Sunday, May 13, 2018

statues at the prairie’s edge: presidents, Mother Bickerdyke, a poet, and feathers that flow from fingertips

The nice thing about downtown Rapid City, South Dakota (pop. 74,509), is that there is a potential dog walker on every corner.

“What’s that you say, Bill? Ready to go?”

Of course, them beings being statues, you’re not likely to get very far.

“Not now, Josie. I’m busy striking a Ponderous Pose prior to Signing with Feather Pen
this Highly Important & Indubitably Historic Document.”

I checked into a motel and the clerk gave me a map to the city’s presidents, that is, statues, that is, presidents. She told me that people love taking pictures of them wrapped in scarves and such.

“Here we go! Yes? No? Maybe? O! Patience be a virtue.”

All Josie had was a leash. And a yen. Not enough to get these fellows moving.

I like these statues. I like that they are not on pedestals but on street level in every day poses looking passers-by in the eye. Plus, they got Josie off my hands for a minute so I could take pictures of Josie.

But what is it with South Dakota and all these unavoidable presidents? Not a one was born here, but, of course, there is Mount Rushmore, kind of a presidential calling card, I suppose, a theme to build on. I got to thinking about statues. What are they? Monuments to ourselves? Concrete (granite, bronze) reinforcements of who we are? Of who we think we are? Bold statements, immovable statements, representations of … ? What, exactly.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related. On a Rapid City street corner.

From Rapid City I went on to Galesburg, Illinois (pop. 30,960), the part of the trip known as the Graveyard Tour as my recent ancestors (1800s on), for the most part, at least the non-Jewish ones, are resting in a few small towns scattered across eastern Iowa and western Illinois, and, having done most of that tour and now in Galesburg, tired, the last day of the trip before the long haul home (Pelkie, Michigan, unincorporated, pop. 0), I wondered what, if anything, I had the energy to do. I flopped on the bed in yet another motel and flipped through a Galesburg tourism magazine. Aha. Statues. Abraham Lincoln, Mother Bickerdyke, Carl Sandburg.

The Bickerdyke Memorial was, of course, on that list of Galesburg places to visit that in my weariness I had tossed aside. Mary Ann (Mother) Bickerdyke was a Civil War hero of whom I had first learned of a year ago when my sisters and brother-in-law and I gathered in Galesburg to bury my parents’ ashes in the nearby town of Keithsburg. Then the weather had been cold, wet, windy, but, my gosh, today it was warm, sunny, calm. Josie and I went out to gawk at statues.

First stop: Lincoln. He holds court at the train station. A nice statue, kind of like a tall drink, a cool one on a hot summer’s day, appreciated, up on a pedestal with a plaque that tells of Lincoln’s connections to Galesburg, most notably the Lincoln-Douglas debate that was held at Knox College in 1858.

A few blocks away, the Bickerdyke Memorial, on the grounds of the Knox County Courthouse. Mother Bickerdyke, on a pedestal, is on one knee cradling a fallen Union soldier who appears, really, to be just a farm boy. Mother Bickerdyke holds a canteen or somesuch to his lips. In the summer of 1861, when the Civil War was just beginning to pop, residents of Galesburg gathered supplies to send to Union troops in Cairo, Illinois. They chose Bickerdyke, a widow with two young sons, to deliver the supplies. She practiced what they then called botanical medicine, and, apparently, she was well-thought of by her neighbors. After securing care for her sons, Bickerdyke delivered the supplies as if on a mission from God. It was months before she returned home. At the field hospital in Cairo, she saw a need, and proper sanitation and diet, as well as allowing female nurses in the hospitals, were some of the new-fangled ideas for which Bickerdyke fought for the next four years. She broke rules and stood her ground against any who riled her or got in her way, all in the name of helping the Union, her boys in blue. By the end of the war, she had established three hundred field hospitals and toiled and tended to the wounded through nineteen battles. After the war, among other things, she worked with homeless people in New York City and in California worked to get veterans their pensions. She died in 1901, is buried in Galesburg. The memorial to her was established in 1904.


Nearby, Carl Sandburg on a pedestal in a traffic circle, which seemed strange and potentially dangerous, but, turns out, it was easy to park and to cross the street, and well worth it. Any statue of a poet with books, a goat, and a guitar has my vote. Especially if situated in a pleasant park on a fine spring morning.


Then I noticed the quotations. They are embedded in the garden that rings the statue.


What a beautiful partner this morning had become. Magnolias about to bloom.

The next day, a thought. What if I just kept going? Next stop: Paducah, Kentucky (pop. 25,145). The National Quilt Museum. And to whom (or what) has Paducah erected statues? Maybe then on to Montgomery, Alabama, (pop. 200,022). I’d been hearing on the radio about the opening of the lynching memorial. I looked at Josie. He looked at me. I told him what I was thinking; I could tell he was in the groove. We were all packed up, ready to go, getting back in the car. Did you get my blanket? Did you get my food? Yippee. Where to next? Home? Paducah? … ? I realized that despite the pull I’d been feeling for home, I also was feeling the pull of the road—

I thought of Prairie Edge, a store and gallery on a street corner in Rapid City. The statue out front was of a Native American woman and child. I had been taken with it and the store, which is huge with various rooms opening one to another, flowing, some rooms feeling designed for souvenir shopping, others more of a gallery, art, furniture, and one room for books, and then, in a nook on an upper floor, the Italian glass bead library with a display of beads euphoric and by the time I happened upon it I was already in a bubble of wonder that had taken hold down in the gallery with its painted horses racing across buffalo hides, its beaded skulls, beaded bags, bone, fur, feathers, pouches, things I’d never seen, imagined, and colorful hand rattles with feathers sprouting from fingertips—in that space among those things an emotion grabbed me that I could not name and on the second floor, ledger paintings.


An hour or two from home, Josie and I stopped by a wayside to slush about in remnants of winter and to breathe deep the scent of pine. It came to me that it’s all movement anyway, and every day asking what have we here? and isn’t it true, that we’re all just passing through?

This is the third and final post in a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. The trip encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen.

After posting, I saw this article in the Rapid City Journal: Obama statue to be unveiled this fall … It talks about the statues and includes an interview with the current sculptor who is also working on statues of South Dakota governors.