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This sermon references native american music ethnologist francis densmore. minnesota public radio has an extensive piece on francis densmore  that can be accessed by clicking here. an example of one of the songs densmore recorded and the piece I created from it can be heard by clicking here.

Lay of the Land             

“Turtles sleep on my belly
I was one day
my heart and singing
dreaming in the sky
and calling Thunder
feeling the fingers of the moon
feeling that soft light
feeling the water on my fingers”

    - Native American Poem

“How calm, how quiet! One single sound, the drip from the suspended oar.”

    -  William Wordsworth

“Listen to the air. You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it. Woniya wakan • the holy air • which renews all by it’s breath. Woniya, woniya, wakan • spirit, life, breath, renewal • it means all that. Woniya • we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there; we feel it between us, as a presence. A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it. Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the wind as our relatives.”

    - John Lame Deer - member of the Sioux tribe

“Being born human to this earth is a very sacred trust. We have a sacred responsibility  because of the special gift we have, which is beyond the fine gifts of plant life, the fish, the woodlands, the birds, and all the other living things on earth. We are able to take care of them.”

    - Audrey Shenandoah - member of the Onondaga tribe

“A poor man takes the songs in his hand 
And drops them near the place where the sun sets. 
See, Cowaka, run to them and take them in your hand, 
And place them under the sunset.”

Song for the Passage Rite of a Girl Named Cowaka

There is a hint of dusk in the lengthening shadows. The light softens, diffusing a golden tinge to the shoreline. A southwest breeze stirs the branches of the many gnarled cottonwood trees along the shore sending a snowy cascade of fluffy cottonwood seeds drifting to the river’s surface. I have just entered the mouth of the Mazon River, a tributary of the Illinois River. I dip the blade of the paddle into the water, pull back on the paddle’s shaft with my lower hand while simultaneously pushing forward with my upper hand. I am propelled forward, silently gliding across the water, parting the cottonwood fluff with my bow.

I am a kayaker. More specifically, I am a frame and skin kayaker. I prefer a collapsible, aluminum framed, flexible skin kayak, one whose design DNA mimics the traditional Inuit kayak of the north. The reason for my allegiance is that a frame and skin kayak flexes with the movement of the water. It doesn’t resist the water but rather submits. When gliding across a body of water, the frame kayak gently gives in to the will of the water, flexing, subtly shifting shape, organically following the energy of the water’s wave forms. I feel myself merging with the flow of nature, becoming a part of nature’s rhythm, a part of the greater world around me. When I am kayaking in my little flexible boat I am as content as can be, feeling as close to a oneness with nature as a clumsy mammal like me is capable of.

I have a theory about why being on the water in my kayak is so extraordinarily satisfying. I think the gentle, fluid, cushioned experience calls up submerged memories of the most anxiety free and content time of my - or anyone’s • life, the time before we are introduced to the existentially neurotic word of conscious existence - the only time in our life when we live completely in the moment, at one with the world. Yes, I think floating in my kayak recalls the wordless emotional memory of the time spent in the womb.

I may be reading too much into my kayak nature trips, but regardless of the source of my contentment, it is always a lovely experience, and always puts me in touch with the wonder of nature, put’s me in touch with my own better nature.

Perhaps best of all, after you have paddled awhile, you can set the paddle aside and just float. The boat begins to move with the current, is pushed by the wind, and goes where it will. The soothing movement and the embrace of the elements relaxes you - and then your mind, just like the kayak, drifts and goes where it will as well.

I look around at the landscape and wonder at it’s composition, how it is as it has to be, given the many variables that have contributed to it’s nature. When I visit a new place I don’t focus on manmade objects, I look at the lay of the land. While others are gawking at the Eiffel Tower I am sizing up it’s relationship to the land, noting it’s distance from the river, it’s elevation relative to the surrounding landscape, trying to figure out what it is about the landscape that made an area so seductive for human settlement, how the landscape might have shaped the history of the place.

The action of ice age glaciers created a local landscape where so many watersheds came together that an area just west of here was named Channahan by the Indians, meaning “place where the waters meet”.

Now the home to urban mankind, this landscape was once the nurturing environment to a native people for an extraordinary length of time.

Our best guess right now is that native’s roamed the prairies and watershed woodlands of Illinois for about 14,000 years, having been absent from this landscape for only the past 160 years or so. Remarkably, these peoples, having spent more than 99 per cent of the last 14 millennium as hunters and gatherers in this very spot, are almost forgotten to the current inhabitants of this region. Because, as I mentioned, this area is where many watersheds meet, the du Page, the Kankakee, the des Plaines, the Illinois, and over a short portage, Lake Michigan and the St. Lawrence waterway, the area was vital to native travel and commerce, a crossroads for native cultures for thousands of years. One of the reasons this area was so important to Indian culture and later, the invasive culture of European settlers, relates to a curious and little known fact about the local lay of the land. 

