a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The Complete History of 1307 Benjamin SE
All my life, I have felt that I didn’t quite belong where I was. I don’t know why this should be. I’m the oldest son of one large Irish family, and my father was the oldest son of another. I have one sister and six brothers, all of whom love me, more or less, and nineteen cousins, who lived nearby when I was young. I was raised here, and with the exception of a ten-year sojourn in other cities (where I didn’t belong, either), I have lived here all my life. The graves of my ancestors, going back to the time of the Irish Potato Famine, are in various cemeteries around town. I will join them myself someday. If anybody has roots around here, it should be me.
Still, I feel out of place. I decided to investigate the plot of ground I own, to see if I could discover a feeling of belonging. I started with a little history. The city lot where I live was part of the territory ceded to the United States by the 1821 Treaty of Chicago. It was in essence a land swap of western Michigan south of the Grand River for five million acres across the Mississippi. The treaty stipulated that the Native Americans who were to be displaced would be escorted to their new lands and kept in comfort on the trip. There were to be opportunities for education and training in Oklahoma as well. It looked good on paper.
Men, women and children were herded across the prairies, losing about ten percent of the group on the way. It was the Midwestern version of the Trail of Tears. Most of the promises for rations and education were not kept. The Odowa even lost their status as a tribe for many decades, and only regained it in the 1970s.
By 1835, surveyors had plotted out the grid of county, township and section for the land south of the Grand River. The grid is what made it possible to buy and sell land with an accurate idea of what someone was buying. The original “patent owner”—that is, the first person to homestead the land my house sits on, was a man named Townsend Harris.
I’ve investigated the old plat maps from 1835 onward. When I look at the street pattern of my neighborhood, I can see that it follows the outline of Townsend Harris’s farm. Even so, I don’t think Mr. Harris would recognize his land today. Silver Creek, where he might have watered his cattle, runs mostly underground now, closed into concrete by a WPA project in 1935. It runs for a short distance in the open, through the public housing down the hill from Benjamin Street, and then goes back underground until it empties into Plaster Creek, and then to the Grand River. The low hills are completely covered in houses, most of them eighty or ninety years old.
A few years ago, I had a mulberry tree removed from my back fence line. It had grown around a steel fence post that was anchored in poured concrete-more concrete, in my opinion, than was absolutely necessary. Once the workmen had wrestled the stump, post and blob of concrete out of the ground, they wanted to charge me another hundred dollars to get rid of it.
I decided to bury the stump behind the garage instead. It was going to be a big hole, but I figured I could handle it. It was easy digging. It was all sand and a few fist-sized rocks through the entire seven-foot depth of my hole. I could have dug a hundred feet farther, and still run into nothing but sand.
The sand came from the Wisconsin glacier, a mile-high mass of ice which sat on Michigan for fifteen millennia and carried tons of soil and rock with it. As it melted, it left the sand behind. Silver Creek, a trickle now, was a torrent, fed by ice melt. Mastodon watered there, and the sabertooth cat and dire wolf hunted them.
By the time of the pioneers, white and bur oaks populated the “oak openings” of northern Paris Township. Oak openings occurred in widespread patches throughout the Midwest. An oak opening isn’t a prairie, but it isn’t a forest either. Usually, an oak opening occurs on rolling, sandy soils where drainage is good. A complex interaction among soil, water and fire produces fields with a scattering of oaks and abundant grasses. More water, and you have a real forest; less water and you get a treeless prairie. It’s pretty hard to find an oak opening in Michigan today.
When I first thought of investigating my land, I imagined that it was pristine wilderness until the pioneers appeared. That isn’t quite true. The Odawa, our local Native Americans, maintained the oak openings by setting the grasses afire periodically. The oaks survived the quick, hot fires, and the grasses grew back within a few months. There were plenty of acorns and browse for the deer and good hunting for the Odawa.
The pioneers liked to settle on oak openings. It was a lot easier to clear sixteen to twenty trees per acre than a thick forest, and the soil was fertile enough. I don’t know exactly what the Harrises grew on their farm, but most of the early farmers practiced mixed farming. They raised chickens, pigs, sheep and cows, grew corn, oats and wheat in rotation, and gardened as well.
Another misconception I had before this investigation was that the land sustained several generations of the same family until greedy speculators bought them out. It’s true that some families settled their farms and then held on to them for several generations. The Cheseboros, for example, whose land was just south of the Harris farm, were in plat maps through 1890.
Somehow the Harris farm didn’t attract the staying kind. Every plat map, from 1835 on, shows a different family name on the old Harris acres. The Haans, who built my house in 1933, stayed here for fifty years, longer than any of the farmers. Many of the houses on Benjamin Avenue have changed hands a lot more frequently. My family has been here for thirty years, and there are some who have lived on the street longer than that. None of us are speculators, but I’m pretty sure we all hope to make a little money when we sell, just as the farm families did.
I can stand in my back yard and visualize the farmers and Native Americans who took care of my land for so many years, and the hunters who went before them and stalked the mastodon. I can imagine the glacier, which covered my yard for so long. The glacier piled its sand and gravel on top of old shale and sandstone deposits, which took even longer to form. Lower yet lies limestone, two and a half miles deep, made of tiny skeletons which accumulated for millions of years on the floor of an ancient sea.
I’m beginning to shed the feeling that I don’t belong here. Townsend Harris, the Ottawa hunters and the saber tooth cat were just passing through, as I am. When I die, I will join my ancestors, like a diatom sinking into the ancient seabed. I’ll be home.
Patrick Cook is a retired postal worker. He has been spending his time writing essays, stories and poetry. He has lived in the same house with his wife, Valorie, for thirty years.