Kevin Koch

Manitoumie. Sinsinawa. 

I 

Manitoumie. The Great Spirit dwells there.

 

The wind is chilled on this January morning. The sky, tenuously linking the states of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois at their Mississippi River conjunction, is an icy pale blue. It sharpens the mind.

The view from where I live on the Iowa bluff dips first across downtown Dubuque and then stretches across the ice‑covered river. Then scales the river bluffs on the Wisconsin shore. You can scan north to the wide sweeping curve where the Mississippi takes a pronounced east‑west shift. You can scan south to Illinois. But your eye will catch, focus, and return to the great mound rising, pronounced, some 300 feet above southwest Wisconsin's rolling hills.

The mound will focus your view from every direction. You will see it twenty, thirty miles away, from both sides of the Mississippi, a key signature feature of the local landscape.

Sinsinawa Mound. The name, deriving from the Mesquakie Indians who lived here, means "the young eagle." But the Mesquakie called the whole local region of southwest Wisconsin "Manitoumie." The land where the Great Spirit dwells.

 

II

 

Today, Sinsinawa Mound is home and national center to 750 Catholic Dominican sisters across the U.S. and serving in foreign missions. In addition, the Sinsinawa complex, comprised of 450 acres, offers retreat and educational programs, advocates for sustainable agriculture, hosts a local theater group, serves as a retirement home for sisters, and more.

The progressive thinking of the Dominicans is reflected in the modernistic round chapel, the focus on women's spirituality in programs and in the bookstore, and on the attention and care given to social issues, such as the problems faced by rural Americans and farmers.

But these are the trappings, the outward manifestations, of sacred land. What you see is the fruit of a productive soil. Beneath it lies a solid and indestructible bedrock, unchanged for millennia, whatever the current shape of the surface activity.

 

For the Great Spirit dwells here.

 

III

 

Manitoumie's first spirits coalesced from the decay of shelled sea creatures in a primordial Ordovician sea 450 million years ago. A great warm and shallow sea washed over most of America's Midwest, and the shells of sea creatures—Brachiopods, Cephalopods, and Gastropods—piled thickly onto the ocean floor, packed in sediment. The weight of years and the heat of subterranean forces pressed these into a thick layer of Galena dolomite limestone, the lime pressed and transformed from the shells.

The continental plates, adrift on the earth's mantle like slow suds in a bathtub, push and heave, and for a while the land uplifted and the seas rolled back. Then the land dipped beneath another sea, and rose and fell again, as new layers of bedrock were laid down—a scaly Maquoketa shale and another limestone called Niagara dolomite.

The land heaved another time, the seas rolled back, and vegetation sprang up and formed a thick soil atop the bedrock. Eons later, glacial icepacks bore down across the mid‑continent from the north, advancing and retreating many times as the climate alternately cooled and warmed.

The last great glacial period, the Wisconsin, butted up against the edge of human memory 12,000 years ago. These recent glaciers skirted east and west, bypassing southwest Wisconsin and the surrounding region. Land at the glacier's edge, however, was eroded for centuries by meltwater when the warming began, resulting in great bluffs rising mightily from the Mississippi and steep, rounded fingers of woodland sharply etched by tumbling ravines.

And topping these hills are the great mounds of southwest Wisconsin. Their topmost layer of Niagara dolomite once covered the entire region from here to the Great Lakes, but to the north the glaciers overlaid Niagara with thick layers of till and blown‑in loess. In the non‑glaciated regions, the surface was undercut by the crumbling, easily erodable shale beneath, until bit by bit only scattered mounds of surface Niagara remained intact. Today, four great mounds grace the southwestern Wisconsin landscape—Platteville Mound, Belmont, Blue Mound, and Sinsinawa.

I imagine the Great Spirit moving with slow and studied stewardship among the four great mounds, and coming finally to Sinsinawa Mound, closest in proximity to the Mississippi, Father of Waters. For this would be a fine place in which to dwell.

Manitoumie.

