June 30, 2011

Lake Sagatagan

I have several "favorite places on earth" that range in location from gardens in Germany to cliffs in Hawaii to some crazy peacock ranch in Lubock, Texas, but one that is closer to home is Lake Sagatagan. Apart from its beauty, it's one of the only lakes I know (outside of The Boundary Waters) that has both a no development and no motor policy. There are a few St. John's University buildings, including the chapel, but other than that, the lake is surrounded by light and dark greens: maple, oak, birch, elm, pine, lily pad, bulrush, water iris. The water is a perfect cold, a perfect clear. And canoes are king.

Two weekends ago, I went canoe fishing on Sagatagan with my Dad-o. It was an overcast day, but that made the sunnies easier to see, and I've always loved being choosey with the fate of my worms. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven -- up they came, energetic and yellow-bellied and big enough to eat, and I wondered aloud why I'd let a year pass since I'd last made time for the canoe, for fishing rods and nightcrawlers and an afternoon at the lake I've come to for most of my life.

The best part of the afternoon was when Pop hooked a bigger fish with his rapala. It took ten minutes of struggle, of detangling the line from the weeds, of waiting the bugger out, before a monster big-mouthed bass emerged, and I am not ashamed to say I screamed! for the sheer joy of it! the shock! because I've never been witness to such a big fish being pulled from such shallow water. My lack of restraint made my dad grin, which made me grin all the more, because--hey--life is sometimes so right you've just got to shout.

Where are your favorite places on earth, friends? 
I have a few extra shouts in my belly, just waiting...   :)

June 24, 2011

The Heartland

The other weekend I took a road trip to visit my grandma. To start, I drove straight west on Highway 7 for two hours, then southwest for another two. I hadn't made this particular trip by myself maybe ever, and for a while I lost myself in my college CDs, the open windows, the sunshine highlighting the tops of hills and the bellies of little crooked streams. We'd had days and days of rain, so the land was lush.

It didn't take long, though, maybe an hour west of Minneapolis, before I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of farms. Grain, dairy, turkey--they spread out on each side of the highway, patchwork squares extending into the horizon. Flyover Country.

I did not grow up on a farm. My grandmother did, in Iowa. Two of my cousins did, in Pipestone. A few of my high school friends did: Elisha, Robyn, Mary Jo.

But, no. What many easterners and westerners might think about the heartland--everyone tied somehow to a barn and a silo--isn't true, at least not true for most of us, not anymore. My family bought milk from the store. We didn't have a cellar. There were no fences to mend or cows that got out or dinner bells to ring. Waking up for chores at five a.m. was something I only heard about, like a war story, and on those below-zero winter mornings, I thanked the Lord that I was a businessman's daughter.

Still, I am a child of this region, and though the intricacies of farms and farmers are unfamiliar to me, I've watched the fields every season of my life, always aware of the height of the corn. 

So that morning it felt like a betrayal, a jibe against something I should have admired, when I found myself admitting that the acres of farms I was passing were not beautiful. What was aesthetic about a flat square of soil? About box-shaped homes? About yards filled with implements and old tractors and ramshackle sheds? There was not landscaping; there was function. An elbow of sturdy oak woods left to stand as a windbreak on the northwest side of the house. Lilac bushes, tall and wrangly, along the highway for some semblance of privacy. Worn tractor tires turned over next to doorsteps and filled with dirt, sprigs of basil and chives growing inside. A mousing cat waiting at the end of a gravel driveway with no ears.

Surely it's because of such images that some leave for mountains, for vast oceans, for cosmopolitan high-rises that do not, for all their height, overlook one plot of uncultivated land. I can understand that. We live in a time where we have every right and ability to choose the view from our windows. To follow our hearts.

I, for one, have always chased beauty. My desire to travel, to experience every faraway corner of the world is so strong, that it often drives my husband crazy and leaves me anxious for all I have not seen, for all I might never see, as time does not stop, as I keep getting older, as the rains keep falling and the sea levels keep rising and the islands keep sinking into places beyond my reach. There are moments when I am hyper-aware of all that I’m missing.

