brightly colored, contain photographs and other found items (including in some cases eagle feathers) and depict native themes. She has made a series of paintings in vibrant Art Brut style depicting shamans howling at the sky – the pictures look to me a little like Dubuffet or, even, Basquiat.
It was unseasonably and dangerously hot in Duluth when my wife attended the Split Rock conference at which Sue was teaching. Dormitories built for cold weather were stifling. Sue and her companion, an old Indian man, complained that they were suffocating. They dragged their mattress out of the oven of their room and slept in the courtyard, under the stars. But there were mosquitos and it was still unbearably hot and humid with no respite until the hour before dawn when the winds stirred from the lake and carried a hint of the smell of icy water to the hilltop. There wasn’t much wind and the lake looked glassy when the sun rose, strange limpid causeways of motionless water making intersections over the depths. Sue told the Split Rock administrator that the heat was abusive and that, unless she was installed in a hotel at the program’s expense, she would contact the Canadian consulate. In high season, in the summer, it is very hard to book a hotel room in Duluth, but, after much effort, the program director found her a room in an old motel between the train station that was now a museum and the point with the Lift Bridge into a precinct of boutiques and restaurants.
For the other participants in the Split Rock program, the relentless heat and humidity was wearying. The only thing that could be done was to find a tavern and sit in the air-conditioning drinking beer. Although Sue had a cool hotel room, she said that she sympathized with her students and so went to the bar that they frequented, regaling them with stories about her life and hard times so long as they picked-up the tab for her Leinenkugels. The old man sat in the corner scowling at the table where the pretty ladies sat around the shaman. He was a heavy smoker and, so, every half hour, he would go outside for a cigarette. Sometimes, he walked down to the bus-stop a couple blocks away to talk to the other Native Americans, mostly teenage kids, who frequented that area, begging for money from the passing tourists. After a few hours in the bar, the ladies would go to an expensive restaurant with a view of the smooth, glossy lake. Someone would always buy Sue’s dinner. When they ordered wine, Sue arranged for an extra bottle that she could take back to the hotel to drink with the old man. He didn’t go with them to the restaurant, instead, preferring to remain in the tavern. One of women participants in the program paid for the wine with her credit card. Sue had expensive taste in wine.
My wife’s friend, Pam, thought that there was something fraudulent about Sue. There was a quarrel and Sue put a curse on Pam. Sue showed everyone the scars on her body incised in her flesh after battles with demons of mental illness and alcoholism. The heat continued. Sue repeated her mantra: "Everyone wants to fuck the shaman." When Sue cursed Pam, they were at her hotel room. The old man had a bottle of something and he had gone down the street to the Lift Bridge in the harbor and the esplanade along the canal where Native kids stood around cadging small change and dollar bills from tourists. My wife noticed that Sue wore tight white men’s jockey shorts. Dirty underwear was strewn around the room. Sue sat on the bed and offered to remove the curse from Pam. Pam said she wasn’t worried about the curse. Pam was a doctor’s wife and her husband could cure just about anything. "It’s a burden," Sue said. "Everyone wants to fuck the shaman."
Can a shaman transform herself into a snow-mobile or a snow-cat? Why aren’t their carved soapstones showing human faces embedded in Arctic cat snowmobiles? Could a shaman become a rifle? Could a shaman hike out into a desolate place, flat and treeless, where two brown and sluggish rivers bend ever so slightly from the parallel toward an intersection that both streams seem to reject, an imperceptible joining of waters that are on their way to a big, cold lake and, then, a bigger, colder bay -- could the shaman stand at the point between the rivers and, then, envision a city and elaborate its streets and alleys and sidewalks from within herself? Could a shaman transform herself into an unreal city complete with glass towers and shopping malls and neighborhoods comprised of thousands of little stone and lathe houses arrayed across an endless grid flat as a sheet of paper and, perhaps, as perishable, a windy place where a naked boy covered with gold kicks up his heels atop a pinched dome and polar bears wander in the vacant lots?
Across from the river where Louis Riel is buried, the Museum of Human Rights rears up, an implausible and vast apparition. The structure is embedded in the river bank atop a slightly sloping gradient planted in tall grass prairie and adorned with wild-flowers. The Museum is comprised of three elements, a raw-looking ziggurat opaque and heavy with brick that embraces a glass facade shaped a bit like the wings of a dove. The wing component, vertically oriented, is made of big glass panels that overlap one another, thatched like the feathers on a bird. A thorn-shaped tower, also made of glass rises from the top of the building, ascending another hundred-fifty feet upward – this is the Israel Asper Tower of Hope. The interior of the museum is an unlikely combination of grotto-like dark sheds, soaring atriums with glass sides and ceilings, and transparent elevator shaft that rises like a needle to pierce the sky. From the small, warm glass case atop the tower, the visitor can look down into Winnipeg – you can see the ruins of St. Boniface, the Romanesque castle of the Fort Garry Hotel, and the tops of the smaller towers in the city.
A traveling exhibit of artifacts associated with Nelson Mandela occupies the first dark shed adjacent to a brick lobby with a long pool and a wall on which animated figures inscribe the word "freedom" in forty languages. In the exhibit, you can see identity cards, shackles, a mock-up of the cell where Mandela was confined on Robyn Island together with video showing marches and massacres. Mandela’s shadow is projected against the side of his cell – not surprisingly he shadow boxes. The exhibit ends on a hopeful note. Ramps ascend to other galleries where the narrative is the same: homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man – but, then, there are reforms and the rights of the oppressed are tentatively acknowledged and, though there is always the possibility of backsliding, some progress is made. Every kind of oppression is visualized in video imagery and artifacts and, then, manifestos opposing that oppression are quoted on the walls. In one gallery, heroes of human rights stride forth in the form of illuminated stelae: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and others. The life-size photograph of Aung San Su Mi, the Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is pointedly shut off – no light emerges from her figure which stands dull and shadowy amidst those brightly lit figures that were previously thought to be her comrades. Some of the exhibits are surprisingly witty and it’s not as grim and dull as you might expect.
The visitor to the Museum of Human Rights strides ever upward, crossing over cavernous voids on glowing bridges made from alabaster. The bridges rise as ramps forming an criss-cross pattern of ascent within the big, echoing hollows of the structure. In the ancient world, medicines were kept in alabaster jars and vases – the stone was thought to have healing properties. Therefore, the climb upward over these innumerable soaring ramps symbolizes the ascent to truth, a slow passage that involves reversals every sixty feet. To use Kojeve’s formulation, this is the Hegelian ascent from the darkness below to the recognition that Desire desires Desire – that is, that each of us becomes human only in his or her desire that another recognize us as desirable, as a human being and, therefore, an end intrinsic to itself. The ascent culminates in a fast dash in the elevator up to the vertiginous, glass viewing platform overlooking the city. The apogee of human rights, therefore, is the vista over Winnipeg.
A docent stands on the patio-like balcony from which the elevator ascends. She tells us about the symbolism in the building. For instance, the garden of contemplation in one of the atriums is comprised of small pillars of basalt set among reflecting ponds. "Basalt is the most common rock on earth," she says. "It symbolizes that all human beings are more or less alike in their needs and desires." I ask her: "What about the Palestinians?" She must get the question often. "We want to let history sort this out," she says. "Once history has sorted this out, we will have an exhibit." Canadians in Manitoba pronounce "out" as "oot." The docent’s statement seems questionable to me: if we let history sort itself oot withoot human agency, we would probably still have slavery, child labor, and prisons full of suffragettes.
A walkway that seems to have been designed by Simon Calatreva crosses the river, a bridge supported by a web of white cables angling down from a central mast in the center of the span. On the other side of the river, Saint Boniface, now a part of Winnipeg, but once a Francophone village stands. The shops are small and Parisian, selling chocolate and expensive clothing. The area is named after a big Catholic church that burned in 1960. The church facade with a great barrel vault entrance remains as do some of the grey stone sidewalls of the vanished building. In the church cemetery, a visitor encounters the grave of Louis Riel. Behind the ruins of the church, now immaculately preserved in a garden, a Catholic college with a white cupola occupies a couple of city blocks. On the lawn of the Catholic college, some high, polished granite walls form a semblance of a vast cell. Confined within the cell, a knobby, tortured giant gestures at the world. The giant looks like a monster made by Henry Moore – he is contorted and full of voids and sinuous hollows. The name of the monument is "The Torment of Louis Riel."
Louis Riel is the unlikely hero of modern Winnipeg. His journey from criminal terrorist to being proclaimed as "the father of modern Manitoba" is a curious exercise in historical revisionism. This ascent from martyrdom to icon justifies the optimism cautiously implicit in the Museum of Human Rights. As we ascend the alabaster ramps of history, healing occurs and those once disdained or feared become heros.
In 1863, when the U. S. Army was chasing the Dakota Sioux across the empty grasslands of what is now North Dakota, their pursuit was interrupted by a curious encounter. The army found that the river valley that it was crossing was blocked by a vast procession. More than 10,000 people were migrating along the water-course, hunting as they went. The people pushed carts with six-foot tall wheels laden with their belongings and pitched tent cities each night as encampments. Men, women with babies, children, marched together each day, hunting parties scouring the bare hills and badlands for game. At night, around the fires, people sang and danced and many of the older men carried fiddles that they played. The people spoke a strange creole – a language called Michaf in which the verbs were all Cree and the nouns French. Most of the people were Catholic and there were black-robed priests among them. These were Metis, that is a half-breed population, the result of French-Canadian voyageurs and fur traders taking Cree women as their wives "after the manner of the country." The Metis were numerous and occupied an ambiguous status – they were neither Indian nor White. Later, the Canadian government entered into treaty obligations with the so-called First Nations, that is, the Indians. But the Metis were not Indians and no one made treaties with them. They were also not White and, therefore, didn’t possess the rights of the European settlers. Louis Riel was a Metis and, therefore, disenfranchised – he led two rebellions of Metis and Cree people and, ultimately, was hanged for his role in these insurrections.
Riel is a strange figure, part politician, part terrorist-guerilla, part religious visionary. At present, people in Manitoba regard him as a freedom fighter for the rights of the Metis and numerous statues and monuments suggest a bad conscience about what happened to him. These monuments are regarded as evidence of reconciliation between the Catholic French-speaking population in Manitoba, now a tiny minority, the Cree and Assiniboine Indians, and the dominant European people, largely Protestant Scotch Irish. Of course, the reality is intricate and far beyond the scope of what I might present in this essay. However, a few notes are in order.
The south part of Manitoba from Fort Garry at the Forks of the Assinboine and Red Rivers to Pembina in today’s North Dakota was owned by the Hudson Bay Company and called Rupert’s Land. At that time, Manitoba wasn’t a province in which the Hudson Bay Company was resident – rather, the Hudson Bay Company was a private firm that, in effect, owned a vast territory. After the American Civil War, Canadians feared that the aggressive and warlike Minnesotans would invade what is now Manitoba and seize it. So the Hudson Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Federation. (Thus, a Minnesota invasion of the Red River country would be an offense against both Canada and the Commonwealth.) A territorial governor, an English speaker politician, named MacDougal was appointed, much to the dismay of the French-speaking and Catholic Metis.
In the late 1860's, the Dawson road was being built. This was a highway from the Red River Colony at St. Boniface (now Winnipeg) and Port Arthur on the upper coast of Lake Superior. One of the laborers on the Dawson Road was a thoroughly unpleasant fellow named Thomas Scott. Scott was a trouble-maker and brawler, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. Scott led a strike on the Dawson Road work, assaulted some people, and was fired. He moved to Winnipeg where he distinguished himself by bullying "half-breeds" – that is, the local Metis people. Scott was affiliated with the territorial governor, also an aggressive and racist Protestant. Louis Riel was the leader of the Metis people congregated in St. Boniface, across the river from Fort Garry where the governor and Scott were headquartered. On the steps of the St. Boniface cathedral, now an imposing ruin, Riel gave a fiery speech and, then, led a rebellion. With about 400 men, he crossed the river and seized Fort Garry. The uprising was bloodless and no one was hurt in the coup that resulted in the Metis occupying the fort.
At first, Scott was captured. But he was so belligerent and obnoxious that Riel’s men let him go, ordering him out of the Red River Colony. Scott continued to harass the Metis at St. Boniface so Riel had him to be arrested again and jailed at Fort Garry. While imprisoned, Scott developed a severe case of diarrhea which distressed both his captors and fellow prisoners. Scott continued to insult everyone and make threats, but, now, he was also physically filthy and malodorous. The combination of a foul mouth and diarrhea was simply too much to tolerate. Riel convened a firing squad and told his men to execute Scott for "insubordination" – presumably failure to control his bowels. Scott was blindfolded, protesting his innocence and persisting in making hair-raising threats. The firing squad was drunk and, although lots of shots were fired, Scott was only wounded. One of the men tried to administer the coup de grace with his pistol, but his hand was shaking and, despite the close range, he missed. The bullet ripped through Scott’s cheek and, then, exited through the cartilage of his nose. This wound knocked Scott out, but, apparently, didn’t kill him. The executioners loaded Scott into a makeshift casket, but the ground was too cold to bury him (it was January) and so he was dragged outside to the banks of the river in the rough pine box. There, Scott revived and begged someone to put him out of his misery. The wounded man screamed for five hours before Riel himself hiked out to the casket and shot him through the heart.
Most of this narrative is murky and every point disputed. When Scott’s casket was exhumed a few years later, no corpse was found in it. Riel denied that he had executed Scott personally although he boasted that it was "a good thing" that he had done ordering the man to be shot. The Canadian government sent an expeditionary force to the Red River Colony, ostensibly to defend the place against the dangerously aggressive Minnesotans, but, more probably, to roust Riel from Fort Garry. Before the expedition reached Manitoba, using the Dawson Road as its thoroughfare, Riel issued declarations pronouncing that the territory would henceforth be a part of Canada, established to afford equal rights to its Metis and English-speaking citizens. Riel, then, fled, moving to Plattsburgh, New York. He was tried in absentia and convicted of the murder of Thomas Scott. Despite this conviction, he was three-times elected, also in absentia, to represent the Red River Colony in the Canadian parliament’s House of Commons.
Thomas Scott, who seems to have been a thug, was regarded as a martyr by the Protestants in Manitoba. On Princess Street, not far from the Manitoba capitol building, an elaborate Romanesque building with towers and a cavernous portico, its shadowy half-circle doorway round as a train tunnel, still stands. Although without name now, this structure was once the Thomas Scott Building.
The first insurrection led by Louis Riel, concluding with his escape to the United States in 1870, is called the Red River Rebellion. The second uprising that Riel fomented is the so-called Northwest Rebellion, a brief conflict that ended in 1885. In the interim between these two armed conflicts, Riel had become a religious fanatic. During his exile in upstate New York, he took refuge with the Oblate Fathers. Gradually, Riel developed a religious mania that led him to disrupt Roman Catholic Church services with wild proclamations that "Rome has fallen." Some friends spirited him over the Quebec border and he was confined in a lunatic asylum for several months under the name "Louis David." (Although he was a member of the House of Commons in absentia, warrants remained outstanding for Riel’s arrest.) During his mania, Riel prayed for hours and hired servants to hold his arms upright in a crucified position for days on end. After a while, Riel recovered his senses and, then, moved to Montana. Indefatigably political, he tried to curtail the whisky trade to the Indians and mixed blood people in the Sun River territory and, then, ran for the legislature as a Republican. He married and, ultimately, his wife had two children.
