Valley of Dreams

Dec 22, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Less than a hundred miles north of this island lies a cornfield made popular by the movie Field of Dreams. It's not alone. Travel a hundred miles in any direction up or down the Mississippi Valley, and you will find the remains of dreams—of Edens and Utopias—wherever you go. As if the Mississippi itself were a magnet drawing dreamers to its banks.

Go east for fifty miles out on the Illinois prairie, and visit Bishop Hill, a small knoll where in 1846, the Swedish religious visionary Eric Jansen and his followers built a communal society living in the first brick apartment buildings in the United States and farming 5,000 rich Illinois acres. By then, a hundred miles to the south, Joseph Smith and his Mormons had already erected Nauvoo, the City of God, at a bend in the Mississippi, and were preparing to leave for the west following the murder of Smith. The abandoned Nauvoo was soon home to a group of French visionaries, the Icarians, who changed the name to Icaria and shaped their own Biblical gardens.

It's the same upriver. In the country north of Dubuque sits the Trappist monastery, Our Lady of New Mellary Abbey. Founded in 1849, the Trappists lived within a vow of silence, caring for the earth and the church in equal measure.

To the west, in Iowa, lie the Quaker settlements of West Branch, settled in 1844, and a bit further west, the seven Amana Colonies, members of the Community of True Inspiration from Germany who came here in 1855 to live simply and communally, to worship and to prosper. To the south, even earlier, in 1842, the Amish had moved out from Pennsylvanian and Ohio, into Iowa land, where they continue to work wonders on their 80-acre farms without tractors or electricity.

These fields of dreams are all communities, but in truth, the Mississippi has evoked dreams in individuals who have come here, too. Moby Dick's restless Ishmael, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, says that "meditation and water are wedded forever." Those of us who live here and walk along the Mississippi's banks know that a river does the job just as well as the sea.

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