Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: Margaret Fuller and Oregon, Illinois

I received an email from Dina the other day that was largely talking about the creation of a new song of hers. I was excited to discover that her Shipwrecked: From Birmingham to Jericho With No Prozac CD project with Nadina's Cube had finally come out, although I had missed that news. So my copy is in the mail. But the thing that really surprised me or caught my attention (Dina's music always catches my attention, but this was something else) was the content of her struggle with the subject of her song: Margaret Fuller.

As I wrote to her on a concurrent return to her own LiveJournal, where she talked (as in the letter) about her own encounter with Romanticism,
I grew up by Margaret Fuller Island, on the Rock River in Oregon, Illinois, named in memory of her famed visit to the then-seven year-old town in 1843. I'd read the poems she'd written there, loved the beauty of my home in the same way that she did, and drank from the spring named for the Ganymede of her poem Ganymede To His Eagle written on the Eagles Nest bluff. I was even educated by a compelling Ms Fuller who I suspect was a descendent of the uncle? cousin? that she had gone out there to visit. But your letter got me to pull Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 up from the Gutenberg Project and read through it for the first time, reveling particularly on the scenes of my home country being visited by this author when the Sauk and Fox tribes were still just newly-dispossessed.

I don't spend a lot of time with the Romantics or the Transcendentalists, and I have to admit that I was especially struck by the earnestness of her writing. Our generation is taught to be so ironic and jaded that it's hard (for me, at least) to read writers of that point without feeling as though their entire experience was an affectation, or at least painfully naive. I'm a good-enough historian to get past that, and to work at really being able to enter other writers and their mindsets on their own terms, but I don't think that I had ever noticed so clearly how our current popular forms so often seem particularly targeted at the Romantics (even, without intended irony, in an ironically Romantic anti-Romantic way, if that makes any sense).
Reading Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 was an absolute curveball for my evening, but really made for a night of unexpected pleasure. The parts about my hometown of Oregon, Illinois and the land around it were particularly what grabbed by attention, because, as I said, I had never read this material in full – just in selected quotations. I have a hard time explaining my connection to the land I grew up on. My family isn't there anymore, and my long graduate student poverty kept me from visiting very much, but for a reader who has never dived very deeply into the Romantics, I have always had that sort of overwhelming connection to the place. As a grade-schooler this began with dragging my (very patient) friends on hikes into the countryside, often walking to the area state parks in which the "official" hiking was to take place, and often with all the romance of "exploring" that a young boy can conjure up. Going off-trail followed pretty quickly, and the large, undeveloped spaces of Castle Rock State Park became a particular favourite. By high school and college, I began to really enjoy the baffled looks people would give me when, recognizing me, pulling up next to me on some gravel road ten miles out of town, and offering to give me a ride, I'd thank them but say that I was simply "out for a walk." When we had to move away (even though I was really off at Notre Dame by this point, anyway), I felt a deep and dwelling sympathy with the lament I heard from the local giant Black Hawk of the Sauk tribe that had been forced from the area: "Rock River was a beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did." Those last lines always stayed with me, but I hadn't heard or felt the pain in them until my own vocation and my family's situation lost me a home town "base" there.