When the bison were hunted to extinction in what is now Saskatchewan, the Metis people in that area starved. The government tried to educate the nomadic clans in the ways of dry-land farming. But the Metis were not willing to surrender their old ways without a fight. They gathered at a village named Batoche in north-central Saskatchewan and drew up a list of grievances to present to the government in Ottawa. Riel was recalled to Canada and went to Batoche where he issued manifestos demanding treaty rights for the Metis. His religious mania had returned and Riel was reported to be agitated and erratic in his behavior. Riel now was the proponent of a new form of Catholicism that made common cause with the Protestants against Rome. He called his congregation the Exovedote – a neologism meaning "the ones who have been ousted."
There is dispute as to whether Ottawa was about to accede to some of the Metis demands when Riel declared war. Allied with the Cree, Riel’s Metis cut telegraph lines and attacked the railroad. The world was different in 1885 and the government was able to send a large force of soldiers cross-country by train. The buffalo were gone and the Indians were debilitated with booze and sickness and the frontier had closed. The Royal Mounted Police and the army fought the rebels at Batoche and defeated them. Riel was captured. The Cree continued fighting for a few weeks but were decisively defeated in the battle of Loon Lake.
Riel had declared himself the "governor of the provisional state of Saskatchewan." He was transported to Regina and tried for treason. The jurors said that Riel was "tried for treason but convicted for the murder of Thomas Scott." The rebel’s lawyers pled with Riel to allow them to advance a plea of insanity. But Riel refused saying that "life without dignity" was not worth living. Appeals were argued in Ottawa. The head of the judicial council there is reported to have declared: "He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favor." This remark reveals the persistent schism in Canada between its English and French-speaking people – one of the terrorist cells of the Quebecois separatists in the seventies was named Louis Riel. Riel’s appeals were rejected and he was hanged in the Northwest Mounted Police barracks in Regina on November 16, 1885. The hanging was botched – he died by strangulation after struggling on the end of the rope for four minutes. Before the hood was pulled over his face, Riel said: "Remember Madame Forget". No one knows for sure what this was supposed to mean. When the hood was removed from his head, Riel’s features were said to be composed and his eyes closed. People cut souvenir locks of hair from his head.
The great rebel’s body was sent to Saint Vital near Winnipeg and Riel was buried in the graveyard at Saint Boniface, across the Red River from Fort Garry and the place on river bank where the Human Rights Museum now points its glittering glass finger to heaven.
Twice life-sized Louis Riel stands indignant and four-square on a plinth overlooking the marble landing where water taxis deliver passengers on the Assiniboine River to the legislative building. The sculpture is imposing, but primitive – it seems rough-hewn, a monolith with human features mostly dominated by a big bronze moustache under a big bronze nose. Riel leans forward slightly, nodding his giant head, and he holds a legislative enactment rolled as a scroll in his right hand. Between 1999 and 2011, 13 bills were introduced in Canadian parliament pertaining to Louis Riel, most of those were devoted to a posthumous pardon or reversal of his conviction. Since 2008, the third Monday in February is declared Louis Riel Day in Manitoba – in other provinces, the holiday is called "Family Day."
Across the street from the monument to Louis Riel, another symbol of Manitoba stands on the legislature building’s grounds. This is a ten-foot tall Inuksut, that is, a cairn of balanced rocks built by the Inuit to mark places of significance in Arctic. The Inuksut on the parliament lawn made from bronze or, possibly, concrete and has a kitsch aspect. The base of the imitation cairn is comprised of two hunched polar bears on which the simulated stones are stacked. This Inuksut has the form of a niungvaliruluit – that is rocks piled to form a window-shaped opening that aims the eye at some geographical feature significant to the hunters traversing the empty landscape. (The place aligned with the sighting window may be a bay where seals are common or a low pass frequented by caribou or simply an ancient trail leading along the barren sea-shore.) I walked up to the Inuksut and looked through it but saw only a couple of nice brownstones beyond the parliament lawn. Trees have grown up blocking the view, something that would not happen in the Arctic, and, perhaps, the window was aligned toward the statue of Louis Riel on the river-bank although shrubbery prevented me from testing this hypothesis.
Many facsimile Inuksuit (the plural of Inuksut) grace Winnipeg. A massive cairn made from what seems like ocher-colored fiberglass stands at the entrance to the Churchill journey at the zoo in Assiniboine Park. Actual Inuksuit in the Arctic are small, knee-high or, perhaps, as tall as a man, although there is one cairn on Southwest Baffin island that is nine feet in height. The faux cairn in the zoological garden is probably eight feet high. It is accompanied with a explanatory plaque that says that the Inuit word Inuksut means "that which acts in the capacity of a human being." Some Inuksuit look like doorways ("tupqujaq"); others are shaped like men with extended arms and globular stone heads. Simpler forms include turaaq – that is single pointer stones identifying alignments – napataq which are upright monoliths and caribou spirit stones, smaller boulders set side by side by big rock outcroppings. Phallus cairns complete with testicle boulders are common. Some of the Inuksut are very ancient and thought to have been built in the time before there were human beings in the land – spirits made them or polar bear people. Ancient Inuksut are often covered with colorful lichen. In some ceremonial sites, there are dozens of them. The Inuit understand that each rock cairn or monument of this kind is significant and must be paid respect but, often, even the elders can’t recall what the stones are supposed to mean. In Winnipeg, the Inuksut are entries opening into the far North. They form pathways to the Arctic, a place whose spirit, it seems, suffuses the city.
Everyone at the Holiday Inn where we are staying is Native. In the elevator, two teenage boys wear hoodies. "Do I look punk enough?" the one kid asks his friend. They are bound for downtown where Metallica is playing. People have flown in from the Arctic to see this concert and every hotel is full of Indians who have traveled to Winnipeg for the show. On Portage Street downtown, we see a great queue of Indians waiting in line for entry to the gleaming glass concert hall. Later in the month, Sir Paul McCartney will play that venue. The Metallica fans are well-behaved and none of them seem to be drunk.
Metallica’s fans in Churchill (who are legion, I suppose) had to fly down to Winnipeg. The train line to Hudson Bay was washed-out by flooding in the Spring of 2017. Aerial photographs show the brown abraded tundra, broken by eskers where little twisted trees shelter in the lea of piles of fractured rock. Lichen-painted stone shelves hold bog-water and the train tracks seem soggy, sinking into the muskeg. The parallel rails are warped and the sleepers are rotten and in disarray. The Winnipeg Free Press announces that there will be a great celebration in Churchill in mid-October 2018 to commemorate the restoration of rail service from Winnipeg to the deep water port on Hudson Bay. But the line is not yet fixed and there are a number of shattered places a hundred miles south of Churchill that wait repair. The October celebration seems more hopeful than is, perhaps, warranted, but, perhaps, is intended as an incentive to the railroad to complete these repairs. It is important to remember that the vast majority of Canada is without roads and without rail access. In the Free Press’Sunday supplement, an article praises a First Nations tribe that has just completed a 100 mile road down from where the reserve occupies an isolated peninsula on Lake Winnipeg to the trans-Canadian highway. The reservation is very poor and has bad water – the people have been under a "boil water" advisory since the late 1980's. The road will allow the people in the tribe to seek employment in Winnipeg and travel back and forth from their homes without availing themselves of the expensive services of a bush pilot.
Lake Winnipeg, as I have noted, is not at Winnipeg, but north, eighty to 100 miles depending upon the side of the vast body of water to which you drive. I went to eastern shores of the lake to the tip of the peninsula on which Victoria Beach is located. The road to the lake passes through the Brokenhead First Nations reserve and, then, forges a way through dense pine forests to the resort town of Great Beach. There isn’t really a town at that place, just some narrow gravel roads that curve into the woods where there are cottages built next to the water – you can’t really see the lake from Grand Beach: it’s the place where the trees stop and a plain of grey water shows as a dull glint. A couple of trailers, along the little gravel lane in the woods, have been painted in Day-Glo colors, reds and blues and eye-assaulting yellows and some naked mannequins stand sentinel to the tee-shirt and souvenir shacks built as lean-to’s against the garish mobile homes – one of trailers is placarded "Langey’s: home of the 24 inch hot dog." Farther up the peninsula, the road slides a little downhill out of the woods and crosses a big marsh (grand marais) where lagoons and muddy canals shimmer in several acres of brown, man-tall reeds. Once this was an estuary, but it is now a marsh vibrating with bird songs and the belch of innumerable frogs. A tower stands on the higher ground above the marsh, a ridge that dips its finger northward into the cold waters of the lake. This is Victoria Beach, a place marked by a cast-iron archway in which the name of the settlement is displayed in wire letters against the cold, crisp air. A broad, grassy lane runs down to the water. There is a windowless stone bunker of a wastewater treatment facility at the point. Some wooden steps lead to a beach covered with toppled sofa-sized boulders. The horizon is all sky and water although there is an island across from the point with low, grey cliffs facing to the south. The cottages along the shore are hidden – you can surmise their location by the Maple Leaf flags trembling in the wind above the tops of the birch and fir trees.
The sand yields under my feet. Some water has slopped between two reddish-brown boulders lying on the edge of the lake. Waves slap against the stones. I stoop to dip my finger in the lake’s water. The wet brown sand is sprinkled with white, smashed sea shell fragments.
Fort Alexander is a very old settlement where the Winnipeg River flows into the great lake at Traverse Bay. Ojibway (Anishinaabe) Indians have lived there for hundreds of years and the French explorer, LaVerendrye established a fur trading post near the bay in 1739, although the exact location of this place is disputed. It is clear that the Northwest Company and Hudson Bay Company operated competing trading posts at Traverse Bay, these outposts built beginning in 1795. A large residential school for Indians was constructed at Fort Alexander in 1912. (This is a bit ironic because the local First Nations Sagkeeng Ojibway are participants in a class action, the so-called Scholar Day litigation, seeking redress for abuses committed at just such schools.) Today, the place looks impoverished. The headlands above the wide, turbulent-looking river mouth are bare granite and little shacks are strewn atop the rocky promontory, small wooden structures that look like ice-fishing huts, temporary, it seems, with tin chimneys pushed up through their shingle roofs. The inlet is dotted with small row-boats where natives are fishing for their supper. The bay is windy and the trees growing from fissures in the big boulders crouch and cower. The water glitters with icy-looking white-tops and, where the bay narrows, the river gushes forth through a canyon mouth, incensed with the distance that it has flowed from Rainy Lake on the Minnesota border. There are signs along the road winding through the reservation that order people to boil their drinking water – unpumped septic tanks have overflowed and poisoned the soil. Some larger wooden buildings are half-lost in the woods. It’s a barren-looking place, lichen growing like graffiti on the big granite outcroppings, and the houses are horned and antlered with trophies and an ancient Inukshut would not look out of place on the slabs of stone above the bay.
Off the reserve, the villages along the Winnipeg River are ghost towns. Once there was a big paper mill in Powerview, a few miles inland from Fort Alexander. But the plant failed and was torn down in 2012. Some hydro-electric dams block places in the river where there were waterfalls once – it doesn’t take many workers to staff those plants which provide power to Winnipeg. The towns are empty and the sad little graveyards overgrown.
At the provincial Capitol, an official Manitoba Deputy Hierophant is in the well of the rotunda, Dan-Browning for an attentive group of elderly people. The Chief Hierophant wearing a suit coat and a grey tie stands to the side, attending to what his deputy is saying to the tour group. Sometimes, he gently corrects his deputy, mouthing a word or making a gesture to revise something that the Deputy Hierophant has said. The Deputy Hierophant has already had the visitors count the number of steps leading up to the broad floor under the capitol dome – 13 steps in three ascents: 39. He has shown them the 13 stars in the cupola above and had them count the alabaster balustrades around the opening down to the rotunda well where the old people are now ranged along the wall listening to him. Above on the balcony one-third of the way to the top of the dome, there is a whispering gallery. The tour guide has shown them the acoustics at that place and had them count the carytids bearing the dome on their shoulders – thirty-nine as it turns out. In the well of the rotunda, the Deputy Hierophant says that the corner stone was laid on a day in June 1908 when Venus was conjoined with Mercury. Mercury is Hermes, the trickster, and he appears atop the capitol dome as the Golden Boy of Winnipeg, dashing toward the promise of the north with torch in hand. The child of Venus and Mercury is Hermaphrodite. The Deputy Hierophant points out that the bronze torch posts supporting electric-light globes in the rotunda show a bearded male on one columnar side and a bare-breasted maiden on the opposing surface – "Hermaphrodite," the Hierophant says. He adds that the astronomical conjunction of Mercury and Venus occurs only once every "several years" – the Chief Hierophant raises three fingers: "Every three years," the Deputy Hierophant tells his listeners, amending his account.
Tradition holds that, if you stand in the middle of the rotunda surrounded by the 39 hermaphroditic torch-bearers and whisper your wishes out loud, they will come true. The Deputy Hierophant stands atop the 13-pointed star embedded in the floor and sotto voce whispers his desire that Winnipeg’s hockey team win the Stanley Cup this season. Everyone laughs. One by one the old people stand upon the 13-pointed star and whisper their wishes. When they have departed, I walk to that place and whisper something about world peace, but it’s insincere – in fact, I am wishing to see the grain elevator and cold shores of Hudson Bay at Churchill where the great white bears wander, so many of them that on Halloween, men stalk the streets among the trick-or-treaters carrying flares and pepper spray bear-repellant, each cradling a shot gun or thirty aught six in their arms.
One wall in the capitol rotunda unfurls a large mosaic image of wounded and victorious Canadian soldiers returning to their homes after the Great War. The colors are autumnal except the shroud-like white bandages worn by the injured soldiers. Bronze Canadian soldiers are everywhere in the town, blowing whistles to encourage troops forward, waving their arms in the air, or running into a hail of bullets bent over as if breasting the icy pellets of a Manitoba blizzard. (It must be remembered that, as members of the British Commonwealth, the Canadians fought in all of the major engagements of the war – by contrast, American doughboys were deployed only in 1918, that is the last year of t he Great War.) I see no monuments anywhere to World War Two – perhaps, this is due to shame. The City of St. Louis, a German cruise-liner crowded with Jewish refugees tried to dock repeatedly in Halifax and other cities on Canada’s Atlantic coast but was denied entry into those harbors. The St. Louis returned to England and, then, France and more than half of its passengers were later captured by the Nazis and murdered. The story is told in the Museum of Human Rights under the sleek, glass tower aimed at heaven.
The 39 steps to the rotunda are flanked by massive life-size bison cast in bronze. The bison are immensely heavy and they seem to bear down on the marble pedestals that they are pawing with their mighty hooves. The legend is that the bronze bison were so heavy that it was feared that hauling them into the building would mar the delicate terrazzo flooring underfoot. So crews cut slabs of ice from the Assiniboine River below the place where Louis Riel now waves his scroll-shaped manifesto. The bison were set on the ice-slabs and, then, slid into the building.
Ye’s Buffet across the street from the Polo Park mall is a few blocks south of Ellice Avenue where we are staying. It’s a popular place with a chaotic parking lot always full with some vehicles idling and, even, double-parked. Inside, the banquet hall is immense with high ceilings where fans are lazily rotating and dark stone walls decorated with colorful murals of Chinese people feasting. The buffet offerings, set out under sunny-looking heat lamps, are numerous – each long table with its multitude of steam-trays adorned with a great green jade dragon at its end. The place is packed with Natives eating as if their life depended upon it. During the hour that Jack and I were at our table, we didn’t see anyone departing the hall – grim-faced patrons picked at their food or drank beer, waiting for their second- or third-wind. A group of Chinese nerds, apparently just released from some gaming or robotics convention, charges into the room and the boys are huge and look very hungry and the Asian waitresses in their black blouses and slacks grin at the boys, covering their mouths as they giggle to one another. A cardboard sign posted on the table says: "Love food. Don’t waste it." Ye’s up-scale place is good because all Chinese buffets are good in their own way, but there is nothing special about the food which is, in fact, generic Chinese buffet food. Ye’s operates restaurants in Kitchener and Toronto. The toilets have spectacular fixtures and obsidian-black walls but the ebony marble floor is entirely puddled with urine and, accordingly, the stone is very slippery. The ostentatious stone-work creates an unnecessary hazard.
