On the eastern edge of Nebraska City's Central Avenue stands a simple cairn with a plaque, a monument to the Oregon Trail. The plaque reads, in part,
"Official Oregon Trail Marker: [...] overlaid branch of the Oregon Trail, 1849, from the steamboat landing thousands started westward to Pike's Peak, Salt Lake, California and Oregon."My gaze drifts from this humble memorial to Central Avenue, Nebraska City's main thoroughfare. Today, automobiles move east and west on the two-laned, paved drag. 160 years ago, families traveling by covered wagon set west on a dirt path, intent on making a better life for themselves.
Just think of it; that was 160 years ago! The territories of the western United States were then largely unsettled by immigrants of European extraction. The notion of Manifest Destiny, the Providential assumption that all of North America belonged to a white, male God and, in turn, to His European sons and daughters, was only introduced in 1845. At the time, the American Civil War had yet to be fought, electricity had yet to be harnessed as a popular power source, and human flight was only a hopeful diagram in a sketchbook. 160 years is just three human lifetimes, a drop in history's bucket, a nearly invisible mark on the geologic timeline.
As I scribble down these thoughts, a small slug moves over the concrete by my left foot. 300 million years ago, our human face was not so dissimilar from the slug's. As Loren Eiseley describes it in The Immense Journey, the steady march of time, whether surveying a span of 300 million or 160 years, is "life reaching out, [...] that magnificent and agelong groping [...] still in progress. [...] Content is a word unknown to life; it is also a word unknown to man."
The Windmill Shop
Early this morning, fellow KHN resident Manya Fox and I were granted access to the now closed Kregel Windmill Company shop, located on Central Avenue. For the most part, the shop's interior is just as the employees left it, a time capsule testament to the labor and ingenuity that allowed for the settling of the American west. As our gracious host put it with a grin, "Some people say the six gun settled the west, but it was really the windmill."
Early explorers, Lewis and Clark included, characterized the land that would become the Nebraska Territory as the "Great American Desert," an area unfit for human habitation. But, because of windmills, the plains would soon become some of the most fertile farming land in the United States. Homesteaders needed water to survive, of course, and the windmill was the only efficient way to draw water up from wells 100 feet deep. Wood and, later, metal blades were cut, shaped, and hammered in the Nebraska City shop, an outfit run by the "taskmaster" Kregel brothers, immigrants from Germany.
The brothers are dead now, the Windmill Company is closed and in need of preservation, and water-pumping windmills have, in most places, been replaced by electric pumps. Technology and livelihoods gone with, as it were, the wind.
Or are they? Today, towering windmills of steel and aluminum, better known as turbines, are being erected the world over. These turbines are an effective means of energy collection that also offer promise of a thriving, low impact industry. In the windmill shop, as I admired a lathe built in the early 1860s, Eiseley's words echoed; the "magnificent and agelong groping" continues.
Beyond Manifest Destiny
Nebraska City's Morton-James Public Library has a small NASA exhibition on display now. As I shuffled around the library gallery this morning, I marveled that the Space Shuttle Orbiter, the "vehicle that carries the crew and payloads to and from Earth orbit," must reenter Earth's atmosphere and land without power. It "glides back to Earth and lands on a runway. [...] Careful guidance control is needed to assure that it is properly positioned to reach the desired landing site." This astonishing feat of engineering and science is made that much more impressive if we consider that it was first realized just 130 years after the homesteaders and pioneers disembarked from Nebraska City's steamboat landing.
To those individuals who emphasize humanity's bloody excesses and potentially catastrophic exuberance above all else, I can only express my bafflement. Truly, to study evolution and the progress of history and science is to be necessarily possessed by eudaimonia. What great feats are forthcoming? The sun is shining; the crickets and katydids are singing; the world is electric with possibility.
Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009; Nebraska City illustration, ripped from Richard Gehling's "The Pike's Peak Gold Rush"