 

IV

 

It is 9:15 a.m. The dew at the base of Sinsinawa Mound lies thick on the grassy paths that lead upward through the woods, and it soaks the tips of my boots. Already the air is becoming humid. Locusts whine in the treetops where the woods bear a late summer thickness of green. In the soft soil there is damp decay. A white, rounded mushroom the shape and size of a doughy bread loaf squats at the base of an oak, just inches beyond the path. The path leads upward.

I find a great slanted limestone boulder about 10 feet wide and 12 feet long partway up the hill, and climb it for a better view of the lowlands. Moss clings to its northern face, and clumps of grass have sprouted on its pockmarked surface. I know that these blocks have tumbled from above, but the thick mats of soil and grass make it look as if the boulders have just now awakened and heaved upward from the bedrock, tearing and ripping tufts of dirt, leaves, and undergrowth from the forest floor in the ascent.

Scrabbling back down the slanted boulder, I return again to the path, noting my footprints in the soft humus beyond the trail. No one has been here for a while.

The telltale shale lies halfway up the mound, at the lip of a wide ravine. For a while I pick among the loosened rock, looking for fossils, but I come up empty‑handed, except for an agate, which I slide into my jeans pocket like a talisman. The shale is cool to my palm, somewhat moist, and crumbles like a cookie.

There are, in fact, several paths that lead upward through the woods, and they all converge at the top of the Mound. And here, like the balding pate of an old man, lies a grassy, bulldozed mini‑mound upon the Mound, a service point for a water reservoir that serves the complex of Dominican sisters who reside at the base of the hill. The view from here is expansive: farm fields stretching away, country roads accenting the rolling hills, the distant bluffs, and an etched dark stripe where the river hides.

Others, of course, have been here long ago. On the sun‑bleached red, wooden, reservoir shed, dozens of long‑ago visitors have carved their names or initials, perhaps teenaged girls who once attended the Dominican high school, or young sisters in some small act of defiance:

 

  • HJD 1925

  • March 8, 1904—M.J. Owl

  • MJO Mar 17, 1904

  • Leveta Roling, Oct 1919

  • J.C. Booth '08

 

Many spirits.

When I return down the path, the bread-loaf mushroom has broken from its mooring and tumbled down the slope and onto the trail. The bedrock is stirring.

 

V

 

The earliest known Native Americans of southwest Wisconsin, called PaleoIndians, lived at the edges of the great glaciers 12,000 years ago. Later, Woodland Period Indians built burial mounds in the hills above the Mississippi from 200 to 1,000 a.d. The Mesquakie (and their cousins, the Sauk) were recent arrivals in the 1700s when the Iroquois drove them from their ancestral home near the Great Lakes.

By the 1820s, lead mining and promising farmland had brought Europeans. In 1827, the U. S. government forced the Mesquakie and Sauk west of the Mississippi. Lead miner George Wallace Jones acquired Sinsinawa Mound from the federal government and traded with the Mesquakie on the future Iowa shore.

A band of Mesquakie and Sauk revolted against the expulsion and followed Chief Blackhawk through western Illinois in what became known as the Blackhawk War. Jones built a small military fort at Sinsinawa in 1832 for local protection in case the hostilities crept northward. The structure still stands at the entrance to the Dominican complex, a reflection of war in a center for peace and justice.

Jones himself had a bigger career in mind. He became the first territorial representative in Washington, DC, for the territory of Wisconsin and later moved across the river and became one of the first U.S. Senators for the new state of Iowa. He sold his Sinsinawa land in 1844 to an energetic, young Dominican missionary priest he had befriended, named Father Samuel Mazzuchelli.

 

VI

 

"There was no need of Italian marble for a pavement: that was found ready‑made of the green grass in summer and hard frozen earth in winter." 

—Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P, regarding
an Indian open‑air tent church

 

If the first great spirit of Manitoumie gathered over the laying down of bedrock and the separation of waters, and the second great spirit arrived with the Native Americans, Sinsinawa Mound was enspirited yet again with the arrival of Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P. Within a few short years he would establish a men's college, then a Dominican motherhouse at the base of the Mound.

