LOST IN CLINTON COUNTY
This is where I am: I’m riding shotgun in my dad’s green Eighty-something Ford and we’re driving through the gravel roads of Clinton County, kicking up thick storms of dust. We’re climbing a hill so that we can see for miles, across a greenish-yellow quilt of corn and the silhouettes of silos. I’ve heard people say that Iowa is flat—how can you live in a place without any hills?—but they must be thinking of Nebraska. Iowa isn’t flat, it’s open. What makes this place seem flat, though, is the way you can drive and feel that openness surround you, wrap around you, almost crowd you. I feel more comfortable once we climb the hill. From above I can see where things go. Highways and interstates form an intricate web: logical patterns which seem to reach reasonable conclusions. Up here, the noon-day heat isn’t quite so stifling and a cool breeze sweeps over my sweat-filled pores.
This is where we stop to double-check our directions. Two roads to the west, the woman had said, go on about a half a mile or so, then turn to the north, around the bend, and Father Bodkin’s little ranch-style house should be right there. Wooden fences should pause to make room for a driveway and everyone should be eating their lunches on picnic tables in the front yard. Except that we followed those directions and it wasn’t there. They weren’t eating. Confused and trying to reach the family reunion on time, Dad and I had stopped at a Casey’s for some gas and advice. My aunt and uncle and two cars full of cousins had happened to pull in at the same time, retreating from the opposite direction. We hadn’t planned it, but we became a caravan and now we are all lost together and we are wondering why even the locals can’t figure their way through these roads.
My cousin John and his wife Jo Lynn stop their car near a ditch a few miles down the road and grab a couple of Michelobs out of a cooler in the trunk. They say they don’t have enough gas to indulge in this sort of meandering (don’t ask me why, we were just at a Casey’s), so they’ll wait until we find the house and come back for them. The rest of us drive on, periodically stopping, arguing over how to interpret directions, splitting into factions, and driving on. My dad dramatically switches off the radio so he can concentrate. Fine with me. I’m not sure what the hell he’s listening to, anyway. I know this isn’t the best time to ask questions, but I wonder how it is my dad doesn’t know where we are going. This is where he grew up, after all. It’s the setting for so many of his stories, stories which are as much a part of coming to Clinton County as getting lost. Part of the air, almost, like the smell of cows.
“This is where I used to ride our old nag when I was a boy,” he might say, or “This is where I used to throw the ball against the barn.”
And I have always tried to imagine what that barn must have looked like. I picture it to be big and bright red because that’s what barns are supposed to look like, although I know from scanning this landscape that they do not. The new ones are the color of steel, imposing, like small factories. Flanked by silos the length of chimneys, they give parts of this place a business-like, almost urban feel. The older barns are moldy brown and fading. Some are abandoned, leaning, with gaping holes and caved-in roofs, waiting patiently for their turn to be torn down. They are like ancient artwork, something the archaeologists uncovered and studied, and they serve as landmarks on a map quickly disappearing—my dad’s map—both describing and defining this land. When they’re gone, so must be the land. Something fresh takes its place, true, but all my dad and I have between us is the picture of a barn that no longer exists and a picture of one that never was.
This is how it is for us on our trips back. As we drive along, my dad will point out the run-down shack a stubborn old farmer named McClimer refused to sell to the state, so the highway had to be built around him; the farm where his best friend Pete Farrell had lived, and then the silo where Pete fell to his death; and then the old Wolfe places, where Uncle Melvin farmed, and Uncle Pete, and Pete’s brother-in-law Dan McGinn, Uncle Dan the storyteller. We drive through towns with names such as Delmar, Toronto, DeWitt, Lost Nation, Maquoketa, names more familiar-sounding to me than the streets in the neighborhood where I grew up.
