Tuesday, May 11, 2010

About You'll Always Come Back ~ history and cosmology

According to our family stories, my Great Grandmother, Lucy Jane Browning, and Great Grandfather, Daniel Dutton, met at the Kentucky State Fair, and married in 1844. Lucy’s family left Kentucky after her mother died in the cholera epidemic, settling in Sweet Springs Missouri. The household, before her marriage, consisted of Lucy, her mother’s mother, her widowed father, and a female slave.

After their marriage, Lucy and Daniel visited Dutton Hill, as the homestead came to be known. His parents, David and Mary, were German speaking farmers who came from a Pennsylvania German community in Wythe County Virginia. They started buying land in 1810, and built a cabin in a little hollow beside one of the branches feeding into Pitman Creek. David and Mary Dutting (as the name was spelled on the first deed), brought with them not only farm tools and household goods – they also brought a belief, part of what is called “Hexen” in their Germanic culture, that the seventh son of the seventh son inherits power; power, at the very least, to heal humans and animals. Anyone who has studied magic knows that the inverse power is also implied. My Great Grandfather Daniel was just such a son, and his parents turned over ownership of the farm to him. He and Lucy built a house beside a giant white oak tree, hundreds of years old.

Lucy remained on the farm for the rest of her life. Daniel (the first) rode a horse back to Sweet Springs and returned with two slaves, Charles and Pete, ages 6 and 8.

Pete Dutton set his (probably bare) foot on Dutton Hill in 1845 and remained there all but the last few years of his life. He built a small cabin just above a spring - Pete’s Spring, as it is still called, eventually married Jennie, and raised ten children. Pete’s Spring has a legend attached; if you take a drink there, you will always come back for another.

In 1863, when Pete was 26 and still a single man, Southern soldiers came into Kentucky to raid cattle and provisions. They made their way as far North as the Kentucky River before the Northern forces countered their advance. They turned back, driving some hundreds of cattle and horses before them, down Crab Orchard Road (now known as Hwy 39), a route that would bring them directly to Dutton Hill.

Our stories tell that Pete took the horses and mules and hid them in a cave on Pitman Creek. Before he left, Granny Dutton, (Lucy Jane) told him “Pete, if they ask you for those horses, you give them to them.” Pete replied, “They’ll get them horses when Pete’s dead.” After hiding the animals, Pete came back to the house to get something to eat. While there, he and Lucy (Daniel was away, selling timber in Cincinnati.) looked out the window and saw “a soldier for every blade of grass in the yard.” He went to the door and the soldiers demanded provisions – “Nigger, we want corn for a hundred horses.” “We haven’t got that much” Pete replied. “We’ll take what you’ve got then” Was the response, and the soldiers began tearing up the house and barn to see what could be taken.

At this point, gunshots were heard on the Northern side of the hill, and the rebel forces left off looting and raced to the top of the hill to barricade for “The Battle of Dutton Hill.” My Grandfather, Daniel II, also the seventh son, was two years old then. Pete carried him, and Granny led the other children to David and Mary’s cabin, more concealed and further from the battlefield. They hunkered down there for the duration. But Pete made his way back up to the hilltop and concealed himself up in a cedar tree where he could watch the battle unfold. He told this story, which matches the military account precisely, to my Dad, Joseph Dutton, the seventh son of Daniel II, and he passed the story on to me.

The Shakers at Pleasant Hill noted that there was a killing frost on the date of the battle, and that their peach trees, in full bloom, lost their crop. The morning after the battle was April Fool’s day. Eighteen of the dead Southern soldiers were gathered, most likely by Pete, and buried at the top of Dutton Hill, head to head, in a mass grave. After the war, the father of one of the young men killed there came up from Alabama and had a limestone obelisk erected on hill, with this inscription;

“Here off duty till the last reveile lie the Southern soldiers, in numbers who were slain in this county during the war of secession. They fell among strangers, unknown, unfriended. Yet not unhonored. For strangers hands have gathered their ashes here, and placed this shaft above them, that constancy, valor, sacrifice of self, though displayed in a fruitless enterprise, may not be unremembered.”

As the seventh son, and barely sixteen, Daniel II was emancipated by his father so that he would inherit the land, along with the Hexen power. There is a story that neighbors brought their horses to him to be healed, a procedure that involved pouring spring water over the afflicted animal.

