Hibbing children who died in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.
After two big days I’m way too tired to attempt much tonight, on an emotional level alone, not to speak of the bitter winds that blew about me. So cold, it was tiring to stand there. That said, I want to say thank you to this hidden world, one I may never come back to but now that doesn’t matter.
After I had visited the phenomenal excavation in Mother Earth that is the Hibbing Mine (of these depths, more later), I stopped at the cemetery nearby to give my mihi, to greet and farewell the dead as one does if one moves amongst Māori.
The front ranks of the toppled and bleared gravestones had one date in common: 1918. It struck me right away that this must have been the great influenza epidemic the soldiers (in this case, Americans) brought back from Europe with them at the war’s end.
Some of the dead of that year and early in 1919 too were veterans. There were darling children and adults of all age ranges. This place may well have been known to Dylan; he pays tribute to the town, the people and the landscape in a poster in the doorway of Zimmy’s restaurant in Howard Street.
“My youth was spent wildly”, he writes,” among the snowy hills and sky blue lakes and open pit mines. Contrary to rumour, I am very proud of where I am from.”
He knows his roots, as I suspected. Passing a deer carcass on the highway shoulder two mornings running, near Nashwauk, I saw a flock of crows scavenging the roadkill, hopping and flapping and fighting over the scraps. Returning to Grand Rapids tonight after saying farewell to Hibbing and its grand hole in the ground, I noticed there was nothing left but some blood and hooves. The crows, their grim work done, had flown on.
You can bet Dylan saw this kind of thing often: deer and racoons, rabbits and all manner of dead animals. This is a hunting, shooting and fishing place, and when you mine the earth too, people die often.
Death is everywhere in his work – “there’s nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts”, I recall him singing in Shelter from the Storm. Yes, in that song too there is a strange “one-eyed undertaker who blows a feudal horn” – and where did he spring from?
Of course there were and there still are plenty of undertakers in Hibbing, but this comes I would surmise not from life but from literature; from the likes of the balladeer who wrote that grim tale Twa Corbies, in which two ravens pick out the eyes and entrails of a dead soldier.
So: crows on the land, and ravens in words: “black crows in the meadow, sleepin’ across the broad highway”, he cries, pounding a piano in Black Crow Blues on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” in 1964.
He is only four years out of high school, on the way to somewhere and somebody else but mortality and carrion won’t be leaving him alone on the ride. People from places like Hibbing see death often and know it is at the elbow of us all, raising its hat by way of introduction, careless of the fact that however long we ignore him, time will tell, will tell.
The hole in the doughnut is death. The reason I went to find a Bob Dylan who is no longer there is that I am these days very conscious I am going to die. So I go out, fierce and as fearful as I am, and like him I live. Today, I live.
The Hibbing Mine.