December 21, 2011

Dear Military Service Member,

This essay can now be found in the 2012 edition of The Talking Stick. It received an honorable mention designation. I'm happy to have it there!

December 20, 2011

To be of the Earth

To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light

the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death
and the miracle of birth.

-- By John Soos

December 5, 2011

The Backcountry Journal

New Reader/Follower/Bookmark Alert, especially for those of you with a penchant for the outdoors:

Editor Ben Smith was kind enough to include my essay "Winter, Walking" in the early stages of The Backcountry Journal, a wonderful online composite of place-inspired words and images. There's great stuff here: hiking, fishing, hunting, exploration. Do hope you check it out. And hope you're enjoying the snow!

November 23, 2011

Roadside Poetry: Look Back

Many thanks to Roadside Poetry's organizer, Paul Carney, and my mom, ever the intrepid photographer. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

November 18, 2011

San Carlos, Costa Rica

You said it was a twelve-house town. Did you call it town? No sé. You’ve been speaking in English and I’ve been attempting Spanish and there are details we’ve lost to effort, that we’ve grinned over, our hair flying around us in time to the bus’s bumps along the narrow road, the thick air coming in the open windows.

“I grew up here, just around here. There were twelve houses and a soccer field. Very peaceful.”

Paz,” I say.

You smile.

“See that?” You’ve been pointing out the agricultural fields as we pass them, a serious job as they’re everywhere, on the right and the left, stretching for kilometers. Coffee. Plantains. Cassava. Hectares of pineapple. You described how volcanic ash has enriched the soil, how the area is flush with large ranches and small family fincas. As we’ve traveled, I’ve watched men with machetes at their hips, some slashing their silver blades in strong strokes mere meters from the road.

“See that? Sugar cane.”

Azúcar,” I say.

You smile again, amused. Engaged. Wanting to explain things.

“You’ve heard of the fer-de-lance?”

My next breath is quick. I swallow it. Picture brown and black triangle markings, a poisonous bite.

“Snake,” I say. “Muy peligroso.”

You nod. “Exactly.”

The fields blur past. You consider them, lines forming at your eyes. In their edges I see your tio behind a mud-covered wheelbarrow, your papa on a yellow bicycle toting his tools to the fields in the bike’s front basket. Early mornings. I wonder, watching you, how old you were the first time you found calluses on your hands.

“They’re in the cane,” you say. “The snakes. They feed on the rats that live there. So before harvest we burn the fields. Part of the crop is lost, but it’s the better choice.”

A square cemetery full of white stone tombs approaches and recedes. You cross yourself, kiss your thumb.

To the west, I watch the Arenal Volcano steaming. Its puffs of vapor rising and swirling above the rainforest engulf the distant landscape. Closer, below my window in a fenced-in yard, brothers—one-bare-chested, both barefoot—kick a soccer ball between them. Their sister swings in a hammock with a dog and sends text messages on her cell phone.

I glance back at you. Your gaze has moved to the tops of trees, scouting for sloths and orange iguanas.

“See that?” you ask.

I imagine you as a boy, lingering at the end of your mother’s driveway, a cluster of other boys circling you, a soccer ball on your hip, describing the snake you found yesterday in the closet, the way your mother screamed and yelped for you, the way you knew what to do with the broomstick and the backyard and all that jungle.

“See that?”

We are through another twelve-house town, over another one-lane bridge, under another rain-heavy cloud, surrounded by green upon green upon green—this country you’ve laid out for me.

Sí, David,” I say, nodding, careful to pronounce the “v” as a “b.”

October 26, 2011

Of All The Places

When I was younger, I used to believe that out of everyone I knew, I was the only one who not only appreciated nature, but loved it, pined for it, understood it as a perfect part of life. I talked to the trees. Yes, I was one of those. I could spend hours by myself in the woods, or by a stream, or watching the light shift across the surface of a lake. My first memory is of a mountain landscape in Montana, the feeling of the wind rushing up my legs, the blueness of the sky.

I began this blog for several reasons, but it was naive to not count among them connection with other "place people." I didn't know. I didn't even guess that fifteen months from its inception, this blog would have introduced me to complete strangers who now feel like friends, and friends who are now ever-more-deeply that because we've had cause to discuss and share about things that before just somehow never came up. I didn't know that what I'd most appreciate a year later about this space was not the essays or the plant names or the adventures: it would be the community. The understanding that I am not the only one, of course. There are thousands, millions, of hearts that quicken at the same things, and they have been beating alongside mine all along.