Sinsinawa was not even on Mazzuchelli's horizon yet in 1823, when, at the age of 17, he left his comfortable home in Milan, Italy, entered the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and shortly thereafter responded to a call for missionaries to America. Mazzuchelli's first assignment after ordination in 1830 was to a wilderness ranging from Michigan's Mackinac Island to Wisconsin's Green Bay, a region covering 52,500 square miles.

Mazzuchelli was missionary to the Menominee, Winnebago, Chippewa, and Ottawa Indians of the area. In respect for the culture, language, and spirituality of the Native Americans‑rare among missionaries of that era—Mazzuchelli's schools employed native teachers, respected native tongues, and allowed native students to live with their families instead of removing them to dormitories. With the help of interpreters, Mazzuchelli printed a book of Christian prayers in the Winnebago language. His Mackinac congregations "chanted psalms alternately in Latin and Chippewa," writes biographer Mary Cabrini Durkin. Mazzuchelli, she says, "recognized their Great Spirit as the God he served."

This is not to say he was entirely free from the prevailing prejudices of the day. His journal speaks of the native religion as an "imperfect idea of the divinity" and celebrates those natives who, while keeping some of their more "innocent" customs, nonetheless "reject every practice not comformable to the truth and sanctity of the Christian faith, which alone enables them to improve and civilize themselves."

But when the white man's westward push robbed Native Americans of their homeland, Mazzuchelli came to their defense. He wrote to the Wisconsin Territorial Delegate to Congress, George Wallace Jones: "Most of our Indian wars are the natural and unavoidable consequence of the misconduct of the whites. Most of our Indian treaties are badly planned, unfairly ratified, and shamefully executed." In a letter to President Andrew Jackson, Mazzuchelli objected to the Indian Removal Act of 1830: "Before you encourage a new treaty . . . see whether the conditions of the old ones have been fulfilled."

By 1835, the Native American population had been forcibly removed from the Mackinac and Green Bay areas, and Mazzuchelli's missionary calling brought him several hundred miles south to the lands bounded by Galena, Illinois, Dubuque, Iowa, and southwest Wisconsin. Here recently immigrated Irishmen were working the lead mines and immigrant Germans were plowing the prairie.

Mazzuchelli immediately went to work building twenty‑five churches and chapels in the immigrant communities, many of them brick and limestone treasures that still exist. He was often architect and engineer for the churches he envisioned, yet he added his own manual sweat alongside that of the local parishioner‑laborers. The Irish immigrants were so enamored of this hardworking Italian, that they morphed his name to something more of their own, calling him "Father Matthew Kelly."

His empathy for hard laborers was evident already in his Mackinac days, when he wrote in his journal, "Those who held lower positions in the fur trade led a most laborious life in the wild country . . . while those who employed them were enjoying the delicacies and luxuries of the populous cities of the great republic."

Eventually the young priest was worn down by constant work and illnesses, and was persuaded to return home to Italy in 1843 to recuperate. His convalescence consisted of writing an autobiography of his missionary days and raising funds for missionary work. He was not to remain at home in Italy for long. By 1844 he was ready to return to Midwestern America, this time with the charge of developing a Dominican center in the southwest Wisconsin lands he had once served as missionary.

The first venture by Mazzuchelli on the Sinsinawa grounds was Sinsinawa Mound College for men, started in 1846. The college was short lived, and by 1847, Mazzuchelli was shifting the focus of Sinsinawa to women by inviting Dominican sisters to come to the Mound. From the start, Mazzuchelli gave women strong leadership roles. In his own family background, Mazzuchelli's mother had been co‑owner of the family property; thus Mazzuchelli had no qualm about making the Mound's first four sisters the trustees of Sinsinawa.

In 1852, he sold off Sinsinawa and moved the Dominican center to nearby Benton, Wisconsin. In 1854, he established St. Clara Academy for Women in Benton, teaching scripture, foreign language, music, physics, and astronomy, making use of his own telescope equipment.