The night before we ate at Ye’s, we drove to the buffet but found the parking lot so crowded and so confusing with narrow one-way lanes that we drove down Ellice west all the way to the Peripheral Highway and, then, beyond where pagoda-shaped kiosks mark the entry to the big Assiniboine Downs race-track. West of the race-track, the prairie is mostly empty all the way to Brandon and big storm clouds were scouring the flat, dark land. Finding no place to eat on the outskirts, we drove back down Ellice toward the city and stopped at the Yafe café, a Palestinian place. I couldn’t see any parking places on Ellice and, so, I turned into the residential neighborhood, a dark lane where small brick houses stood closely pressed together on tiny, withered lawns. For some reason, there were two sidewalks running parallel to one another and enclosing a boulevard where sad trees stood in a line on a sliver of grass, wet leaves plummeting down on our heads and shoulders in the cold drizzle. Ahead, I saw a square brick building, a commercial structure with its downstairs store-front dark but a frieze of brightly lit windows on the second floor – the windows were like a mural looking into the early 1960's, several mannequin-like people peering out into the intermittent rain, the men wearing suits and the women top-heavy with big bosoms and bee-hive hairdos, a sort of social club from which faint music was emanating from the blue-tinted and tiled interior.
Almost all of the food on offer in Winnipeg is ethnic. But it isn’t good ethnic. Rather, it’s cheap, hand-me-down ethnic food made to be micro-waved and poured onto plates from cans. If you want an elegant dinner in Winnipeg, you have to go to one of the licensed supper clubs where you can sit in comfort on slick, red upholstery in small booths in a dimly lit room lined with velvet and bordello paintings. Here you can eat chops with baked potato while, whispering from hidden speakers, Sinatra croons to a tune by Henry Mancini.
Homer’s is a Greek restaurant, a little like the old Italian places near the University where my father took me when I was a little boy. The outside of the windowless shed is painted with the Aegean Sea and, next to the door, there is a stucco bust of the blind poet. The tables are set under bowers that are made from white-washed lathe and wire with plastic grape vines heavily laden with plastic grapes tangled around them. Another mural inside shows some cliffs and the snow-white domes and turrets of a fishing village a little like a wedding cake – the picture is labeled "Sandorini." On the wall by the cashier, a TV screen displays images of Tuscany. I don’t think Tuscany is in Greece, although, I suppose, there may once have been Greek colonies in that place – on the screen, I can see an Etruscan tomb surrounded by funereal pines. Homer’s is about three blocks from where Winnipeg’s film-poet laureate was raised. Guy Maddin lived in the building at 800 and 802 West Ellice. Today, the place is Tam’s dry-cleaning and tailor-shop, a chunky, heavy-set structure with a grim-looking storefront and residential quarters upstairs. Maddin’s mother was a hairdresser and operated a salon out of the family’s home. The place was mysterious to Guy, a female sanctum, and, sometimes, his films feature delirious recollections of the salon and its habitues. Across from the dry-cleaning place, a Korean restaurant, "licensed" with a sign that says "dine-in or take-out" flashes to the empty intersection that it is "open." Jack says to me that the place looks absolutely poisonous.
Guy Maddin’s first film shown in the United States was Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988). Gimli is a little town founded by Icelanders about 90 kilometers north of Winnipeg on the great lake. Maddin’s film struck me with the force of a revelation and I admired it intensely – his sensibility was unlike that of any other film maker known to me. One night, at a party at my house, we got a little tipsy and tried to call Maddin. I dialed the International Operator and, in fact, was given his phone-number. At that time, the director still lived year-round in Winnipeg. We drank some more beer to stiffen our resolve and, then, I dialed the number. The phone rang for a long time but no one answered.
Louis Riel’s walking stick occupies a glass case at the Manitoba Museum. The stick is cherry-colored, so brightly polished that it glistens like a finely tumbled agate. The stick is gnarled, with a spiral, corkscrew grain. When Riel was captured after the Battle of Batoche, he expected that he would be executed and, so, he gave the stick to a friend and told him to keep it. The museum is immense and brilliantly designed. There are sad tales of blizzards and diptheria epidemics and small Indian children cruelly confined in residential schools. A number of panels depict the heroic efforts required to complete the train line to Churchill. An aerial shot of Churchill shows some big grain elevators standing in front of piers extending into a green lagoon. Another Inuksut monument dominates a room devoted to the doomed Franklin expedition lost in it’s search of the Northwest Passage. In a nook, you can put on headphones and listen to elderly Inuit recalling how their grandfathers told stories of strange white men starving on islands where caribou grazed and the seas were full of fat merry seals, wonderful places made for human beings to hunt and be happy.
Karst-country is pierced with sinkholes and there are caves underground. Narcisse, Manitoba lies in the center of this formation and, in that place, the sinkholes dotting the prairie are full of garter snakes, thousands of them tangled together in dense balls. The snakes spend the winter underground, coiled together to conserve body warmth – they are in a state called brumation (this means they wake sometimes to eat and drink water, but, then, become inert again.) In the Spring, the sunlight stirs the snakes and the females release a pheromone that attracts males, twenty or thirty at a time. The snakes form mating balls, tightly knotted globes of writhing serpents. The snake dens at Narcisse are about one hour from Winnipeg, a half-hour from Gimli and so the exhibit in the museum is a bit redundant – after all, you can drive out to the dens in May and see the pits filled with living carpets of garter snakes. But the diorama in the museum is spectacular and I take some pictures to send to Julie: "Snake Den near our Hotel" is how I caption the images. Crows and ravens gather over the snake dens and feast on the serpents – snakes with their bellies ripped open sometimes drop out of the sky when you are gazing down into the fifteen-foot deep sinkholes. The guides will tell you that garter snakes may bite, but they are not venomous – this is untrue: in 2000, it was discovered that the rear teeth in a garter snake’s mouth exude venom when they bite, but that it is very weak. The web site for the famous snake dens at Narcisse say that you can handle the "snakes so long as you are gentle with them."
Near the Manitoba museum, the Ukrainian culture center occupies an old Victorian building that was, once, a Labor ("Labour") Temple. The structure is heavily built with turrets and a crenellated cornice. Inside, there is an exhibition of icons painted on the lids of ammo boxes that contained AK 47 bullets. The ammo boxes were retrieved from battlefields in the Ukraine where Nationalist forces have fought the Russians, particularly near the Donetsk airport. A Tv set plays a loop explaining the conflict and the icons – the Russians are alleged to have used poison gas at Donetsk and other places. The icons are beautiful. One of them shows the Madonna as the Theotokos (or "God-bearer") – she holds seven swords and the epithet that describes her is "the Softener of Evil Hearts." On the Tv, the narrator reminds us that "after every war, peace must come." The icons, it is alleged, are not about the war, but about the peace after war.
At WAG, sculptures adorn a rooftop terrace. Some angular steel works that look like industrial equipment occupy pedestals near the door that leads to the elevators. Metal chairs accompany a nondescript table on which someone has left a can of diet Pepsi dive-bombed by a fat bee. A big Inuksut with a window-torso beckons from atop a smooth travertine plinth. The raw texture of the cairn stones, all irregular and fractured, contrasts with the sleek platform on which the man-tall Inuksut has been erected. Two conical heaps of irregular stones the color of cardboard support the long vertical uprights that frame the window. Stubby arms protrude from the side of the cairn, rock flippers that seem to channel the breeze and the Inuksut is crowned by a small pile of rubble on the flat stone serving as the frame’s upper cross-member.
If you look through the window, sighting across the roof tops, the frame encloses the northeast quadrant of the city where there are low towers built in the 1890's with heavy stucco cornices and, in the distance, a great expanse of parallel train-tracks, engraved as if with a burin into the horizon. The view through the stone frame vibrates almost imperceptibly with the heartbeat of the broken rocks that "act in the capacity of a human being." The light inside the window has a different texture than that surrounding the monument, radiance that is more mixed with shadow and, thus, casts things in sharper relief. Far away, above the gleaming rails, you can see a little cloud, not more than the size of a fist that approaches on the faint respiration of the breeze. The cloud sheds grey lobes in its wake and the air darkens. Snow plunges from the cloud, driven downward by a burst of air and mist rises from the river, grey with faint blue highlights if you stare into it long enough. Traffic slows on the streets, impeded not so much by the fog but by the pingos erupting like volcanoes at the intersections and asphalt is shattered by the frost into polyhedral patterns. The concrete and brick sides of the building are painted with lichen and the trees along the boulevards are stunted larch and white spruce, avenues ending in sedge meadows and muskeg with tussocks where herds of caribou are grazing. Igluvigaq line the sidewalks and you can hear dogs barking in harness to a gamatik that someone drives across an intersection that is like a frozen lake. The biting flies arise from the muskeg and moving shrouds of mosquitos roll across the land and Frog, Oma-ka-ki, who is the king of the insects, sings in the alley that is a deep, hollow cistern. The unreal city unfurls from its center and the white bears prowl the rim of the sea where the great weight of ice has displaced the permafrost and tilted it upward like the cup-shaped edge of a crater and the field of train-tracks becomes a harbor where pods of orca are hunting the swift, lithe seals. The sun is fixed in the sky and can not set and hunters emerge from their caribou skin lodges to survey the desolation around them which is not desolation at all in their eyes, but the navel of the earth and a bounteous table set for their delectation and, then, the white whirls in as a great polar bear sits silently beside a manhole in the center of an empty, snow-clogged street, waiting for a seal to emerge from the sewers and, then, the great darkness comes and the sky is full of sheets of green and violet flame shaken the way a woman might shake-out a rug during Spring cleaning.
On our last night in Winnipeg, Jack suggested that we drive downtown to see the statute of Louis Riel standing by the legislative building on the Assiniboine River bank. The street on the south side of the capitol lawn was empty and we parked close to the monument. The lawns around the legislative building were silent except for the rhythmic cries of Oma-ka-ki who is the king of insects. Louis Riel was lit by a street-lamp over his shoulder and his features were in shadow except for the great bronze moustache bracketing his lips and giving his head the aspect of a winged being. The colossus tilted toward us, the bludgeon of his metal manifesto in his right hand. We went down the steps to the river flowing soundlessly past the marble landing. Park police in an amber-lit, electric-powered cart glided by and a solitary jogger appeared from the river-walk, complicating his run by repeatedly dashing up and down the steps in front of the Great Rebel. The jogger was bald and the street lamp put a little highlight on his bare skull. From the stone landing, we could look up and down the river. The only bridge was to the west and the river walk in the opposite direction led along the winding course of the stream for hundreds of yards, shadowed by trees and shrubs that shone emerald-green where the street lamps lit them. The moon had risen and was bathing her toes in the place where the Assiniboine bent toward the Forks and, above the bronze insurgent, hovering over the darkened capitol dome, the Golden Boy shone in the sky like a remote and faded planet.
It was windy in Grand Forks. We reached that place about noon and, so, Jack and I stopped to eat at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant. The afternoon was hot – it was 94 degrees. The gale stripped corn husks away from the corn and pitched them, like discarded snake skins, across the four-lane highway. Out in flat distance, combines were sitting in pale splashes of dust. The dust was shapeless and bright in the hot sunshine. I decided to drive back to Austin instead of stopping at Alexandria as had been my plan. Later, around sunset, we drove into Northfield and ate at a McDonald’s. On the way to the freeway, the nose of my car was pointed into the setting sun. The sun was bright red and had spilled its blood all over the highway so that I seemed to drive on the asphalt’s soft scarlet tongue.
An hour earlier, we were driving through Brooklyn Center a north suburb to Minneapolis. A big sign advertising a Ford Dealership said: Welcome to the North Country. I was skeptical about the billboard. "The North Country?" No, not exactly – in fact, not by a long shot.
Sunday, September 9, 2018
When the Summer Olympics were scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the government announced plans to thoroughly renovate the old Museu Nacional at Quinta de Boa Vista. Established in 1818 and one of the first universal and scientific museums in the world, the place was in tatters. Most Brazilians in Rio were more than a little embarrassed by the old, dowdy museum. Termite seethed in its walls and the elaborate stucco reliefs inside the structure, the former imperial residence, were prone to come crashing down onto the water-wrinkled wooden floors. The exhibits on display were labeled only in Portuguese; wi-fi and internet access didn’t exist and there was no reliable way to install electronic beacons to guide visitors through the huge crumbling mansion. The electrical wiring complied with no known code and some of it was exposed where the lathe and plaster walls had cracked open. Admission was next to nothing. Visitors asked about a gift shop in vain. No such thing existed. If you wanted to eat at the museum, meals were a bargain – the staff ushered you through some moldy backrooms to a tiny commissary where the employees ate their lunches and breakfasts. The big windows in their elaborate stucco moldings were always shut and, in fact, probably couldn’t be opened any longer. This was also unfortunate because the hilltop where the museum is located overlooking Guanabara Bay is a fine, breezy point and the park where the building stands is cool in the shade of its ancient trees. But the galleries in the big mansion were usually stifling, musty with the close, still heat of an old attic.
As often happens in Brazil, money ran out and good intentions didn’t translate into acts. Some funds were used to renovate the zoo nearby to avoid the outcry of those sympathetic to the idea of animal rights, but nothing was done to rehabilitate the old museum. After all, the place wasn’t even all that popular among Brazilians – in 2017, the Museu Nacional had 192,000 visitors; by contrast, 289,000 Brazilians visited the Louvre in Paris in that same year. In any event, it’s all moot now: the museum burned to the ground on September 2, 2018.
In the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the American Indian collection contains an Adena Tablet. These tablets are 4 to 5 inch rectangular pieces of limestone that have been deeply engraved with a bone awl. The tables look a bit like decorations and images in the Irish Book of Kells – the limestone has been incised to show highly stylized animals, apparently vultures and spiders and deer, locked together in a system of symmetrical, labyrinthine lines. Only 14 of these tablets are known to exist and only one was discovered by a professional archaeologist – hence, the provenance of 13 of the tablets is more than a little unclear.
The tablets are thought to be associated with the Adena culture, eastern woodlands Indians who lived in south Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Although the meaning of the tablets is uncertain, and, in fact, their iconography disputed, they have been imagined to be astronomical calculators or, perhaps, templates that could be used to emboss patterns on leather garments. Others have speculated that the tablets are templates for tattoos inscribed on human skin. But no one knows for sure.
Here is the point of my digression: at least, three of the 14 known tablets were discovered in museum collections, one in California and two in county historical societies in Ohio. Museums don’t always know what they possess and, in fact, often they are unaware of the significance of their own artifacts. Some dusty, unassuming bit of wood or carved stone, a feather from an unknown bird, a emerald-colored beetle – these things may be immensely consequential if understood. Often, understanding must catch up with acquisition and mere hoarding.
A series of fires had plagued the collections of the Museu Nacional – several other buildings owned by the institution had burned, beginning with a fire in a conservation laboratory in 2011. The most devastating of these fires was one that destroyed the resources of the Faculty of Languages. Thousands of tape-recordings of indigenous, undeciphered languages were lost – these are human languages that no one speaks, that are now extinct. Who knows if careful linguistic study of those tapes, perhaps, aided by computer analysis, might not have established connections between aboriginal languages still existing and the lost tongues that could be heard whispering and declaiming in fogs of static interrupted, now and then, by the startling cries of birds? What we don’t know today we may understand sometime in the future. But if the tapes are lost, carbonized by fire, there is no hope for any further study – a language spoken by a group of human beings that no longer exist has suffered extinction twice: first when the last speaker died, and, second, when melted the last recordings of that language.
