Showing posts from 2010

You're Welcome

Thank you, day, for this crisp air, for these wisps of sun, for hours as pristine and quiet as this. Sometimes to slow down we need no other choice, and it is later that we are grateful.
Thank you, month, for holly-berries and pine trees, for burning candles, for soprano and alto and tenor and bass voices sailing across lakes of snow, for little children in blue coats, for the scent of warm homes and family.
Thank you, winter, for coming again. In most cases, you are cold and treacherous and often unfriendly, but this is how the best of us get when we are lonely. Come on in to my house's corner. I will sidle up to the window and tell you a story. I promise, there will be snow on tongues and much laughing.
And thank you, year, for this visit, for stretching out your wide arms and twirling us into and out of your parlor. We talk about how quickly the days, months, and seasons go. We say, "Each year flies faster than the one before." And this may be true. But you are still you…

Lake Susan Park

I cannot claim Lake Susan Park as a new destination. I have biked on its trails, read against its trees, studied its vegetation, and waded into its waters for several summers now. Occasionally I play tennis there, or stop by and watch a baseball game, my cheeks reddening in the sun. Always I am thankful that its 33-acres are close by, an open space that holds out its hands to the community.

Yesterday, a season later, I woke to fantastically blue skies--more true, I found, than those in summer--and a world that was frosted white. Hoar frost. The remaining goldenrod stalks stood frozen and glittering. The grove across the street resembled something out of a fantasy story, something with a name like Niffelvine or Ruumulus or Asgard. Everything seemed cast in a sleepy spell.
I went to Lake Susan with sleep still clinging to the corners of my eyes because I didn't want to miss the way the light was colliding with light. How long could something that beautiful last? How long, I wondered, …

Walking Beside a Creek

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.
-- Ted Kooser from Flying at Night



For You

"There is a privacy about [winter] which no other season gives you.... In spring, summer, and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself."
 -- Ruth Stout

White Out

"No," I said. "Let's stay inside, by this gas fireplace and our pot of soup and our dry woolen socks and warm blankets. That wind isn't out to make friends."

But who am I to say no to a walk, or at least convincingly so. My husband took out all our winter wear, tossed three choices of mittens on the floor, and--when I was layered-- zipped my jacket up so tight that I couldn't move my chin. Still, beyond our walls was an old fashioned Minnesota blizzard that was depositing in sum sixteen inches of snow. I glanced out our front window and could barely see across the street.
"Really. I don't know about this." I didn't. There was such howling, such icy gusts creeping through the opened door. I felt almost dread.
But I followed him. Into the cold. Into the wind. Into the flying pellets of frenzied ice that flung themselves into my once-warm cheeks and once-open eyes. "I can't see!" I cried, and was literally crying, thick tears s…


Late lies the wintry sun a-bed, A frosty, fiery sleepy-head; Blinks but an hour or two; and then, A blood-red orange, sets again. Before the stars have left the skies, At morning in the dark I rise; And shivering in my nakedness, By the cold candle, bathe and dress. Close by the jolly fire I sit To warm my frozen bones a bit; Or with a reindeer-sled, explore The colder countries round the door. When to go out, my nurse doth wrap Me in my comforter and cap; The cold wind burns my face, and blows Its frosty pepper up my nose. Black are my steps on silver sod; Thick blows my frosty breath abroad; And tree and house, and hill and lake, Are frosted like a wedding-cake.-- By Robert Louis Stevenson

What Color Is The Sky?

-- black
                                             -- black
                                                                                          -- black
-- purple
-- red
-- orange pink red pink orange fushia
-- pale pink
-- pale blue
-- blue
-- white
-- blue
-- white
-- bluewhitebluewhitebluewhitebluewhite
-- pale blue
-- hazy yellow, like grains of long rice
-- rose
-- rose
-- fushia orange pink red pink orange
-- fire
-- one last flash
-- embers
-- ash
-- black
                                           -- black
                                                                                           -- black



In The Lake of the Woods

I think Tim O'Brien lives in Texas now, but this author grew up first in Austin and then Worthington, Minnesota, and tends to write stories and books that connect to his homeplace. I listened to him read and talk about writing and life last spring in Chaska, and although everyone was asking him questions about The Things They Carried, he did slip in an admission that he believes his best book is his 1994 novel In The Lake of the Woods. The comment stayed with me. I wondered why. So when I was thinking of the next MN-based novel I could take in, his title came to mind. 

