Ninety-nine days out of a hundred I’m too busy to notice, but if I tune out the modern static and take a long walk through town, I catch glimpses of our history and I hear voices. I start thinking that our past is just barely past.
Some clues are obvious. Near here the tops of tall trees are jagged where tornado winds came through a few years back, snapping and tossing big branches to the ground. Not quite as easy to spot are the stray, sturdy elms that endured the Dutch blight. The survivors are huge by now, visible every few hundred yards over the rooftops of even the biggest houses. They whisper clues about a time when we disobeyed the laws of nature—we raised a monoculture, a single species of beautiful trees arching along the boulevards. We behaved as though no pest would ever jump from tree to tree destroying nearly all of them.
Down by the river, when I have time, I like to see the low stone walls built during the Great Depression to beautify the river bank. The stacked stones were cemented roughly in place by the hands of great-grandparents of people who still live in our community. These walls are attractive by themselves, but they whisper a more attractive lesson. For in hard times, the community and the nation found honorable work, beautiful work, for the hungry ones among us. That’s a voice from the past we should listen to more often, as I’m sure you yourself agree.
The St. Joseph river itself talks to those who know how to listen. Only a few people bait their hooks near the center of town because most of us don’t live a slow-down-and-go-fishing life and because you’re not supposed to eat very often from the river. Heavy metals from long-vanished factories lurk in the silty bottom and are drawn up into the river plants and from there into the fish that nibble on the plants. I like to go by the fish ladder downtown and try my luck spotting something grand, a flash of silver migrating upstream to spawn. A fish ladder means we harmed part of the natural system and we’re trying to fix it. For decades we conspired to break down the natural system that was so rich when white settlers arrived.
But we only broke part of it, and some things are on the mend. Large water birds and dinner-plate-sized turtles are not hard to spot here. The timeless regenerative power of nature remains in evidence—given the right kinds of chances. If you’re lucky, you can see a river turtle in season making its way to or from the hidden place where she deposits her eggs. Nature is more alive here than we usually guess.
And when I’m living well I walk as far as the di Suvero sculpture on the low-water dam in the heart of downtown South Bend. It’s a mystery how these bright orange beams were heated and bent into smooth curves, then assembled into an abstract shape that turns on a cunning pivot whichever way it’s guided by the wind. If the sun is rising and the wind is blowing the right way, the mirror on the sculpture picks up glints from the river and a burst of fire leaps up. The steel comes alive then, the orange beams become the sheltering arms of a great mythic Keeper of the Fire, which is the name of this striking work of art. It’s fire that allowed people to learn metallurgy and to form clay into bricks. Thanks to fire, kept and mastered by long-vanished elders, we dry the lumber for our houses in kilns, we roast meats and simmer soups. That sculpture encapsulates many of the good things that have been handed down to us from the past, and I have gone to visit it many times. But then I get busy and forget for another hundred days how many episodes of the past can be glimpsed in a city walk.