TO BETTY, 1982
©Poems of R.F.Mueller- Other Times, Other Thoughts

R.F. Mueller

Wash the dross from your high lining shore
Fast running Fox; be restrained no more.
Blue fringing hills still guide your way
In your bright and timeless rush to the Bay.

The protagonist here is the metis "Father of Wisconsin," hero of Pickawillany and Braddock's defeat. He is imagined to relate posthumously a foray across actual terrain to the site of an obscure native encampment, identified with a flint-rich field remembered from the writer's childhood.

Knowing what I know now,
Sitting in this sky seat,
I would never wear those settler clothes again,
Not even that favorite red coat with the silver buckle.
Yet I was born to that very commercial enterprise
That now flourishes so malignantly
On those green banks I once knew.
Trapped in the cultural gap between French and Ottawa,
I couldn't do less or more than
Help build this empire that finally unbuilds the land itself.
But there was also the other side,
That I was young and adventure's captivating flame
Was Irresistible each promising dawn,
And in the drowsy afternoons still burned so bright
That even a woman's clinging arms
Could scarcely compete with a worn canoe paddle.

Water, bark and iron were the elements we knew
As we joyfully shouted to steersman or bowsman
At each rounding of a river bend, at newly breaking views
Of rock and foam, a darkened forest edge,
Or the opening of a wide lake's expanse,
With lines of racing water fowl
Marking the horizon's limpid streak,
When, with our sharp tipped spears always close at hand,
We brought up a glistening pike or sucker for an evening meal,
Or with our flint locks hunted deer at some lush clearing's edge.
But our joy in the forest's high delights
Was tainted with our restless hunt
For the kind of wealth and power
That the land alone could never give,
The curse of furs and their trade goods
That disturbed the tribes in their old seasonal rounds
And set the farthest wilderness reaches aflame with strife.
I won't deny that at times I enjoyed
A brisk assault on some Palisaded town.
Or even tasted meat of an unfamiliar kind,
But children I never tried,
Although it's said their flesh is the tenderest you can find.
Let me tell you about an expedition (One of the ninety-nine), From La Baye, up river toward the setting winter sun,
But in the sweetly cloying spring,
To find the Turtle Eaters,
Blood sacrifices to be to our general raiding principle.
Afraid of water traveling parties such as ours,
They shunned the big lakes and rivers,
But lived in deep forest glades along the
Manitowoc's swampy headwaters
Isolated even from French brandy and iron,
Where no canoe could reach and the whining mosquito was king. There among the elm and basswood
Colonnades and wild grape festoons
Raiders like we could expect a flinty greeting.
But now in the leafless days of the flowering bloodroot
We thought ourselves immune
And expected a haul of furs as well.

Two days paddling and portages around rapids
Brought us to the Big Lake's northern door.
Bright, bright each day on this inland sea
Where restless waves throw up sandy bars
Or sound against the rocky shores.
When mankind's works were still hidden
Among the coves and trees,
Where only barking dogs revealed
The villages and fringing gardens,
And brown handed people
Worked all day with adz and hoe
While racks of smoking pike and sturgeon perfumed the air.

With the west wind at our backs we sped
Along the low and swampy northern shore,
Past yellow sands and shallows
And heavy overleaning willows,
Twenty canoes of our grim fellows
With bobbing deerskin roaches,
Beaded belts and multicolored sashes,
Dark faces streaked with vermilion. green and yellow,
Led by Widemouth (a name conferred by a river in a dream).

Now gliding like clouds before the wind,
Deeply dipping, stroking, deeply dipping, stroking,
Our spruce keels almost flying,
Driven by our wild anticipation,
We aimed toward the eastern shore,
Like a hatchet thrown toward our goal.
Then suddenly from below appeared a looked-for happy omen,
A canoe length sturgeon manito
Baring its back between the white caps,
Swimming by our side,
Like an apparition from a vision-seekinq sleep.

Soon our landing and a choice of land routes lay ahead,
Leading to our victims' lair.
Would it be along a well-marked lowland trail
With countless brushy pockets for an ambush,
Or an untraveled path along the cliff tops
That rimmed the water to the south in rocky headlands?
We only needed a sign to show us where.
Wings in the shimmering upper light,
Signaling an eagle's sharp careening flight
Toward the cliffs, won our approval,
And with a shout, caught by the wind,
We turned toward the south,
To thrust in deepening wave troughs, and
As the white caps hissed head high all about
We approached that broken shore as daylight waned.
Then shifting weight like gayly colored panthers
With bowsmen leaping over wildly swaying gunnels,
We made our landing among the shattered rocks and breakers With not an inch of bark or flesh to spare.
As we topped the cliffs we heard the waves no more,
Only the sighing wind in the trail-less reach ahead,
The demon-haunted forest night, that
Since childhood each man had learned to face alone,
Where a bird call could mean an enemy's watchful eye
Or the beginning of some deadly missile's flight.
And in this way we stalked or crept along
Through oak and hickory woods
And thickets of painful prickly ash
That rimmed that hostile hinterland,
Now heeding well the guardian spirits of our band.

Then we came to where we heard a roaring waterfall,
Where Manitowoc breaks through the layered stone
In subterranean holes like monster's lairs,
And echoed hollow beneath our feet.
From there a trail led to the north
Along the rushing log-choked stream,
Between the closely merging hills,
Toward the marshland where the Turtle Eaters lived.

A fierce alerting tension now gripped every man,
As we crept with noiseless stealth along that trail,
Where every footfall was soft and dank
Among the rotting leaves of forgotten yearly falls,
Beaten down and ground to soil by our enemies' feet.
It told of many a springtime maple tap and summer berry haul, As well as countless autumn deer lugged down that slope.
Now that very night we came to end it all.