My goal at the outset of this blog was to write consistently for one year. Then, to keep going until I'd tackled my Thirty Before Thirty list. I stepped into my thirties this past month. Now what? I'll change the Thirty Before Thirty tab to Life List (I'll get to the Soudan Mine one day). I'll add a few new changes to About Me. And then I'm going to stop holding myself accountable here, at least in the same way. I'll still write posts, certainly, but only when I must, when I've been alone in the woods too long even for me and I need to reach out.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to every reader, commenter, and thinker that has entered this space. It's so good to be a student of the world, and so nourishing to be one among friends.

October 13, 2011

"I Knew"

that night we lay on air
sultry as an Egyptian's exhale.

Nothing stirred but firefly wings
and our gentle fingers, figuring

at the throb and pulse that electrified
such small bodies with sparks.

Their glimmer laced the lake's edge
like a necklace, like lookout smoke,

and we drifted tranquil within, at peace
with each other, our unwearied lips.

The water was blue-black beneath us,
a veiled mirror underneath the cloak

of sky, light discovering light
only when we moved.

-- by Emily Brisse,
originally published in The Talking Stick,
Vol. 20, Editor's Choice award

October 11, 2011

Prairie Oaks Institute

Thanks to Chris Johnson, the Center for Servant Leadership at Gustavus, and the amazing and beautiful Prairie Oaks Institute in Belle Plaine for an incredible weekend: retreat, rejuvination, reflection, and old and new friends--"live encounters," every one.

October 3, 2011

Where We Go

When I was in fifth grade, the rough kids went out behind the middle school building, down to the footbridge that crossed over the stream, and smoked beneath it. I have memories of their black-leather-clad backs, their furtive glances before they’d duck under and step down on the rocks. Later my brother and I would find the stubs of their cigarettes, muddied and stained with red-lipstick. We often wondered, when we sat beneath the bridge ourselves, if their pack would ever show up when we were there, drop from the trail like a thick cloud, and surround us in their haze and age. 

The last time I was in my hometown, I returned to the stream. It had been years, maybe, since I’d walked the banks, strolled with my hand out, tapping the chest-high grasses and small  sunflowers, blazed though the mass and tangle to the water’s edge just like my brother and I had done during so many days in my childhood. It threw me, as I should have anticipated, to see how changed it all was, how grown-over and wild. Still, when I ducked beneath the bridge’s new wood, its sturdier structure, I glanced over my shoulder, licked my lips, and caught myself peering for cigarettes among the rocks.

I found one, wedged just so between two dry stones. But I considered it and its subsequent memories for as long as it takes to toss a pebble into the water, as long as it takes that pebble to sink. My thoughts skimmed on to the boyfriends I’d led to that bridge, the way we sat not under but on top of it, our backs against the wood, our legs dangling off its edge into air that was, for us, spectacularly open. Our whispers and bursts of laughter filled up the evening sky with simple, warm breath. I remember leaning toward one boy, right before a kiss, and whispering, “I am so lucky.”

I didn’t know then how true that was. When I thought of the rough kids with their attitudes and bloodshot eyes, it always seemed like a life they had chosen.
Years later, days after revisiting the stream and a week or so into a new school year, I watched my students stepping into and out of my classroom in their specially-selected outfits, watched their pencils furiously filling up their journals, watched the way they wore forty bracelets on both wrists and touched each other in shy, anxious ways. It did not seem possible, did not seem even remotely realistic that such youth and optimism could be connected to anything other than the hope that they so often give me. But then there came this word, heroin, hard and ugly. And I was reminded again of teenagers who, city or not, black-leather or not, cigarettes in hand or something much stronger, have gone under the bridge their entire lives.
I’m not sure what my brother and I would have said to the older kids had they converged on us beneath the bridge. I was a protective older sister, so most likely I would have grabbed my brother’s hand and splashed through the water quickly and suspiciously away. But if I could go back. If I could grasp then what I think I understand now. I don’t know. Would I have stayed? Sometimes our own experiences are too much in our eyes to see someone else’s clearly. But tomorrow I’ll have these students in my classroom, these leather-jacket and letter-jacket kids, and so many of them just need some place to go. A bridge to walk over or under unafraid.

