Returning to Earth

by Jim Harrison

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Returning to Earth
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Jim Harrison

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Book Summary

In the aftermath of a Chippewa-Finnish man's death from Lou Gehrig's disease, his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law read the family history he has left behind, study his philosophies about death, and struggle to redeem their own pasts. 50,000 first printing. $50,000 ad/promo.

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Excerpt: Returning To Earth

Returning to Earth


Grove Press

Copyright © 2007 Jim Harrison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1838-7

Chapter One

1995

I'm laying here talking to Cynthia because that's about all I can do with my infirmity. We're living in Cynthia's old house in Marquette in order to be close to the doctors. Her brother David usually lives here but he's off taking a look at different parts of the world but mostly Mexico. Cynthia and I ran away in our teens and got married and now she's back where she started. My dad, Clarence, did the yard work for her family for about thirty years. My bed is in her father's den because it's too hard for me to get upstairs. One wall of the den is full of books with a moving ladder to get to the top shelves. Cynthia says her brother lives inside these books and never really got out. I'm forty-five and it seems I'm to leave the earth early but these things happen to people.

I don't have the right language to keep up with my thinking or my memory or all of my emotions over being sick so I'm speaking this to Cynthia [I'm interfering as little as possible Cynthia] because she wants our two children to know something about the history of their father's family.

Starting a long time ago there have been three Clarences but when they got to me my father thought there hadn't been all that much luck in the name so they called me Donald in honor of a young friend of his who died in a mining accident over near Ishpeming. The first Clarence, named after a Jesuit priest who was a missionary to Indians out in Minnesota, waited until he was fifty to father children because he wasn't too sure about the world. He had tried to come east in 1871 because his mother had told him about the great forests of the Upper Peninsula. Some of her family had moved west to Minnesota from the U.P. because the white men were moving in for the copper up in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Her people were Chippewa (Anishinabe) but she slept with an immigrant who had come over to the Pipestone area of southwest Minnesota. This man was from the country of Iceland and a bunch of them had come over to farm that real good soil down that way. It was hard on Indians then because the Sioux had killed a bunch of farmers near New Ulm and the settlers were leery of any kind of Indian. So the first Clarence's mother died when he was about twelve and he had never met his father in person. He was real big for his age and he ran off and worked for a farmer near Morris for a year but they made him sleep in the root cellar beneath their pump shed. He was a good worker and they didn't want him to get away. They kept him locked down there a whole winter week for stealing a pie. Who is to say how angry a young man would get trapped in a root cellar for a week? By and by he got loose and walked down to Taunton near Minneota and found his father, whose name he had memorized, a farmer named Lagerquist. It was a Saturday morning when farmers come to town but the man was with a wife and two kids so that young Clarence wasn't sure what to do. The story goes that the man came up to him and said, "What do you want, son?" Clarence was real glad the man recognized him. So Clarence said, "I'd like a horse to ride to Michigan if you can spare one?" The man got him a horse but it was a draft horse so it was slow going. That's how the first Clarence started out for Michigan. It's hard to think of a thirteen-year-old doing such a thing nowadays.

Here I am on the sofa at age forty-five and I have Lou Gehrig's disease. [Donald has had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for nearly a year now. His case is especially aggressive and it appears he will fall short of the three years of the disease that fifty percent of patients last. Cynthia.] I never knew much about Lou Gehrig though my dad, Clarence, used to talk about him. Gehrig played baseball, which I never had any time for because the coaches at Marquette decided they needed me for track where I could be counted on to win the 100, 220, and the shot put, though my true love was for football where I was the quarterback, and a linebacker on defense.

The children are both in California where Herald is taking advanced degrees at Caltech and Clare is an apprentice for wardrobe in the movie business. We talk on the phone to them for about an hour every Sunday.

You wonder how a girl from the Upper Peninsula could end up working on movies but that's the way the world goes these days. Clare got this interest from her stepcousin Kenneth, who doesn't like his name and just goes by the letter "K." He's Polly's son and is a crazy bastard but I like him. Years ago K would ride his bicycle all the way two hundred miles from Marquette to Sault Ste. Marie for a visit. Herald is more like his uncle David. Mathematics is enough for Herald though he's also interested in botany. He's a big strong young man but finds people confusing. Herald and Clare have an apartment together in Los Angeles and look after each other like a brother and sister should. Why I say Herald takes after David is because when I read David's rundown of what his family did in the Upper Peninsula for a hundred years I was puzzled. It was published in the Sault Ste. Marie newspaper among others and I was proud that a relative knew so much but there weren't any real people in it. I like the stories with people myself. I mean he told the story of the bad details of the logging and mining his ancestors were involved in but not the actual story of the people who owned the logging companies and mines and the working people. I'm not being critical; I just prefer stories.