I grew up in Davenport, about thirty minutes southeast of Clinton County, on East Street. People always ask, “East what?” It’s just East, though: a quiet red brick street that climbs a hill tall enough that we can almost see the Mississippi, the slightest streak of muddy brown through the trees and mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes, gulls overhead, lilac bushes, and two maple trees in front of a gray colonial my mom has recently sided white. The elementary school is only half a block away. The high school, though, is a good ten-minute drive. It’s the same high school once attended by the 1920s cornet player Leon Bix Beiderbecke, who in his short life could never read a note but who crafted music inspired by both Dixieland and French Impressionism. A friend of mine recently visited a pub in Scotland called Beiderbecke’s, named for Bix. When she identified herself as being from Iowa, the locals looked at her unmoved. Stupid American. Bix—whose biography was recently filmed by an Italian—is no longer about Iowa, or Davenport, or old Davenport High.
My more metropolitan friends dismiss Davenport as just a “town,” but I think of it as a city. It’s not much of one, true, with a population of only a hundred thousand, but there aren’t a hundred thousand in all of Clinton County. Every Memorial Day when I was a kid, my two sisters, parents, and I would pile into our station wagon with the fake wood grain along the sides and drive out to the Wolfe farm in Lost Nation. We were city folk back then—we didn’t even own a dog—and my cousins thought it was funny that I was afraid of the sheep and the cows. And I thought the whole place smelled. And I would drink so many bottles of Pepsi that my stomach eventually, inevitably, would erupt. It was the same every year.
Once, when I was back in Davenport for the weekend, my mom asked me if it didn’t feel nice to be home again. Not really, I thought. It never felt that special to be in Davenport. When I think of Davenport these days I think of River Drive and the brewery where I talked with my dad for the first time about my parents’ divorce. I think of Locust Street, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, only I always imagine it to be empty, lonely, blurred: me coming home sleepily from my girlfriend’s house, driving fast, running reds, and praying there wouldn’t be any cops out at that hour. Or 14th Street. Me in my blue ’76 Buick Skylark with the busted seatbelts and my friend Brent in his Toyota, and the cold night we were racing the one-way across newly fallen snow—we were just off work at the local paper, it was three in the morning, and to this day Brent denies we were racing—and not until the next morning discovering the web in the windshield my head had cracked. This is Davenport. It’s not a town else it would be a hometown, and home for me is another thing entirely. “It is a place,” writes essayist Anton Shammas, “that is the other, deep end of the pool of your created, acquired, and invented memories.” A place where my head hasn’t been cracked, yet, maybe.
My great-grandfather Maurice Wolfe once rode with the Texas Rangers. Or at least that was the story, told often and I’m sure with great flair by my great-uncle Dan McGinn, a native Irishman who himself became the subject of stories. For instance, in one story, Dan’s wife Margaret only discovered something was wrong when one morning he refused, for the first time in the fifty years she had known him, his glass of whiskey. In a matter of weeks he was dead of cancer. Skeptics like my dad make sure to draw clear boundaries between what’s true and not true in such stories, lines as clear as the ones on a road map. He once wrote of Maurice, “The writer knows little about him, except that it can be assumed he became a Catholic and a Democrat at approximately the same time.” In the end, though, who’s to say where the truth lies, or where the lies become truth? Especially when most of what anybody knows about the Wolfe family comes from a politician.
It was Maurice’s older brother Patrick, a state senator and judge, who edited his ownWolfe’s History of Clinton County, published in 1911. In it, he gave us flowery, glorified, and occasionally inaccurate portraits of his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, and for his work we are still left to guess what could have brought his well-to-do father west to Iowa from County Kerry in 1848. We can’t be sure if any extended family accompanied him, or if he was joining family already emigrated. We can’t even be sure of the year he was born. We do know, however, that “there are no more worthy or highly honored people in Clinton County than the Wolfes.” And I guess that’s all that really matters: that they left and then came here.
