A woman told me not long ago that although she'd lived in or around the small Minnesota town where she'd still made her home for almost forty years, she'd never be a native of the place because she'd always be--to others--from somewhere else. And thus we small-towners impose foreignness on each other, I guess. Me too.
But then we place such "otherness" on ourselves as well, I suppose--or I do, because I wanted to start this little note by saying "I went home last week," a very natural assertion because I did, home to Wisconsin. I haven't lived in the little town of Oostburg since 1972, so let me do the math--that's 38 years. How on earth, literally, can I call the place "home"? And yet, like my Minnesota friend, I'll never be a native Iowan either. Go figure.
Anyway, I went home to visit my mom, and while I was there--and because it was the day after Memorial Day, I suppose--I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the cemetery where just about all of my people are buried, where my brother-in-law had lovingly set geraniums at every grave.
My father died about five years ago, after a month-long travail. It was a blessing to see him go, really, and I sat vigil with him for several days, while he slowly lost consciousness, one of the most precious chunks of time I've ever spent in my life, even though few words--if any at all--passed between us.
There's a stone there in the cemetery, of course, a stone that anticipates my mother's arrival out there on a hill above the lakeshore; her name is already scripted there. But I didn't remember seeing the brass military marker. It was laid flat into the ground, bright and shiny actually, in the dawn's early light. It's upper edge was festooned with three little mounds of inlooped ant excavations, hemispheres of sandy dirt that edged into the otherwise shimmering brass.
There was something biblical about those excavations, I thought--and heathen, I suppose. Something about dust-to-dust, something about returning to the earth from which he--and all of us--came.
I thought of that visit yesterday morning, when, on a bus tour, we took our guests to Blood Run, the site of an ancient Native village just spittin' distance from where I now live, my "home," I guess I should say.
At one time--say, mid-16th century--and for hundreds of years before, there was, at the Blood Run site, as many as 10,000 aboriginal people of mixed ethnicities and tribal identities. You're traveling along the Big Sioux River in, say, 1630, and you run into this village of thousands of people, a major metropolis, for heaven's sake. You probably couldn't go anywhere in North America at the time and walk into a bigger urban center. Boston wasn't much more than a few humble dwellings.
There's nothing there today except a few remnant mounds that still sit atop the landscape only marginally visual. What's left at Blood Run is really nothing but a gorgeous Great Plains landscape, as well as some bones, some skeletons likely not buried all that deep beneath the sod. It's a cemetery, just as sure as the one I visited a week earlier in Wisconsin. It doesn't have bright brass markers or marble monuments. It's a place where people buried, with honor and dignity and gravity--and a whole lot of prayers, I'm sure--those loved ones who'd left their homes.
How is it that we find it so easy to honor our own but not to do likewise with the honored of others? I once met a man who asked me if I'd heard about the mounds on his land, miles south of Blood Run but along the Big Sioux River. I told him I'd seen images drawn into a replica map of Sioux County, Iowa, vintage 1900. He told me they were gone now because he'd plowed them under. They really weren't worth anything, of course. He didn't say with any bit of cultural imperialism; he said it as if it were a simple fact. Those mounds on his land weren't doing him a dime's worth of good, so he plowed them under. Soy beans--there's a crop with a future, I guess.
So I read this poem by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, a descendant of mound-dwellers herself, a poem about the place we visited yesterday, Blood Run.
All that is good is with us--
remains in subtle dusk,
holds the base of lifetimes.
We belong here. Let us be.
Do not unsettle us.
Do not bring harm, nor further journey.
We have finished with this world,
have returned to it.
Until there is dust we must remain
Settled here where we were lain.
Our people labored for this honoring
No human should dismantle prayer.
Except ants maybe. There's something almost biblical--like I said, there's something heathen too, if I may use that word--about the ants infringing on my father's commemorative plaque from his war experience. I'm sure there are ants at Blood Run too, busy about their work, at home in all the prairie grasses.
And that's the message from home this morning. . .the message from home, wherever that is.