Our first glimpse of our enemies' works were fields
Where corn had grown the year before,
Burnt stubble among some giant rotting stumps
That stuck out from the dark blue haze of night.
The effect on me was strange and full of guilt,
As if we barged on some sanctuary there,
Our alien feet bringing in the century's pain
To disrupt these patient farmers' toil.
But time for such ponderous thought was quickly past.
The time had come to do as now we must.
Crouching at the cornfield's edge
We grasped our sharpened steel,
Designed to steal some hair,
Painted axes all fresh arrayed,
New maple clubs for morning wear and
Close woven bands for prisoner's hands.
Pious hearts among us hungered for strong captive souls
To lead the blessed dead of their good clans
Across the quaking log to spirit land.
So we waited for the bloody dawn to come.

After what seemed like an endless time spent in the frosty grass
We saw the day's first glow behind the mist screened trees
And the cattail marsh with rimming fields and scattered oak,
And among them a spike-topped palisade with open gate.
No human sound or movement marked the scene.
Alert and ready for the defenders' opening cry,
We moved toward the palisade, and once inside,
Observed - desertion absolute, except for one round winter lodge, From which a plume of smoke still rose.
Before the fire sat a frail old man with deeply sunken eyes,
And all around him lay the flints that he had given forms,
With sharply scalloped edges and devilish points
Well enough made to kill a deer or man.
The old man reached for more raw flint to our surprise
And calmly applied his antler tool again.
"Boys I heard your trade goods clanking as you came.
I'm not a seer with sight behind those old dead eyes,
But every year your world intrudes more on our valley here,
With ever closer gun shots and strange fires in the sky,
And I expected that some day you'd be bound to call.
We haven't got the furs you'd like to find,
And all our people have gone to the woods to hide,
But I've a message that the spirit of this place holds for us all."

Then Wide mouth said "This old coot's crazy as a loon.
So don't kill him yet.
The spirits sometimes speak through addled heads.
Let's hear his gimmick out and maybe save our day."
The old man continued then,
"You know there are lots of routes to reach the sea,
But along the way you come to the wide high falls,
A great abyss where canoes shoot into space.
Travel the wide straight Fox and you gather rich trade goods Along the way and arrive there fast.
Travel the winding swampy Manitowoc
And your trip will be a long one.
You'11 find no trade goods in its dark elm
Swamps and lily pad-choked reaches
But many portages through osier thickets.
Yet you'll find enough game for these flints,
So you can leave your heavy irons there behind.
Then too, there'll be nice green light in groves of silver beeches, And these will be mast-rich enough in autumn to cause
Bear claw marks to be incised
And show you The only proper way to reach the sky."

Then Wide mouth answered
"Old man, my grandfather gave up flints long ago
And taught us the freedom
That trade goods alone can give
To roam the wide waterways
Instead of grubbing with dull stones all day.
The old man replied,
"Yes trade goods are a boon to tired arms and legs
And a flintlock has shock value beyond the best of bows.
But in boundless measure these also bring on a state of mind
That wears out the world in all its ends."
Wide mouth then said, "The sun's high
And we've nothing yet to show
But this old dog's words.
This place is rich in bogs and trees,
But poor in loot and furs.
Good enough for Turtle Eaters it's true,
But not for Ottawa and Frenchmen yet.
So we'll burn the village except for this one hut,
Just to show them that we're men enough.
Then we'll go back to open water to look for more heroic stuff."

We put all the lodges to the torch but one,
And left the old man sitting there alone.
Then we started back the way that we had come,
Up that log-choked, dank defile toward our canoes and home. We'd just reached the cliffs when the frenzied demons struck With murderous shrieks from above and from the side,
With boulders, clubs and arrows hailing down,
So sudden that death songs died in dying throats,
While the remnant of us fled among the trees
And crept and hid as best we could
Behind down logs, in crevices and covered up with leaves.
But mostly we .just ran far through the woods.
Our leader perished in that awful fight
And our canoes. for all I know. rotted where we left them lie.
We poor survivors made it to some friendly lake shore towns,
But left most of our guns and cutting steel behind.

You may ask what we gained in this strange caper,
Since we found no booty and lost some lives,
And many a painful wound would vex our years to age's fireside. As for the Turtle Eaters the score is clear.
They beat us cold in their clever ambuscade.
But our plague of greed brought them all down in the end,
Since they were never seen without flintlocks from that time on, And the last I heard were living on the open shore
Where trade goods and French gifts came floating down
From Michilimackinac and other trading towns.



As stated earlier, my source on Langlade is Badger Saints and Sinners. I've long been interested in the corruption of the Indians by the fur trade, which is a topic here, but a point rarely made in history books. I placed the site of the fictional home of the "Turtle Eaters" at the actual site of my Wisconsin home, at the edge of the Manitowoc headwater swamp and marshes. My justification was the myriad flints and other stone implements which littered the ground all around our house and beyond. As well as a great variety of beautifully made implements, these included many chips and poorly made or rejected pieces that seem to indicate a village site of an arrow maker. Additionally, the soil here, derived from underlying Ordovician limestone as well as granitic and other crystalline material brought in by glaciers, was, in those early days, so rich that no fertilizer was required by us to grow bumper crops. Thus it must have been at least as rich in pre Euro-settlement times. This is another reason to believe it to have been a good village site. The story, as it unfolds is based on general reading and perception of native customs as modified by the fur trade in the 18th Century. The route of the raiding party "along the cliff tops" to the site of the "roaring waterfall" was familiar territory to me in the company of my friend Wally P, and the waterfall was near one site of our illicit maple sap cook-downs, referred to elsewhere. The reference to bear claw marks incised on tree trunks describes a common sight in wild forests of American Beech ( Fagus grandifolia ) in particular, since these trees may bear abundant nuts to attract bears.