So the answer must be somewhere in the dirt and the dust of Clinton County, the land where my family settled, land that means enough that we periodically make these pilgrimages back. But here’s another problem: this isn’t really my dirt and it’s not my land. I have no feel for the dips and curves of the roads here or the lifestyles they navigate. Rows of corn and beans line up on the page of my view like figures in a foreign alphabet. And although my dad and his generation once spoke the language, even they seem to be at a loss today. There aren’t any Wolfes left who farm, not even my Uncle Dave, my dad’s cousin we visited each Memorial Day. We seem to have been exiled a second time, and while my dad has his stories to give him a tenuous connection to these fields, what do I have but memories of puking up Pepsi? It makes sense, then, that so many of the stories in my family are about leaving. Like the story of my great-grandfather Maurice.
He rocks slowly back and forth on his front porch, a rakish old man armed with a rusty Colt ’45 and a short glass of whiskey. He enjoys scaring the neighbors and impressing the wee ones by performing with great spit and spectacle trick shots at the distant barn. His skinny frame is draped in plain, home-spun cotton, the same clothes he might have worn as a younger man, and his face is drawn and spotted with age, his cheekbones high and proud. A once dashing moustache has long since been shaved, but his thin white hair is still neatly combed and carefully parted. He has his brother Patrick’s solid Wolfe chin and deeply-set eyes. But his eyes seem not to notice the heat or the horse-flies; they are not resigned, but alive with passion, humor, and irony. His raspy voice, laced with a lingering bit of brogue which tosses his words on waves of inflection, can just barely support the weight of so many memories and tall tales.
I ask him to tell me about the Texas Rangers.
“Well sure, lad, sure. I reckon I rode the range. I turned a wee bit of time in what they’re after calling these days the wild and woolly West, and to be sure it wasn’t for any reason you might’ve heard tell about. Don’t know where they came up with it. Don’t know where they— Could you imagine my own father flesh and blood accusing his own son—his own son, mind you—of borrowing a horse what didn’t belong (o him? Are you listening to me now? There’s as much truth in such blasphemy as if the sweet Virgin Mary herself were to appear now and kiss your man full upon the lips. Don’t you worry yourself, though, lad. My time will come. My time will— Are you listening to me now? Straighten up, because it was this kind of infamous tale-spinning and not some pretty brown mare—I don’t know what you might’ve heard, so just keep it to yourself if you would—which was what banished me from the arms of me own family and the dear sod of this fine and lovely township. Ah yes. Did I forget to mention I was born here? The first Wolfe to accomplish that feat west of the Mississippi. Born with a calling, if you please to call it that. Like they used to tell about old Tonk Harris: always following the stray cow, no matter what pile of shit it takes him to.”
“But Grandpa,” I say. “What about the Texas Rangers?”
“Holy St. Joseph, lad, patience.”
And so he begins to weave the intricate tale of his journey south, his exploits with saddle-weary cowboys and prickly outlaws, his tour with the Texas Rangers. When he finally finishes, he sits up leans over, and picks up his glass of whiskey.
This is what I’m thinking about: that day of leaving, over a hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather saddled up and left behind the open and fertile fields of his Iowa farm and traveled south for the even more vast and barren expanses of Texas. I imagine there must have been butterflies in his stomach, like I’ve felt now and again. The sort that come with nervousness, dissatisfaction, the sudden need to escape. They might have been the same butterflies his father had felt when he left Kerry for another life, in many respects a harder life, in Iowa.
And I admit that sometimes I’m forced to remind myself it’s all just a story: one of Uncle Dan’s stories, one of my own stories—and Maurice Wolfe probably never rode with the Texas Rangers or even so much as roped a cow. It’s a grudging admission on my part because there’s something that feels perfectly natural about hoping for a cowboy in my past. Cowboys are a way of double-checking my credentials, my manhood, my red, white, and blue. Claiming cowboy in my pedigree is like being descended from one of the Pilgrims. It means that more than you, I’m from here. My papers are in order. I can ride tall and spit with pride, wear my blue jeans, listen to Hank Williams, and watch football on TV. What’s ironic, though, is that the myth of the cowboy is really about being nowhere. About being from nowhere.