But then in the midst of those thoughts, in the midst of a morning drive west through farmland, I crested the smallest possible hill on the quietest stretch of highway in the most unassuming part of the Midwest, and a black calf was in the middle of the road one hundred yards ahead, just standing there under the wide sky, skinny-legged and unsure, glancing toward the fence he’d squeezed through.

I stopped the car. I got out. I walked a few steps toward him, a corn field on my left, a corn field on my right. Clouds were rolling in, tinting the land. I kneeled on the pavement. The grasses swished in the ditches. Birds called from fence posts. And we looked at each other, he and I, for a long time.

This essay was also published on Minnpost.com.

June 20, 2011

"Happy is England"

Happy is England! I could be content 
To see no other verdure than its own; 
To feel no other breezes than are blown 
Through its tall woods with high romances blent: 
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment 
For skies Italian, and an inward groan 
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne, 
And half forget what world or worldling meant. 
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters; 
Enough their simple loveliness for me, 
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging: 
Yet do I often warmly burn to see 
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing, 
And float with them about the summer waters. 

-- by John Keats

June 15, 2011

Laura Ingalls Dugout Site

Is it any wonder that with childhood books like these I've developed a proclivity for place-centered literature?

Over Memorial Day weekend, my mother accompanied me to Walnut Grove in southwestern Minnesota for a very specific purpose: to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. I would have gone with no one but her. She read all the Little House books to me when I was a child, and some of my most vivid memories from my single-digit years are a concoction of her voice, the inevitable (if imagined) winds off the prairie, the quilt my mother and I were often cozied under, and Laura's flapping bonnet. To say I loved these books is an understatement. They were one of my earliest experiences of living vicariously through the lives of others, of traveling through words.

The museum itself is not much--lots of books and souvenirs and several replicated late-1800s buildings. But we had come to Walnut Grove mostly to drive a mile and a half north of it, to visit the original Ingalls Dugout Site where the Ingalls family had passed several months in a sod home literally dug out of the river bank. I was hoping, as we drove down the winding gravel road, for something less commercial, more natural, more like the descriptions Laura gave of her surroundings that, as a young Minnesota girl, I could both imagine and recognize.

Something like this:
"Laura...saw a grassy bank, and beyond it a line of willowtree tops, waving in the gentle wind. Everywhere else the prairie grasses were rippling far away to the sky's straight edge. ... There was only the high sky above her, and down below her the water was talking to itself."

From the golden Alexander, to the dandelions, to the creek lined with plum trees that was audibly rushing--climbing up the banks, submerging logs and trees, creating those swimming holes Laura described--I was content. This was the world I remember. This was the hill she played on. This was and still is a hard, unforgiving, but beautiful landscape, one I'm thankful to have known in both literature and life. 

Someday I will read these books to my children. Then I will bring them here. I will let them run down the hill strewn with wildflowers, their arms flailing, their laughter echoing, their bodies so comfortable and free.

I will say to them, a little girl lived here long ago. Many things have changed since then, but others--perhaps the most important things--have not. Slow down now, just for a while. Be still. Watch "the prairie grasses swaying and bending, and yellow flowers nodding." Did you see how the "birds rose and flew and sank into the grasses. [How] the sky curved very high and its rim came neatly down to the faraway edge of the round earth"?

June 13, 2011

Plant Literate #5: Wild Columbine

For the uninitiated, prairies call to mind only a few colors: green, yellow, brown--or some mix of the three. In actuality, though, the myriad wildflowers found amid the grasses and on their edges are multi-hued and brilliant, deserving of all the second-looks they inspire.

Say hello to the wild columbine.

My mother and I guessed honeysuckle first, as its little bell-flowers hang similiarly and smell just as sweet. But later we were corrected, and happily so. I would have hated to miss out on details like this: boiled, it can be used for hair wash; and crushed, its seeds can be rubbed on palms as love potion. Why not? You'd certainly smell delightful.

The wild columbine is my fifth Thirty Before Thirty plant, and I must say I've adored this part of my list. I've paid so much more attention this spring, reallyreally slowed down and looked and examined and sniffed and listened. List or not, blog or not, I think I've found a hobby I will enjoy for the rest of my life.

