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Hills and Hollows

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Henry County just south of Rock Island is a farm county of formerly rolling prairie, as if gentle ocean swells had solidified, crested now with corn and soybeans. In the shallow valleys between the swells, small streams feed stands of willow and cottonwood trees.

On some of the higher hills along the blue highways of Henry County, stand large white clapboard farmhouses. Straight lanes, often tree-lined, lead to these proud houses on the hills.

More crooked lanes snake up the valleys following a small creek past a grove of trees before disappearing around a corner. At the end of these lanes, often hiding behind a shed or barn, there are also farmhouses, more modest one-story buildings with moss-covered wood shingle roofs and a stack of firewood piled near the front door. These farmhouses are cozy rather than proud.

Chances are good that whoever lives in them now, the houses on the hills were built by immigrants from New England, descendants of the Puritans, true to the call of their faith to be as a city set on a hill. Chances are that the houses hidden in the hollows were built by families from isolated valleys in the southern Appalachian Mountains who came down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to Henry County, and who brought with them the desire and the habit of being left alone.

Whoever the builders, this landscape of hill and hollow in Henry County is a visible metaphor of the dilemma at the heart of our American way of life. The same democracy which depends upon "we, the people," and demands my life as well as my vote, if necessary, also promises to keep other noses out of my pursuit of happiness and let me be an individual.

This dilemma sent Thoreau to Walden Pond. "I came into this world not to make it a better place to live in, but to live in it be it good or bad," he wrote. A paragraph later, he said "In a society which imprisons any unjustly, the only place for a just man is also prison."

Where would Thoreau have built his cabin in Henry County? In a hollow, or on a hill?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.