Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

The Story Behind Erwin A. Thompson’s Poem “Our Heritage”

Today I'm part of an invited poetry reading for the Land Trust in Lake County up here in Northern California. We'll read at Rodman Slough. One of the poems I'll read will be one of my favorites, and one I consider to be my father's most powerful.

Here are my father's comments on his poem--It began as scribbled thoughts during labor negotiations and would have gotten thrown away, and unrecognized as a poem if my sister Julia Thompson hadn't encouraged him to save it. Good for us that all poems don't have to rhyme and that my physicist-poet sister knew that and was there to bolster my father as he was sorting those notes!

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Journey back in time with me 144 years to 1863 when my grandfather, E. A. Riehl, settled on the bluffs above the Mississippi River and found a way to work with the hills and ravines to make something practical and beautiful.

I heard someone say of a Kentucky farm that one of the advantages of a hill farm was that you "could farm both sides of it." Meaning, that due to the hills there was actually more surface in a hill farm of a certain acreage than in a level farm. This was, of course, a joke, for the disadvantages of hill farming are rather easy for nearly anyone to understand.

My grandfather was long on work and ingenuity, and short on money. The combination of ingenuity and the work were the reasons he was able to raise nine children, and achieve an international reputation as a horticulturist. He had his own steamboat landing, "Riehl's Landing" and in later years his own railroad station, "Riehl's Station."

I came to this place in 1916, when I was nine months old. I recall seeing a good deal of this hill acreage being farmed or pastured under the chestnut trees that bore a crop each fall. The hillside plows mentioned in the poem were real. They were made so that the dirt was always thrown downhill. The cutting part of the plow was hinged, and rotated at the end of each "pass" across the hillside. My grandfather farmed "around the hill" instead of up and down it many years before the modern concept of "terracing."

I have seen the time when we had three steady hired men with their families working here and living on the place. I have seen the whole neighborhood "turn out" and help with a peony harvest or chestnut harvest.

Changing fortunes, changing times. Changing national and international conditions. Time was that the first of any "truck crop" could be sold for a premium price. Today we eat fresh tomatoes and carrots the year around from the grocery store and accept the luxury as a fact.

Today the fields are mostly grown up in the native trees and brush that inhabited it before it was cleared for farming. It is perhaps fitting; sort of like the Indians' conception of the "Happy Hunting Ground" that the land be returned to its original condition and use.

We have deer and wild turkeys roaming the trees and brush that has taken over since we do not farm the ground.

I was thinking of these things about thirty years ago when I had a little slack time while negotiating with Union Electric Company on a wage contract. I could not get anything to rhyme, but I felt a compulsion to express my feelings so I just wrote down my thoughts. I never got back to do anything with these notes. Years later I was cleaning out an old brief case, throwing away old notes that had long since been outdated when I found the scribbled thoughts. Our daughter, Julia, was here, and I started reading my find to her. I suddenly realized that I had created exactly what I was trying to express, and
it didn't need to rhyme!

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  1. Janet,
    It was a pleasure and an inspiration to spend yesterday with you...and your Dad! The Lake County Land Trust was a gorgeous setting for the reading, especially when you spoke of heritage and the impact of nature on your perceptions and work. There's a story of the storm cellar that you shared and that spoke eloquently to me..So much so, that I had to get up from my bed last night and write a long story-poem which I'm calling "Clara's Air." I'll send it to you off the blog but wanted to put my thanks out here for the world to read!
    Contagion, synergy, inspiration...it is what wirters so often do for and with each other. Thank you, big time!
    Arletta

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