Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More things in heaven and earth, Horatio ...

This rock southeast of Chariton along the Blue Grass Road, erected by the Daighters of the American Revolution, marks the southeastern limit of Chariton Point and is not far from the tiny lost 1846-47 Mormon settlement of that name.

I feel an attack of Mormon Trail fever coming on, so don’t be surprised in the coming weeks if I drag you off to the Locust Creek camp site in Wayne County, Garden Grove in Decatur County, Mt. Pisgah in Union County and heaven only knows where else.

I’ll start by posting here in a few days something I did a while ago for another purpose called “Becoming Lucas County” that attempts to put into context briefly, among other things, The Mormon Pioneer Trail (Wayne County) and the Mormon Trace (Lucas County). The Trail was blazed by Brigham Young and the earliest party of Saints as they headed west across Iowa to the first major way station at Garden Grove; the Trace was the route used by a majority of the first round of Utah-bound pioneers because the first Trail proved too difficult and dangerous.

I grew up on a farm between the Trail and the Trace, even closer to two trail short-cuts also traveled by many of these pioneers, one across northern Wayne County and the other cutting west from Greenville along a route south of Russell to rejoin the main Trace at Salem Cemetery, where much of my family is buried.

Then there’s a family connection that makes the Mormon experience even more interesting to me --- and I’ve written about that before. My mother’s family, the Millers, along with dozens of their neighbors in Ohio, were among Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s early converts there and followed his imperative to resettle in northwest Missouri during the 1830s.

After the Saints were driven from Missouri by their neighbors there in 1839-40, my family and their friends came up into Van Buren County, Iowa, rather than crossing the Mississippi to Nauvoo; then when Monroe County opened for settlement in the spring of 1843, resettled there --- and stuck.

As we start to enjoy beautiful spring weather I like to remember what happened here 164 years ago. The first Saints to flee Nauvoo headed west crossed the still iced-over Mississippi on Feb. 4, 1846; and reached Wayne County during April. William Clayton wrote the great LDS anthem “Come, Come Ye Saints” at Locust Creek Camp in southeastern Wayne County on April 15, 1846; and Brigham Young’s party reached Garden Grove on April 24.


A major factor in this renewed case of trail fever was Michael Zahs’ exceptional presentation at the annual meeting of of the Wayne County Historical Society in Corydon last Thursday evening. It was fun to be there, to visit with that fellow Dry-Flatter and other friends and reintroduce myself to a cousin, David Mason, and his wife, Patty, who catered the event and fed us all exceedingly well (Patty’s the caterer; David, I suspect, the labor --- no slight intended).

Zahs’ topic was “Wire Mapping the Mormon Trail,” although his lively presentation actually was more about wire mapping in general and less about the trail.

Zahs, of Ainsworth, is a highly-decorated but now retired social studies teacher who also collects old buildings and other Iowa artifacts of more convenient size, maintains rural cemeteries and does countless other things that catch his interest. He’s also an amazing speaker, holding our attention for the duration of quite a long presentation by sheer personality with very few props --- if you get a chance to hear him, go for it!

Wire maping is the term Zahs uses for what also is called “witching” or “divining,” an ancient practice involving forked sticks and other implements (straightened coat hangars are now the favored tool) to located everything from water to graves.

I have a number of wholeheartedly admired friends who are practitioners of witching --- and believers, but supposed I’d have to say I’m an agnostic --- neither believing nor disbelieving. There’s a lot of room in the field for magic thinking and in cemeteries, at least, the proof lies in digging --- ill advised since excavating a cemetery without good cause and permission from the courts is illegal.

On the other hand, I’m in solidarity with Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Scene v).

So --- are you listening Darlene, Mary Ruth? --- I want to borrow your coat hangars one of these days and give it a try. I suppose I could straighten two hangars myself and head out into the back yard --- but what would the neighbors think?


Another aspect involved in remembering the Mormon experience is the reminder it carries with it of just how thin the crust of civility that we tip-toe along on really is. While the LDS church was founded on a vision, it was forged in the fire of mob violence --- in Missouri and in Illinois especially.

These are uncertain times again and goodness knows there’s enough out there to divide us --- economic distress, health care reform, the tea party movement, in Iowa specifically the first anniversary of the court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion on all of these and many other issues. What none of us is entitled to do is engage in or encourage violence against those who do not share our views.

Quite often violence has something other than the intended effect, too. The mobs who drove the Mormons out of Missouri and Illinois into the arms of Iowa 146 years ago, and then to Utah, thought they would destroy the emerging faith. Instread, they strengthened it. It never hurts to remember that the LDS grew into and remains one of the largest, strongest, most unified and fastest-growing religious expressions in the world at least in part because of violence directed against it.

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