The cowboy started out herding steer along the Western trails shortly after the end of the Civil War. His job description was as simple as this: move the animals from here to there. “For me, a cowboy is a man who tends cows,” driver R. J. Poteet tells his pokes in James Michener’s Centennial. “All day, every day. Those cows yonder are the reason you’re here. And gettin’ up north in one piece is your only responsibility.” Somewhere in the choke-dust of the trail, though, the cowboy seemed to get lost and enter the open plain of myth. He became the nameless drifter in Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian: the “slim young giant more beautiful than pictures” who, in his soft hat and dull-scarlet handkerchief, had traveled “many miles from somewhere across the vast horizon.” He lost not just his name, his purpose, his individuality, but his destination, what before had defined his very existence. He had come from the horizon and that’s where he was headed.
Joseph Campbell wrote that the narrative of the classic hero myth adheres to the cycle of departure, fulfillment, and return. This is the basic story outline followed by Prometheus, Odysseus, and Don Quixote, Western culture’s blue-ribbon exemplars of spiritual transformation. In each of their tales, they quest for a new place; but the place to find, the reader understands, is not in the world, but within yourself. This is the American cowboy: like John Wayne in the final frames of The Searchers, he is a solitary figure walking away from the camera into the desert. He is always roaming, always dreaming, always looking for the borderline. Fulfillment, according to this story, only comes with departure, and yet never really comes with arrival. It is somehow gained in the searching.
Our caravan is stopped now—God knows where precisely—and my uncle has retrieved his AAA Road Atlas from under a pile of junk in the backseat. It would be easy to ask why he hadn’t found it earlier. The more productive question is how do we find where Highway 30 intersects with County Road E63, which is one of those really skinny black lines my uncle needs to pull out his glasses to even see. The problem with these maps is that they’re color-coded, but out here, the colors run together. The fields all look the same. They run together in the way that my imagination runs together what’s real and what’s in my imagination. If such a distinction even makes sense. It’s hard to tell when writing about a landscape like Clinton County, a landscape that blooms primarily in the collective memory of my family, in the handed down stories of people forty years removed from its soil, or a hundred and forty years. Even the landscapes run together. In my mind I struggle to find the difference between the stony fields of Kerry and the blacker soil of Clinton County. They are both characters in the stories I hear, and in a sense, they are the same character. The woman left behind. The lost love we are searching for, but can never quite find because she exists only in our imagination.
Out here the sky is blue like you would picture the sky to be blue. And the corn is green and it’s yellow, and the soil is black and it’s the slightest streak of muddy brown. When I write, I’m tempted to paint this picture like a road map. Colors are bright and pregnant with meaning. Lines are straight and reach logical conclusions. But then I remember something about maps—and I know this to be true about writing and about dreaming, too—which is that there are no conclusions, only possibilities, only contingencies. Only theories first traced by your finger and then later tested, while observing strict radio silence, out on the road. These are enterprises defined by the search. And writing, I’ve found, is like trying to wake up from a dream. It is a struggle to poke through what seems to be real into something more authentic, only to realize that even the line between the real and not real is blurred. There are different kinds of truth, after all.
For instance, I should admit that I know these fields better than you might think. I detasseled corn in high school, speeding out to the farms with Uncle Dave, challenging the interstate at 85 in a car that had no business even starting. A living textbook example of a workaholic, the story about Uncle Dave goes that once while visiting the in-laws in southern California he became bored, visited a local temp agency, and picked up a factory job for the remainder of the trip. I detasseled with Uncle Dave for five or six years in a row. We stopped keeping track after a while. Uncle Dave always said that if you detassel once, you don’t know any better. If you do it twice, you must have forgotten your suffering. And if you detassel after that, well, you must be plain dumb. That was us, dumb as cows, trudging rows that sometimes lasted a mile. And one afternoon, in hundred-degree heat, I dried up and fainted. It’s scary to think about because when you’re working out in the fields, you are alone. Uncle Dave was a half mile away at least, walking his own rows, while I lay face down in the dirt.