You are aware of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Rain that falls on one side of the Divide finds it’s way to the Pacific Ocean, on the other side to the Gulf of Mexico. What is little known or considered is that we live within a few miles of another Continental Divide, a phenomena made curious by the fact that the Chicago area is mostly prairie. Where the des Plaines river runs along the western edge of Chicago is about 12 miles from the Lake Michigan shore. The high ground in that 12 mile distance is the continental divide. Water that falls on one side of this narrow divide goes to the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence seaway, on the other side to the Gulf. Remarkably, rain that falls a few short miles from one of the largest lakes in the world drains away from the lake, finding it’s way to the unassuming Des Plaines river instead, on it’s way to the Mississippi River and the Gulf. The geographical anomaly allowed natives, for thousands of years, to establish trade routes between distant places on the North American continent. Who knew we lived so close to a continental divide?

I resume paddling and view my surroundings. The Illinois and it’s tributaries were used for thousands of years by Indians, utilizing birch bark and dugout canoes. Excepting the many buildings dotting the scenery, the physical landscape here has changed very little since their tragic displacement. I see much of the landscape that they would have seen. Just out of sight, on a rise just above the river, is a wooden pole planted by the natives for some ceremonial purpose 300 years ago. It is now in the courthouse square of Morris, a town built on top of numerous Indian settlements. Both the Indians and European settlers chose the spot for the same reason. It is the place closest to the river that rises above the flood plain, making it convenient to the many resources of the river without fear of losing the settlement to the annual floodwaters.

I notice a a turtle on a log. Had I started earlier in the day I would have seen dozens of turtles sunning themselves on the various logs and branches that litter the Mazon, detritus of erosion and windstorms that provide perfect ecosystems for the animals that inhabit this part of the Illinois river valley. I try to paddle quietly, but as I get closer the turtle senses my presence and quickly eases into the water. He follows a law of nature that suggests it is wise to be wary of a creature much larger than you.


I wonder about mankind losing its connection to nature via the evolving modern lifestyle. Scholars suggest that there have been about 50,000 generations of modern human beings that have been born, lived their lives and returned to the earth. Only the last 4 or so  of those 50,000 generations of humans have been predominantly urban, part of an environment shaped by human hand and technology. Almost the entirety of human history, over a million years, up to living memory, humans were either hunter gatherers or agrarian, intimately connected to the earth, nature, the seasons - acutely aware on a daily basis of their intimate connection to, and dependence upon, the wonder and vagaries of the natural world. You and I friends, are at the disquieting forefront of human beings whose existence is not connected to nature on an intimate daily basis. Recently we have been indifferent to nature - at our own peril it would seem. Too many of us have lost track of mother earth and our ancestors who trod this earth back into the shadows of time - at a great loss to our spirit and well-being.


I paddle a bit further upstream and notice a movement in my periphery, a slight wake in the water to my right and slightly behind me. After a moment it dawns on me that the point of the wake is created by the just discernible brow of a muskrat. I have shared the river with muskrats many times, but still, I am a little uneasy as it gets closer to me, just out of arm’s reach, and just inches below me in the water. A muskrat looks disturbingly like a giant house rat up close, not cute and benign like my friend the turtle. I hit the water with the flat blade of my paddle and he dives under the surface, emerging later on the other side of the river in a cluster of exposed tree roots where he probably has an underwater opening to a den. We both are a bit relieved to have some distance between us.


Who were the people who for 14,000 years trod the ground we sit upon at this moment? I have been intrigued by this for many years. When my ancestors first came to Greene County, Illinois in the 1820s, Indians still lived along the various watersheds informed by the lower Illinois River. A book from the 1800s mentions how my ancestors, the Wyatts, had friendly interaction with the Indians, who often encamped on a creek near the Wyatt’s log cabin. But pressures from the encroachment of European settlers like the Wyatts, as well as brutally broken treaties and forced displacement, meant that by the end of the 1830s, American Indians were almost completely gone from Illinois territory.

Some years ago I received a summer fellowship to study the transition period between native culture and that of the European settlers that occurred so abruptly in the early 1800s here in Illinois and throughout the midwest. I found it fascinating and disturbing that native cultures could thrive for 14,000 years then disappear in a very few generations. The natives walked the woodland paths and trails, hunted and foraged in the prairies and forests, fished the streams and rivers for over 700 generations and then were gone in the blink of an eye. One of the richest, longest lasting cultures in human history, gone forever. Just as perplexing to me is that almost complete absence of knowledge, or even curiosity, that the current inhabitants of this land have regarding the indigenous peoples who lived here for so long . Their memory is just as absent as the people themselves. Should it not be considered important to know about the people who once roamed the landscape outside our windows here for 14 millennia?