On September 2, 2018, at about 9:30 pm, fire was reported in the Museu Nacional. Fire trucks raced through the Paco de Sao Cristavao, the large and elaborate grounds where the imperial palace stood. The fire hydrants near the museum were rusted shut and almost impossible to open. Once the hydrants were wrenched into flow, it was discovered that there was almost no water pressure. The water drizzled from the hydrants in a trickle. (The museum occupies the highest point on the tall bluff overlooking Guanabara Bay). By this time, the orange flames could be seen man-high and dancing in the elaborately framed vertical windows on the front facade of the building. Pumper trucks were dispatched to a nearby lagoon where water was sucked into their reservoirs, but there was duckweed and algae and the water was difficult to spray. Some museum staff risked their lives by charging into the building and carrying out a few armfuls of artifacts. But these efforts were in vain. The museum’s roof collapsed at about 11:00 pm sending pillars of sparks skyward. At dawn, the front facade of the building was all that remained upright. Studding the top of that facade where yard-high stucco figures, little pawn-shaped gods and goddesses. Blackened with soot, they stood sentinel over the ruins.
Although the museum was built as an imperial palace, and used as a royal residence until the military coup in 1889, visitors remarked that there was little trace of opulence inside the structure. Most of the palatial rooms had been gutted and replaced with nondescript plaster walls enclosing the galleries. The ambassador’s quarters were an exception, a dim suite of rooms representing interior decoration in the 1880's – perhaps, one or two chairs in that suite of rooms were original. The throne room was also preserved, a surprisingly unostentatious space with a carved wooden chair, high-backed and upholstered in scarlet and green satin. The most-visited relic from the imperial family was the chapel built by Empress Teresa Cristina. The empress was a long-suffering and kindly woman still recalled with fondness as "the Mother of the Brazilians". Her husband, Pedro II, was a well-known philanderer, something for which he was also admired. (He installed his mistress in the palace where his wife lived.) Teresa Cristina was twice deposed – once in 1861, when the family had to flee Rio for Lisbon, and, then, later after a brief restoration, again in November 1889. In the latter case, after a military junta seized power, Pedro and Teresa went to Spain where the Empress died in December 1889, supposedly of a broken heart, longing for her lost empire in Brazil.
Empress Teresa Cristina was an avid collector of Greek and Roman antiquities. Because of her, the museum owned the largest collection of classical archaeological artifacts in Latin America.
Several of Brazil’s emperors were whispered to be Freemasons. This society traces its lineage to the Temple of Solomon and the pyramids of Egypt. As a result, the Egyptian collections held by the museum were extensive – six human mummies and innumerable mummified cats and vultures and crocodiles. One gorgeously decorated sarcophagus in which reposed the mummy of Sha-Amun-en-es, the famous singer of Amun, was never opened – it is one of the very few mummy cases in the world that hasn’t been disturbed. (No one will open it now – it has been reduced to ash and slag.) Princess Kherima, who was elaborately embalmed and mummified, was also on display. Each of her fingers and toes was separately bound in multi-colored ribbons, a mortuary treatment unique to this mummy. The preserved cadaver of Princess Kherima, the Princess of the Sun, was said to induce trances and hallucinations in those sensitive to psychic influences – Rosicrucians from around the world came to stare at her corpse and several women wrote well-reviewed novels about her life and loves. Of course, the collection also contained many limestone stele, now cracked and blackened, golden masks, and alabaster canopic vessels.
The museum owned four majestic frescos peeled from walls in Pompeii – dark works depicting the bottom of the sea where octopuses and dolphins and sea-dragons frolicked. A headless Kore from the fifth century BC graced one gallery. There were red- and black-figure kraters, hydrai, askoi, and oinochoe, phallic amulets, and thirty or so mysterious Tanagra figurines made from baked clay. The Meso-American collections included a set of Inca quipus (knotted message strings), several exceedingly rare Jivaro shrunken heads (most such artifacts are fakes – shriveled skull-less monkey heads with eyes and lips sewed shut), incredibly beautiful and fragile Nazca textiles knit from llama and Andes camelid hair, obscene Moche ceramics, Wari textiles and delicate filigree gold and silver work made by Chimu and Lamabeyeque artisans. Several naturally formed mummies from the Atacama desert were on display as well as an Aymara mummy found at a ritual site amidst the snow-covered mountains overlooking the barren heath around Lake Titicaca. A family group of mummies found in the Caverna de Babilonia in the Minas Gerais of Brazil was also on display.
The rarest and most important collection of human-made artifacts was the Museum’s exhaustive holdings documenting Brazil’s indigenous cultures. Since most of those people are now extinct, the objects in those collections were literally irreplaceable – I am writing, of course, in the past tense. The museum held extensive artifacts from the Marajoaro tribe including the peculiar figurines that show obviously female goddesses molded into the form of a phallus. There were zoolites from the Trombetas River culture, many of them exquisitely carved fish and jaguars, funerary urns from the Maraca people, Kondreri potbelly ceramics, and so-called Muirooquitas – that is, tiny statues carved into emerald and other green gemstones made by the Santerem Indians.
In a glass case, visitors could see the oldest human remains discovered in Latin America, the fragmentary skeleton of a slender teenage girl nicknamed Luzia. Several halls were full of taxidermied specimens – jungle cats and peccaries and giant rodents from the Amazon basis. There was a corridor lined with mountings of rarely seen parrots and other birds from the jungles. Vitrines showed hundreds of amber specimens with insects and flower petals trapped in them, herbal samples used in indigenous medicines, thousands of dried flowers, butterflies, huge horned beetles with iridescent walnut-sized shells, plate-sized bird-eating spiders, the world’s largest collection of lace-wings and Amazonian walking-stick insects. A huge articulated skeleton of a Maxikalisaurus dinosaur loomed over one gallery, the beast’s bony head and jaws hovering close to the water-blistered stucco ceiling of the museum. In filing cabinets, there were uncounted numbers of rare photographs showing scenes from Brazilian history, Indios families cooking food under ornate palm trees, the grass and wicker habitations of lost tribes, an image of Albert Einstein quizzically looking up at the dragonish Maxikalisaurus fossil, Marie Curie inspecting some of the museum’s large collection of meteorites. Indeed, the largest meteorite ever recorded as crashing to earth in South America, the so-called Bendego stone, a big chunk of space slag, pitted and corroded iron that little children were invited to touch when they came to the museum with their parents.
The fire burned amidst all these things.
Brazilian news media claimed that the Museu Nacional held 20 million artifacts in its collections. I doubt the accuracy of this figure – when it comes to large numbers, people are unreliable estimators. Let’s say that the museum, in fact, held two million objects, discounting the official estimate by 18 million. Then, let’s imagine that there were fifty scholars employed by the museum, biologists, ethnographers, and archeologists who, perhaps, had an understanding of 10,000 objects each. This means that the staff affiliated with the museum could, perhaps, accurately index, explain, and catalog 500,000 objects in the collection. This leaves 1.5 million artifacts unclassified and, therefore, essentially unknown – tens of thousands of botanical and insect specimens, thousands of pieces of ceramic, hand-tools, arrow-heads, fragmentary bones, bits of textile, small carved cartouche-shaped stones like the Adena tablets, gems, fossils, shreds of papyrus, a galaxy of things that no one had examined for, perhaps, a hundred years. These things, objectively treasures, were mostly destroyed and are lost.
Even if some of these materials can be sifted from the ruins, the identifying labels and other catalog or indexing materials are lost. And, so, the hanks of hair and bone are just debris, garbage, more or less, unaccountable curiosities of no real value because without provenance.
Museum staff squatted in ash and cinders looking for artifacts.
Nine Torah scrolls from the Fifth Century A.D. were found, more or less, intact. Perhaps, God had spared these holy books.
Someone’s boot kicked over a human skull. Some other bones were found, nearby, charred but still intelligible as fragments of a skeleton. The authorities were called – perhaps, some homeless person had broken into the museum and died in the fire. The bones were carefully photographed in situ. When measurements were taken, the skeleton was identified – it was the Luzia, the Indian girl who died 11,500 years before flames burned down the National Museum of Brazil.
September 9, 2016
Thursday, August 23, 2018
To Bonnie -- whose loyalty and selflessness has been immaculate.
All propositions are of equal value.
The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there, it would be of no value.
Wittgenstein (6.4 and 6.41 in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)
On Sunday, August 5, 2018 my brother, Christopher, died at his home in Port Orchard, Washington. He was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), but thought he would survive another six months. On the night before his death, Christopher had trouble breathing. He could no longer sit up in bed and was mostly paralyzed. His wife, Bonnie, stayed with him at his bedside until 3:45 am on Sunday morning. Christopher told her to go to bed. A baby monitor was positioned next to the hospital bed so that Bonnie could hear Christopher if was distressed in any way. Before she fell asleep at 4:15 a.m., Christopher was breathing normally and seemed to be peacefully asleep. When she awoke at 8:45 am, he was dead.
Bonnie called me mid-day on the 5th to say that Christopher was gone. My mother owns a funeral plot in Albion, Nebraska, a small village in central Nebraska located on the edge of the great empty tract of ancient desert called the Sand Hills. The funeral was scheduled for that place on Tuesday morning, August 14.
In the intervening days, I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio to take depositions required for a large personal injury case on which I am working. Cincinnati is within sixty miles of a place that I have always wanted to visit, the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio. Accordingly, I decided to take a day to drive to the Mound and explore its environs. It seemed self-indulgent of me to engage in tourism while my brother’s body was being embalmed and transported by airplane to Lincoln, Nebraska and, then, by hearse northwest to Albion. But he is dead and I am alive and so I ignored my qualms and made the trip as I had planned.
The tavern called the Crossed Keys was fieldstone, but had been whitewashed to the color of bone. George Caleb took his breakfast there and, then, paddled across the Little Miami River to the wooded ramparts of the river bluffs rising 200 feet above the half-flooded bottom lands. He had planned a hunt for rabbit and coon on hillsides familiar to him on the east bank of river. But this morning the current was strong and carried him downstream to a place where he had never hunted before, perhaps a quarter mile beyond the promontory for which he had aimed.
It was autumn and the trees had dropped their leaves in thick brown windrows on the steep slopes, making them a little slippery underfoot. The day was unseasonably warm and frogs and insects sang loudly. The way uphill was not as hard as Caleb expected – there seemed to be an even ramp set between two low and regular ridges of earth that guided him in his ascent to bluff-top. Pale deposits of limestone rock extruded from the little hillocks at his side.
The top of the river-bluff was flat and the tree-cover was perforated in places with small circular clearings. Caleb had hunted other bluff-tops along the river and they were complex with deeply incised ravines clogged with fallen trees and boulders and descending to the river bottoms. This hilltop was smooth and seemed once to have been cultivated. The thorns and grass had a different texture, almost as if combed.
A ridge about twenty-five feet high walled in a clearing. Old trees grew on the ridge and, as Caleb approached the hill, he saw that it was continued for a hundred of yards as a long linear mound. He scrambled to the top of the mound and observed that it undulated through the woods, an earthen wall fortifying the level hill top. From his vantage on the mound, Caleb saw other mounds, some of them horse-tall, pimpling the blufftop. At intervals, the wall-like mound dipped down to form a gate with other long, narrow embankments beyond.
For several hours, Caleb followed the course of the hilltop mounds, convinced that they were man-made. The size of the fortifications astounded him. He had forgotten the gun that he carried, forgotten the game that he was hunting, forgotten everything but the serpentine embankment undulating across the hilltop for miles. In the shadows of the wood, he glimpsed bare circles, piles of ghost-pale limestone, ramps and trails, some of them lined with hip-high grassy knolls.
Later, Caleb wrote: "For hours, I walked along cyclopean earthworks, wonderful beyond description, and my great sorrow was that I was alone, utterly alone, in that wilderness with no one with whom I could share the joy of my great discovery."
At length, Caleb completed the circuit of earthwork ramparts and stood overlooking the river below. In the distance, he saw the tavern where he had breakfasted, pale as a cloud, reflected in the still waters of the lagoon at its foundation. The white building shimmered over the brown-green river and the rusty colored trees surrounding it.
This happened in the year 1820 A.D.
"You, sir, have a groin anomaly," the TSA inspector said.
I was at the Cincinnati airport (actually in Hebron, Kentucky across the Ohio River) and had just stood with my hands over my head and legs apart in the transparent inspection compartment.
Like a doctor explaining a painful procedure, the TSA man shoved his face close to mine and, then, rattled-off, as if memorized, the variety of searches he intended to implement. I heard him say that he would pat down my buttocks, run his hand up both thighs, and so on. It took him many words to describe what he was going to do and I didn’t react in any way at all.
After the inspection, the TSA man told me I could go. Of course, he had found nothing. With rubber-gloved hands, he had rimmed the inside of the waist-band on my trousers, slapped at my genitals, stroked my buttocks and, even, rubbed my belly a little. I was in no hurry. The plane to Minneapolis wasn’t scheduled to depart for two hours. I sat down and pulled on my tennis shoes and put the coins and cell-phone and pens and mechanical pencils back in my pockets. I wondered what was a groin anomaly.
It was hot in the airport terminal and, in the twenty minute line waiting to be searched by TSA, perhaps I had sweat overmuch, or, even, wet myself a little in anxiety, and, so, maybe, the imaging had shown my groin wet and hot and swampy; possibly, the imaging showed some ketchup-red abnormality like a tumor between my legs. Or, maybe, something had slipped unbeknownst out of my pockets to lodge in the front pouch of my underpants – unlikely, I thought, or maybe it was simply that I had a beard and seemed to be male, but had no sign whatsoever of male genitalia (this would be a "groin anomaly," I supposed.) The latter explanation seemed to me the most plausible.
My mother was the daughter of Albion’s most prominent and successful businessman. My father was the rebellious son of the local Lutheran minister. My parents were high school sweethearts with the predictable outcome that my mother became pregnant before she graduated. She had been selected as an outstanding young woman to travel to Turkey to live with a family there as part of an exchange program. But the pregnancy intervened and my parents married after graduating from High School and, then, left town to live in the Pine Ridge country at Chadron, Nebraska, about as far from Albion as you could get in the Cornhusker State.
Nonetheless, my mother bought a funeral plot in Rose Hill cemetery on the little knoll a half-mile outside town and this is where she buried my father when he died at age 58. Her parents are both buried in the cemetery as are members of my father’s family. Further, my mother’s two brothers, Dean A. and David, killed in action in Vietnam, rest on that hill.
There were formerly trees growing among the graves and imparting shade to the graves and the grass yellowing in the August drought. A contagion killed the trees and most of them were never re-planted and it is always scorching on that hillside when I am in Nebraska. If it is not scorching, the cemetery-hill outside town is devastated by the wind. My father was buried in a howling blizzard in February many years ago. This was deemed appropriate and symmetrical with his entry into this vale of tears – he had been born in a howling blizzard 58 years before.
There is one grave-plot remaining among the family graves on that barren hillside. The grave is next to the place allotted for my mother and beside the tomb of my father. Christopher asked to buried in that place.
