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.