Daniel II’s first wife, Nannie, would die as a result of the birth of a son. The second wife, my Grandmother Sarah Belle, was an accountant, a schoolteacher, an herbalist, and an artist. Like his forebears, Daniel II was both a farmer and a woodworker. He set his sights on becoming a finish carpenter and learned to operate a lathe. He was a handsome man, and something of a mystery. Of him I have heard that “He drank.” “He was a ladies man,” “He was a perfectionist,” the hexen story, that he almost lost the farm through debt, and little more, besides the fact that he was committed, as a lunatic, to the Old Kentucky State Mental Hospital. Exactly why, beyond the generic term - “nervous breakdown,” I have yet to discover. He recovered, or was changed enough to be released and return to the hill for the remainder of his days.

In the last few years of his life, Pete lived with his daughter in Danville. My father was sixteen in 1931, when, as he told it, an old colored man who looked like he was ready for the grave himself came to the Old House and said that they had brought Pete’s body back to bury. My Grandfather sent my dad to dig the grave in our family cemetery. It was August, and the red clay dirt on the hill was baked hard. Pete’s family stood around the grave, waiting and watching while my dad dug the grave.

The headstone reads “Pete Dutton and wife Jennie ~ born in slavery, died free.”

As a work of art, You’ll Always Come Back, attempts to keep simultaneous anchors in three kinds of time; the artifacts of history I’ve outlined here, including the orally transmitted stories; the experiences and responses of the performers, including myself, who present the work; and the two cosmologies, one Germanic and one African, that meet on Dutton Hill and converge in the lives of my ancestors, and hence, in my own.

The particular African cosmology in this case is Yoruban, a culture centered in Ile Ife, an ancient town in Nigeria. It is here that Oludumare, the owner of the universe, sent down the orisa, personified forces of nature, an act that would establish human culture on earth. One of these orisa is Orunmila, who instituted a system of knowledge concerning the relationship of categories that is known as the oracle of Ifa. A considerable portion of slaves in the diaspora were Yoruba, due in part to their expertise in working with indigo, but the power of Ifa that came with them exceeded their numbers in potency, and grew wherever it traveled. Today, with an estimated adherence of over 5 million people, Ifa and the Yoruba cosmology, known by various names in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, constitute one of the fastest growing belief systems on the planet. Not the least reason for this being that the binary based code of categories in Ifa happens to work very well with computer-based technologies of communication like the internet.

Germanic myth looms large in any survey of art history, in part because of the perversion of the ancient sun-symbol, now known as the swastika, by failed artist cum fascist dictator - Adolf Hitler, and the terrible crimes he committed. The Nazi party cloaked itself in occult symbolism, appropriating images and legends from Germanic myths. It was this diabolical usage of deep-rooted culture, and the concept of “blood” as the ultimate group signifier, that helped the Nazi party rise to power, just as it had provided the rationale for slavery in the United States.

The time line of You’ll Always Come Back is centered in Pete Dutton’s life on the hill, 1845 to 1931, before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the war that ensued, and before another phenomena which would have a great impact on our family and the land. This was the rise of what has been called agri-business, replacing the small farmer with the factory farm, a planned and systematic destruction of a holistic and sustainable approach to food production, to be replaced with methods that inflict unimaginable cruelties on chickens, cattle, and swine. The German immigrant farmers in the US were far ahead of their time in the wise use of sustainable farming methods, such as the collection and use of manure as fertilizer, and this is shown clearly by their relative prosperity, as well as in the design of their barns and farms. My father considered factory farming to be morally wrong, and ultimately, impractical, and I’ve seen the wisdom of that assessment.

Considered together, there are a lot of categories to keep track of in You’ll Always Come Back. One friend suggested that this performance is like the creek that borders Dutton Hill; you can dip your boat into at any point, know something of its nature, walk away from and return to it, always aware that it is both constant and ever-changing, flowing through and enlivening the past, the present, and the future. The performers – musicians, artists, makers and thinkers who have contributed to the realization of this work are my family, just as surely as any genetic relative could be. We are united by our shared imagination, and love, both powers greater than race and mortality.


Cathy said...

Danny, this is wonderful - wonderful!! - and needs to be incorporated into the performance, as a printed statement or the like available to the audience. Let's talk about it.

So your dad was the 7th son of a 7th son of a 7th son? I knew it was two generations, but three...how incredible.

Dan Dutton said...

It is pretty amazing about the seven sons to the 3rd power thing. No wonder he was so magical.

I'm glad you like this ~ it still needs some work. The transitions between the last paragraphs don't seem fully developed to me yet. & the one about the Nazi needs some careful thought and more precise language. Oh it will be so great to discuss it! In person! With a fire!

SBD said...

Will we have enough time to do ALL or even part of all the fun stuff?