Day 465: Little Egypt

Southern Illinois is often called “Little Egypt,” and, indeed, it has many Egyptian associations. It has towns named “Thebes” and “Karnak,” and, although it is consistently mispronounced, one called “Cairo.” There are several stories about how the association between southern Illinois and Egypt came about. One is that food shortages in the north in the early nineteenth century caused northerners to come south to buy grain in the manner of the Old Testament account of the sons of Jacob. A second is that the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at the southern tip of Illinois somehow resembles the Nile delta. A third is that one of the belly dancers who performed as “Little Egypt” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was a southern Illinois native.

Laetitia decided to bring her group to Thebes. Thebes, Illinois bears little resemblance to the Egyptian original, except that it is also on the east bank of a river, the Mississippi. It is a town of around 500 people. Abraham Lincoln once practiced law here. Its proximity to the Mississippi River also made it a great area for bird watching. The Mississippi Flyway is a major migratory route for birds because it lacks obstacles, such as mountain ranges, and provides food, water, and cover throughout its entire length.

Laetitia’s group spent most of the day at Horseshoe Lake Nature Preserve. The natural area surrounds an oxbow lake, created when the curvature of the meandering Mississippi River became so pronounced that the water broke through, forming a new straighter and shorter channel. Eventually the ends of the abandoned meander loop filled in so the lake that is no longer part of the river.

At happy hour in an area bar, Laetitia heard some gossip about a local bird-watching group who seemed to get their ideas from stereotypes in British comedy. They went around in tweeds and pith helmets with oversized binoculars and, according to the conversation, “put on airs.” They became the subject of the limerick of the day.

The Bird Watchers’ Circle from Thebes
Who led tours to watch phoebes and grebes
Viewed themselves as elite
But to folks on the street
They were arrogant, tweed-wearing dweebs.

Day 460: Spoon River

Laetitia and her group started their day at Dickson Mounds Museum, a major Native American archeological site near the Illinois River. There are estimated to be more than 3,000 burials in the area, accumulated over the 12,000 years since the last ice age. Earlier burials are in mounds and later ones are in cemeteries. Some mass graves on the site suggest ritual sacrifices.

Next the group went to nearby Lewistown, once the home of poet Edgar Lee Masters. Masters chose to call his 1915 collection of poems, which was based on the towns of Lewistown and nearby Petersburg, the Spoon River Anthology. The work is a collection of free-verse poetic epitaphs of the dead who are “sleeping on the hill.” The spirits that tell their stories are fictional, but the accounts they give are often thinly disguised tales of real happenings.

Laetitia decided to take her group on the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive before returning to Lewistown for the evening. It’s a drive through the rural countryside that crosses old iron bridges and passes small museums, monuments, cemeteries, and nineteenth-century churches. Back in Lewistown, the group went to Oak Hill Cemetery. The first names and surnames of the 212 characters that populate the Spoon River Anthology are from here or the cemetery in Petersburg, near New Salem, where Masters also lived for a time.

The combinations are mostly mixed up to provide a certain amount of anonymity. The anthology is about the pathos of small town life. It strips away the veneer of quiet respectability and exposes the venality and hypocrisy of the town’s leading citizens and the broken dreams of its disenfranchised. In the poems, lives are often cut short by disease, accident, murder, or suicide, mitigated occasionally by acts of genuine love.

After dropping her group off at their hotel with instructions of where to meet for dinner, Laetitia went to a local bar for happy hour. In preparation for the day’s tour she had read Spoon River Anthology. She decided to do the day’s multiple-verse limerick based on some of its poems.

On the hill there are harlots and pastors
Telling tales about dreams and disasters
In each frank epitaph
Of success or of gaffe
Set in free verse by Edgar Lee Masters.

Of those shades who once lived in Spoon River
Most before Henry Ford built his flivver
Some were glad; some were bitter
One made good, one’s a quitter
One’s a taker; another’s a giver.

Those folks on the hill in death’s slumber
Are more than two hundred in number
So I’ll choose just a few
To briefly review
I don’t want your day to encumber.

A. D. Blood who spent life fighting sin
From his tomb now expresses chagrin
And regrets his sad plight
As his grave every night
Is the love-bed of Dora and Ben.

Dear Em Sparks, unwed schoolmarm, alone
Loved her pupils like they were her own
And her death brought a tear
From one once held dear
In a far distant land and full grown.

Deacon Taylor, who pushed prohibition
To the town freely makes the admission
He drank under their noses
‘Til liver cirrhosis
Led to his date with the mortician.

Kinsey Keene admired Viscount Cambronne
Whose defiant “Merde!” rocked Mt. St. Jean
A word Keene’d have chose
For his Spoon River foes
And his tombstone emblazoned upon.

Though this book has been long on the shelf
It’s a treasure of lit’rary wealth
So this evening instead
Of TV in bed
I suggest that you read it yourself.