I remember the dirt up to my nostrils, and the crickets, and the rash-like cuts on my arms from the sharpened leaves of the corn stalks. And the sun. I remember the way it seemed to suck the juice right out of me. What I remember most, though, is the smell: it was a dry, crackling smell I associate with the leaves (bug-eaten leaves which resembled thin slices of Swiss cheese) and the clumps of sod in my hair. It’s a smell that dries out as the day wears on and the sun climbs higher. It dries out the way that the fields dry out, the way that my morale dried up, and then my body. What I don’t remember, though, are any colors.
“Saying a place is flat,” writes Patricia Hampl, “is another way of pretending it’s simpler than it is.” But what does simple mean? Simple is having no investment, no memory. There’s no pretending involved at all. People who say that Iowa is flat are people just driving through or just visiting, people whose attention is focused on spotting I-80 speed traps or maybe getting a Ph.D. For them, it is flat in the way that maps are flat, or myths: static and one-dimensional, outside of history, until we add all the stuff of our experience: our questions, our desires, our fears. With only a map, they aren’t in a position to see the hills like I do. They aren’t in a position to notice the exaggerated way in which they bubble up from the earth like the Indian mounds I visited as a kid, the ones Northeast of here in McGregor, or like the ancient tumuli which pimple the Irish countryside: “The mound like a round / of earth pregnant / with fragments, bones,” writes Ulster poet Mike Jenkins. They are round because—like the web-like interlacing popular in Celtic art—they contain within themselves the beginning and the end, the womb and the coffin, even while both are impossible to locate. I strain to hear my ancestors speak to me from beneath these hills. I want to hear them, to feel their voices resonate in the crevices of my own memory. The beginning and the end. The whole mythic journey is contained within this landscape, in its blues, greens, yellows, and blacks. In the way its colors run together. And people just driving through forget how you can climb the hills, slide down, and climb up again, driving forever, and seeming to get nowhere.
It’s been awhile since we were at the Casey’s, since we’ve seen another car, even. Will we ever be able to get back to John and Jo Lynn, sitting by the side of the road having a beer? How will we ever find County Road E63? There are no signs out here and even if there were, they would be hidden in the dust. We are here and apparently that is supposed to be enough. But for whom? Here I am going back to something that I don’t know and hardly claim to comprehend, those sweaty afternoons in the cornfields aside, while my dad, on the other hand, literally becomes depressed when he sees how much things have changed. It’s as if every board on every front porch is forever etched in his memory and to see one come unnailed is to similarly unnail a cherished but fragile understanding he has constructed over the years.
The understanding, I think, is that when you leave, what changes is you, not what you left. Isn’t that what Joseph Campbell wrote? In fact, Campbell argued that is precisely the reason we leave—to search for some kind of spiritual nourishment—and we do so according to the tattered and marked-up stories we tell ourselves, stories of cowboys and immigrants and all the other various prototypes and archetypes we fashion ourselves after. It makes me wonder sometimes which comes first, the story or the experience. Are we called to follow those stray cows or do they in fact follow us? Which is to also ask, can we separate Clinton County from the stories? In the end, does it even matter? All that remains are those stories. All that’s left is the leaving. This landscape, these blue-green hills and fields, where my dad and his dad and his dad before him were born and raised, disappears slowly across the horizon. And for my dad, this place and his memories of this place are the same. It’s no wonder that we’re lost.
“Do you know where we are, Grandpa?”
“What kind of tom-fool question is that? Sure, you’re where I was weaned. And my four brothers and my two sisters, and ah yes, the wee ones what didn’t make it. God bless their souls. God bless their— Go ahead, lad, show me a cross. Oh, would you just look at yourself You’re an insult to the woman what bore you. Like my own sweet departed mother—that’s right, lad, just like so—used to say of myself as a boy: Raised by a pack of wolves.”
“But it’s not where I was weaned. I don’t know this place. I don’t know you.”
“Sure you don’t, sure you don’t,” he replies. “No one can know his fathers.”
I study him, though, and notice a strong resemblance to the photocopied pictures I have of his brother Patrick and to the one portrait I’ve seen of my own grandfather, a man neither my dad nor I ever knew. The same solid chin. The deeply-set eyes. There has always been a family look, so that complete strangers have stopped to ask me if I’m a Wolfe.
