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Reading the landscape. Daily story · 2 September, 2013
  • Most Americans are Romantics when it comes to Indians. Not present day Native Americans, but 19th century or earlier Indians. A large number of people will tell you that they have a Native American ancestor, although this is mostly the stuff of myth.

    I remember interviewing 99-year-old Sister Suzanne Helmin at the monastery before she died. She was born in 1912 and grew up the first child in her family not to live in a log cabin. Her grandparents lived nearby and her mother said that early in her marriage she would walk through the woods between her house and her mother-in-law’s house and see Indians. They camped at various spots around there. This seemed as mysterious and wonderful to Suzanne as it does to me.

    Last week my husband Steve was working on a property out on Kriegel Lake, one of the small lakes in this area. The guy who owns the property has moved an old streetcar from St. Paul up to the lake and turned it into a house. While they were planting trees, he pointed down the shore and said: “What do you think of my oak tree?”

    The massive, old oak was bent near the base, stretched out flat over the lake and then suddenly made a 90-degree turn and grew straight up. It was a crazy tree.

    Steve works with a guy, Jeff, who seems to know everything there is to know about plants and trees. We have yet to find a plant he can’t identify on the spot (and he is always right). As Steve says, he can “read” the landscape, pointing out signs of different things that have happened to the land, types of vegetation and cultivation.

    “That looks like an Indian Marker tree,” Jeff said.

    A what?
  • It seems Native Americans used to bend and stake trees to mark trails and campsites. They are all throughout the United States, giant trees that were bent over when young, shaped and tied down until they healed and grew back up. An internet search shows they are prevalent in the Great Lakes region, with a number of them documented in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a researcher named Dennis Downes (who may have even trademarked the name).

    There is also controversy. What is just a damaged tree– a lightening strike, or a place where a tree fell on a sapling and shaped it, then decomposed over time?– and what is evidence of Ojibwe or Pottawattamie trail marking? There is no question that these trees exist, just a question of their number. And meanwhile in Highland Park and Glencoe and other suburbs of Chicago, trees are getting plaques and being protected.
  • The home-owner on Kriegel Lake said that he thought Indians had been on that land– it had that spiritual energy. I don’t really know what that means. In a nation where Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of the population, we like to imagine ourselves back to the time– before the genocide– when they were everywhere. We have folded them in with our idea of the sacred with regards to the land. A sacredness we fear is lost or don’t feel we are up to ourselves, we children of the suburban and urban landscapes. We want to live in that place; we want to have a spiritual connection to it.

    Jeff is definitely part Native American, though you wouldn't know to meet him casually. He works long shifts at the chicken processing plant and spends all other available time restoring prairies, busting buckthorn, pruning trees, and reading the landscape and telling us its stories.








    photos from: http://www.printsoldandrare.com/indians/index.html; http://www.greatlakestrailtreesociety.org/trail_tree_gallery.html; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trail_trees
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