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Cornishman


Ancient hermitage on Roche Rock, in Roche, Cornwall, where my family emigrated from.

Cornish Roots

 

I grew up in Hibbing and Virginia, iron mining towns on the Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota—a hundred mile string of mining towns which share a rich immigrant culture. Mining towns have a similar culture around the world. There are always Cornishmen, who were imported because they were expert hard-rock (underground) miners. The Cornish are a Celtic people from the southwestern tip of Britain, close kin to the Welsh, and even closer kin to the Bretons in Brittany. They were conquered by the English about a thousand years ago, and still will not accept it. The Cornish language is in the midst of a revival. Mining collapsed in Cornwall in the mid-to-late 19th century, and some 300,000 Cornish were forced to emigrate or go hungry. Many came to Upper Michigan for the copper and iron mines in the 1870s and 80s, including my great-grandfather, Tom Caddy. He became a Mine Captain in Michigan, and when the Mesabi iron deposits were discovered, was brought into Hibbing, MN, where he drove the first shaft in what eventually became the Hull-Rust Pit, the largest open pit mine in the world.

The immigrant culture was a wild mix of French Canuck, Swede loggers, Cornish miners, Finnish miners, and a few Jewish merchants and icemen in the early days. Later on, after open pit mining replaced hard rock mining underground, unskilled immigrants poured in from Italy, Serbia, Monte Negro, Croatia and Slovania, and another surge of Finns.

Mining is a hard life. Miners drink a lot. My home town had an astonishing number of bars and taverns. That way of life is detailed in my book The Color of Mesabi Bones.

The past 50 years has seen a tide of Cornish identity celebrated in Cornwall itself, and this movement has rippled across the oceans to America, Australia, and Africa, wherever Cornish emigrants had found mines and new homes. In writing about my early years I slowly discovered my family and found some roots. After I published Mesabi Bones, I was surprised to find myself labeled a Cornish-American poet on a radio show. The concept intrigued me.

My son Owen and I first visited Cornwall in 1992, and were amazed and pleased to find ourselves connecting strongly to both the land and the people. Our cousins made us welcome. My cousin Marjorie Caddy Hore introduced me as, "Meet John. He's come home." I began writing about this “coming home” and in 1997 published a small book of essays and poems titled Presences the Blood Learns Again . I have done three reading tours in Cornwall, and one result of the book and tours was my being named Bard of the Cornish Gorseth in 2002 for contributions to Cornish Literature.

FYI: The southern Celts, with languages Cymric rather than Gaelic, include the Welsh, the Cornish, the Bretons (in Brittany), and the Manx (on the Isle of Man). The first three hold an annual gathering of Bards called the Gorsedd, or Gorseth. In modern times, bards are elected to membership for contributions to their culture. It is an honor.

Here are two of my favorite poems I've written about Cornwall:

The Cornish and the Gorse

If you grasp the gorse, or fall into the furze
and rake your skin, you take on Cornish character.
The Cornish and the gorse are either side of one green leaf.
They are synonyms, inseparable,
they swap their substance and their breaths.

Call it what you will, your fancy's choice,
When rich in bloom say golden gorse,
When plain greygreen say furze.
Both its names are coarse and carry spines,
long and maddening and fierce.

For long years of the backalong, poor Cornish women
carried boiler, clothes and brandis to the well
and gathered furze to build their fires.
Rinsed clothes were spread upon the furze to dry
while the women bit the spines from out their fingers.

Cornwall cannot be thought without the golden gorse.
For century heaped on century, children of the poor
who had no turves walked to landlords' hedge and
furze brake to gather stog and branch, fuel to heap on
upturned kettle to bake pasty, barley bread and pie.

For forever and for more the Cornish and the gorse
have shared their very elements: oxygen held now
in leaf, exhaled, and now in blood,
carbon now in branch of gorse and now
in bones dug into churchyard soil.

The Cornish have from time unknown
laid their bones in earth to give the furze their fertile fire
to transform into branch and golden flower—
on sacred hearth the furze returned the fire it stored
and warmed the winter gales.

The furze brake always spreads and grows
across the Cornish moorlands
strung with menhir, ring and bones,
graced with bracken, heather bell and ling.

When the gorse explodes its seeds they spray out far
and scatter: At Blackheath there is a furze-shroud mound
where after the Rebellion, the Cornish dead were thrown,
the old bargain carried to the foreign east.
Atoms of those men still bloom.

When the gorse's seeds explode they scatter wide:
In the miners' Diaspora, 300,00 Cornish
were offered to the soil around the globe.
Atoms that were once gorse lie
inside those miners' bones on every continent.
dreaming still, perhaps, of flowering in gold.


COMING TO GRASS


Cornishman: a man at the bottom of a mine, singing.

They came to grass at the end of the day.
They climbed from the Dark to grass
and carried the Dark up with them.

After a long day of night with only
the head’s candle for light,
after aching hours of sledging iron
against candle-gleamed borer,

Grass was the surface they climbed to
through a thousand feet of Dark—
Over and over they pulled their weight up the rungs
as their hearts rang the ribcage,
to come up to light and grass-green,
but to carry Dark with them unseen.

Dark changed the strong men,
shortened their tempers, stubborned beliefs,
roughened their tongues—
Dark led them to think
they were the ones who could see.

But in the mine, in chapel, in pub,
Bearing this Dark is what taught them to sing.

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