Of course I've got a foot in both worlds. My dad figured I'm over half Chippewa. In fact I'm due benefits from the tribe for my sickness but Cynthia has some money salted away and we figure tribal money should go to the folks who really need it.

Let's go back to the first Clarence. I remember when I first heard the story from my dad when I was a kid and I worried about the hardship. Here was this boy only thirteen being kept in a root cellar who after he escapes sees his real father only half an hour and then he's gone to the northeast riding a big draft horse toward a future. The story goes that he only had seven dollars and a letter that said the horse was his because he looked pretty Indian and people were liable to take the horse from him claiming it was stolen. I said all these worries to my dad and he said, "Life is real hard for some folks," but then he added that riding off on that horse was likely a good feeling for his grandfather compared to losing his mother and being trapped in a root cellar. So maybe it wasn't too bad to be him on a draft horse riding east. For instance I'm real sick right now but I've been able to live with it except for a few times when it got out of hand. Back in high school when I ran track or played football you were likely to get a cramp. With this disease at times you are a cramp, your whole body seizes up so that even your mind seems inside a cramp. You're all cramp, pure and simple. That's why K goes with me when I feel good enough to take a walk. I'm too big for anyone to carry but K can go for help.

When I was a kid of eight or nine years and first listened carefully to the story of the first Clarence I was upset when Dad said that he rode his horse through fields so wide out on the prairie that you couldn't see across them. This fact upset me for a few weeks because I couldn't imagine such a landscape. In most places in the Upper Peninsula you can't see very far because of the thickness of the forest and that's why it's a relief to be in the hills along the coast of Lake Superior, where you can see a long ways. When I finally questioned my dad about these fields with no end to them he said they were something like Lake Superior, which you can't see across to the other side in Canada. This all became clear to me when Cynthia and I took the kids on a camping trip out west years ago. Cynthia explained that in 1871 when Clarence began his trip there weren't many trees in western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas except for cottonwoods along the creeks and rivers. At that time the trees the settlers had planted hadn't grown up much to speak of.

The upshot was that it took the original Clarence thirty-five years to reach the Marquette area, in 1906. His first try heading east frightened him because by late September in 1871 and early October every morning the sun rose red and the world was full of smoke. It had been a real dry season in the northern Midwest and there were fires everywhere, mostly the tops of trees and limbs left behind by logging. This was the year of the great Peshtigo fire in northeast Wisconsin that killed over a thousand people. Clarence heard from travelers that rivers boiled, and birds high in the air caught fire, and the wind everywhere was a hundred miles an hour, more than the worst November gales on Lake Superior.

So he turned around near Bad River and never saw the great uncut forests his mother had told him about. He had some bad luck and then some good luck. He was camped on the Red River north of Grand Forks and two outlaws tried to steal his horse. He threw them in the river and one drowned. He moved his camp north and one day a rich farmer up that way saw him riding the horse, which was a sorrel mare by the name of Sally. The farmer wanted to buy the horse and Clarence explained that the horse was all he had of his father and needed to keep it. The farmer hired Clarence to take care of his twelve teams of draft horses and work on his farm. Clarence got to live in a small log cabin, which was good after many months of camping and besides it was November and getting pretty cold that far north. The farm was so big that there was a cook to make food for the many hired hands so he got to eat regular. Snared rabbits, muskrat, and beaver can be pretty tasty but anyone hankers for some beef, cabbage, and potatoes.

