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"?

4 comments:

  1. Love, love, love the Dugout. I think the owners have done an exemplary job of not commercializing it.

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  2. Is it any wonder that we BOTH claim such a proclivity? Now I see we actually spent our childhoods together: amidst those grasses, waist-deep in that water, fending off that inevitable prairie chill and wind. So glad to have found you, childhood friend.

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  3. PS: There was a wonderful article about Laura and her daughter in "The Believer" a few years back. Most highly recommended.

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  4. Amy -- I too loved the Dugout. There were only a few other people on the trails when we were there, and all the sounds were the same as they were in the books. Lovely, lovely.

    And Robin: so that's where I recognized you from! :) I'm so, so glad to know you, too.

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