After Mazzuchelli's death in 1864, the sisters repurchased Sinsinawa and moved the school and motherhouse back to the Mound. The academy expanded into a women's college, awarding its first degrees in 1901, although the women's college moved in 1922, and the girls' academy closed in 1970.

Today, 250 Dominican sisters live at Sinsinawa, many of them retired but many in active duty. The 750 Dominican sisters across the country are active as elementary, secondary, and college teachers, social workers, therapists, physicians and nurses, HIV/AIDS ministers, counselors, artists, carpenters, parish ministers, chaplains, and rural outreach coordinators. The former residential girls' academy now houses senior citizens apartments. The complex includes a nursing home, historical archives, bookstore, bread shop, community theater, Mazzuchelli exhibit, and farm. Public retreats for the upcoming season include Women of the Bible ("Bad Girls"), Yoga for Stress Relief, Contemplating the Psalms, and Paint/Write Your Own Icon. The modernistic, circular Queen of the Rosary Chapel is the soul of the complex, brightened with 37 diamond and triangular windows using the sun as a thematic motif. "The sun as joy—incarnation; the sun as sorrow—redemption; sun as glory—Pentecost eternal." Thirty‑two thousand guests visit Sinsinawa Mound every year.

Even with all this activity, Sinsinawa Mound remains a quiet place, reflecting the Dominican mission of community, prayer, study, and ministry.

But it is the earthen mound beyond the complex where the real quiet exists, disturbed only by the wind.

 

VII

 

The land itself is holy. But just like water seeps, flows, and gathers, the spirit, too, seems to favor certain glens, ridges, and passes, and not always those which are most spectacular.

What I want to know is this: Did Mazzuchelli sense the spirit in Manitoumie?

It's hard to say for sure from Mazzuchelli's journals whether he loved nature. I think sometimes that among European‑Americans a love for nature is largely a modern sentiment, both a luxury in a society sheltered from nature's cruel thrust and a necessity in a world bent on destroying the environment. The pioneer, on the other hand, sometimes neither loved nor despised the natural world, but was simply in it—in it up to his boots and work sleeves.

The journals reveal Mazzuchelli living in the thick of nature. In Mackinac, he covers his 52,500 square‑mile domain on horseback: "The many swamps frequently constituted a serious obstacle, because one had to cross them on foot in order to lighten the horse. Often, in spite of all possible precautions, the noble beast broke through the thin crust covering the soft watery ground underneath. When such a misfortune occurred, it was not easy to get the animal on his feet, for his very effort to rise only sank him more deeply into the swamp and sometimes he was lost."

In winter, a horse‑drawn sled gets him about the northland:

 

In the cold season the beautiful and vast natural prairies of Wisconsin often provide the traveler an C1oSt easy and convenient route over the snow which for several months covers them with its white mantle. . . . It is not easy to give a clear idea of A. four hundred and twenty mile journey all alone, across a region still uncultivated, during a severe winter, in a sledge drawn by a single horse, crossing prairies, woods, rivers, and frozen lakes. . . . The inexperienced traveler must overcome many difficulties: there are unbridged streams with high banks, whose waters, fed by nearby springs, do not freeze; the ice is not always solid on the lakes and is very treacherous on certain rivers; in the hollows of the undulating prairies the snow is often heaped up by the winds in drifts of six or seven feet.

 

In his later home in southwest Wisconsin, he contends with the Mississippi River en route to visiting a sick man:

 

He [Mazzuchelli writes of himself in the third person] found that the ice no longer formed a solid bridge, but, broken up by the warm temperature and the winds, was carried along by the current. . . .The priest, with four lay persons, found no means of crossing other than a narrow boat made from a tree trunk which had been left on the river bank all winter. They put it into the water and embarked without noticing that the old boat had several cracks along the sides. When they were nearly halfway across the river, the water began to pour in; one of the passengers was pale and trembling with fright. The steersman, however, a skillful man, courageously managed the frail boat, ordering those who were seated not to move, ‘Or else,' he said, ‘we are lost.' Only the priest remained kneeling and paddling with a single oar, while the steersman gave orders to row faster.