On an old tree stump on the bank next to me I spot a gigantic ledge of mushrooms sprouting from it’s rotting bark. As I focus my gaze on it’s oddly architectural shape I am startled by a large fish flopping out of the water right next to my boat. As I flinch, the kayak wobbles and tips a bit. I overreact, instinctively trying to keep the kayak upright and have an anxious moment where I think I may tip over. In an instant I recall my first kayak trip, in a rigid, decked kayak on a mountain lake in North Carolina. Those old fashioned boats were tippy, claustrophobic, and much less stable than my current kayak, and I had capsized, then caught my foot under the seat as I flailed upside down to get out of the kayak. It seemed an eternity before I struggled free, lurched to the surface and gasped to get a lifesaving gulp of air. Thrilled to emerge, with my pulse racing wildly, I rejoiced at being alive. At the exact moment I collected myself and noted the irony of a religious skeptic thanking the heavens for being saved from a watery death, an immense water snake swam right in front of my nose. My brief moment of embracing a considerate God came to a sudden and ironic halt.

But this time I didn’t capsize, this boat’s design is much too forgiving, and I watched the fish’s dorsal fin sweep through the water, away from the concentric waves of it’s splash. Having once felt the primal fear of sharing a swim with a snake, I can’t help but wonder about almost sharing an intimate swim with the gigantic rat along the bank behind me. I decide it is not something likely to catch on.


The Chicago area is blessed with one of the great research libraries in America, the Newberry Library. The Newberry Library has one of the largest Indian collections in the world, and it was there that I did much of my fellowship research about the people who once lived where we live now. Many different tribes and peoples lived in this area over the eons, but the tribe that predominated when the settlers first arrived in earnest was the Pottawatamie, who called themselves the fire nation, after the great annual prairie fires that were a defining element of their historical landscape. The Pottawatamie were, and are, a proud people with a long history and, although their historical record is sparse, I did learn enough to wistfully consider the essential unfairness of their fate. Did you know, for example, that the last remnants of the Pottawatamie tribes in the Chicago area lost the last of their land in 1840 when their chiefs and elders were taken to a smoke filled back room in a Chicago hotel, plied with liquor and tobacco, and tricked into signing away the last of their claims to land in Illinois? The word Chicago, of course is an Indian name, describing the pungent smell at the mouth of the river of the same name. 


I see movement in the vegetation on the opposite shore. There is sudden blur of motion, a creature is visible for a brief moment then quickly hidden again. I stop and watch the bushes, intrigued. The glimpse of what I saw didn’t fit the profile of the many creatures I regularly see on my paddle excursions here. After a few minutes there is another thrash of movement, the plants part and a large bird becomes airborne, flying just above the water. It’s flight combines grace with unsteadiness, it’s wings slightly out of sync. It is too big to be one of the many songbirds in the area, too small to be a heron, too sleek, too low to the ground to be one of the hawks that occasionally fly nearby. I struggle to identify it when I realize with delight that it is a baby heron, a unique and beautiful creature I had never seen at so young an age, and it was apparently on one of it’s initial flights. Here in flesh and feathers is a part of the miraculous first fruits of spring, a reminder of the endless renewal of life, the miracle of life.


By the early 1900s Indian culture was in it’s death throes. The remnants of tribes were on reservations, their culture imploding in a cruel sort of captivity. A few good folks recognized that Indian culture was in danger of disappearing. They took it upon themselves to venture to reservations and seek out elderly Indians to interview and document this rapidly disappearing world. One of these people, a cultural ethnologist sponsored by the Smithsonian, was captivated by Indian music. Francis Densmore, an intriguing soul from Red Wing, Minnesota, took it upon herself to devote her entire career to traveling to Indian reservations, living among the natives, and studying the music of various tribes. She would ask the old-timers about their music and have them perform the songs of their youth. She recorded the performances with one of the earliest recording devices, a wax cylinder recorder obtained from Thomas Edison. She would take her field notes and recordings back to Washington DC, and painstakingly notate the music, the rhythms, and the words. Eventually she published her findings in a series of books that are a motherlode of Indian music scholarship. I stumbled onto these books in the Newberry Library, books that I found to contain what I consider seminal insight into the origins of musical expression, books that told me so very much about the essence of Indian culture.


Every time I go paddling, I consider that I am following a water trail almost certainly paddled by my native predecessors as they hunted and fished and moved from camp to camp. I look to the shore for animal trails, trails cut by raccoons, and beavers, and deer to gain access to the water. Many Indian trails along rivers and prairies and woodlands originated as animal paths. The Indians correctly assumed that the animals would choose the most efficient path between two points. Some trails started by deer and other animals eventually became Indian trails, and those trails later were used as the blueprints for roads for European settlers. The first cross continent road in America, a toll road from Baltimore, Maryland to Vandalia Illinois, was built upon the route of many old Indian trails. This National Road, as it was called, provided passage for tens of thousands of settlers through the Cumberland Gap to the woods and prairies of the midwest, later became designated US Route 40, and now carries transcontinental traffic as Interstate highways 70 and 68. From a deer path, to an Indian trail, to the conduit that assured the loss of Indian lands and destruction of Indian culture. More of that boundless sense of irony from the creator we know and love.