The Lake of the Woods. It sounds mythic, doesn't it? Something you get lost in. 

As I read the book, I came to believe that this was exactly what O'Brien intended. The themes include deception and mystery, loneliness and memory, and I was impressed by how well these inner states fit with O'Brien's description of the setting:
"The wilderness was massive. It was a place, Wade came to understand, wher…

Snow Fruit

A wintery addition for your grateful-ladened table.  Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Joyce Sutphen

Continuing on with my Thirty Before Thirty list, I've spent several hours this past week reading Minnesota poet Joyce Sutphen's 2000 collection Coming Back to the Body. The book was given to me on my 21st birthday by a fellow English major at Gustavus (thanks, Julie!), so I've read many of the poems before. I've since been told by poet friends, however, that though poems are entities unto themselves, a collection is formed intentionally, and should be read as a cohesive manuscript, cover to cover, at least once. So, this is what I've done, and upon finishing, it's clear that each of Sutphen's small creations builds on the next until the reader arrives at the last page with a clear emotional picture of a woman challenged and changed, someone who has returned to herself.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection come from the first of the five sections--not surprising, as they explore the details of rural landscapes. But I was physically stopped at the fourt…


You go to bed, the night inky black, aware that there is a field below your window full of dusty blonde grasses, dried clumps of goldenrod, scratchy patches of sepiaed clover. There is wind, so their brittle bodies rattle against each other like reluctant bones, or swish down and back up--thin, dilapidated flags of the retreating autumn. You do not consciously think of any of this. It just is, like the woods are beyond the field, hundreds of brown arms reaching into an open sky, and you rest with this image buried in your dreams. But when you wake, you tug open your blinds, and the easy belief you held the night before of ordinary, of familiar, of something known is shocked out of your hands. No matter how many Minnesota winters you have experienced, the first snow storm of the season is always new, is always completely bewildering in its power to transform the recognizable into something other, something that is sudden, and total, and white.
You cannot believe how much snow has fallen …

Bon Iver's "Flume"

It seems that when I went into my master's program, I adopted a kind of tunnel vision and took in only art news that was of the adult literary variety, because just like I was caught blinking two years ago at The Hunger Games' unveiling, so too am I finding my jaw dropping two years after the hype at the music of Bon Iver.

"Flume" or "Re: Stacks" starts to play, and--just like I did in high school--I find myself on the floor of my bedroom, eyes closed, listening, forming my lips around lyrics I want to swallow up and make a part of me.

It is November now, but still I will roll down my car windows for this. Such music is like wind; it runs well through the trees, these empty fields, into the lungs of the coming winter.



"Solitude Late at Night in the Woods"

I The body is like a November birch facing the full moon And reaching into the cold heavens. In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves, Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!
 II My last walk in the trees has come. At dawn I must return to the trapped fields, To the obedient earth. The trees shall be reaching all the winter.
III It is a joy to walk in the bare woods. The moonlight is not broken by the heavy leaves. The leaves are down, and touching the soaked earth, Giving off the odor that partridges love.
-- from Silence in the Snowy Fields by Robert Bly



Thirty Before Thirty

I turned twenty-nine earlier this month. At risk of offending many of you, THAT SOUNDS OLD. I know, I know: there's lots of life ahead of me, but as I can't quite quiet the tick-tock-tick-tock thoughts, and as I'm one of those goal-oriented dreamers, I've constructed a list of (almost) thirty Minnesota/nature/writerly things I'd like to experience before the big 3-0.