“Well, then, what can you know?” I ask.
“What can you know? Lad, you’re trying an old man’s patience. What can you know? You can know the dirt you’re spitting in and if you’re blessed, you’ll remember the home you left. Like my father left his, and I, for a time, left mine.”
My dad glances up from our huddle over the map and smiles. “Remember what Uncle Dan used to always say? Without the Model T we’d all be idiots.”
My aunt chuckles and embarks on a rather longwinded explanation of the intricacies of intermarriage in the days before the automobile. You see, the Irish had only married other Irish. They had all settled in the same area, farmed the same land, and the families had interwoven with each other so that family trees more resembled spider webs. With the car came opportunity, and the black-painted steel of the Model T soon became a symbol of not simply technology and modernity, but of freedom. And escape. The horse, on the other hand, became the emblem for all that was left behind: home, culture, an old way of life. Horses in the field would soon be replaced by tractors. The farms would expand along with the distance between neighbors. The sense of community among the Irish would weaken.
And what’s left? Sometimes I wonder about that I look at the pleasant but perplexed looks on the faces of my aunt and my dad and I wonder if they aren’t actually considering the squandered possibility of idiocy (or, if you wish, naivete). It’s the idea that without a great deal of thought they abandoned what they can never return to and now, driving around in our cars, are forced to take stock of what remains.
William H. Gass writes: “Rarely is an exile lucky enough to be kicked out of New Jersey only to fall on his feet in Devon.” My great-great-grandfather John was, if you believe the stories, kicked out of the rural south of Ireland at the height of the Potato Famine in 1848 and landed on the rich black soil of Clinton County four years later. His son Patrick was quick to boast that he had been involved in the rebellious Young Ireland movement and emigrated to avoid capture by the British.
For a host of reasons, this scenario is unlikely. It is equally unlikely that he was the stereotypical poor Catholic forced off the land by his tyrannical Protestant landlord. He descended from a wealthy and respected line, a prominent member of which was General James Wolfe, who captured Québec for the British in 1759. When John set sail, he could afford to bring with him his wife and first son James. He wasn’t in fact kicked out. What, then, prompted his flight?
In the Irish language, the words used to express emigration also imply placelessness, exile, and banishment. Our word “exile” derives from the Latin exul, meaning “banished person.” It is formed by the prefix ex– “out” and the base ul “go.” (It is this same base that is found in the Latin word ambulare, meaning “walk.”) The Irish word for “exile”—a word that is also used to mean emigration—is deorai. It derives from deo, meaning “forever.” It powerfully suggests that this was no casual undertaking, emigration; that perhaps the most fundamental relationship the Irish have is with the land—their land—and to be forced to leave, or to leave for any reason, is a tremendous psychological blow. It is a blow which must be accounted for and tended to, especially in nurturing one’s heritage. (The Irish language is so rich. The word ducas, meaning “heritage,” can also mean “nature, background, instinct.” It is closely related to duchan: “blackening, potato blight.”) But most of all, this word suggests that leaving is permanent. Not only is there no return, there can be no arrival, even if one is landing in Devon.
It is no small thing, then, that prompts a man like my great-great-grandfather to leave his home, his land, and become an exile. Perhaps what moves him is simply material. His lot would be improved elsewhere, some far-off patch of greener grass that could offer him an improved crop yield and his cattle better grazing. But there are other forces that can stir a man, internal forces he may only scarcely be able to describe. His life has not been intricately maneuvered into a corner by the injustices of the land system; his family is not starving, literally eating grass by the side of the road, a horrifyingly common sight during the Famine. Rather, he hears the call of what in Ireland has turned into a sort of national narrative: a man is born, he grows up, and then he emigrates. It is inevitable. It is a “phenomenon beyond our control, like the weather,” as the Cork Examiner observed late in the 19th century. Such narratives become embedded in a people, burrowing into their deepest beings, until they forget they are even there. Until, that is, a strange, lonely dance of butterflies begins in our stomachs and we find ourselves, like the cowboys of our imaginations, chasing after stray cows.