September 15, 2011

Roadside Poetry

Earlier this week I lead my creative writing students through the creation of a four-line, twenty-characters-a-piece poem inspired by one of the four seasons. Why? Oh, because of this small little fantastically awesome thing that’s happening up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, called Roadside Poetry. I’d stumbled upon RP's website and mission in August, and I immediately knew it was something I’d use in my classroom. I mean, a short poem, a challenging riddle-like form, a stretch of pavement, and four billboards? Surely one of those would get teenagers writing. It had worked for me.

The happy news is that my own submission to Roadside Poetry has been accepted for this autumn. In a few short days, the beginnings of 90,000 sets of eyes will drive past my verses and maybe, hopefully, read them, think about beauty instead of dinner, see the leaves instead of their cell phones, consider change as an image instead of a stress. Paul Carney, the coordinator of Roadside Poetry, said that he wanted people who ordinarily do not read or encounter poems to have access to moments like that. On this day, I cannot think of a more kind-hearted aim. We are all so busy, aren’t we? So burdened by finances and work pressures and family members who deserve more than we can give. A poem—a short, simple one that speaks about the natural world—can be a brief reprieve, if we let it. If we let it in.

Serendipitously, my husband and I, and all of my relatives on my dad’s side, are driving northwest in a few weeks for my cousin’s wedding. I was already looking forward to the trip. Crookston, two hours past Fergus Falls, is new country for me, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I make friends with a fresh landscape pretty easily. Now? Let’s just say October will be a good month. Paul told me the trees will be beautiful then. So I’ll take photos. Of the forests. The farms. The wide open spaces. And, you know, um, those four shiny billboards that end in my name.


September 6, 2011


Today I have returned to my students. I'm always surprised, after the exhaustion of spring, to discover how much I've missed them, how excited I am to be back in the classroom, teaching.

I've spent the past month preparing for the next nine, and somewhere between notes on A Farewell to Arms and rethinking my lead-in lesson on perspective, I reread the critical thesis I wrote two summers ago. I called it "Landing: A Focus on Place in Flyover Fiction." In it, I examined first place--how it's created in writing, effective techniques, etc.--and second those writers from my flyover state who seem to have a handle on such things. I wrote it as a writer for other writers. But this time, because of the headspace I was in, I read it as a teacher, and my planning from that day on changed.

Later, I read in the most recent issue of Orion Erik Reece's essay "The Schools We Need." He talked about many things, but the paragraph that stood out to me was this:
"When students learn about artists from their particular watersheds, they begin to feel their own home place legitimated, validated. Localizing knowledge makes the curriculum more relevant to students' own experience, and it can instill a sense of pride about the places where our students live. 'When I was growing up in these mountains,' wrote Kentucky novelist Lee Smith, 'I was always taught that culture was someplace else, and that when the time came, I'd be sent off to get some. Now everybody here realizes that we don't have to go anyplace else to 'get culture' -- we've got our own, and we've had it all along.'" (34)
Reading this felt a bit like a sign, some confirmation.

So, yes, I will still teach Hemingway and the research process and how to select the very best word. But this year, in every way I can, I will not just be a writer of place, but a teacher of it too. I will say, "I know you think this town is small, that this state is nothing compared to New York and California, that you and those who understand your local experiences count for so very little when held next to THE WORLD. But no. It's not true. Your voice matters. And here are a few names of other Minnesota writers who will tell you so: Robert Bly, Joyce Sutphen, Louise Erdrich, Bill Holm, Paul Gruchow, Patricia Hampl, Sigurd Olson, Jon Hassler, Lief Enger, Kao Kalia Yang, Faith Sullivan, Jude Nutter, Tim O'Brien, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Baxter, David Treuer, Garrison Keillor, Vince Flynn, Joyce Sidman, Judith Guest, Amanda Hocking, Larry Sutin, Alison McGhee, Kate DiCamillo...

August 30, 2011

"At Summer's End"

Early August, and the young butternut
is already dropping its leaves, the nuts
thud and ring on the tin roof,

the squirrels are everywhere.
Such richness! It means something to them
that this tree should seem so eager

to finish its business.
The voice softens, and word becomes air
the moment it is spoken. You finger the limp leaves.

Precisely to the degree that you have loved something:
a house, a woman, a bird, this tree, anything at all,
you are punished by time.

Like the tree,
I take myself by surprise.