Here are my ideas so far:
Climb on top of a hay bale and sing something
Make a pumpkin pie from scratch
Canoe and fish for sunnies on St. John's University's Lake Sagatagan
Canoe through Lake Shetek to Loon Island
Revisit the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area
Visit Minnehaha Falls
Visit the Root River Valley
Go strawberry and/or raspberry picking
Take a friend to the Carver Country Reserve
Discover a new park
Learn to name and identify at least five new plants
Learn to name and identify at least three new bird calls
Explore some new place along the North Shore
Go cross-country skiing
Make an impressive sno…


This is a dicey night for breathing. Air moves. Rather, it rushes. Something cold and northerly pounds against my windowpanes like one-hundred shoulders—in flight or pursuit, I cannot tell which. Lightning flashes. Thunder booms. There is wind and rain and snapping tree branches, snapping trees, all the remaining leaves whirling up in a maddening gyre, spinning furiously to a music that hisses through what remains in the fields. I have my ear to the glass, my hand on the window latch. There are old superstitions about stolen breath, but I am curious, and too snug anyway.




"In a world where change seems the only constant, where the past is increasingly suspect and the future ever more doubtful, it is exhilarating to be in touch with something that 'binds together all humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.'"
-- Paul Gruchow quoting Joseph Conrad From Travels in Canoe Country

The Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters from Alex Horner on Vimeo.

This is a beautiful video made by Alex Horner. I found it via the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (another great organization I'll have to lend a full shout-out to soon). Thanks to all involved for sharing such inspiring work. I hope this carries you into a relaxing, rich weekend.



One Way To Stay Warm

In many ways, this has been a difficult fall for me. The health of ill family members have worsened. A cousin--a young, well-loved woman--died. Some stories that students trust me with are heartbreaking. Insecurity, in its strange high-schoolish form, keeps poking at my back. And people I love are moving away. There are so many forces pushing against each other inside of me that often when I return home from work, I feel the bruise of exhaustion in my organs. Especially my heart. It feels raw from beating.
But then I find myself on another walk, standing underneath a collection of leaves that are as red as any working muscle, and it's an improbably beautiful thing. Beautiful in its color, yes. In the way the light sweeps around it. But also in that it's this red right now. That I'm in the world on this exact axis. That I did not arrive one day earlier--because it would have looked some other way--or one day later--because perhaps tonight there will be wind or rain or the le…

The Nature Conservancy

A shout out:

If you've never heard of or checked out The Nature Conservancy, ladies and gentleman, now is the time. They're involved in important work all over the world, and if you love yourself some unspoiled places, it's likely that they've had a hand or at least a finger in either the preservation of that locale or the preservation of public opinion that such sanctuaries matter. In Minnesota alone, TNC has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of wild habitat. That's no small field of grass. And the photography they post? Let's just say it's not ugly.

There are plenty of other strong organizations out there, too. Please leave a link in the comments if you think there's one in particular I need to know about!

Bird Song

Go here! This is one of the coolest interactive creations I've found on the web in a while, so kudos to the creator (and the DNR!). Make sure to check out the black-capped chickadee. He's my favorite.

Carver Park Reserve

My commute home from work usually takes about thirty minutes. On Wednesday, it took me three hours. And I mean that literally: the road took over. And then it was a paved path leading me. And then a gravel one. And then any number or variety of field. 

How I've never discovered the Carver Park Reserve until yesterday I have no idea, being that I've driven past signs on Highway 7 indicating its presence hundreds and hundreds of times. I am a curious person, prone to driving down unfamiliar roads, reading books in strange parks, putting myself in situations that at one point (probably still) would have made my father nervous, so I really should have sniffed this place out long ago. But the important thing is that I've found it now, and that I turned down County Road 11 again yesterday, and that I will continue to do so throughout this golden season and into the next because it's a place to get lost in on purpose hour after hour after hour. 