 

But still Mazzuchelli evokes a certain joy in his encounters with nature. As he embarks from Europe en route to America, he faces the ocean breeze:

 

The Missionary enjoyed the awesome sight of the ocean when, unchained and tempestuous, it seemed bent on destroying any man who defied its anger. Clinging to the mainmast, he could see the violent imperious waves venting their wrath upon the ship, often as if trying to engulf it, flooding the entire deck with their crests.

 

And, many years later, when an exhausted Mazzuchelli has finally been convinced to temporarily return to his native Milan for rest, he begins his homeward journey by setting forth into the Mississippi:

 

The Missionary departed from the little city of Galena in a steamboat to go down the majestic Mississippi. Four days later he found the deepest delight in contemplating the visible works of the Creator. . . .The rapid motion of the boat, accelerated by the current, made the view of the hills, the valleys, the meadows, woods, vast solitudes, numerous islands, and, at intervals, the new towns, pass before the eyes, quickly change, and lose themselves in the distance. . . .When nature is ready to put on her green mantle, she inspires that sudden exclamation from the prophet David: ‘Praise him, 0 mountains and all ye hills; fruitful trees and all cedars' [Ps. 148:9]. The magnificent starry vault of the sky could alone give an idea of the glorious eternity according to the words of the same prophet: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and firmament proclaims his handiwork' [Ps. 19:1]. To the traveler going swiftly down the river, while everything recedes, the sky alone seems of the splendor, the glory, and the changelessness of Paradise.

 

VIII

 

November 1. All Saints' Day. The air is crisp, hinting at winter, the sky a clear, pale blue. The air is light. It is 25 degrees outside, following an unusually cold October.

Shrines to the saints guard the edge of the woods, The shrine of St. Dominic proclaims his birth in 1170. A cement‑cast dog with a cement‑cast bone rests at his feet. Nearby is Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, a work of fine Italian carrara marble situated quite naturally on a level slab of tumbled native Niagara. White stones on a "cross of knowledge" are from Mazzuchelli's own collection. Down the lane lies the sisters' cemetery, the uniform headstones glistening white in the sun.

At the end of the lane lies the "labyrinth," a circular, brick pathway that winds and weaves inward toward a central focal point, then unweaves itself back to the periphery, twisting and wending, drawing you into its center and pushing you away again. Walking the labyrinth reenacts the spiritual journey. Dr. Lauren Artress, designer of the Sinsinawa Labyrinth completed in 1999, writes, "It helps [people] see their lives in the context of a path, a pilgrimage. They realize that they are not human beings on a spiritual path but spiritual beings on a human path." The labyrinth, with its thought-­deflecting, repetitive footpath of 6,000 bricks, echoes the "rosary, Buddhist walking meditation, indigenous walk‑abouts, the way of the cross."

I begin walking the labyrinth, trying to unthink my mind, but thoughts keep cluttering back. In the cold cross‑winds, I watch my feet, step after step, not knowing where I'm at in the big circle. Time after time I think I've reached the center, until the labyrinth turns me outward again. Finally, after treading the four quarter‑paths, I arrive at the center, and look up, at last, from my feet. The sun slices through the barren trees, dazzling and hurting my eyes.

In the center, dead oak leaves litter the ground. I imagine the labyrinth deep in winter, snow blotting out the path, and the bricks re‑emerging in spring snow‑melt. I listen to the wind, and suddenly, finally, that which I've searched for—nothing. The emptiness of thought. Thought gone blank.

 

My sore back returns me to the thinking world. It is, once again, All Saints' Day, and wind‑strewn. Leaves twirl and rake like snow flurries. Resuming my hike, I find next the restored oak savanna, home to twenty different species of flowering plants and grasses, now tangled and brown with first frosts. The oak savanna is this region's most prevalent natural flora, combining lush prairie grasslands with the shade of small, scattered groves of burr oak. Native prairie required fire to burn away encroaching trees. But burr oaks grow a hardy bark, resistant to fire, and thus the oak savanna was dotted with these wonderful, fat, majestic trees with craggy, horizontal limbs.