-- By John Engels

August 23, 2011

Backroads & Byways of Minnesota

I'm all for just showing up some special where and following special whims, but sometimes--before you spend hours in a car or hundreds on accommodations--it's nice to talk to someone who has experienced a place, who can say See this and Eat here and Attend that with a degree of authority. For those of you interested in exploring Minnesota, Amy C. Rea is the woman to talk to. Not only does she write at two great blogs--Flyover Land and Wander Minnesota--but she's also just authored the guide book Backroads and Byways of Minnesota: Drives, Day Trips & Weekend Excursions. It's pretty clear: she knows her MN.

As I looked through the book, I kept thinking about the time that went into its making. Minnesota is no small state.  Rea covers just about all of it in sixteen different chapters. That's a lot of driving, folks. A lot of  pavement and gas stations and bad weather. But thank goodness she took the time and had her adventures, because we future travelers are the better for it. I was particularly interested in the two chapters about Lake Superior's North Shore and the one about La Crescent to Wabasha. Although I've been to the North Shore a dozen times, Rea's insights and restaurant recommendations made me realize there's a lot I've missed, and as for the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive--what have I been waiting for?

In the book's 230 pages, there's also mention of Betty's Pies, Palisade Head, Sawtooth Mountains, Father Baraga's Cross, Wild Onion Cafe, Grand Portage National Monument, International Wolf Center, Soudan Underground Mine, Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway, Kabetogama Lake, Warroad, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Keg and Cork, Woodtick Musical Theater, Koochiching State Forest, Nisswa Turtle Races, Nya Duvemala, Gammelgarden, Hok-Si-La-Park, Welch Village, Pickwick Mill, Slippery's, Traverse des Sioux, Heritage Tree, Wanda Gag House, Kaiserhoff, The 1898 Inn, Commonweal Theater, Birch Coulee Battlefield, Jeffers Petroglyphs, Blue Mounds State Park, and Lange's Cafe and Bakery.

Sounds a bit like poetry, doesn't it? When you read the names, don't you see something? An image? A story?

Whether you've lived in Minnesota your entire life or have never been within five states of its border, Rea makes about a thousand great arguments for fueling the car and hitting the pavement in search of its secrets. Her book has been a great reminder for me that just as the world is wide, so can a mile be off even the most familiar highway.

August 16, 2011

Bird Ballad #3: ?

There is that bird again, the one I've been tracking for the past few weeks with my ears. I've become so accustomed to the barn swallows and red-winged blackbirds and robins and black-capped chickadees, that this song was something new and startling when I heard it, something sweet and genuinely melodic.


I visited the DNR's interactive bird song page, scrolled through several Minnesota bird blogs, did my best to get a peek at the quick little thing, but I haven't been able to round up a name, color, anything but those six notes.

I just went to our piano and sounded them out the best I could on the keys. Remember those mnemonic devices your piano-teaching taught when you were learning to read music? Every-Good-Boy-Does-Fine, All-Cows-Eat-Grass, Please-Somebody-Help-Me? Well, I had to stand there for a few moments before those phrases came back, but when they did, this was the language I could speak and read:

High C, high C, B, G, A, E.

Does that mean anything to anyone? If not, I'll just have to keep my safari cap on. The little guy wants to be heard, clearly. And I want to say Hey.

August 10, 2011

"Your Hands"

When your hands go out,
love, toward mine,
what do they bring me flying?
Why did they stop
at my mouth, suddenly,
why do I recognize them
as if then, before,
I had touched them,
as if before they existed
they had passed over
my forehead, my waist?

Their softness came
flying over time,
over the sea, over the smoke,
over the spring,
and when you placed
your hands on my chest,
I recognized those golden
dove wings,
I recognized that clay
and that color of wheat.

All the years of my life
I walked around looking for them.
I went up the stairs,
I crossed the roads,
trains carried me,
waters brought me,
and in the skin of the grapes
I thought I touched you.
The wood suddenly
brought me your touch,
the almond announced to me
your secret softness,
until your hands
closed on my chest
and there like two wings
they ended their journey.

-- By Pablo Neruda

For my dear brother and his darling in honor of their new marriage. 
Much love to you both!

August 3, 2011

Hill People: on Lanesboro and Love

In the morning we drive. It's hot and sticky, something I mind only in a vague way--it's just the world working--but because it's my husband beside me, and as he's reminded me a thousand times, he can't take his skin off, we have the air conditioner on, the windows up, the changing landscapes passing us by in glimpses and sun-soaked blurry scenes. We're smiling, singing old high school songs.