I woke with the conviction that my life was all wrong and that I had erred terribly. Troubled, I limped to the toilet. A bad dream was casting its influence over my morning. It was Sunday and, on that day, I don’t have to get up early and so I try to sleep an extra hour. But, a lifetime of rising early has made lounging in bed impossible for me – I feel anxious and am unsettled and, at last, I abandon the attempt to sleep. And, on this Sunday, I was urged into consciousness by a nightmare. What was it? The details of the dream had evaporated, leaving mostly its mood – fearful, depressed, hopeless, a sense of urgency that had no real object. There had been something about a family gathering, possibly Thanksgiving, and I was supposed to attend, but my route home was obstructed – I found myself hiking along dirty sidewalks in a part of town unfamiliar to me. I had lost my car and so I planned to take a train or a bus home. The sky was dark and I passed ruinous places, a wilderness of walls and cyclone fences and rusting scaffolds. Someone accompanied me, an important person whose presence was necessary to the family gathering. Sometimes, we put our heads together to plot how we would find the bus stop or the train station and, in that way, make our way to the family celebration. At last, I found a block that I recognized and another: some tall buildings loomed overhead and there were people standing near intersections. I breathed a sigh of relief – it seemed possible to make progress from this place. I turned to the person accompanying me and, then, saw to my horror that I was alone -- there was no one at my side. I had lost the person that I was guiding back to the family. Perhaps, I thought, I must retrace my steps but my way had been long and confused and mournful. Aghast, I opened my eyes and found that I had been sleeping and that the light filled the window over my bed and that I was awake, but, nonetheless, forlorn with sorrow.
This uncanny feeling lingered all morning. A little after noon, Bonnie, my brother Christopher’s wife, called me. She said that my brother had died during the morning, probably between 3:45 and 5:00 am. I was shocked. She said that the hospice nurse had come from Visiting Angels and pronounced my brother dead. The body was still in the house. She was awaiting the arrival of the mortician’s hearse.
I called my mother an hour later. She cried for awhile. She told me about a dream that she experienced early in the morning. "I was trying to get to a family gathering," she said. "And I had a baby in my arms. I was lost and it took me a long time to reach the place where the family was located. And, then, when I got to that place, I looked down and the baby that I had been carrying in my arms was gone. The baby had vanished."
When she spoke those words, I recalled my dream from that same morning.
"It means I should have gone out there more often," my mother said. "I should have taken care of him. I should have been with him when he died."
This made me cry a little bit.
Fountain Square is a plaza in central Cincinnati. Two-hundred years ago, an Indian mound as big as a church stood in that place. The pioneers and first settlers leveled the mound and sliced it open to loot the graves inside. Cincinnati was famous for its slaughter houses. Prior to 1871, the shambles of an abattoir occupied the place where the Indians had raised their burial mound. The city appropriated the land and ordered the butchers to depart. But you don’t readily move men armed with sharp knives and cleavers. So the marshals came after midnight, during the hour that nightmares rule, and tore down the reeking slaughterhouse so that the butchers were dispossessed of their enterprise.
A fountain was commissioned and shipped in bronze and porphyry fragments from Munich. The fountain was erected where the shambles had been. The fountain is called "The Genius of Waters". A nine-foot tall maiden with a solemn mask-like face extends both arms to her sides and, from her downturned palms and fingers jets of water spray downward. The water anoints a desperate bronze fire fighter standing upon a burning roof and bathes a little boy led by his nude mother to the stream; a grateful farmer turns his eyes upward to the showers of water perpetually descending from the enigmatic Kore-like maiden. The entire assembly rests on a complex granite plinth with great basins that overflow continuously gushing water down into a pool that surrounds the fountain. The fountain is 43 feet tall and the bronze maiden, who is really, I suppose, just a tube for a hydraulically elevated column of water, seems dispassionate, inhuman, a figure from an archaic play or an ancient nightmare.
With one of the lawyers present for the depositions, I went to the Rocky Bottom brewery in Fountain Square. The other lawyer had just come from his fiftieth-class reunion. "A quarter of us are dead," he said. We drank some beer and ate nachos, then, shrimp and crab jambalaya. The waitress called us "baby" when she spoke to us about the menu. We were seated at the bar and a man sat next to the other lawyer. He said that he was a recruiter for executive positions in the paper industry. It was his dream to travel to Duluth. "I want to be there in November," he said. "I want to see the ‘storms of November’." He was quoting a song by Gordon Lightfoot, a folk-singer most famous for "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
"The lake is very violent in November," I said. I told him he could go out on the breakwater jetty and watch the huge waves crashing against the concrete and rip-rap pier.
"I would very much like to do that," the man said. We told him about the waterfalls and intricate gorges of the North Shore, about the cliffs rust-red with hematite, about the ore-boats, and the lift-bridge and the dunes on Minnesota Point where the water was ice-cold even in August. We told him about the light-house at Split Rock and the mountains looming over the great inland sea north of Grand Marais.
In the square, the fountain-maiden was lit so that her hands seemed to support her as ice-white columns of falling water. She hovered over the square, lifted skyward by the luminous pillars of falling water. The dark bronze figures beneath her seemed like the denizens of another world, corpse-figures hidden in the darkness.
The forests of Portugal are burning. The forests of Finland and Sweden are on fire. The forests of Chile are burning as well. Northern California is ablaze and there are over 180 wild fires burning in British Columbia. The Canadian wild fires don’t have names. One of them is north of Quesnel, another is near a place called 100 Mile House; others are raging far from human eyes near the Arctic Circle and known only from satellites that have photographed the burning forests from space. Smoke from the Canadian conflagrations is borne on the jet stream to Minnesota and, then, trapped in lens-like inversion layers over the State. Air quality is poor and the elderly and very young are threatened. Last night, the earth was dragged through a great meteor shower, the Perseids, I think, but the flickers of light streaming across the sky were concealed behind the cream-colored drifting labyrinth of smoke in the air.
After the depositions, I drove east from Cincinnati to the town of Hillsboro. My Mapquest directions sent me along narrow two-lane highways, directing me to make turns at remote and nameless places in the country. The land was hilly and heavily wooded and, as the afternoon lengthened, I drove past gloomy lakes and dense thickets to come upon Hillsboro, a village atop a flattened bluff a few miles from a big lake created from waters impounded behind a small, decaying dam.
Like many small towns, strip malls on the perimeter of Hillsboro had disemboweled the old downtown with its brick churches rearing steeples to the sky and the old rust-red brick buildings lining Main Street. The sidewalks were all tilted and fractured and most of the buildings downtown were vacant. On lamp-posts, banners showed the faces of boy-soldiers killed in World War One or the Second World War: fresh-faced young men with archaic-looking pince-nez glasses and freckles on their cheeks. The dead boys grinned at the camera, or, if they were in uniform, tried to look gruff and military, but it was obvious that they were all just kids killed long before their time. The only viable businesses downtown were chemical and alcohol dependency treatment centers, a few ancient and windowless bars, and lunch counters closed when I rolled into town.
My motel was on the outskirts, a Day’s Inn, and things were no better on the edges of town. Several strip malls had shut down and weeds were growing in their parking lots. A half-dozen sit-down restaurants seemed to have all been built and, then, failed at the same time, probably during the boom just before the crash in the Fall of 2008. Some fast food joints were operating to mostly drive-through customers and a Walmart stood on a hill, a sort of vacuum sucking the life out of the other businesses in town. It’s a bad sign when half the enterprises in a mall are either detox facilities or storefronts offering music or dance lessons. What level of desperation is implicit in trying to make a living out of teaching little girls in pink ballerina suits to dance or teaching recalcitrant ten year olds how to play electric guitar or keyboards?
I knew that Cincinnati was famous for its chili and there was a fast food place offering something called Gold Star Chili. I ate in the dining room, some french fries drowned in chili and, then, a cheesburger. The chili had a metallic taste and was spiced, I think, with cinnamon – the stuff was unpleasantly sweet. Everyone in the restaurant was immensely fat and, because it was warm and humid, greasy with sweat. Indeed, everyone in town seemed fat and was wheezing with the humidity, the men poorly groomed with weedy fibrous beards and the women sloppy with thick, chaffed thighs and heavily tattooed biceps and chests. The place seemed remote, although Cincinnati was only an hour away, and a wretched backwater.
Mr. Messelmeem, the proprietor of the Day’s Inn, was not fat. He was slender and fit and wore horn-rimmed glasses. He greeted me in his hot lobby dense with the fumes of turmeric and cardamon.
The room was somewhere in the rear of the house next to a desolate parking lot carved into a low, overgrown bluff. Some fat boys and girls plotting some kind of orgy were unloading coolers full of beer from their pick-up truck. My room had asphalt tiles that were clean enough but unsettling underfoot and the air smelled wet and toxic like a swamp. It was the kind of place that was either too dark or too bright, depending upon whether I had the heavy curtains shut or open.
I ate some potato chips and drank a diet Coke. I turned the air-conditioner up until it was icy and, then, shivered in my underwear. The room was the kind of place to which you retreat before committing suicide.
When you checked into my brother Christopher’s Embassy Suites in Burlingame near the San Francisco Airport, you walked through a fragrant garden where big rhododendron bushes, heavily laden with great wet flowers, nodded at you. The bay stretched bright and clear across to Oakland and the blue crest of the mountains beyond. Planes rose and fell like balloon over the airstrip a couple miles away and the point of land where the hotel was located was a municipal park with lush green lawns and rose gardens. On the credenza, there was a big wicker basket full of fruit and garlanded with flowers and my brother had sent me a bottle of fine California wine to celebrate my arrival in San Francisco. The air was fragrant and all the appliances worked and, although Christopher was busy (or purported to be busy), he greeted us in the lobby and shook our hands vigorously and, then, introduced us to his staff telling them to "take good care" of us. Then, he went to the parking place closest to the hotel tower and got into his convertible Porsche and jetted away. He didn’t really have time for a visit. It didn’t matter: we were in town to see the sights and not for a family visit.
In the Hillsboro Days Inn, I was bothered all night by sound of heavy feet thudding and thumping in rooms and corridors overhead. But, then, when I went out to my car, I saw that there was no second floor to the motel, that it was only a single story set on the terrace above a desolate and crumbling strip mall.
I guess it’s easy getting lost driving to a place you don’t want to go.
Although I have driven to Albion a dozen times, I entrusted the route to Julie’s cell-phone. I didn’t want to get lost in Sioux City. Travelers always get lost in Sioux City; it’s some kind of vortex of disorienting and malevolent energy. Therefore, I told Julie to plot the route, primarily to avoid losing one or, even, two hours in that city and its environs.
A freeway bypass let us glide by the city and we crossed into Nebraska on a sleek, aerodynamically designed freeway bridge over the Missouri River. From the river’s western bank, the State was all open to us, without borders and impediment, and we made good progress, riding up and down the high hills to reach deep into the State. After an hour, we saw signs pointing the way to Albion and, finally, reached an intersection 37 miles from the town. I told Julie that there was no way to reach Albion without driving through Norfolk, Nebraska, the hometown of Johnny Carson, and that I supposed we would come to that place very soon. She checked for restaurants on her phone and we selected a place where we could eat a late lunch.
The voice on the phone told me to turn right and proceed north. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, but the phone’s directions were often quirky – the algorithm had earlier piloted us down gravel roads and sent us through impoverished neighborhoods at the edges of small towns and, so, I supposed that the cell-phone’s computer knew a better, and secret, route to Albion. So we drove 25 miles in a direction that seemed wrong to me and, then, were directed westward.
Julie said: "I thought that we were only 37 miles from Albion."
The sign next to the road told us we were entering Madison County. "I thought Albion was the county seat of Boone County," Julie said. "This is some secret short-cut," I told her. "Perhaps there are road closures and we must just be cutting across a corner of the county."
After another twenty minutes driving, we came across a sparkling city with a range of high-rises at its edge and some brand-new office buildings with glittering black-tinted windows. The place seemed prosperous and a number of retail stores lined the highway including some large groceries and a Target.
Of course, the town was Norfolk and the phone led us to the restaurant that we had selected, a barbecue place. We had gone (round-trip) 100 miles astray.
We stayed at the Cardinal Inn in Albion. The room smelled strongly of disinfectant, a raw chemical odor that invaded your throat and tilted your imagination toward morbid thoughts. In the toilet, some intensely slippery, but clear, fluid had oozed onto the floor and I imagined myself slipping there, cracking my skull on the porcelain and bleeding onto the white tiles.
I drove out alone to see the Sand Hills. As I was returning to Albion, my wife called me on my cell-phone and said that she couldn’t tolerate the chemical stench in the room. She asked me to buy a scented candle. I went to a Dollar General store on the edge of town where you can get anything. I bought some pumpkin and cinnamon-scented air freshener and a small candle also pumpkin-scented. Julie lit the candle and it helped, but only a little.
Christopher’s Embassy Suites on the outskirts of San Francisco had a garden in the atrium. Water spilled down terraces into a pool where brilliant, orange and yellow koi rotated slowly like great fat and luminous globes. Succulents stood over the little translucent pond and there were orchids and dewy plants with heavy, pendulous flowers. The air was perfumed in that place. But in the morning it smelled slightly of fried eggs, bacon, and maple syrup – this was the Embassy Suites’ famous "cooked to order" breakfast. In the early evening, the garden was faintly scented with the smell of bar-pour whiskey and beer – the evening reception was underway near the glass column in which elevators rose and fell.
When everyone had arrived in Albion, we went in a caravan to a little sports bar next to the Runza sandwich place. This was at the intersection where the two state highways crossed. In the tavern, it was the waiter’s first night on the job and he was confused by the large group and their orders. The food came out cold and was set before the wrong people and there were whole meals carried to the table that no one had ordered. My mother bought as an appetizer a basket of fried "Rocky Mountain Oysters". The testicles had been beaten flat and were deep-fried and, in fact, over-cooked to my taste. No one ate them but me and John LaPorte, who is mostly Anishiinabe and from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
After the meal, we went outside and, then, drove in a column to various places in the small town significant to my mother: we saw the huge imposing house where she was raised (now mostly a ruin), the old hospital where she was born, the homes where her grandparents had lived, the location where my grandfather’s John Deere and car dealership had been located – it’s the Serviceman’s club today with a list of war casualties embossed on bricks next to the front door.
Julie asked me about the shrieking sound in the air. "Cicadas," I said. The cicadas in their millions were screaming as if in mortal pain hidden in the dark trees overhead.
In San Francisco, Christopher’s Porsche was small and accommodated only one passenger. He took my son, Jack, in the car to the In-N-Out Burger in San Bruno. We met at that hamburger place. "These are the best hamburgers in the world," he told us. We each had a double-double with the secret sauce. Then, Christopher took Angelica in the sports car and they drove along the highway a bit faster than was legal and the sun was shining and the wind blew in their eyes and mussed their blonde hair and the road ran alongside the bay for a distance and white sailboats dotted the great, tranquil inlet and all was well in the world.
At the Day’s Inn in Hillsboro, I rose early. Mr. Messelmeem’s breakfast was appalling – some stale bagels and a couple boxes of old cereal and the smell of the milk and the curry sauce in the lobby made me a little dizzy. I left the motel before 8:00 am and bought a sausage and egg McMuffin at the McDonald’s at the foot of the hill. Then, I drove through the deserted crossroads downtown and found the highway that led to the great Serpent Mound of Adams County.
The humidity was stifling and the hollows and bends in the road were foaming with fog. The way to the mound led through barren, deserted country, a place where it seemed that a great and nameless catastrophe had occurred. The highway bent and twisted and oozed its way south and east, passing through ruinous villages at unnamed and unnumbered cross-roads. Next to the road, I saw a small brick church, just a stone closet in a field surrounded by a vast number of old graves. The shacks in the towns were engulfed in vines or crushed by big thickets like spiders squatting along the road and, in the distance, the grey-green fog was welling up out of the wet pastures. I saw some strange hunchbacked cattle in a wet field and, then, some dilapidated horses standing stoically against a collapsing fence-line. The road was deserted, no one coming toward me and no one following. The terrain was walled with gloomy copses of trees and the little soaked pastures looked desolate between the dark walls of the woods.
