This spring, I spent a lot of time listening to a song on the sampler cd for the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival. It was a song by Carrie Newcomer called, “One Woman and a Shovel.” It was a beautiful but odd kind of song, that as far as I could tell, appeared to be about a town where a dam got built, and then the damn brought disease, and so the folks in the town decided themselves to go tear the damn down. The chorus goes:
When it’s time to say enough and set things right
The whole world’s waist deep in trouble
Never doubt or question the power of love
Or one woman with a shovel.
You gotta love those lyrics. Well, come to find out, this strange song is based on a little book written by Indiana author Scott Russell Sanders called Wilderness Plots. In the course of doing research for a novel he was writing, Sanders started writing teeny, tiny little character sketch, story thingys based on the research he was doing. And then he decided these little story thingys were pretty interesting in and of themselves. And so he put them all together and published them as Wilderness Plots. Along comes a group of Indiana songwriters who decide to write songs inspired by the little story thingys. Now you have a show that will be in Madison next Friday at the Ohio Theatre called The Wilderness Plots, with the musicians singing the songs and Scott Russell Sanders reading some of the stories. So I thought I’d check out the book before we go next Friday.
Wilderness Plots is a scattering of stories inspired by Sanders’ research on folks living in roughly the area of today’s Ohio and Indiana during the period of early settlement up until the Civil War. Mostly, as Sanders discusses in the introduction, they’re historical afterthoughts. The stories aren’t about particularly famous people, though there’s one towards the end about Ulysses S. Grant’s grandfather. Mostly they’re about everyday life, the people who only warranted a sentence in the historical accounts, but an interesting and suggestive sentence all the same. The woman who went out with her shovel to tear down a dam. The man who left his white wife to go live with an Indian wife until she became too unruly for him to handle. The carpenter who worked in exchange for room and board and then spent all his time telling folks about his lost love. The border skirmishes between Ohio and Michigan. The freed slave who carved pencils and sewed together workbooks for a school in exchange for sitting in the classroom so that she could teach her children who weren’t allowed in the white schools.
The longest story in the book is 3 pages long, and it’s hard to say for any given story how much is historical record and how much is Sanders filling in. You don’t much care in the end. The stories together evoke a way of life, like glimpses seen through the cracks in a wooden fence. They say quite a lot by not saying much at all. It’s easy to forget how nice that can be.
Probably my favorite little story is the very last one, The Manner of Their Dying, and here’s how some of it goes:
Here is the manner of their dying:
Rachel Street, sent to fetch water from a spring, was killed by the falling of a tree.
Eliakim Goss drank too much tanglefoot whiskey while out surveying, and that dire liquid, plus the heat, finished him off.
Sticking with his gristmill during the April flood, George DePeyster was carried away with it down the Tuscarawas River.
Robert Wright, owner of a bad reputation, was found on the banks of Silver Creek with his throat cut from ear to ear.
While his brother was stealing honey, Israel Coe diverted a swarm of bees, which stung him to death….
Their dying was as various as their living, such a compost of souls.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Tomorrow on Madison Monday, read about the folks who stopped by Madison this weekend on their way floating down the river on a shantyboat.