Smile Politely

Secrets in the Land of Lincoln

At first, Illinois seems to have no secrets. Everything is out in the open: the cell phone towers on the horizon of factory farm fields, the cinder blocks at the shallow bottom of an I-57 borrow pit, bright white wind turbine blades turning slowing against a backdrop of black storm clouds. There are no mysterious nooks, crannies or hollers in the landscape, no serpentine roads disappearing between lush private lanes.

Instead, we have electrified grids of city blocks, transparent Mies van der Rohe buildings and wide suburban thoroughfares plowing through endless strip malls. And then the people, who give it to you straight, even when they are lying.

All this openness makes me especially suspicious, even though I was born and bred in the flatlands. For I know there is no place on earth that doesn’t have its share of secrets. You just have to be receptive to the subtle rises and rifts in the narrative landscape.

The other night, I was reading Carl Sandburg’s classic Chicago Poems and I came across a short piece entitled “In a Back Alley”:

Remembrance for a great man is this.
The newsies are pitching pennies.
And on the copper disk is the man’s face.
Dead lover of boys, what do you ask for now?

I reread the poem several times, then googled “Abraham Lincoln and sexuality” and came up with an entirely different Lincoln legacy than we’re celebrating in C-U this month. This evidently isn’t news to some people. But of course, nothing is substantiated. We just don’t know. There is no wax statue skeleton in the Lincoln Museum’s closet in Springfield rattling over the pomp and circumstance of our own desire for an American hero. And now the next Lincoln is president-elect Barack Obama, who surely must know that the map of the human heart includes back alleys.

So if we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around one of the most quintessential figures in Illinois history, then everything begins to get murky: does that sign on I-74 between C-U and Mahomet really mark the actual source of the Kaskaskia River? If the source of a river is a spring or a lake, then wouldn’t the flow come from groundwater or precipitation, which technically has no identifiable source?

And what about that wild cave my family explored last month near where the Kaskaskia River empties into the Mississippi? Driving south of Cahokia Mounds, we entered a karst region marked by innumerable sinkholes. There, several narrow county roads led us to a government trailer and a sign that read: “Illinois Caverns Natural Area. Use by permit only.”

We signed the papers, pulled on our rubber boots and headlamps, and disappeared through a crack in the earth. We were the only spelunkers there that week. Evidently, the cave, its underground streams and labyrinth of passages, is something of a secret. Like Lincoln himself: whom he loved, who loved him, the depths of his desire.

And more importantly, like us: the deep despair we hide by constructing a full-scale image of an Illinois we can love: expansive prairies, eagles soaring over Mississippi palisades, cypress swamps, a City of Big Shoulders, the Land of Lincoln.

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