Editor's Note: The following excerpt from Thomas Pecore Weso’s memoir-in-progress, Crow's Nest, struck me as a parable-like example of the cultural-historical causes of the current climate crisis.
The Menominee people built both bark dwellings and tepees. In the Menominee creation story it is Beaver-Woman, the first woman, who taught her People to build dome-shaped bark homes. Tepees of the old village sat around the spring. Uncle Buddy showed me tepee rings, bare spots on the ground where nothing grows because something has compacted the ground. We also found a darkened place where there had been long-term campfire—like the kind the Potawatomi built. Uncle Buddy remembered as a child seeing some old people still living around the wet, sandy patch, next to the highway, although the spring itself had already been blocked forty years. He said they always kept to themselves. They never talked to outsiders, even to other Menominees, as far as he knew. “They just got older until they all disappeared,” he said.
In the late 1800's, members of the United States Army filled this bubbling spring with boulders and gravel. This was the largest of the bubbling springs in the northern Wolf River valley, essential as a sacred water source, but an impediment to the Army. The reason? An existing foot trail wasn't wide enough for a freight wagon. That trail, an unimproved part of the military road, narrowed as it went between the bubbling spring and the pool of quicksand. Indeed, according to a local Antigo newspaper, a German trader almost lost an entire wagon of goods and a team of oxen when he drove across sand to avoid that spring. According to the local paper, disaster was averted when the oxen were able to extract themselves from the watery pool of quicksand.
After complaints to the local Indian Service Office to do something, fast, engineers from the U.S. Army arrived in Neopit and quickly created an ecological disaster. They plugged the spring, treating it like seepage. This bubbling spring was more like a fire-hose. The Army workers who filled the sandy water with tons of gravel and boulders did not realize that water pressure would simply force another opening somewhere else. They created a continuing environmental disaster.
A washout resulting from that blockage occurred as the pressure turned sidewise, toward the river, and flooded several acres, including a railroad line. The old tracks still lead into water and disappear. Ghostly stumps suspend above the water’s surface, supported by long tenacious roots that reach into water. The topsy-turvy tree roots create weird wooden sculptures. Some de-barked limbs look like the legs of slug-colored water spiders that beckon passersby into their watery web. They provide evidence of that past environmental disaster.
Before the army's interference, the stream from the springs’ overflow was small enough and hard enough for thousands of foot travelers to simply step across. The hydraulic pressure dissipated harmlessly as small water geysers. Its pool spilled over and flowed to the river. After the Army's interference, a jet-stream of water washed away everything. At first it began to wash away the soil that anchored trees. Then it washed away the Menominee-owned railroad bed. There is still some surface seepage to this spring, now funneled under the road by a metal culvert. The highway is built directly on top of the spring.
In the mid-1990s a hundred years later, a new spring emerged, part of the same system, just outside the nearby town of Zoar across from an old “Indian” burial ground. Traditional Menominee burials are above the ground. There aren't any Catholics buried underground in that place. Water began to seep, then pool, and finally flowed out of the ground. A large spring hole with a sandy bottom took form next to the highway. Local youth reported the pool to be bottomless. The county highway department plugged the spring with tons of rock. Again, engineers redirected water with brute force.
By the 1910s most of the logging and rail barons’ damage to the landscape was complete. The giant white pine forest near the springs drowned, died, and fell. The very ground except for exposed bits of the granite bedrock washed away. All this was exacerbated by a series of dams constructed on the Little West Branch of the Wolf River. Lumber companies used mixed-race logging crews to remove the white pine, because it easily floats. Transportation costs using the rivers was nil. The series of lakes created by the dams were seasonal, and when the dam ponds were released in the spring, carrying thousands of logs, this pent-up flow acted like an avalanche, pushing everything in front of it downstream to the Neopit sawmill. Numerous water-saturated logs still litter the bottom of the Mill Pond upstream to Camp Four Hill.
This is very near where my family performs ceremonies. The state highway passes within a few short yards of this last vestige of the Crane Clan on the northeast. On the northwest side is an electric power line, while the third side (south), is a Catholic Cemetery protected by a wire fence. I wonder what the priests erecting the fence thought they were keeping out. The Crane Clan and the bubbling spring, a spiritual center, might be gone, but so are the Catholics. Statues of Virgin Mary and crosses deteriorate as more people on the reservation revert to more traditional Menominee beliefs. So who has the stronger medicine?
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.