On a sandy extension from the mouth of the smaller stream I see branches scattered about at water’s edge. They all have their bark stripped clean, evidence that the tiny beach had been visited by a beaver. Just back from the shore I see a cleft in the plant growth, the opening to the path made by animals to get to the water.


In her books Densmore described how Indian songs were created, and one creation story grabbed my attention. Indian songs had many sources, many purposes. There were songs that emerged from dreams, songs praising the village chief, songs of warrior societies, songs for communal ceremonies. But there was also a personal type of song that stood out. This type of song struck me as perhaps an example of the well spring of music, a link to music’s origins. As Densmore described it, many Indian songs documented a turning point in an individual’s life, a crisis or dramatic life change. During the crisis the native would leave the village and go into the wild. They would invoke the spirits and await inspiration. After a period of reflection a melody would come to them. They would search their soul, and words for the song would emerge. Densmore’s research showed that the words often bore a striking resemblance to haiku, observational, personal, filled with insight. Once inspired, they would chant their song over and over, in the same way we might repeat a mantra when meditating. This repetition allowed them to enter a trance state, a waking dream state, somehow giving them the strength to cope with the life crisis they faced. From that time forward, when faced with another of life’s inevitable challenges, they would chant their personal song, their melodic talisman, to get them through the crisis.

Imagine a song that you always carry with you for a moment when you are in need of strength. I noted the poetic nature of the American Indian spirit, noted the poetry’s connection to the earth. There on the pages of these old books were the words, the melodies, and the rhythms of songs good souls went into the forest to create, songs they chanted the rest of their lives, songs they sang to deal with life’s travails. 

Due to Densmore’s scholarship, her sense of purpose, these personal songs live on. I hope you are inspired, as I am, by the fact that a native went into the woods, into nature, many generations ago, and emerged with a song that gave them strength for the rest of their lives. Through the efforts of Francis Densmore, we are able to hear the melodies once more, a private moment from a soul in crisis reborn years later. Digital archeology you might call it, allowing us to hear the humanity of those who trod this magnificent earth before us.

Many of the actual recordings Densmore made still exist and, with the emergence of the internet, have been transferred to digital files available online, allowing us to listen to them being sung by their creators. I urge you to seek them out.


In the distance I hear cars roaring down Route 47, carrying folks with great speed to appointments and on errands, to their homes, and living rooms glowing with televisions and computer games. Here in my little kayak I am connected to rhythms of an older, more patient way of life, one with the smell of the river and it’s banks, filled with the sights and wealth of nature. 

The sun has grown lower and I reluctantly acknowledge that it is time for my paddle to end. I give a few quick strokes to one side and reverse direction. After a few minutes of paddling, past deadfall, past ancient cottonwoods hanging across the channel, I see the sandbar at the mouth of the Mazon, and across the Illinois I spot my car, there in the park. As I reenter the Illinois, a wave rises over the shallow entrance to the Mazon and my kayak flexes and rises, using the wave’s energy to move me forward into the larger channel.


The historical record shows that Indian cultures had wars and conflicts, were not strangers to the kind of cruelty and cultural neurosis that plague our own times. But in terms of individual spirit and stewardship of the earth, theirs was a culture of great wisdom.

The next time your emotional equilibrium wavers, consider going to one of the parks or forest preserves our area is blessed with. Walk across the grasses and feel the subtle give of the soil. Be aware of the smells of the earth, the must of decaying leaves, the scent of wildflowers. Wander among the trees and listen to the wind rustling the branches and leaves. A rhythm will emerge from the branches, followed by the whisper of a melody from the leaves. Embrace these harmonies of nature, give them words, and repeat them to yourself. This is the echo of the song of your distant cousin, who walked the wooded path long ago seeking guidance and grounding in a time of crisis. May this song provide you strength as well, and connect you to the substance within the music of nature, your own melodic talisman.


This paddle, like all the others, gives me an opportunity to commune with the wonder of Mother Earth, moments to reflect on the interconnectedness of all things, opportunity to marvel at the grand and sublime miracle of life, the miracle that constantly renews itself, the miracle that contains a thread that connects back through the ages to creation. 

A few more strokes on the paddle and the shore grows closer. Like every paddle excursion, this one ends with a soft final stroke, a gentle nudge to shore, a reverent pause before embarking, that wistful feeling of a cherished task completed, the premonition of more journeys to come. 

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