Thursday, March 15, 2007

Art and the naming of rivers

Several months ago while driving backroads near Frankfort we came across the old Barrett School, and finding the gate uncharacteristically open, proceeded up the lane so I could grab a few photos. About the time Lori cautioned against trespassing, a truck left the trees near the old farm and barreled down the road to intercept us. The driver appeared suspicious at first, but after explaining why we were there he told us to follow him to the school, where he graciously gave us a guided tour. Of such chance encounters do our lives unfold.

Lori met a man named Keith Jones. The actual meeting was arranged via e-mail, an introduction through Linda and Steve McGinnis of Topeka. Jones appears to be the holder of vast quantities of Marshall County history, especially that centered on the area around Barrett and Bigelow, where for generations his family has owned land. He immediately began sending documents, maps and historical excerpts to Lori at a prodigious rate. She was delighted and kept showing various things to me, most of which I read and thought neat but, well, I went on with my own thing.

Most of the photos I took of the old one-room school were nothing more than snapshots, but one in particular appealed to me. I couldn’t explain why, only that it was so. But nothing I did to the image worked; something was wrong. After converting it to black and white, I finally cropped out most of the room so the eye follows a row of desks receding to another row slightly offset, and beyond that the window. Removing the clutter left a stark, simple composition that seemed to enhance and define the emptiness of the room. The effect was startling. And it got me thinking of going back.

Knowing that Keith was involved in Barrett, I wondered if it was he who stopped us on the road that evening. Appropriately, I took the time to e-mail him after I caught up with my other correspondence. I didn’t figure to hear from him until later, but he must have been perched owl-like at his computer and promptly fired off a response.

He sent two extensive files containing journal entries from Oregon Trail times and before, when fur trapper William Sublette and others blazed their way across the wild frontier, the great pathfinder Fremont blundered his way westward, and surveyors such as Isaac McCoy and sons traced the course of rivers. McCoy was the first to keep a journal in Marshall County, and following his exploits through his words was like having history step off the page and shake your hand.

Keith’s files contained mythic battles between Indians and settlers, massacres along the Little Blue, fur trappers en route to the Rocky Mountains, explorers, surveyors, squaw men, immigrants along the Oregon Trail, scientific parties escorted by drunken soldiers, rich English adventurers tenting on the high prairie, bad weather, swollen rivers and a pair of high mounds located just south of Bigelow that seemed to be the locus of all those disparate parties.

As if that weren’t enough, there were maps.

One dated 1846 showed a small slice of northeast Kansas, western Missouri and southeast Nebraska, with rectangular blocks representing the various Indian tribes—Peoria and Kaskaskia, Otoe and Pottawatamie, Iowa, Ottowa, Shawnee, Delaware and Kickapoo. Few towns were shown, notably St. Joseph and Weston, with Independence on the extreme right, almost off the page; the only town in Kansas was Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail. But it was the branched tendrils of rivers that riveted me: the Smoky Hill, the Saline, the Neosho and Republican, the braided currents of the Platte, and, dropping down from Nebraska to parallel a dark line representing the Oregon Trail—the Blue Earth River.

My heart skipped a beat. The letters were tongues of fire, burning into my consciousness. The Blue Earth River.

How long had I searched for this? A very long time. Years.

I once wrote a series of stories about confluences, the merging of waters, having walked down Elm, Fawn and Juganine creeks to their junction with the Blue, and the larger convergence of the Little and Big Blue. I’d imagined a continuing thread, for the meeting of rivers haunts me. On a lark I designated the Blue with the original, Native American name of the Blue Earth River, having found an obscure reference to it on a Web site that can no longer be found. At the time I figured readers would consider me daft—and I wasn’t far off. Some thought me pretentious, others ignorant, but a very few understood. Though they could offer no proof, they’d heard the story.

This was the first substantiation of that name. For a long time I sat there absorbing it.

The letters traced the length of what we know as the Little Blue River, with the Big Blue shown as only a minor, unnamed tributary. A few pages later was another map, this drawn by McCoy between 1830 and 1836. Narrower in scale, it traced the Black Vermillion to its juncture with the Blue, their union the Blue Earth Creek. Included was a Kansa name for the river: Moh-e-ca-to.

When I returned to the photo the singularity of the monochromatic tone, while providing an archaic feel to the image, suddenly seemed dry as bones. Using the original, untouched digital negative, I started over, increasing contrast and vibrancy until an almost ethereal glow lit the room with the faintest peach accents. Like finding the ancient name of a river, it was the vision I sought.

History is like a photograph of an abandoned schoolhouse. The rows of scarred desks, the expectant chalkboard, moldering flag, flyblown windows, peeling wainscoting and rusted potbellied stove each inherent to the whole, but when taken together scatter and defocus the eye. A chance encounter on a lonely road taught me this: Narrow the vision and the past resonates like the endless echo of a bell.

1 comment:

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