The pilgrimage now takes me up into the woods. Here, the forest floor is strewn with maple leaves. A tree branch grunts and moans in the wind. A leaf falls on my head, covering me like a hat. The big slanted rock slab, which I had found in September, is now covered in leaves. The wind sounds like ocean surf.

Upward the path winds, to the center of the conical hill. I emerge from the forest to the mound‑top clearing. The sun shines, brilliant and warm on my shoulders and face. Two deer crash through the woods, white tails flickering like flame. Through the thinning woods I can now see the outline of the Sinsinawa buildings. All Saints' Day and the beginning of November—riding time like boats on an urgent river.

But death has its beauty, too. On the way back down, I come upon the Lourdes shrine from above, and discover a dead tree whose polished roots, devoid of bark, are brilliant in death, with flowing lines and whorls in the deadwood.

 

IX

 

Sinsinawa Mound is home to the Churches' Center for Land and People (CCLP). Sister Miriam Brown, O.P., who directed CCLP from its 1989 inception until July 2003, cites its dual mission to keep the churches involved with and informed on rural issues and to "put out there our own ethics and values" regarding the family farm. CCLP regards issues such as biotech and corporate farming from ethical, spiritual, and earth stewardship frameworks.

The Dominicans farmed several hundred acres at the base of the Mound until 2004. In the early years, sisters themselves tilled the land. In recent years, a full‑time farm manager ran the farm and dairy herd, adhering to Sustainable Agriculture goals of soil conservation, minimizing chemical treatments, and reducing fuel costs. When the farm manager left in March 2004, the sisters made the difficult decision to sell the dairy herd and rent the land to neighboring farmers. But they still insisted on Sustainable Agriculture practices.

"We always had the farm from the beginning, have always taken seriously the caring of the earth. Through that farm we identify with others' problems and concerns for the land and identify with the struggle of our neighbors," says Brown. "Fr. Mazzuchelli was very aware of the living conditions of people in his time. He spoke out on public issues, like the Civil War, brother killing brother. There has always been a strong sense of social justice in our colleges and schools."

Indeed, the Sinsinawa Dominicans have issued a land vision statement of their own:

 

The following Judeo‑Christian principles shape our relationship to our Sinsinawa land: 

  • The earth belongs to God;

  • We have a special responsibility to care for all creation;

  • The land is given as a gift to all humankind and is meant to benefit both present and future generations;

  • In working with the land, we are 'co creators with God, guiding the land's productive power and conserving the land's natural gifts.

Holy land. Sacred place.

Manitoumie.

 

X

 

My son Brian once climbed atop a domed rock at the top of Mt. Harney in the Black Hills, just beyond my sight (I being too chicken to follow him). The wind howled so loudly that he couldn't hear me when I called to him to come back, and I, having lost track of him, began to panic that he had fallen. Later I learned that Black Elk had had his famous shamanistic visions on that very ground, at what he called the center of the world. It is sacred place. Later on that same vacation, we visited the Devil's Tower in eastern Wyoming. The Devil's Tower earned its name through a misunderstanding by white settlers, but it, too, is a holy place of the Native Americans, where the spirits caused the 1,200‑foot tower of rock to rise quickly from the plains to save a group of Indian children from an attacking grizzly, whose claws dug grooves into the ascending column.

Mt. Harney and the Devil's Tower are sacred places of breathtaking beauty and immense proportion, but in Landscapes of the Sacred, Belden C. Lane explains that sacred ground is more often located in the ordinary than in the extreme. The sacred mountain of the Himalayas, he points out, is Mount Kailas, not Mount Everest. Jerusalem is not the grandest, tallest mound of Palestine. Henry David Thoreau found intimations of God in the relatively humble surroundings of Walden Pond and woods. Kathleen Norris finds her "monastery" in the plains of the Dakotas, where God can be seen in the details of grasshopper and long‑stem prairie, and the eye is not distracted by grandeur.