Neither of us have spent time in southeast Minnesota before. It's always been southwest-leading roads, beckoning northeast shores, that deep central heart of the state dotted with lakes. But we keep hearing about the Root River Valley. For some reason, there's a pull, so we've fueled the car, packed crisp apples, and now follow lines on a map. First, we pass through farm country that looks no different than the central and western plots we've known our whole lives. There are new names, though: Hampton, Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Pine Island. We ask each other: Could you live here? Could you live there? Because it's a day of wondering, of looking back and ahead, of understanding that there is so much we haven't yet seen.

At the little town of Chatfield, we turn left. Why not? There's a small back road. And both of us have whispered to each other this year about our preferences for these, for fewer lanes, for slower speeds, for a well-placed stop sign. We've decided not to rush today. And that's a good thing, for the road is so windy, full of so many hills suddenly, steep drops and thin rocky inclines, that going fast here is not an option for anyone above sixteen--and we've commented on that too recently, our getting older, the small lines appearing at our eyes, the feeling that life is full upon us now, our tendency to be more careful. As we turn right and travel a road with rollercoaster hills so regular and smooth we throw our hands up and out of momentarily lowered windows, I think, Maybe careful is all right, if it leads to this, if it means I care about this moment, and so many others like it, in a deeper way. Careful doesn't have to mean scared.

Then we enter Lanesboro, a village of 754 residents, full to bursting this Saturday afternoon with day-trippers, like us, unlike us, licking ice cream melting in cones, slinging babies on hips, renting inner-tubes and canoes and kayaks, talking to each other, touching each other, making the most of their summer. We park our car in some shade by the library. Before we cross the street, we hold hands.

In the afternoon, after we've spent the twenty minutes or so it takes to walk around most of the town, peek in some shops, and talk to a few locals, we rent two bikes. They are new and fancy and white. We both like them, and it's only minutes before we're on the Root River State Trail, feeling our bodies propelled down into the valley, down to the river, across wooden bridges, under branches with leaves the size of our faces and limestone ledges hundreds of feet above us on both sides, past purple and white and orange flowers with names I don't know. We stop on the long bridge where the south and north branches of the river meet, and watch sixteen-year-olds climb up on the high, hot metal of the bridge and leap into the churning wet. Could you do that, we ask each other, Would you do that? We guzzle our cold water and observe the people below us on inner tubes and in canoes, so like us, so unlike us, and continue on.

When we reach Whalan we stop at the pie shop for refills of water, and the girl behind the desk offers me her very own nectarine, after I inquire about fruit. There's a moment when I recognize myself in her, recognize my teenaged self: polite, a little shy, anxious to please. No, I say, thank you, though, and we return to our bikes and head back the way we came. I think about that girl. What is her life like, I ask my husband. What are her dreams? We wonder together where, ten years from now, she'll be. For most of the ride we are covered in shade, and the breeze on our necks is cool and refreshing, sweet, like fruit.

In the evening, after more strolling, menu-checking, after a fine meal on the river, and dessert, we begin our drive home. It's been a good day, but tiring. We have sweat on the back of our shirts. Still, at my urging, we take a different route out of Lanesboro. I want to find a lookout. We've been all day in a deep valley, places of beautiful corners and cathedrals of trees, but now I want to see. I want a hill to stand on where we can look back on everything that we've crossed over. We turn right onto a road that isn't on our map, that seems promising in the way of vistas--I'm following my instincts. But the road soon changes to a pale grey gravel edged by miles of thick corn we cannot see over. Corn. We bump along. I think several times about turning around. I consider my expectations: too big.

But, then we emerge. And we are high. Up on top of these southeastern bluffs, surrounded by rolling hills and at the foot of a wildflower meadow.

In my dream-life, my husband leads me out into this field and sings in my ear while we spin a while, slowly. He picks a few black-eyed Susans, holds out a bouquet. He's done both before. Maybe he takes his guitar from the trunk and we write a song right there. It is, after all, our five-year anniversary.

But it's hot, remember, and humid, and late, and he's not checked NPR all day, and there were those hills we biked up on our way back to Lanesboro, on our way here, to this place in our lives, all those hills. Could you live here? Can you see yourself there? Did you imagine this, those years ago, darling?

The truth is, my husband deeply appreciates air-conditioning, and he'd been out of it all day, for me. So this time I don't ask him to come with. I walk into that field alone. And I think, as I look out at the landscape, about how we are most often up but sometimes down, how we are cold and hot, and fast and slow, and rocky and smooth. How we are like and unlike everyone else on earth. We know we have the right fuel in the car, and so much of it, my God. We are careful like that. So let's take that turn, who knows where it leads. It could be up or down, right? We could be disappointed at the other end: more corn, more corn, more giant, sustaining corn. Or we could be mesmerized. Struck full with gratitude. A hilltop field so wide and beautiful it doesn't matter if one of us is in it and one of us is not, because when I look back I realize it encompasses us both.