I passed a tiny church, really just a small lathe building like a renovated chicken coop: Serpent Mound Congregation of Christ. Somewhere I had read that the people in these parts regarded the Serpent Mound with superstitious awe – it was dangerous, a place where witchcraft had been practiced, and there were many who thought that bulldozers should be used to erase the mound so that, after a generation or two, even it’s evil memory would be forever gone. The Devil and his works are powerful. A great stillness brooded over the empty landscape, the blurred bits where the fog was doing its work to dissolve the world, the black tangled trees and the wounded-looking marshes. Sinkholes opened down into another world. The sun was stuck up in the sky but, not, yet powerful enough to burn off the mist.
Although signs said the Serpent Mound was closed, I turned right anyway and drove up the hill to the park entrance. The way to the mound was open and so I drove to a parking lot a few yards from a small museum that looked like a WPA building, solid but rough-hewn and made from heavy, dark brown field stone. A conical mound stood next to the parking lot and a sidewalk led into an field claustrophobic with stands of trees on all sides. A stark steel observation tower rose above the undulating mound and its deck was about forty feet above the wet meadow.
The tail of the serpent was a tight spiral about forty feet across, the grass-covered embankment about four-feet high. The serpent, then, twisted in tight, elegantly cursive loops across the level hilltop. Through most of its length, the embankment mound was about five or six feet high, extremely distinct and well-preserved. A little old man on the rusty riding lawn mower was cutting the grass alongside the sidewalk. It was obvious that the mound was also periodically mowed and treated so that weeds didn’t grow in the bright green sod. At the head of the serpent, the mound stopped, expanded into a separate canoe-shaped or vaginal form, and, then, ended in another small peaked mound representing the tip of the great snake’s nose. I knew from reading that the serpent’s peculiar head probably represented the star Antares and that there were astronomical alignments related to the effigy’s loops and undulations. Others have argued that the serpent is portrayed as swallowing something, possibly an egg. The egg, I suppose, would represent the disk of the earth as the ancient people imagined it, all of reality wrapped in the coils of the great snake.
The serpent is 1100 feet long. An excavation a year ago revealed that ancient people actually re-fashioned the serpent at some point, possibly a thousand years ago, removing a loop near the snake’s head. Signs said that the mound represented the underwater panther, a water spirit something like a dragon, thought to be lethal to men. But, ordinarily, that serpent was represented as horned like an antelope. In fact, from the contradictory writings on the signs marking the site, it was pretty clear to me that no one was sure what the serpent meant or, even, when it had been made. A marker said that the serpent was first thought to have been made by the Hopewell people but that later studies and carbon-14 dating showed that the huge coiled embankment had been made by the so-called Fort Ancient people, a woodland culture that flourished about 1000 A.D.
A jeep appeared and the park ranger tramped down the sidewalk to the museum. The little fieldstone museum would not open for an hour. I talked my way into the museum so that I could pay the admission fee for parking. I saw some arrow- and spear-points, a primitive wood digging tool, and, a tattered wicker basket. The earth used to make the serpent was carried to the effigy mound in hand-woven wicker baskets.
Although people in the area knew about the Serpent Mound, it wasn’t formally discovered until reported in archaeological journals at Harvard in 1887. Frederick Ward Putnam first surveyed the mound and published sketches of it (although a couple of local men had published drawings of the mound in 1848). Putnam learned that local people were plotting to plow through the mound because it was deemed evil, a great insignia made by the devil. Putnam persuaded the "ladies of Boston" to donate enough money so that Harvard could acquire the land. The land was owned by that university until the turn of the century when the property was deeded to the Ohio State Archaeology Society.
The Serpent Mound is built on the edge of a huge meteor-impact crater. The meteor smashed into the earth in this place about 25 million years ago and the outlines of the vast pit gouged in the earth have long since been completely concealed by topsoil, rivers, and hills and the great gloomy forests. But the traces of the calamity are written indelibly in the bedrock, an enormous circular dent in the earth encircled by high ramps of stone cast up around the crater.
The Fort Ancient people who built the mound didn’t know about this catastrophic event. How could they? The world is always being destroyed and renewed – perhaps, that is what the snake meant.
You can live next to the Serpent Mound all your life and still hate the place. Some sorcerer enchanted this landscape, made your momma into a slut and your daddy into a vicious, heroin-addicted drunk. Some sorcerer sent the jobs away and scattered across the roads knuckle-sized pebbles to make your motorcycle skid and fall. Some sorcerer closed down the factory and poisoned the wells and darkened all prospects until the little villages were rotting like carrion. Some sorcerer gave grandpa Alzheimers and grew a cancer in grandma’s lungs and put ALS into your brother. Sure ‘nuff – it’s true. Everyone in this fuckin’ country is living on top of one huge, ancient Indian burial mound and so, of course, it’s all cursed.
So on a July night in 2015, nineteen-year-old David Dargaville got drunk and drove his pick-up onto the old Adena conical mound near the great Serpent. He didn’t dare encroach on the monstrous snake but, instead, sunk his tires like teeth into the mound and, then, gunned his engine, tearing up the sod and flinging it down the sides of the nine-foot hillock. When he was done, the mound was half-bald with tire gouges and Dargaville thought he heard the old, dead Indians moaning underground.
Of course, they caught him and hauled his ass into court. He did three days in the slammer, had to pay restitution to have the mound re-sodded ($3,790), was ordered to perform 100 hours community service, and had to write a ten-page essay on the history of the Serpent Mound.
Dargaville expressed remorse. He wrote the essay and turned it into the official who manages the museum at the great Serpent Mound. The park ranger read the paper and said it was adequate, but he didn’t disclose its content to anyone.
The steps were a bit slippery as I climbed the observation tower to look down at the Serpent Mound. From the top deck, the undulating embankment seemed as sharply delineated in the earth as a feature built just yesterday. A little thrill of awe and horror came over me.
The mound was raised on a peninsula of bluff above Brushy Creek. Deep, densely overgrown ravines plunge down to the creek, the water invisible in its thickets from the hill top. Beyond the creek, the land rises a little to a terrace on which there are some small cultivated fields and a lone house, white as bone, standing haggard and eyeless on the hillside. The white house seems tall and very old, with many rooms, but I didn’t see how it could be reached from here.
We will never know what the people that we name as Adena and Hopewell called themselves. Perhaps, they named themselves after an animal like a bear or eagle or a god or constellation or legendary hero. Or, maybe, they called themselves by the name of a river or prominent hilltop that they regarded as central to their homeland. Most probably, I suppose, they knew themselves in their language as simply "the people" or the "true men" or the "noble ones" regarding their families and kin like all men and women throughout history as paragons of human virtue, valor, and culture.
At Chillicothe, Ohio in the Scioto river valley, the architect Benjamin Latrobe built a stately brick manor house for Thomas Worthington, a politician who later served as the sixth governor of Ohio. (In 1807, when the manor house was erected Chillicothe was the capitol of the State.) Worthington named his estate Adena. A large, shaggy Indian mound was located on his property. That mound was excavated and its grave goods looted. Worthington’s manor and estate have lent their name to a Native American culture that flourished in central Ohio and the Appalachian foothills in Kentucky for eight-hundred years – that is, from 1000 BC to 200 BC.
A little to the north and west of Chillicothe, a man named Hopewell owned a farm. His land was crisscrossed with great earthen embankments and dozens of oblong and conical mounds. This is the site now known as Mound City. The people who built these monuments are called by the name of the farmer who owned this property – the Hopewell people or, more accurately, the Hopewell material culture complex. These Indians were the successors to the Adena and their culture is viewed as a development and elaboration of Adena accomplishments. The Hopewell culture was centered in the Scioto river valley running from modern day Columbus to Portsmouth where the river flows into the Ohio. The Hopewell people left their mark across a vast territory – artifacts associated with them have been found as far south as Florida and north to Ontario. They lived between 200 BC and 500 AD. The latter date is their horizon and the end of the massive earthmoving projects that characterized their efflorescence.
In the historic period, the Shawnee lived in the river valley. Their people were famous for charismatic prophets. The relationship between the Shawnee and the Adena-Hopewell complex is unknown.
For perspective, Mississippian culture, culminating in large city at Cahokia across the river from modern-day St. Louis reached its height around 1100 A.D. At about the same time, the Chaco cultural complex in present New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona was erecting great cliff-dwellings, ceremonial sites, and fortified hilltop pueblos. The Fort Ancient people living where Cincinnati is now located were also dominant around 1000 AD.
Gobekli Tepe ("pot-belly hill") is a Neolithic tell or mound located in central Anatolia. It is the most important discovery in archaeology in the last century. As the great archaologist, Ian Hodder, has said "Gobekli Tepe changes everything." It is a site that challenges many things that archaeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists have believed about human history. I mention this place because it poses questions that are similar to those raised by the enormous earthworks erected by the Adena-Hopewell people.
Gobekli Tepe is a ceremonial center consisting of large megaliths carved with relief sculptures of archaic elk and antelope and bison, insects, and supernatural fantasy creatures. Some of the megaliths simulate the human form in that their lower surfaces show chiseled bas relief legs. The pillars are mostly about 20 to 24 feet tall, limestone, and weigh as much as ten tons. These pillars, some of which are tee-shaped, are set into sockets hewn directly into the bedrock. There are said to be 200 such columnar megaliths on the mountain-top site.
No evidence of villages or, even, cemeteries exist at Gobekli Tepe. When the megaliths were quarried and transported, villages didn’t exist. The people roaming the area were hunter-gatherers without sedentary homes. They didn’t farm because farming hadn’t been invented. The wheel didn’t exist and, most remarkably, the people who raised these megaliths had no knowledge of pottery – they lived in what is called the pre-pottery Neolithic period, between 12000 and 8500 B.C.
It has long been thought that stone architecture and monumental ceremonial sites are evidence for an intensely stratified society. Someone, like a pharaoh, had to direct operations and marshal the labor to build such things. Therefore, these kinds of monuments are thought to be diagnostic of an agricultural, socially stratified, urban culture – people who lived in cities or, at least, large villages, farmed, and engaged in warfare with other fortified towns. Elites governed these people and supervised the erection of ceremonial structures and other monuments. As the story is told, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers, possibly led by "big men" (that is, proto-elites), invented agriculture, established fixed abodes in villages and, then, cities, and, ultimately, constructed irrigation for their fields, a communal venture that created an identity in the people, and, then, developed into the construction of ceremonial and mortuary sites. Gobekli Tepe’s existence challenges this hypothesis.
In fact, Gobekli Tepe suggests that, on some fundamental level, archaeologists have misunderstood the role of ceremony and mortuary practices in human history. In Anatolia, the first towns (such as Catalhoyuk excavated by Ian Hodder) seem to have arisen as a result of people congregating on an annual basis for religious ceremonies. Gobekli Tepe, obviously the work of thousands of people, was made by nomads who didn’t have agriculture and didn’t live in villages. Apparently, these groups of wandering hunter-gatherers congregated seasonally, possibly to celebrate some kind of astronomically inflected, skull-cult. (The first towns in the Middle East such as Jericho are characterized by human skulls that seem to have been painted with ocher or cinnabar, plastered to a semblance of faces, and, then, kept in people’s houses.) Much of this is conjecture – we don’t know what sorts of rituals were celebrated at Gobekli Tepe, but sheer size of the place, a Neolithic cathedral, suggests that something powerful and impressive took place there for thousands of years.
The Adena-Hopewell complex of people moved millions of tons of earth to make enormous embankments, ramps, and mounds. But they didn’t have villages, instead living in small family or clan groups. A Hopewell settlement consisted of four or five wigwam-like structures built from bent poles that were, then, woven with twigs and branches to create a shelter. The people living in those wigwams had only the most limited agriculture – they cultivated tiny gardens of pumpkin, squash, and sunflowers. They didn’t have corn and their diet consisted mostly of small mammals like rabbits and rodents as well as edible seeds that they gathered. They used elegantly knapped stone-points to hunt larger animals like bear and deer – but this kind of meat seems to have been luxury. Estimates vary but, at the height of their building activity, the Hopewell population, spread across thousands of square miles in central Ohio and northern Kentucky never exceeded 40,000 souls. So how did they manage to build the great monuments that still exist more than 1500 years after the decline of their culture?
Good intentions may have motivated those who taught me that the upper Mississippi burial mounds were paltry affairs, a few wretched skeletons flexed into fetal positions and inserted in big heaps of dirt. Viewed charitably, one might suppose educators wanted to avoid looting or vandalism and, further, there was, probably, a racist sub-text: the ancestors of the Native-Americans weren’t gifted with respect to arts and crafts – they devoted their time to hunting and collecting scalps. But this is untrue, a calumny.
When Howard Carter first peeped through a fissure into King Tutankhamun’s tomb, he was asked what if he could see anything. Carter was stunned and was only able to whisper: "Yes, wonderful things." It is not an exaggeration to say that Adena-Hopewell mound-burials were also deposits full of wonderful things. Their tombs are full of shield-like copper plates from the upper peninsula of Michigan, exquisitely carved Catlinite pipes dug from pits in southwest Minnesota and shaped to depict bears and vultures and little dwarf-like shamans, flat black stones worked to a high polish and incised with abstract patterns, six-inch long obsidian knives quarried in the upper Yellowstone country, necklaces made of pearl and semi-precious stones, silver headdresses and skull-caps, mosaics made from innumerable bits of mica, bear claws both real and made from silver or copper, carved antlers, human bones hollowed into flutes, intricately sheared plates of beaten silver cut into the shapes of ravens and other winged beings, and, in one mound, more than 30 shark teeth apparently from the Gulf of Mexico together with a razor-sharp and four-inch long incisor from a great white shark. In one mound, headless corpses were set on a bed of mica flakes eight feet long simulating a raven with a fourteen-foot wing-span. The skeletons were set one to a wing, as if to borne aloft by the great bird, their skulls neatly inserted between their ankles. In many of the mounds, looters found beautifully formed silver and copper hands, some of them with eyes represented in their palms. No one knows whether the Hopewell traded for these things or sent expeditions to the Gulf of Mexico or the Rocky Mountains to collect the precious goods buried with their dead. But the sheer abundance of artifacts and their exotic nature testifies to a cosmopolitan mercantile culture – and, yet, the Hopewell were people, it must be remembered, who didn’t live in cities or, even, villages, had no domestic animals except dogs, and subsided by hunting and gathering with only the most rudimentary agriculture.
The people buried in these mounds must have been prophets or war-chiefs or, possibly, great magicians – perhaps, they could cause miscarriages in women and dogs, make the stars fall from the sky, summon lightning, and raise the dead. There is evidence of human sacrifice, skeletons with their skulls stove in and, then, buried flanking the graves of the great men. As in many cultures, the thing most pleasing to the gods, the rarest of liqueurs, was human blood. Clearly, some kind of elite existed but we don’t know what they did or how they proved their superiority. And, so, mysteries abound.
They had put my dead brother in a box and shipped him in the belly of a jet to Omaha. He was cargo like a crate of peaches. A hearse carried the box to Albion. The local mortician did some restorative work, correcting insults inflicted by the long trip. Then, my brother’s box, the dull, industrial color of gun-metal, was taken to the Congregational church, the lid opened, and the corpse put on display. The casket was located just inside the door to the church so that an encounter with my dead brother was inevitable and could not be avoided.
