Somewhere not far from Cahokia Mounds Historic Site there is a landfill. You could see it from the interstate and from the top of Monk’s Mound, the largest earthen mound at Cahokia. Monk’s Mound is 100 feet tall. Monk’s Mound was easily the tallest man-made thing in North America when it was built hundreds of years ago. The landfill— merely one pile of refuse from one middling city in a vastly more advanced civilization— dwarfs Monk’s Mound.
The exhibits at Cahokia emphasize the (relative) sophistication of the city. Which is true, for North America of the time, but in the big picture Cahokia was a good seven thousand years behind Old World civilizations. The Cahokians built and maintained their city and trade network without: the wheel, metal tools, masonry, draft animals, a system of writing, or currency. The causes of Cahokia’s decline and demise are not known, only that they were gradual and not catastrophic, but I’m not too terribly surprised that Cahokia declined and vanished. I’m more impressed that it lasted as long as it did.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist. Some characters that I still doodle from time to time have been with me in one form or another since I was a child. I don’t know of any extant cartoons from my childhood. I know my earliest work was Superbird, a superhero comic from perhaps as early as my pre-school years (I remember dictating the text to my dad, which he wrote under the pictures). Superbird was a typical alpha-male protagonist with small assistant named Cuckoo, and an evil-genius arch-nemesis pig. He also had a girlfriend who was always being tied up by the pig-villain. I had such a good grasp of superhero clichés that I even knew enough to draw large breasts on Superbird’s oft-distressed sweetheart. I sometimes still draw breasts and birds, but never together.
Superbird was my last superhero comic. I moved on to newpaper-style comic strips. And by newspaper-style I mean panel-bound pencil sequences on the backs of the scrap papers my dad brought home from work. I think I first ripped off Garfield when I was around seven years old with a cat strip called Zig Zag. But then I created a character called Phil the Lizard. Phil was also heavily influenced by Garfield, of which I was quite a fan. The latter-day version of Phil is depicted here. Now he is more of a chameleon.
In sixth grade I compiled my most extensive opus of cartoon drawings: Chickenland. Chickenland was great. It was not a strip, but a full page (8.5 by 11 inches). It was always divided horizontally into three sections: Chicken Heaven, Chicken Earth, and Chicken Hell. It had a pretty rich cast of characters. My favorites were The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior. Junior was an absolute idiot who tormented his father physically and emotionally with his bumbling. I produced perhaps fifty Chickenland episodes, but threw them away when I was in high school. I still regret that. The modern incarnation of The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior are shown here.
By high school (where I wrote a paper on the history of comic strips), I had abandoned sequential comics in favor of random cartoon doodling. I also learned how to draw “for real.” But while researching college programs and careers, I discovered that cartooning was a pretty lousy way to make a living. I lasted about a year as a visual arts major before I switched to the liberal arts. I kept my sketchbook, though. Even as I pursued my career as park ranger, I’d sometimes jot down ideas or scratch out thumbnail sketches. About ten years ago I even went so far as to produce about a dozen strips, intending to create a portfolio to send to a comic strip syndicate. I posted them on another website and then here in the blog.
But I am not a very disciplined artist. I don’t like to paint and I have little patience with ink. My best and most expressive work comes from my hasty and infrequent thumbnail sketches. I also can’t draw people, hoofed animals, or buildings very well. My people look more like semi-morphous blobs— cartooning taken to the extreme, though I can do a fair job with body language. The guy who draws The Oatmeal draws this way pretty effectively.
I recent years I’ve abandoned drawing in favor of writing, with some regrets. Below is a crude attempt at reproducing the spirit of Chickenland, using my wife’s Wacom tablet. The sixth grade version was never quite so gruesome or ironic. As you can see, I need practice with the tablet. I can control a pencil much, much better, but pencil drawings don’t lend themselves to digital scanning.
We spent the weekend in the picturesque river towns of Van Buren County. I went for a class— Beginning Blacksmithing, if you can believe it. We stayed in Keosauqua, while the training was at a blacksmith shop in Bentonsport, two picturesque towns along the Des Moines River. The area markets itself as the “Villages of Van Buren County,” though it wasn’t terribly busy with tourists. What visitors were in Keosauqua seemed to be there for boating the river and fishing. Bentonsport, where I attended class, is a tiny little place, cute with a lot of old preserved buildings converted into shops and bed-and-breakfasts. There’s an old wrought iron bridge across the Des Moines in Bentonsport that you can walk across. We found a couple of nice places to eat in Keosauqua and Bonaparte, but bring your own vegetables if you ever go and want something green.
The blacksmithing class was a hoot. I was actually there for work (we have a blacksmith shop in the park). It’s sort of a like shop class for kids in that we make some things we get to bring home, and I had a lot of help from the teacher. What I produced probably falls into the “primitive tools” category anyway, just above hammerstones and obsidian flakes. Creating something with your own hands, some tools, and fire is empowering, but can also be a little frustrating. I am not the least bit handy and forging even simple items feels like fighting against a particularly stubborn foe who doesn’t always lose. My arms were fatigued and my hands were swollen at the end of each day; I could barely hold a glass in my hand to drink. I can’t imagine having to do it for a living. Full-time blacksmiths probably know how to make each blow count.