The sacred is diffused throughout nature, yet paradoxically it tends to gather in select places, almost as if drawn by gravity. "The heritage of Romanticism," says Lane, "has conditioned us to expect the holy place to be marked by excessive beauty and grandeur," but the sacred does the choosing, not us, and by masking itself in the ordinary it forces us to look closely at our world, to see it for more than it appears, to realize that the sacred is not apart from the profane. Sinsinawa Mound rises impressively above the general plateau above the Mississippi Valley. It is, I have said, a landmark in every direction. Even so it does not soar like the Devil's Tower or wrap winds about itself like Mt. Harney. The Great Spirit has chosen it for reasons unrevealed. Manitoumie. Where the Great Spirit lives.

 

XI

 

Late Winter

From a distance, the bare tree branches make the Mound look brown in the relentless winter cold. But up close, the ground is whitened from a light two‑inch snowfall the night before. With the temperature warming today, though, the snow lies wet and heavy. A good "packing" snow as we used to call it as kids, and I wad a few snowballs and hurl them at tree trunks. They hit home with a luscious splat—white and sloppy pockmarks on the bark.

Hiking today, I've played cat‑and‑mouse with a woman in the woods. I see her footprints on the path ahead of me, and where they veer off, I veer, too, to wonder what she is pursuing. Around a bend I finally see her moving amid the trees, and I alter my direction so as not to disturb her. She is seeking her own solitude, and I mine.

I keep my eyes open for . . . something. Above me, an owl graces the sky in a swift arc. Beside me, the moss on the backs of boulders is white with thick frost. Some solitary birds are scattered among the top branches in the forest, and in the distance, the ongoing chatter of cawing.

The woman appears again, 30‑ish, dressed in black winter coat and slacks, rolling a large matted snowball along the path. I veer off again, and when I pass this way later I find a snowman along the path. He is short, as last night's snowfall wasn't deep, built with the required twigs for arms, but sporting a full face, with a triangular mouth shaped from bent reeds.

The warming continues. It won't be long before the oaks and maples leaf out again, until the forest undergrowth creeps and stirs, and, in the general thaw, perhaps a great boulder will heave, split, and tumble this year. On the way home I stop near a backwaters of the Mississippi, and as I exit my car a honking formation of geese is taking flight just overhead and headed, resolutely, north.

And out on the water on this gray day, the ice is mottled, breaking up after last week's freeze. Just below the bridge pilings, a triangle of winter‑black water is exposed.

 

XII

 

I have to work to be aware of any spirits at all some days. Life, work, and family have plenty of legitimate needs clamoring for my attention.

Some days I can quell all the squabble in my mind just long enough to be aware of my own spirit, my own thoughts, my own sensory intake, my own sense of being in the present moment, Zen‑like.

But when it's good—when it's really, really good—there are plenty of spirits here, whipped in the wind, sighing in the tree branches, and burgeoning from the mossy boulders heaved up from the bedrock.

For the Great Spirit dwells here.

Manitoumie.

 


 

Sources Consulted

 

Durkin, Mary Carbrini, OSU, and Mary Nona McGreal, OP. Always On Call. Samuel Mazzuchelli of the Order of Preachers. Editions du Signe, 2000.

 

Gavlinger, Mary Ellen (O.P.) Dominican historian. Telephone interview, 3 August 2004.

 

"The Labyrinth." Pamphlet, Sinsinawa Mound Center.

 

Lane, Beldon C. Landscapes of the Sacred. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

 

Mazzuchelli, Samuel. The Memoirs of Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, O.P. Chicago: The Priory Press, 1967 ed. Tr. Sr. Maria Michele Armato, O.P., and Sr. Mary Jeremy Finnegan, O.P. (first published in Milan, Italy, 1844).

 

"Sinsinawa Mound." http://www.sinsinawa.org 5 March 2004.

 

Various historical and geological sources consulted at Sinsinawa Mound Historical Archives.

 


 

Special thanks to the Dominican Sisters who taught me at St. Joseph's elementary school in Dubuque, Iowa, 1966–1973. I realize now how progressive and forward‑thinking these sisters really were.


 

© Kevin Koch

 
 
 

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