The corpse looked just enough like Christopher to make the display uncanny and disturbing. My dead brother’s head seemed to have been carved ineptly from a block of pale, soft wood. The body’s jaw was long and brutish and its face gaunt. The lips were twisted into an asymmetrical grimace. It was a grim, uncompromising cadaver, not merely inert but repulsively dead. My eyes couldn’t blur this savage caricature into any semblance of my brother as he had been alive. The shock of hair and raw cheek-bones under sunken eyes made the thing look like something from a zombie film, like the first reanimated corpse that appears in the dim graveyard at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead.
My mother stroked the corpse’s hair and, then, staggered a little, calling to the female mortician. She said that she didn’t want to witness the casket lid being closed. "No, no, no," the mortician said.
We went to a pew and sat in the humid warmth of the church while the organist played variations on the Shaker hymn " ‘Tis a gift to be simple." The old congregational church was crumbling – great House-of-Usher cracks zigzagging through the plaster overhead. The organ sometimes roared like a wild beast and I thought that the ceiling was reverberating and might give way and bury us all in the pews. My mother began to shudder and sob. Her distress caused my wife to cry. I squared my shoulders in defiance but all the strength drained out of me until I felt empty and weak.
After the service, they rolled the casket away on a wheeled cart out to the waiting hearse. The sky was grey with smoky-looking standing columns of dark cloud. Before the service, the mortician asked my mother again if she wanted the men to act as pall-bearers. But the front steps to the church were old and steep and, underfoot, they felt swampy to me. It would be hard to navigate those steps with the casket and it looked immensely heavy to me.
In better times, when I was younger and my children were small, we drove across Nebraska along State Highway 20. This roads runs east-west about thirty or forty miles south of the South Dakota border and crosses the Sand Hills, a vast uninhabited grassland in the center of the State. Albion bills itself as the Gateway to the Sand Hills. On this occasion years ago, we visited the family graves at the Rose Hill cemetery and, then, drove west on 91 to where the road reaches a tee-intersection with 281 and jogs straight north for a few miles. Where 91 stops at the north-south highway, there is a very fine vista of the Sand Hills. It was a perspective that my father particularly admired, a barren ridge offering a vast and panoramic view of the Hills, ancient sand dunes now sparsely overgrown with grass.
On that morning, during better days, we came to the vista and I pulled across the north-south highway, as stark and straight as ab airport runway, to take some pictures of the Hills. From my father, I inherit pleasure in seeing a place like this – the wild, vast terrain is beautiful to me. The kids were little and it was hot and we were heading toward the cool, high mountains in Colorado and so they didn’t have much patience for my admiration of the enormous, treeless expanse. But it had recently rained and, indeed, the vista was very beautiful – the hills were all lapped together like the waves in a motionless grassy sea, a crumpled, toppled chaos of small knolls, all of them treeless, but green in the foreground and, then, blue at the horizon, clouds chasing one another overhead and dragging their shadows over the landscape, darkening the pale green to an umbral blue-green rolling across the broken and choppy terrain. Here and there, erosion had frayed the edges of one of the hills and, in those places, the sand shone golden-yellow. In the hollows, a few evergreens marked places where water was near the surface and, in the deep places between knolls, water was cupped to reflect the sky. I took some pictures, but the photographs don’t contain the wind and the grass surging and falling with the breeze and the ripples in the little pools and the motion of the shadows herded across the landscape.
After we arrived in Albion for my brother’s funeral, I drove out on Highway 91, through Spalding to the viewpoint over the Hills. On the way to the vista, I saw places where the hills had encroached between fields where endless palisades of corn grew – the hills were cut with ravines and leaking sand into their gullies. At the viewpoint, the sky was lead-grey, the color of the metal casket in which my brother would be buried, and the Hills were monochrome, grey also, marching out to a stormy horizon.
In Ohio, I found the intersection in an abandoned section of the county. Then, I turned and went northeast toward Chillicothe. The two-lane highway bent through a hundred blind curves to come across the hills toward Paint Creek, tributary of the Scioto River. At a hamlet called Sinking Springs, I bought gas at a BP coop. Next to the gas station, there was a grassy prominence where a strange octagonal building stood. The structure was made of old brick and had a zinc roof and flew the American flag. The scarcely perceptible hill on which the building was erected seemed to be some kind of park. A carved boulder stood in front of the octagon with letters chiseled into its sides.
There was a slight contretemps with the clerk in the BP station. Something had disabled my credit card. (I supposed it was the breath of the great serpent.) As I paid with cash, I asked the woman about the octagonal structure. The woman was about forty with hair dyed so blonde as to be white. She said: "You know, I’ve lived here thirty years and I don’t know what that thing is." The town was three-blocks long with shuttered stores, an abandoned bank with a formidable, lowering brick cornice, and some trailer houses drawn up at the edges of the village. A church with a peculiar swollen-looking steeple stood over the fractured and desolate sidewalk. It looked like the kind of place where people spoke in tongues and handled rattlesnakes for communion.
From the highway, I saw the Seip Mound standing stark and enormous, bigger than a barn in the middle of a long wet pasture. A little pull-off allowed parking in front of some National Park Service signs describing the site. (There are five mound and embankment sites, spread across the country around Chillicothe, and all administered as the Hopewell National Historic Park.)
The mound was a quarter mile away, situated more or less in the middle of the Paint Creek river bottoms. Impressive and steep wooded hills rose on both sides of the valley and some dull, grey cliffs were visible overhung with vines and brush dangling down over the precipice. The meadow was very wet with dew and my feet were soaked before I reached the mound.
But, if you can walk, you should – as I hiked over the spongy ground, wet to the knees from the dew, I thought of my brother and how he was paralyzed and how he cried out in the middle of the night because his back or hips were hurting him and he had to be turned over in his hospital bed, something that he couldn’t accomplish on his own. I thought of the darkness and how Bonnie had to help him and, then, the black fear of death came upon me and I groaned myself a little as I walked toward the huge oblong mound, a hill that was thirty-five high and, at least, eighty feet long, featureless, a brooding grass monad in the center of the wet, flower-sprinkled meadow. To reach the mound, you have to pass through a kind of gate made from low embankments, reduced by a thousand years to only four or five feet high, curling like parentheses that open toward four pits, the remains of recent excavations that determined that just inside the embankments surrounding the mound there were buildings, apparently mortuaries where corpses were prepared, big wooden huts built from bent-poles as tall as young trees and covered with wicker thatching.
At first, on the site of the mound, small huts had been built in which immensely hot fires blazed. The huts were used as crematoriums and the bodies were burnt to calcined bone and ash. Then, the bone-clogged white dust was enclosed in log crypts constructed over the place where the corpses had been cremated. Grave goods including mica and exotic gems as well as finely decorated pottery and burnished coppers were put in the crypts and a low hillock was raised over the burials. Over the course of several hundred years, more dirt was dragged onto the mound and it was raised in two stages to its final height, probably fifteen feet taller than what we see today.
A trail led to the river. It was a long hot way, but I was happy to be able to walk. On the stroll, I thought about Christopher and, how, perhaps, I had failed him. There was nothing to see on the walk. The trail crossed open fields where the prairie grass was tall as my heart and I could see the grey, sheer cliffs where the bluff dropped away toward the river bottom. As I approached the dense woods surrounding the creek, I could no longer see the cliffs. The trail dead-ended at a vantage over the muddy flood of the creek, a swift stream about fifty-feet wide that was the color of caramel fizzy with root beer. The creek rushed by, whispering as it passed. A National Park Service sign said that the ancient Indians had lived in family groups along this river and that the post-holes from some of their wigwams had been found near here. Someone had placed two beautifully tinted clam-shells, open like hands, atop the plaque. Another natural history marker said that the creek was the home of the largest salamander in the world, the Hellbender, but that this beast, 27 inches long and half-blind with little button eyes and bearded with barbels like a catfish, was now endangered and, indeed, almost extinct.
The way back to the parking lot was long and uninteresting. In one place, the trail crossed through someone’s soybeans. All the way back I could hear cars and trucks on the highway hurrying to Chillicothe. My feet were soaked for the rest of the day – but I will say again: if you can walk, you should walk.
Christopher told me that hiked cross-country in Yosemite, starting in Toulumne Meadows. He said that he had overestimated his stamina and that, as he walked, he divested himself of camping gear. My brother purchased nothing but the finest – this was his hallmark throughout his life. Accordingly, he said ruefully that he abandoned several thousand dollars of the best backpacking equipment in the world in the bushes of the Sierra High Country. Christopher told me that Yosemite was fantastically beautiful and that the landscapes looked like something "from the Lord of the Rings."
He owned a jeep and drove into the mountains to take pictures. His landscape photographs were beautiful and he had a keen eye for the wilderness. When I thought of him during the long years that he lived in California and had little contact with the rest of the family, I imagined him like an eagle, perched on a high and remote peak focusing his camera. I imagined the camera on a tripod and pictured the peaks as being great, bluish granite domes. His eyrie was atop a huge boulder glittering with quartz and the jeep was nearby, glistening the way that vehicles do in TV ads.
Once, when I was in California, I asked Christopher about Death Valley. "It’s just desert," he said. I asked him if it was worth seeing. "Stay out of those places," he told me. "They will age you before your time."
He loved to see fields of tall sunflowers bowing their heads together in the breeze. On his funeral brochure, there is a picture of a field of sunflowers, great stately plants all of them turned against the camera except for a single blossom in the foreground, a bright ring of yellow petals arrayed around a red orb. At the funeral, blinded by emotion, I didn’t notice that only one of the hundreds and hundreds of flowers shown in the picture is facing the camera – all of the rest, as if shy, have turned their heavy heads away and look toward a horizon where some dark trees divide the green field from a grey and foreboding sky. The single blossom gazes at us with its open eye, indomitable and fierce.
Two cigar-sized caterpillars, fat and green, fell from trees where my sister, Celeste, lives in Northfield. She picked them up and put them on milkweed leaves in her home. The caterpillars embedded their blind heads in the milkweed and each hardened into a harp-shaped chrysalis.
Some days passed and a brilliant orange and black Monarch butterfly with wings like stained glass emerged from one of the chrysalises.
My sister thought that Christopher had died in such a way that, perhaps, his spirit was confused. She told us to keep praying for him even after he was gone. It was important that his soul emerge into the light.
Chillicothe is a little more prosperous than its environs. But this is because the town is home to two huge prisons. No town really prospers from a prison. Prison-wages are tainted.
On the outskirts of the town, on a river flat between the fences and guard towers of the two prisons, the National Park Service protects a large Hopewell site called Mound City. Beyond the parking lot discretely enclosed by trees, there’s a small, but extravagantly endowed, museum annexed to a visitor center where you can watch an interesting video presentation on the Hopewell people. Behind the visitor center, a sidewalk leads to a clearing blistered with grassy mounds. Embankments hedge the array of mounds and there are informative markers posted among the earthworks. Here, the dew has dried and the sun is hot, but the humidity remains close and intimidating.
A riding lawn mower chugs around the periphery of the grassy hillocks – there are a dozen or more of them and, so, the place has been named Mound City. But this is not a city, rather a necropolis and ceremonial center – no evidence of permanent dwellings has been found here. The mounds are various shapes – long slender ridges, pyramidal cones, oblongs, and double mounds, conjoined like two fists resting side-by-side in the turf.
The film in the Visitor Center shows that there is much more here than meets the eye. The Hopewell built two types of earthworks: long embankments running around the crests of hilltops, enclosing ceremonial circles and limestone-faced alignments, and river bottom cemeteries. The river bottom sites are enclosed by earth ramparts that follow a strict formula – there is a square encompassing 27 acres, a small circle, perhaps, about 100 yards in diameter and, then, an adjacent great circle. The great circle also defines an enclosure of about 27 acres. In fact, the measurements are so exact that the circle can be inserted within the square earthworks. Clearly, some unit of measure was at work here since all the major sites display this geometry. And it is obvious that the configuration of the earthen embankments and the mounds is not helter-skelter but the result of a consciously applied design. Small causeways link the great circle, the small circle, and the 27 acre square. Burial mounds have been raised within both the large square and the great circle. The mounds cover log crypts containing human remains, either cremated or skeletons buried supine with exotic and beautifully crafted grave goods. It was at Mound City that a cache of 200 calumets or ceremonial effigy pipes was discovered, each Catlinite pipe damaged in some way so as to be killed or deactivated. Some graves contained large, mirror-like sheets of mica, silver and copper cut-outs, as well as lethal-looking obsidian blades six-inches long. In one grave, more than a thousand gem-like beads were found.
The small museum contains about a half-dozen of the most famous masterpieces of Hopewell art. These include some exquisite effigy pipes, the silver raven often portrayed in books about American Indian art, and several of the enigmatic hands made from plates of beaten silver. Human bones fashioned into flutes or ceremonial wands are displayed in the cases and there are informative touch-screen programs that provide in-depth detail about the exhibits. Although the museum is only a single L-shaped gallery, it is excellent and so thought-provoking as to be actually exciting. Most of the visitors to this place, which is free, glance at the explanatory NPS sign next to the parking lot, walk to the back veranda to gaze at the field of mounds, and, then, buy a post-card in the gift shop. Only a couple of people wandered out to stroll among the big mounds, warm and breathing like great animals in the hot sun. No one at all joined me in the museum.
Two-thousand years ago, a procession of majestic earthworks lined the Scioto River. Fortification-like embankments on the tops of the hills were encrusted with shield-like displays of white lime. Archaeologist have found fire-pits at intervals overlooking the valley. Bonfires were lit in in the ceremonial circles and the flames were so intense that they melted the soil to glass-like silica. At certain times of the year, rituals were conducted within the huge embankments in the river-valley, earth walls sometimes raised to the height of 30 feet and, at night, streamers of fire on the bluffs rose skyward, punctuating the darkness at regular intervals and spitting sparks into the constellations rotating above.
My sister, Melissa, the baby of our family, carried three plastic soldiers to the funeral. When we were children, we called the plastic soldiers "little men." They were khaki-green, one of them squatting to fire his rifle, another prone on his belly and, also, aiming his gun at some invisible opponent, the third little man held a grenade in his right hand, signaling to his comrades to advance bravely toward the enemy. When he was a small child, Christopher liked to play with the "little men" soldiers. He would make battle sounds with his lips and tongue, simulating the rattle of machine gun fire or the guttural thud of artillery shells. When a "little man" was killed, he was tipped over to lie on his side, Christopher sometimes making a little squeaking cry to signify the man’s death. The riflemen firing from a prone position were rolled-over belly-up to show that they had been killed in action. Christopher had a hundred or so green plastic soldiers, all of them the size of a chess piece. The tiny warriors were indomitable and immortal; after being killed, they could be set back up on the flat plastic base extruded under their boots to fight once more. Sometimes, the little men battled in mountainous terrain made from blankets and bed sheets. On other occasions, they ambushed one another in narrow defiles formed by stacked books or fought hand-to-hand on the tiles in the basement. To best imagine their martial encounters, one had to lie on the floor and scrutinize them at their eye-level.
Melissa slipped the three plastic men into the casket. They would go with Christopher into the earth and accompany him wherever else he went.
The lady-pastor at Christopher’s funeral served several congregations, all of them dying. She lived in Neligh. When we were children, my father took us to Estes Park in Colorado. We went there several times, driving north of Albion through Neligh. Once, there had been a Lutheran Bible Camp at Estes Park and my father had been taken there by my grandfather, the pastor. The way that his family traveled to Estes Park was the north route across Nebraska, through the Sand Hills, on Highway 20.
