I have been writing about nature—really more about “place,” which is the intersection of the human story with the landscape—in the Driftless region of the Upper Mississippi Valley for quite a few years now. I have lived nearly all of my 50-some-ish years in Dubuque, except for a few years not far down the road in graduate school at the University of Iowa and a semester teaching abroad in Dublin.
So what brings me to Ireland again, for nine weeks of nature writing? With a semester abroad, nine weeks now, and a few other vacations and school-related visits, I will have “lived” in Ireland for about seven months, total. Not enough to make me an expert about the land, but more than a vacationer, I hope.
Even so, my goal is not to feign an expertise about Ireland, but to bring back fresh eyes with which to view my own home landscape. And to sharpen my sense that all land is spiritual, all land is sacred.
Now, Ireland does not look like the Midwest Driftless region. Once in a while you hear non-native Americans say that their European ancestors—Irish, German, Swedes, you name it—“chose” to settle in this or that landscape because it reminded them of home. For the most part, that’s wishful thinking.
Ireland, while sharing the Driftless’ summer green, is a land of immense stretches of water-soaked bog and stony sea-side mountains. In the interior plains you’ll find, perhaps the closest visual similarities, but the farms support more sheep and cattle grazing rather than grain production, at least by way of comparison.
The similarities, for me, lie in what the landscapes evoke. I’ll give you one such example. Spiritual landscape, it seems to me, retains the story of those who have lived on the land and sometimes died there. In Ireland I once bicycled out into the Wicklow Mountains well before “tourist season.” I had the mountain roads all to myself. I was a little spooked by the isolation—I had tire-changing gear with me, but the process isn’t fool-proof, and I’d have a long walk back to Dublin if anything went wrong.
As I cycled the Military Road—so-named because the British built the road to patrol for Irish rebels through the centuries—I spied from the corner of my eye a small monument partway up a mountain side with a walkway leading to it. Out of curiosity I dropped my bike and walked up the monument, only to find that it was a memorial to a republican IRA member whose murdered body had been found on that spot in 1923. A victim of the Irish Civil War. (I later found out that he had been present in the GPO in the 1916 Easter Rising.)
His story was steeped in that place. Yet his story was named and memorialized. No less present were the stories of all those unnamed rebels, high-mountain sheep farmers, pilgrimaging Celts, and ancient Neolithic farmers who inhabited, traversed, or entered the land before him.
I feel much the same in many places in the Driftless Land. About two hours north of Dubuque on the Mississippi River, halfway between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, is the site of the Black Hawk War massacre. In 1832 Black Hawk had unsuccessfully led a band of Sauk men, women, children, and elderly to re-occupy their old home in Saukenuk (presently Rock Island) from which they’d been forcibly removed. When “promised” reinforcements from other tribes had not materialized, Black Hawk tried to surrender, but that too went afoul when the military mistook the surrender for an ambush. Several battles and skirmishes ensued, but for the most part the Black Hawk “war” was a chase, with the military nearly always a day behind. Now on the run from for over 500 miles and four months, the Sauk were starving and far north of their home. They tried to return across the Mississippi River to where they’d been “removed,” but the military caught up with them at the river. Army personnel and militia fired at the Sauk from shore and from a steamboat as they attempted to swim the river. Some women had children on their backs, and they too were shot and killed.
Out of 1500 Sauk who began the journey, only 150 survived.
You cannot visit that place without feeling the story of what transpired there.
But this brings me back to the original question: Why Ireland and why the Driftless? This could be said of anywhere, right, that the land retains the stories of the people who lived and died there. It could be said of Alabama and Spain for that matter. And that is actually my point. The Driftless is my home landscape, and Ireland my “adopted” one. I won’t claim expertise about the Irish landscape, but by learning about it at more than at just a vacationer’s level I can bring home fresh eyes with which to know my own landscape.
And when we stitch together landscape to landscape, place to place, and story to story, when we begin to understand that the land is spiritual, is sacred, then all of our landscapes become stitched together, and it becomes harder for us to tear them apart.
So that is why I am here.
As I finish this “background” blog entry, I want to thank several individuals and groups: The anonymous Loras College alum and donor who has made the O’Connor Chair for Catholic Thought available to me and my colleagues before me; Loras College President Jim Collins and the rest of the administration who have been supportive in this quest of mine; my colleagues in the Language & Literature Division at Loras who have willingly picked up my duties while I’m away; and mostly to my family and especially my wife Dianne who lovingly embraced my project even as it sent me to Ireland, again, without her.
Oh, and thank you to Skype and email, too!