So Fuller's descriptions rang especially true, and made for kind of a literary miracle in having a significant Transcendentalist figure making the trip into what was then still very much frontier territory. Oregon had been founded in 1836, and by her visit in 1843 numbered around 225 people.
Of Illinois, in general, it has often been remarked that it bears the character of country which has been inhabited by a nation skilled like the English in all the ornamental arts of life, especially in landscape gardening. That the villas and castles seem to have been burnt, the enclosures taken down, but the velvet lawns, the flower gardens, the stately parks, scattered at graceful intervals by the decorous hand of art, the frequent deer, and the peaceful herd of cattle that make picture of the plain, all suggest more of the masterly mind of man, than the prodigal, but careless, motherly love of nature. Especially is this true of the Rock river country. The river flows sometimes through these parks and lawns, then betwixt high bluffs, whose grassy ridges are covered with fine trees, or broken with crumbling stone, that easily assumes, the forms of buttress, arch and clustered columns. Along the face of such crumbling rocks, swallows' nests are clustered, thick as cities, and eagles and deer do not disdain their summits. One morning, out in the boat along the base of these rocks, it was amusing, and affecting too, to see these swallows put their heads out to look at us. There was something very hospitable about it, as if man had never shown himself a tyrant near them. What a morning that was! Every sight is worth twice as much by the early morning light. We borrow something of the spirit of the hour to look upon them.
At Oregon, the beauty of the scene was of even a more sumptuous character than at our former "stopping place." Here swelled the river in its boldest course, interspersed by halcyon isles on which nature had lavished all her prodigality in tree, vine, and flower, banked by noble bluffs, three hundred feet high, their sharp ridges as exquisitely definite as the edge of a shell; their summits adorned with those same beautiful trees, and with buttresses of rich rock, crested with old hemlocks, which wore a touching and antique grace amid the softer and more luxuriant vegetation. Lofty natural mounds rose amidst the rest, with the same lovely and sweeping outline, showing everywhere the plastic power of water,—water, mother of beauty, which, by its sweet and eager flow, had left such lineaments as human genius never dreamt of.

Not far from the river was a high crag, called the Pine Rock, which looks out, as our guide observed, like a helmet above the brow of the country. It seems as if the water left here and there a vestige of forms and materials that preceded its course, just to set off its new and richer designs.

The aspect of this country was to me enchanting, beyond any I have ever seen, from its fullness of expression, its bold and impassioned sweetness. Here the flood of emotion has passed over and marked everywhere its course by a smile. The fragments of rock touch it with a wildness and liberality which give just the needed relief. I should never be tired here, though I have elsewhere seen country of more secret and alluring charms, better calculated to stimulate and suggest. Here the eye and heart are filled.

How happy the Indians must have been here! It is not long since they were driven away, and the ground, above and below, is full of their traces.


The whole scene suggested to me a Greek splendor, a Greek sweetness, and I can believe that an Indian brave, accustomed to ramble in such paths, and be bathed by such sunbeams, might be mistaken for Apollo, as Apollo was for him by West. Two of the boldest bluffs are called the Deer's Walk, (not because deer do not walk there,) and the Eagle's Nest. The latter I visited one glorious morning; it was that, of the fourth of July, and certainly I think I had never felt so happy that I was born in America. Woe to all country folks that never saw this spot, never swept an enraptured gaze over the prospect that stretched beneath. I do believe Rome and Florence are suburbs compared to this capital of nature's art.
There's a thrill in seeing a writer connect to and capture something of the very places to which you are connected and which captured you. The lay of the river and its islands still are visible to my mind's eye. Pine Rock was a favourite destination in college, especially during the later spring semester of my junior year, where Dave and I would often head most of the way back to my house in Oregon to pull off the highway and climb atop the rock, often with Susie Sommers, who we were hanging out with a lot at the time.

In the end, this connection to the land ended up being a significant part of my spiritual development. Like lots of people, I could often more easily feel connected to God in nature, seeing the Creator in the creation and all that. But taking it to the next step, to recognize that sense as sacramental and not an end in itself, began in these woods, with the more conscious reflection coaxed out of us at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center by Pr. Jack Swanson's program, and by the music of Rich Mullins, which also in those college years drew my attention to landscape, but took me through and beyond it as well. At Notre Dame in the summer of 2000, taking a spirituality course, Philip Sheldrake would bring to my attention the sheer fruitfulness of the category of "place" in doing spirituality studies. After growing up in Oregon, Illinois, and with journeys in the previous five years to places like the Abbey of Gethsemani, Glendalough, Saint Peter's, Carthage, and Skellig Michael, I needed little persuading.
Tags: geography, historical, literary, moments that justify my life, musical, mysticism/spirituality, old stories, oregon illinois, personal, quotations, sacramental, theological notebook, writing

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