Between Petersberg and Neligh, on the east side of the road, a granite headstone marked the place where Logan Fontanelle had been killed. Fontanelle was a fur trader, half Omaha Indian and half French. He straddled both the White and Native American worlds but, ultimately, opted for the native side. He rose to prominence among the Omaha, traveled to Washington D.C. to negotiate treaties for his people, and became a chief. While hunting buffalo in 1855, Fontanelle’s party was ambushed by the Dakota. They fought well but were all killed. The marker showed the place where Logan Fontanelle had died, or, perhaps, been buried, a nondescript ditch along the state highway.
When passing along this way, we used to stop by the marker and read the words inscribed in the stone. Albion was not the West. It was still an eastern town surrounded by corn fields and soy beans with a rickety grain elevator and steel bins standing like truncated organ pipes along the highways leading to the village. The people in Albion weren’t ranchers or cowboys, although there were black Angus cattle grazing a dozen miles away on the edges of the Sand Hills. Hog barns stood in the river bottoms and the towns, although small were spaced closely enough that, during the last century, a woman visiting kin could walk from one hamlet to the next, spend a couple of hours with her people, and, then, walk back home again all in one day. The memorial to Logan Fontanelle was where the storied and golden West began, the land of the high snowy mountains, gunfighters and Indians, deserts and mines full of Spanish treasure all bathed in the funereal light of the setting sun.
Before my flight, I went to the Cincinnati Art Museum, a big building with the portico of a Greek temple mounted on an acropolis above the old German ghetto, a neighborhood called "Over the Rhine." I wanted to see if the museum had Hopewell or Adena artifacts, but my time was short and I never reached those galleries if, in fact, they existed.
Like many big regional museums, the Cincinnati collection is congested with spurious-looking Old Master paintings collected by local robber barons and, then, bestowed upon the institution in some gesture of reparation or specious philanthropy. Every museum of this sort has an elder Cranach panel showing a vulpine and pale nude lady who seems naked even if she is clothed. These paintings merely establish that Cranach the Elder had a particularly thriving studio or that his signature subject is easily forged. Cincinnati owns an enormous Anselm Kiefer canvas "Montsalvat", also I think the product of factory-like production, and a truly hideous work said to be painted by Tiepolo, an obscure saint (Charles Borromeo) portrayed in bizarre foreshortening, a perspective that elongates the snout of the holy man so that he looks like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The more interesting aspects of this collection involve the American paintings, some of which are significant. George Inness’ "Near the Village: October" is a typical late-style work by this landscape artist influenced by Swedenborg’s mystical writings – the paint is a glaze on the canvas, almost like ceramic, browns and yellows and faded greens applied densely to show a meadow where a solitary shepherd stands, a white apparition against a tree, and, in the remote background, several pale houses under a bank of faintly glowintg cloud. Another notable painting is Robert Duncanson’s wild "The Blue Hole, Flood Waters, the Little Miami River", a canvas with some tiny figures fishing in the foreground in a river lagoon rimmed by shaggy, primeval forests – the treetops are arranged to make a cup-shaped void filled with creamy light and a naked, storm-ravaged tree, stripped of its bark and ghost-white points an accusing finger at the heavens in the very center of the picture. Duncanson is an interesting figure, an African-American painter born a free man in New York. Duncanson was trained as a house-painter but taught himself the skills of a professional artist of the time and made some notable pictures – he moved to Cincinnati, then regarded as a "southern City but free", and became famous for a canvas illustrating the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, "Little Eva and Uncle Tom." Abolitionists admired the painting and it toured extensively in the decade before the Civil War. At that time, Duncanson partnered with James Presley Ball, a White man and early Daguerrotypist to produce a 600 yard panorama entitled "Grand Panorama with Incidents of Slave Trade in the United States". This huge abolitionist work toured throughout the North to great acclaim. In 1862, Duncanson was in Minnesota where he painted a small, lapidary canvas showing Minneopa Falls near Mankato. The violence in the country then riven by the Civil War appalled him and he went into self-exile in Scotland, painting there scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels. He returned to Detroit in 1872 and was mounting an exhibition in that city when he died.
I looked at Duncanson’s painting of the Minneopa Falls and admired the translucent paint depicting the delicate veils of falling water. At first, I thought the image showed Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis – the principal waterfall has the same delicate profile. But the label to the painting told me that the falls were at Mankato. It was odd to see a reference to this place, not well-known even to most people in Minnesota in an art museum in Cincinnati.
Curiously, the Cincinnati Art Museum holds a prominent anti-slavery painting showing the Underground Railway, a ragged-looking family of enslaved people trudging through the snow toward a torch lit porch where some White folks are waiting for them, as well as a virulent pro-slavery picture, the large and impressive "General Order No. 11" by George Caleb Bingham. That picture depicts an apocalyptic landscape in which a dozen burning farmsteads cast lurid pillars of smoke into the sky. The white-haired and bearded patriarch of a family is defying Federal troops who have just shot down his son in cold blood. The young man lies outstretched on the ground in a pool of blood with his wife throwing her arms over the dying man. In the background, blue-coated Union troops are looting the family’s house which burns with a eerie red glow. At the lower left hand of the painting, a shabbily dressed Black man covers his face with horror and walks away from the lurid scene while his little boy stares back at the dying youth transfixed in horror. General Order 11 (August 1863) was a Federal directive that expelled slaveholders from the Missouri border with Kansas. The order led to depredations in four rural counties in western Missouri with raids and counter-raids by armed militias, the Jayhawkers and their pro-South adversaries, the Bushwhackers. (This contested territory spawned four generations of western outlaws from Jesse James through the Dalton gang to "Ma" Barker.)
Two notable murals decorate corridors at the Cincinnati Museum. One of them is by Leo Steinberg and shows impish caricatures of buildings and people in the Queen City. The mural once occupied a wall in the dining room of a prominent hotel in town and, at its center, Steinberg has sketched the downtown fountain on which the severe goddess stands attended by the two waterfalls draining through her hands. The other mural, also from a luxury hotel now demolished, is by Joan Miro, the Catalan surrealist. Miro has painted the big mural in a beautiful, transfixing blue, the depths of infinitely deep sky in which big, balloon-like monsters hover like blimps.
Driving back from Chillicothe, I saw an exit to the well-known archaeological site, Fort Ancient. I hesitated a moment before exiting to see the place. In fact, I’m now glad that I stopped and spent a couple hours at Fort Ancient – it is wonderfully fascinating.
Fort Ancient is a hilltop enclosed with high earthen embankments made about 2000 years ago. This site represents the most massive earthmoving project in North America preceding the industrial revolution. In fact, I would wager that the amount of soil shifted to build the 30 foot high ramparts along the rim of these bluffs exceeds any architectural endeavor preceding the deposit of the debris of old, fire-ravaged Chicago into the lakefront of the new, gleaming Chicago rebuilt after the catastrophic blaze in 1871. Two millenia have eroded the great ramparts of Fort Ancient, but, in some places, they remain 23 feet high.
The pioneers that discovered this place thought that the vast linear mounds twisting along the edge of bluffs were fortifications, hence, the site’s name. But, if fortifications, what was being protected by the massive walls? No town was found within the great enclosure, only dozens of mounds, some of them faced with pale limestone as well as enigmatic circles of stone inset in the meadows. The space within the enclosure was densely wooded, overgrown after two-thousand years, and old-growth oak and elm were rooted in the ramparts. The significance of the 3 ½ mile circuit of walls was unclear – eighty-two portals pierced the ramparts offering access to the interior space that had once been laboriously cleared on the hilltop 260 feet above the Little Miami River. (For the astronomical alignments marked by site features to be visible, the forest had to be cleared.)
For decades, looters slashed trenches through mounds seeking treasure. A number of burials of skeletons in flexed position were found in the top layers of the huge linear enclosure mound. Relatively humble grave goods identified these burials as from a cultural group dubbed Fort Ancient, people who lived in the area just before Columbus’ ships blundered into the West Indies. Accordingly, the Fort Ancient people were erroneosly credited with construction of the site. Later, studies showed that the Fort Ancient burials were opportunistic, so-called "intrusive" burials in pre-existing Hopewell Mounds. Beyond any doubt, the hilltop enclosure was raised by the Hopewell people dating the embankments back to the time of Christ.
Recent surveys and soil sampling proves that the Hopewell not only raised the vast embankment wall, but also cleared and leveled the enclosed bluff-top. Thousands of big trees where chopped down using stone tools to clear the enclosure and three massive ravines transecting the hilltop were filled with millions of square yards of tamped dirt. South-eastern Ohio is rainy and the architects used the pits from which they hauled dirt for the rammed earthen embankments to create water-features – these are moat-like indentations where water ponds along the inside of the ramparts. Many of these water features remain today and it is evident that they are intentional elements of the building program. Copper plates and other silver objects have been found buried in the silt at the bottom of these impound-ponds and, so, it seems apparent, that sacrifices were made in these pools. Scholars now speculate that the ponds were places where the antler-horned underwater panther was worshiped. Further, many of the ponds were once ringed with limestone pavement. Limestone flagstones defined the sacrificial pools and made pathways between the ceremonial mounds. At the south entrance to the enclosure, a long stair-like ramp descended from the hilltop to the Little Miami River. The ramp was edged with embankments faced with burned limestone and, at its top, the entrance into the enclosure was flanked by two high conical mounds, also covered with gleaming inset limestone.
A paved path bisects the irregularly shaped enclosure – the ramparts wall two lobes of high hilltop. This path seems some sort via sacrum used for ceremonial processions. The sacred way ends at the place where summer solstice bonfires seem to have burned for five-hundred years. For a century, an exactly measured circle comprised of upright wooden posts enclosed the bonfire. The wooden posts were set to mark various astronomical alignments. The posts were, in fact, massive pillars of wood, 16 foot-tall tree trunks with the bark shaved to make them gleam bone-white in the sun or reflect orange and blood-red when the huge bonfires were burning. At the center of this woodhenge (or ceremonial circle), ground-penetrating radar detected a perfect round anomaly. A core-sample was extracted from this soil anomaly and the boring tube was found to be full of bright-red, ketchup-colored clay. Clearly, the clay was transported from a great distance to this site, possibly from Arizona’s painted desert or the badlands of South Dakota. Even more puzzling, the woodhenge was carefully dismantled and its post-holes (and clay navel) buried under a stone circle about 150 A. D. (This is more than 800 years before the Mississippian peoples built their woodhenge in the ceremonial center of their great city that we now call Cahokia, City of the Sun.)
At the edge of a tract of low mounds paved with limestone flagstones, there is a museum. It’s large and ambitious, tracing the history of Native Americans in Ohio from their arrival from the Bering Strait to today. The museum is staffed by old women who have volunteered to manage the place. Several interesting videos describe the features of Fort Ancient. I drove on a winding lane along the huge embankment wall, a sinuous ridge now studded with trees dipping at intervals to swales serving as gateways into the big enclosure. Most of the tract of land enclosed is now densely forested again, although some of the acreage has been cleared to reveal mounds, vestiges of walkways, and circles of stone embedded in the black dirt. Foot trails braid their way through the woods passing up and over the ramparts. The little lagoons impounded by the earthen embankments seem to slouch languidly against the dam-like rampart, shimmering water dusted with fallen leaves.
At an overlook, I could see down to a bend in the Little Miami River. A bridge crossed the river, but the road deck had been removed for repairs and the span was breached – I saw the concrete piers set enigmatically in the flood of brown, limpid water. Beyond the dismantled bridge, a very old three-story house stood in a copse of trees on a leaf-strewn lawn above a still lagoon that curved into the river-bank. This was the Crossed Keys Tavern, a historic site across the Little Miami from the abandoned town-site of a village once called Fort Ancient. The tavern was built with field stone, flat slabs of white limestone intermingled with pale ocher-colored rock. The effect was that the tavern shone white as a cloud in its grove of old trees, a pale ghost reflected in the still waters of the lagoon. There was no direct way to reach the old tavern with its many mansions. The bridge was down and it was late in the day and there were no workmen anywhere laboring on the concrete piers or the iron girders stretching across the river. The cicadas whirred mechanically in the tall trees and the big embankment stretched endlessly across the hilltop, vanishing in the green shadows of the forest, and a great stillness abided over all the land.
So, in the end, what is this all about? These processions of red Indians, their mounds, their silver gorgets and ear spools, and effigy pipes burning sacred leaves, headdresses made from beaten silver and copper – isn’t this all a willful change in the subject matter? Isn’t it the substitution of one sort of mystery for another? In the second watch of the night, at the hour of the wolf when children are born and old men die, every thought is morbid, inflected by the fear of death, and the darkness seems eternal, implacable, and terrifying. Then, it is a comfort to think about the ancient people in their multitudes gone into the darkness before us, but not without leaving splendid traces of their existence. It’s a specious consolation but, nonetheless, a refuge to which I flee. When this writing is done, then, what will I have to comfort me?
At Serpent Mound, markers said that the effigy was created by the Fort Ancient People. But this is incorrect. The Fort Ancient culture, people living a thousand years ago, dug shallow graves in the Hopewell mounds and put their dead in them, but they didn’t actually build the Serpent Mound embankment.
So is the Serpent Mound a Hopewell monument? This also seems unlikely. The Hopewell didn’t make effigy mounds – they built enclosures with huge dirt ramparts according to a strict geometric code, but didn’t use mounds to simulate animals or people. Of course, there are effigy mounds in northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, and western Wisconsin along the Mississippi river bluffs. Those mounds are much smaller and less spectacular than the 1100 foot great serpent. And we know the effigy mounds on Mississippi islands and high points overlooking the river were built between 800 and 1250 A.D. – that is, about a thousand years after the Hopewell complex.
So the question remains: who built the great Serpent Mound?
Charles de Gaulle’s daughter, Anne, had Down Syndrome. She was born in Trier when de Gaulle was the general of the Army of Occupation in the Rhineland. She was the light of her father’s life. People reported that the dignified senior officer sometimes danced like a bear or a monkey to amuse her. Anne died of pneumonia when she was twenty. De Gaulle was prostrate with grief. At her funeral, he said to his wife: Maintenant, elle est comme les autres – that is, "now, she is like the others."
The Pastor at Christopher’s funeral said: "During the last seven months of his life, Christopher didn’t leave his bedroom."
Then, she read a verse that my mother had selected for the service, 2 Samuel 22:20 – "He brought me out into a broad place: he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
About ten years before my brother died, my wife and I traveled with my mother to Turkey. Christopher accompanied us and served as my mother’s escort.
On the last night that we were in Turkey, we took a cab down to an expensive sea-food restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. The restaurant was sumptuous with exquisitely woven kilim on the walls and great windows that overlooked the strait where sea-going vessels were laboring against currents in the channel between the continents. Wonderful bridges spanned the strait, twinkling with the lights of cars coming and going, and mosques with gleaming domes and lance-like towers were silhouetted against the sunset.
It was a very beautiful place to enjoy a meal. Christopher bought expensive wine and we feasted on fresh fish.
My memories of that night are enveloped in a nostalgic glow, a halo of mellow golden light. As the sun set, the sea darkened to a purplish streak where the ships and barges shone their beacons across the water unscrolling ahead and behind them. The hills of Asia shone briefly in the last sun and, then, the lights of the white high rises appeared, glittering in ladders leading up to the faint stars.
I don’t know the name of that restaurant any more, although I have notebooks and, even, an essay that I wrote that probably provides details much more intricate than I am able to give today. It is best, I think, to be not too exact about our fond memories and the pleasures that they afford us.
August 16 - August 21, 2018
John S. Beckmann