We finally think we have found E63, but in the end it’s just the same gravel we turned over to get here. Once again our three cars are stopped and over my uncle’s trunk we’re trying to find ourselves on the map. For the moment choosing to ignore the irony of it all, my dad announces that we should attempt to find Lost Nation in order to better get our bearings. Lost Nation is a small town near the farm we used to visit on Memorial Day when I was a kid. It’s near where my great-grandfather Maurice Wolfe was born. Fewer than six hundred people live there, although a recent history of Clinton County reports that at the turn of the century, it was a station on the Sabula, Ackley & Dakota Railway and the “stock and grain shipping center for Sharon Township.” Today it is where the farmers come to buy their groceries.
No one seems to know, not even the history book, how it got its name. The book does mention how the river town of Clinton was originally called New York by settlers from that state. In 1855, that particular settlement was renamed in honor of New York’s champion of the Erie Canal, DeWitt Clinton. Some of these same New Yorkers founded DeWitt. The book explains how many of the farmers in Toronto were immigrants from Canada; among them, Irishmen discharged from the British army and abandoned in Canada after the defeat of Napoleon. It follows the story of Dr. George Peck, one of Clinton County’s earliest settlers, who expected his stake of land to be the site of a great city, and so named it, with an incorrect spelling, for a great tribe of Indians (and the Texas cowboy’s arch enemy): Camanche. The names of these town reflect the wandering trails of their people’s lives and imaginations. They reflect points of origin, but also points of arrival. What, though, of Lost Nation? It is a vaguely sad name and to me calls forth images of the Native Americans these settlers displaced, the Sauk and the Fox and their proud chiefs Blackhawk and Keokuk. Even in the name of their town, these settlers evoke a sense of banishment and bewilderment: these are souls not yet settled.
We’re a good two hours late to the reunion by the time we stumble upon the road we’re looking for, the one that bends and eventually takes us to Father Bodkin’s house. And even now, it’s unclear what we expect to find there. This is Clinton County, where my family—my dad’s family, anyway—calls home. Or at least it’s the place many have once called home. So here’s the wonderful irony of my family:
Our very notion of ourselves depends upon being Irish, on farming the land, while the story of my family is the story of leaving that land, first County Kerry and now Clinton. But what happens now that we have no land to leave? What happens when there is no land to go back to? What, if anything, do I have left to claim?
In the North of Ireland at the turn of the century, the intricacies of inheritance left many farms divided up, fields separated by plots belonging to neighboring farms. It was called “throughothering” because a farmer was often forced to walk through other fields in order to reach his own. The Ulster farmers used the term metaphorically, too, as in the way that their personal relationships, like their fields, could become intertwined. Two brothers could be “woven throughother,” for instance. Today, “throughothering” has an Irish language equivalent, beith idir eatarthu, and its connotative meaning is quite a bit different. According to Irish poet Peter Fallon, it refers to things being hopelessly mixed up—as in fields, as in narratives, as in identities—and to the state of being caught betwixt and between. No longer is it enough to suggest that we are intertwined, like neighboring cornfields. Now the rows of corn are intertwined, even the corn stalks within those rows, so that it becomes impossible to distinguish, so that we are suspended in between, unable to extract or claim anything.
This is the way it is with these fields of Clinton County. They are mine; they are not mine. We are woven throughother. I will never know about my great-great-grandfather, my great-grandfather, or any of my family. Just ask my dad. He recently read a draft of this essay and could only shake his head. “Uncle Pete was a McGinn, not a Wolfe. He was your Uncle Dan’s brother, not his brother-in-law. And it wasn’t Pete Farrell, it was Pat Farrell.” So this is what I have left: only the stories that I hear and the ones that I invent, and eventually they will become the same.
Unpublished, September 1997
Presented at The Scattering, an international conference on the Irish Diaspora sponsored by University College Cork, Ireland; awarded Best New Scholar (Literature)