The horses were how Clarence got to see his father again. The farmer was impressed by Sally and wrote off to Clarence's father to see if he might have any other horses of Sally's breeding. By and by his father showed up by railroad in Grand Forks with two fine teams, which the farmer bought. Clarence was right there in Grand Forks with the farmer and they had a steak dinner together so it was a real good experience to be acknowledged by your dad. Cynthia tells me that the Icelandic on their remote island don't grow up with much in the way of prejudice. I've always had an urge to go to this island but I've had this problem of not wanting to get on a plane. I've never been on one and now it's not likely I will. I've always loved winter and ice and snow. I've been on a helicopter twice a year ago when K took me up to western Canada to see a glacier. After I got diagnosed with this disease Cynthia said to me that if I had any special wishes for travel I better jump on them. I had always wanted to see a glacier and K figured out the whole trip with his computer. K told me that a helicopter was more like a huge metal hummingbird than a plane. I'll tell about this trip at some point because it got me over wanting to murder a man.

It's hard to understand your fears. For instance I don't fear death. As far as I know every living creature dies but as a boy after they took my mother off to the asylum in Newberry I had to stay with my dad's cousin back in the woods over near Au Train. I cried about a month over my mother. [She was diagnosed with schizophrenia I learned from the records. Cynthia.] I also cried because I was scared of my dad's cousin. I couldn't stop crying so they sent me home from the third grade. The principal tried to tease me out of it by saying here I was a foot taller than any other boy in the class and crying like a baby. The principal was a nice man from down in Ann Arbor and took me for a walk way out to Presque Isle but that didn't stop me from crying. Anyway I lived for about two months with my dad's cousin that early summer when I wanted to be back in Marquette playing football with other kids. Such is the nature of athletes that I was already being watched when I was ten. It was the accident of me being big and fast, which is what coaches look for.

My dad's cousin was named Flower, her white name anyway, but she was a pure-blood and traditional. For all practical purposes my dad and I weren't the least bit Indian but were just among the ordinary tens of thousands of mixed bloods in the Upper Peninsula. Of course we had a bunch of relatives, especially on my mother's side, who were more like real Indians but we thought of ourselves as city people with Marquette being the biggest city in the Upper Peninsula with a population of 20,000 in the mid-1950s. All our relatives were such a mixture of Finn, some Cornish, a few Italian, and Chippewa. A lot of these nationalities turned up to get work as miners and loggers. Take my Great-Uncle Bertie for instance. He worked on the ore boats out of Duluth and could be gone for years at a time. Both Bertie and his wife were half Chippewa and had three of their own children but three more came along fathered by a Finn miner when Bertie was gone so much. Once when he was in the merchant marines sailing out of Los Angeles and he was gone for seven years, he wrote a card that said, "I am in the country of Chile. Say hello to the kids." The upshot of this is that of my dad's six cousins in Bertie's family three look like Chippewa and three look more like Finns.

So I didn't know anything to speak of about Indian life when I went to live with Flower for those two months, but then what can a ten-year-old know? Quite a lot, says Cynthia, though they don't have the language to express what they know. That's like me. Anyway, Flower shook my brain like one of her many rattles hanging from the rafters of her tarpaper shack. To make a living she cleaned cabins and did laundry for cottagers, sold her wild berry pies, collected herbs with some like wild ginseng bringing good money. In winter she trapped and was pretty good at it my dad said. She wouldn't take any money from the state, county, or federal government because she wouldn't sign papers. Her grandpa had lost a lot of land by signing timber leases for white lumbermen. Her grandpa couldn't read and they slipped land-sale papers past him and then had him kicked off his land down toward Trenary. These things happened in those days with evil men for whom everything is money.

So I tagged along with Flower in the woods while she was finding herbs, or picking berries for pies, or cleaning cottages when I would sit out in the car though twice I got invited to go swimming with the kids of the cottage owners. I mostly swam with Flower in the Au Train River or in Lake Superior when it was warm enough. Flower had an old rickety '47 Plymouth that wouldn't go very fast and this is how I started getting scared. We drove over to Grand Marais to see a friend of hers and to catch some pike in early June. We were out in the rowboat on Au Sable Lake and this old woman friend of Flower's pointed toward the huge sand dunes to the north along Lake Superior and said that long ago there was a bad tribe that lived up in the dunes. They could become beasts and fly down in the night and cannibalize the peace-loving Indians that lived near the Grand Marais harbor though there was no town back in those days. Up to the point of this story I was happy because I had caught two nice pike, which pleased Flower because pike were her favorite dish. Well, after the story I could imagine these bad Indians becoming bears with huge wings and flying down to the harbor in the moonlight and eating Indian children like myself. I almost peed my pants right there in the boat.

(Continues...)