June 10, 2011

Pipestone National Monument

"When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything." -- Black Elk 

I can promise you one thing: when my brother and I, as children, careened around the Pipestone National Monument's Circle Trail (through prairie, over rocks, up cliffs, down ledges, through prairie), we were not thinking about prayer. And we certainly didn’t whisper. The sacredness of the place never crossed our minds. Our parents were from Pipestone, the small southwestern Minnesota town where the monument resides, and the park seemed as much our backyard playground as it had once been theirs. Besides, we were eight and five, and it was just cool to climb stuff.

But when I was older—twelve, maybe—I was given my first pair of dangling, red pipestone earrings, carved into the shape of leaves, and later—at fifteen?—I received a small ceremonial pipe. There were conversations surrounding these gifts, explanations of how the pipestone was quarried from the earth, how it had been a part of Native American religious traditions for centuries, and how these were not earrings to be handled carelessly or a pipe to be used in jest.

"No matter what the tribes were warring over," my mother said, "they could come here and quarry and be promised peace. Many people believe that the smoke from these pipes carries prayers to the Great Spirit, to God."

I recently revisited the 260 acres of active quarries and native tallgrass prairie. It was a beautiful day—bright blue skies, large shifting clouds, a landscape alive with the movement of spring into summer. I walked past the ledges where my brother and I used to run. I stepped over small streams that we used to leap. I screamed over the wiggly tent caterpillars oh-so-temporarily trapped in their nests exactly as I would have done twenty years before.

The stream, so often a measly trickle in my memories, was pulsing with the presence of our recent long winter, and I walked carefully over pipestone-made bridges, tread slowly along the muddy banks, and had to turn around when one part of the path had been overrun by surging water.

Winnewissa Falls was as wild as I had ever seen it. I inched close enough so its cool spray coated my face, so there was nothing possibly to hear but the pounding the pounding the pounding the pounding.

There was a kind of sacredness in that: letting everything else be drowned out.

When I passed the Face in the Rock, a Dakota or Sioux brave watching Winnewissa, I recalled another story about how young Native American men would leap from one stone ledge to another. They did this to prove themselves, or because they were told to in a dream, or just for fun—I can't quite remember—but what’s important is something inside of them trusted that the air would carry their bodies, that when they set down their feet, they would meet with something solid, something as red and a part of them as any beating heart.

Although I’ve matured since my earlier visits, am more respectful of the quarries and field totems and their living history, there remains much about the monument I don't know or understand. It could never be any other way: this land is not mine. But its wind still moves the pipestone dangling from my ears in the same way it moves the grasses. Its trails and cliffs and rock still speak to the eight year old, the twelve year old, the thirty year old inside of me. I promise: it still opens my spirit and floods in.

June 8, 2011


"For a year or two I had been looking at trees, fields, landscape with a secret, strong exaltation. In some moods, some days, I could feel for a clump of grass, a rail fence, a stone pile, such pure unbounded emotion as I used to hope for, and have inklings of, in connection with God."

-- From Lives of Girls and Women
by Alice Munro

June 4, 2011

On Top of a Haybale

One way to spend a Saturday morning:

Drive west until the rolling hills of Wright and Carver County flatten out,
until every other turn left or right off the highway would be onto gravel,
until the thought why not fills you up, flows into your fingers, convinces you to take the next turn.

Stop the car. Step out. Feel the wet mud coating your shoes, the dew still heavy on the long grasses.
Go meet those hulks of friends that smile back sleepily, 
that are grateful to have survived the winter, too. 

Discover that they are wrapped in thin wire. 
That they are much taller than you'd imagined, from behind your window inside your car on the highway.
Place your hands on them. 

You are trespassing.
But they are complicit, and say nothing to discourage you.

June 2, 2011

Bird Ballad #2: Barn Swallow

Nothing fancy here. I'm teaching myself the basics, by which I mean the basics of my day, by which I mean the darn barn swallows that wake me up each morning with their incessant twitterings. I will say this, though: since I've poked through a bird-watching book, identified the creature within the "bluebird" category, and matched its song to the sounds linked below, I seem to have forgiven the little things. Perhaps knowledge makes the heart grow fonder?

My goodness, whatever are they talking about?