Canal Stories

Today the sky is grumpy and there is a welcome chill to the air. Here on our residential street Nature is celebrating summer’s abundance. The robin that set up housekeeping on our front porch is patrolling the garden during her time off the nest. Our sunflowers are in bloom and the goldfinches are noisily enjoying munching on them. A Monarch butterfly just flew past the office window, reminding me that we are seeing more Monarchs this year, and creating a moment of celebration in my heart.

Jennie and I are both interested in canals and went out of our way to seek them out on our recent trip. All around the eastern Great Lakes lie networks of canals that once connected the lakes with large, navigable rivers. We tend to forget that European settlers pushed west via water; later they exchanged goods with folks back east via the same routes.

Just south of Chicago are the remains of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which was operational from about 1848 to 1933. The canal, which is no longer navigable, runs roughly parallel to the Illinois river, and is credited with making Chicago the metropolis it has become.

One morning we stopped in a town park adjacent the canal and wandered briefly along the canal path. Nearby were several large, cut-out iron figures that paid tribute to the settlers who made their watery way to the area. Thankfully the display contained no historically inappropriate cut-outs of Natives in headdresses and loincloths. In fact, there were no Natives at all, which I found both predictable and disturbing. (Oddly, Chicago, just a few miles north and east, has a significant Native population, although they seem to remain invisible to most people in Illinois.)

Encountering the absence of Native people in the region’s many celebrations of identity, we were reminded that we humans have a tendency to simply erase others from our midst, our histories, and our memories. We even disown and “forget” members of our own families! Of course, psychologically and spiritually those we erase return in some way, often as hungry ghosts. It is less that the ousted individuals return, although they may, as that our inner and collective experiences of them return, and very often haunt us.

I wonder how much our country’s experience of, and responsibility for, the erasure of Natives, wolves, and passenger pigeons troubles our psyches and makes our task of caring for the world both more difficult to remember and more burdensome. Might it also be that our collective rejection of the ongoing effects of slavery and genocide fuels our country’s profound racism? (Let us not forget the theft of land from French and Spanish speaking peoples.)

I sometimes still have the experience of being a ghost, both invisible to and troubling of others. My experience of invisibility is hardly unique; rather, it is a common conversational thread among my friends who are Native, disabled, or, like me, both. It may also be the natural outcome of passing, which is itself is a response to the dangers that arise from being other.

Standing beside the remains of the canal, watching families play in the park and cyclists pedal along the bike trail, I took just a minute or two to marvel at the richly nuanced experience of simply being in that place at that time. I found myself imagining that if we knew the history of the places we visit, live in, or otherwise encounter, we might find our lives enriched, troubled, and deepened in profound ways, and that we might even be more kind to one another.




19 thoughts on “Canal Stories

  1. Embracing that last sentence! In the midst of reading Terry Tempest Williams’ book The Hour of Land. We are indeed enriched, troubled and deepened by encounters with Place. The stories of that engagement speak wisdom to listening ears. Thank you for sharing yours!

    1. I have always loved to hear stories of place. Perhaps if we had more stories we would be more eager to protect places and the Earth. Maybe we become more open to place as we age? I hope so.

  2. I wrote in my memoir “I am good at chasing ghosts” and it is true. We are survivors of imbalanced history, even when we know where we are from. Great post Michael.

    1. Yes, we are indeed. I imagine my cohort in our family will now never know where we are from. Oddly, I am beginning to appreciate our elders insistence on that.
      I think you have made a life from chasing ghosts, and done much good by doing so.

  3. Do they have barges on the canals like in the UK or France?

    I understand your experience of being invisible. But frequently wonder if that might be better than being obvious because that has its problems too?

    1. The canals are no longer working so no barges. The larger canals have commercial barges and tugs on them. I have not seen tourist barges but there may be a few. One of my aspirations is to go on a barge in Europe. How about in Australia?

      I think the invisible piece is indeed complex. It would probably help if we knew our tribal affiliations but that is very unlikely to happen now that our elders have passed on. They were firmly committed to being invisible for our safety. Perhaps they were more right than we knew.

      1. No canals here. It’s a land of contrasts. Too much water one year. Not enough the next. We had major floods last year on the farm. This winter the dam is almost dry. I think the settlers were too busy trying to survive this harsh and vast place to build fancy stuff.

        My husband would love to take a holiday on the barges in the UK. It does seem like a lovely way to travel.

      2. Oddly, settlers here also thought of the place as harsh. True, there were long winters, but Natives knew how to cope with that most of the time, and did so with grace and joy. Yes, I agree with the husband, a barge trip would be fun!
        Is climate change adding to the uncertainty? Sure is here.

  4. You expressed thoughts on invisibility and historical bias so beautifully in this post. I wonder if perhaps part of the complex issue also has to do with the fact that American society prefers progress and the future to the past and history? Recently having explored Mexico City I was deeply moved by how that city has embraced more of its past – good and bad – to give the ghosts space to breathe.

    1. I think the basic underlying issue is that Western culture believes in progress as a goal. Indigenous cultures tend to view history as repetitive and cyclical. When everything is interconnected, progress as such becomes meaningless, as does past and future. Rather they are all present in the now. There is then, no erasure as all is alive in the moment, and all is connected. Erasing the past has the odd effect of also erasing the future, as does focusing on the past as ideal.

      1. “Indigenous cultures tend to view history as repetitive and cyclical.” I am understanding that more as I explore central Mexico. Thank you for clarifying my thoughts on this issue.

  5. Reading about the Robin right at the beginning of your post reminded me that ‘our’ creatures are also ‘your’ creatures. Not that we are proprietorial about them, but that they are common to both of our lands. The Robin is regarded as our national bird-and very territorial they are too! Some of the larger animals that you have are no longer native to our shores. That’s our fault.

    1. Andy, there used to be a much more diverse ecoptone here. Still, nature finds her way to our doorstep, for which we are grateful. And yes, we share a lot of common species. I had forgotten just how large American Robins are!

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