Carver Park Reserve is located t…

Something Perfect


Three Walks

One was just out my back door. The sun was sinking. It seemed like summer was sinking with it, and I had an unquenchable desire to fill myself—douse myself, even—with an abundance of life. The first steps were easy, as there was a path, and I had been there before. I knew these bees and crickets, these rustlings below my waist. But I would not stop there, oh no. I would go deeper. And it was indeed like diving, for I was soon among golden rod higher than my head, and I was placing my feet in depths and darknesses that I could not see. I knew the earth had to rise up again, for there was a hill just beyond, but there was a moment of wondering if I would make it, if instead I might just be swallowed up, lost amid a sea of yellow. I pulled my hood around my head. Stepped. Stepped. How was it, I wondered, that in such a short season things could grow so tall and wild? Beads of sweat formed on my brow. When my eyes finally peeked again above the surface—my clothes coated in thin golden dus…

Bill Holm

Hello Bill.
When I mention your name in Minnesota, there are always some folks who start to cry. And it's not because you poked fun at their habits or told the truth (often the same thing). It's because they loved you. They loved your writing, yes, but they also loved you. Who you were. As I've held your books this past year, I've turned to your picture on jacket covers and book backs, and it seems there was always a mass of hair, a deep beard, warm sweaters. Just from this, I think, had I known you I would have loved you, too. But I didn't know you, so I must send these little claps to where they will flitter through the  grasses and occasional treetops around both Minneota, Minnesota, and Iceland, two places you loved specifically and with tender detail, two places that felt the force of your intuitive pen. 
When I went to my bookshelf of college texts and took from it The Music of Failure, I had memories of my own grumblings, of immature reluctance and bored eyes. …

Paul Gruchow

Hello, Paul.
I've been wanting to sit down and talk with you for some time now. I opened up Worlds Within a World last summer, and then Travels in Canoe Country, and then Journal of a Prairie Year and Grass Roots. When I began The Necessity of Empty Places I already knew I'd agree with you, even though I'd find myself continually surprised by what you had to say. So it goes with kindred souls. And I don't think you'd mind that I claim that.

Other people and other places can tell your story better than me, so I'll let them. But I think it's important that I point a few other thinkers to your message. We are all so busy. It's good, before the leaves change this Autumn, to remind ourselves to slow down. "I accept, when I am in the woods, the idea that I do not completely command my life. To venture into a wilderness is to submit to the authority of nature. This may also seem a regression—adults command, children submit—but it is actually a progression to…

Two Men I Never Met

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course called Ethnic American Literature. Being that I was 1) an English major, 2) from an ethnically homogenous small town, and 3) desperate for "culture," I was incredulous when the reading list my professor passed out that first day had no Ralph Ellison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Toni Morrison, but was instead full of all these, as he called them, "regional writers," a mix of poets and novelists and essayists from my home state that I'd never heard of and was sure had absolutely no relevance to my life. After all, I was going to teach, and how was I supposed to do that if I wasn't introduced to the writers who'd been anthologized?

I went to another professor and complained (and, Minnesotan that I am, this practically killed me) until she loaded up my arms with every Toni Morrison book she owned. And walking back to my dorm room, clickity clack, holding these canonical texts close to my ch…

Where We Dwell

"Remember, the only thing that matters is you're alive on earth."

Mary Ruefle said this within the first moments of my most recent writing workshop, and amid all the insights both she and fellow advisor Larry Sutin offered in our time together, this aphorism has clung the most to my daily breath. 
"Remember," even though you're distracted by bills and busyness, by the laundry and lack of rice and the text-spam to delete, by the disappearance of summer heat, by the effort it takes to maintain trust, 
"the only thing that matters," even though you make lists that read pay electric, garbage out, change filter, fold clothes, buy rice, block spam, BELIEVE in your work, even though there is so much to do before Sunday, before the snow flies, before you get old,
(the only thing) "is" (as in being /will you just be)
"you're alive on earth," a place you love, a place that loves you back, and an experience—life—that cannot be had by makin…