August 1, 2011


We like to go for bike rides when the sun is sinking and everything swims in light. There are wheels under us, but aside from the ends of sidewalks--bump down, bump up--we could be floating along a quick river. Maybe we are.

"Name the colors that we pass: Go!"
Golden red, golden green, golden yellow, golden gold, a coppery blue.

In August, after a summer of good rain, everything seems to blend together in a gnarly mash of arms and leaves and branches and legs. It's all touching, straining after another finger, another wrist. We ride by and see ten-thousand embraces.

We are all a little bit desperate this time of year. We still have weeks of heat. But nothing is endless. Not even the sun.

When we glide home there are stars, and we whisper.

July 26, 2011

Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet

I could say I had a hard time selecting my final Thirty Before Thirty "set in Minnesota" book. I could talk about John Hassler or Patricia Hampl or Carol Bly. I could write a very cerebral review, I suppose--you know, go out with some literary chops.

But I'm a sucker for kids books.

Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet came out in late 2010 to much fanfare, and it's been reviewed in multiple places, so the only thing I can really add to this conversation is another dose of love. Photographer Joe Rossi traveled the wild corners of the state in search of letters etched in the landscape, in the bodies of trout lilies, in the ears of cottontail rabbits. David LaRochelle's text matches up with the photos in clever ways ("Overhead or on the ground, Peeking, sneaking all around, Quietly these letters lie, Ready for your roving eye.") and adds in fun facts (There's a wildflower called butter-and-eggs. Who knew?). It's a book you could read in three minutes or three hours, a book you could read to thirty kids or the single dreamy one still inside you. It's an activity and a meditation. A brilliant idea. And my bet? A Minnesota classic. Thanks, David and Joe!

July 20, 2011


ablaze, afire, ardent, bake, bask, blaze, blood-hot, boil, broil, calefaction, calidity, canicular, calorify, chafechar, close, combustible, desire, diaphoretic, dog days, ebullient, enflame, enkindle, estiferous, excitement, ferocity, fervor, fever, fieriness, fire, flameflushfrizzle, fry, fury, glow, grill, grow hot, heatwave, HOThot spellhot weather, hot as pepper, ignite, incalescence, incandescence, incinerate, inflame, intensity, kindle, melt, molten, on fire, oppressive, oxidate, passion, perspire, piping hot, plutonic, rage, roast, scald, scorch, scumfished, sear, seethe, set on fire, singe, smoking, smoldering, sodden, steam, stifling, stuffy, suffocating, sultriness, sun, swelter, tepefy, toast, torrid, torriditywarmth, white-hot

What'd I miss?

July 19, 2011

Lake Rebecca Park Reserve

The Big Woods. In the early 1800s, pre-settlement, huge stretches of Minnesota were covered in dense elm, basswood, sugar maple, and oak stands. When the French explorers came here, they noticed that these trees were taller and larger than those in many of the other forests they'd traveled through, so bois grand, they said. Big woods.

Big, beautiful woods, I said, as I walked along the extensive trails at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, just outside of Delano. My mother and I had met there for a picnic: chicken salad and crackers, a green apple, fresh-picked strawberries, and cold water. As we explored the quiet beach, the busy playground, and the shady walkways, I thought about those early-1800s years and how Minnesota looked then. One of my childhood dreams was to be an explorer, to walk over land few had seen. Although the many acres that make up Lake Rebecca Park were discovered long ago, ambling through it gave me a bit of that experience, because--what is up ahead of that bend, you know?
Today, just two percent of the original Big Woods remain in Minnesota, due to initial tree cutting for timber, firewood, and farmland. The Three Rivers Park District--one of my favorite organizations out here west of the Minneapolis metro--is doing their best to restore parts of the land to its original state, plump full of creatures like the pileated woodpecker, the little brown bat, the barred owl, the blue-spotted salamander, the chipmunk, and trees like the burr oak and green ash.

I wish them all the luck in our big world. Parks like these are literal gifts to their community. How lucky we are to have places to go that are tucked away, that are wild, that are full of the best and most rejuvenating kinds of sounds and smells and sights. Every time I discover a new one around Minnesota, I can't imagine living anywhere else.