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a drought of ideas

Heading west from the eastern seaboard of the United States I first saw evidence of the major drought devastating corn and soybean crops around Chillicothe, a city in south central Ohio.

Heading west from the eastern seaboard of the United States I first saw evidence of the major drought devastating corn and soybean crops around Chillicothe, a city in south central Ohio. The scorched croplands intensified as I crossed into Indiana and Illinois last month. West of the Mississippi River some Missouri farmers had already started plowing down their stunted fields.

With no expectations of decent yields from similarly afflicted Nebraska or South Dakota farms, the severity of this drought from what I saw, likely means a spike in food prices in the not too distant future across North America. This years’ experience, though, may foreshadow severer, long-term consequences resulting from climate change.

Back in Chillicothe, Ohio, life on Main Street seemed pretty unaffected from the agricultural crisis around it. The claim to fame of this city, with a population roughly equal to Whitehorse, was that in the early 1800s it was the state’s first capitol. Drawing its name from the Shawnee term for “principal town,” it occupies a normally verdant land, well watered in good years by the Scioto River and its tributaries, which flow south into the broad Ohio River.

The Shawnee Nation and their ancestors who inhabited this ground for millennia had chosen well. The waves of land-hungry Europeans and newly minted Americans crossing the Appalachian frontier in the late 1700s found this area attractive as well. They forced the Shawnee west. But traces of the aboriginal people’s presence remained.

No more than 10 kilometres north of Chillicothe’s Main Street heart lies a Hopewell culture ceremonial centre consisting of 23 earthen mounds. This 11-hectare site is enclosed by square earthen embankment with nearby borrow pits from which many of the hundreds of thousands of baskets full of soil needed to build these features were dug. The Hopewell people flourished here between 200 BC and 500 AD.

Without the benefit of corn, which wouldn’t be introduced into the Scioto valley for centuries or, for that matter, any large-scale agriculture needed to support big, dense settlements, the Hopewell lived in scattered, small family-cluster habitations. They subsisted on the wildlife the forests and rivers provided as well as plants like gooseweed, sunflower, marsh elder, knotweed and squash. Yet they somehow had the social organization obviously anchored by a strong belief system, needed to draw people together to build their distinctive ceremonial sites.

Hopewell traditions spread out of their Ohio heartland reaching as far north as Ontario and Minnesota, west to Kansas and south into Louisiana and Alabama.

A U.S. National Park Service staffer at the Mound City Group site, Susan Knisley, told me that their influence reached even further. Their artisans used copper from Lake Superior, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and mica from the Carolinas to fashion their tools and ornaments. Knisley noted that much of the obsidian they used came from what is now the Yellowstone National Park area and was brought back to Ohio by Hopewell trekkers themselves rather than having been passed hand to hand via trade.

Mary Helms in her 1988 book Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge and Geographical Distance refers to this form of distant journeying for rare or valued commodities as “power questing.” Travelling outside their known universe and returning successfully, enhanced the individual’s prestige plus increasing the items’ worth and ritual power.

Power questing today appears to limit rather than widen the universe of options available to us. As sadly demonstrated by the recent rhetoric-saturated political conventions in Florida and North Carolina, the crippling drought of real ideas desperately demanded by the economic, environmental and political crises mounting around us threatens the collective future of the U.S.A. and by extension the rest of us.

The Hopewell Culture lasted for more than 700 years. From what I have read, archeologists haven’t pointed to a cause like climate change, resource depletion or warfare as a reason for its demise. Will these bring an end to our North American consumer culture? Will our culture last even half that long as the Hopewell culture did?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact