Glorious an overused adjective that applies to anything. This time of year, “glorious fall color’ is pasted to descriptions of maple leaves turning red and yellow in New England. And the noun of miracle is forced to serve as an adjective to shill for cleaning products, over-the-counter drugs or products of questionable efficacy. Despite these banal uses, a genuine and glorious miracle happened today. My friend Beatriz raised her hand and took her oath of citizenship. The ceremony closed a circle that began 10 years earlier.
She was a frightened Mexican mother of three on the cusp of deportation when we met in a church pew in 2008. She had no lawyer. Because of my career in government relations, our priest wondered if I could help her. What could I do? I had no experience in immigration law nor had I ever advocated for a person. When I said yes, I worried about what unseen personal entanglements might follow. What did she expect of me? I began uneasily but she quickly put me at ease with her intelligence, modesty, candor and English. We met often at first and went through reams of information on her civil rights. She called attorneys but none took her case because it seemed unwinnable. Her greatest fear was separation from her daughters. What would happen to them? Having two daughters of my own made this case personal.
For the next three years, worries and legal setbacks tried my patience and tested her faith. Then an attorney took her case hoping to secure her status using a recent court decision. We went to court half a dozen times. On the day of her hearing, she came to court after working all night to help a woman in labor. Under withering government examination, she answered questions calmly and graciously. Then she returned to help the woman in labor How did she do it?
She gave birth to twins and, six months later, she and her husband divorced. Then the judge denied her petition and left her vulnerable to removal. A single mother of five girls, she worked two jobs to support them and pay the mortgage. But she had one more chance. Because of spousal intimidation during marriage, she applied for a visa under a provision in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The immigration judge seemed skeptical but agreed to consider her application. Beatriz continued working as the request inched its way through the legal system. She suggested meeting for lunch one day in 2013, the start of our fifth year on this this journey.
She greeted me with a smile much wider than usual. “The judge granted my visa under VAWA. I have a work permit, a green card and can apply for citizenship in three years!”
The news sent me reeling. We had hoped for the visa–but a path to citizenship! She ordered a piña colada to celebrate. Two years later, when he twins entered pre-school, Beatriz juggled motherhood, two jobs and a full course load in criminal justice at a nearby community college. In May, I sat with her daughters in the college field hall and watched Beatriz, in robe and mortar board, accept an Associate of Arts degree with highest honors—4.0. She is the first in her family to earn a college degree. As she basked in the congratulations of family and friends, she was already enrolled in university classes to complete a B.A. degree.
Today was the first time together since graduation. She arrived eyes bright, smiling and wearing a fashionable suit with high heels. We spent an hour before the ceremony catching up our lives and those of our children. She still worked in security at the hospital but over the summer she bought a business. A wine and liquor store.
What?! Is there no end to this woman’s energy, imagination and courage? She was looking for another opportunity when this one came on the market and hired her brother and sister to run the store. “I’m still learning a lot as we I go along,” she said, oblivious to the understatement.
What happened to the frightened young mother I met a decade ago? She is now a confident and accomplished woman of 40, unafraid to try new ventures. Her daughters, whom I’ve known since infancy, are cut from the same cloth. Her oldest, a high school senior, is taking college classes and receiving offers from A-list universities. She wants to be an astrophysicist.
Beatriz’s story is a glorious miracle. We think miracles come as bolts from the blue but I think most of them are quieter and last longer. Her miracle is glorious because she lives with faith in a just universe. She isn’t a Pollyanna or Candide depending on wishful thinking. Her faith took full account of the political, legal and practical realities before her and, no matter how daunting they seemed, she faced them one-at-a-time drawing on a tireless inner strength. Never in 10 tumultuous years did I hear a word of compliant, self-pity or doubt.
She thanked me for my support and I was more than glad to give it. For Beatriz, the journey takes her toward her vision of better life. And I have the honor to be her compañero or companion on the way. In her company, I learned lessons in faith, humility and courage; and had the privilege of living something of an immigrant’s inner reality. Along the way, I came to see myself, my country and immigrants from another perspective. Beatriz is an avatar of the kind of person who in their millions made America great. Her vision, drive and humility are the qualities that made our diverse nation what is and—I hope—what it will continue to become.
People who knew my father often said I was the ‘spittin’ image’ of him. And there was some truth to that. We walked with similar gaits, we were similar about the eyes, though his were blue and mine were brown. Beyond that, however, we diverged. Dad was an extrovert while I enjoy solitude as much or more than company. Since the advent of DNA tests, ‘spittin’ image’ takes on a new meaning.
For a long time, I ignored the offers to send my DNA to the genealogical company to learn about my ancestry. My family tree is well-documented back to England in the 1630s. I recall my shock and disbelief when I discovered my father’s earliest ancestor (Abraham Newell) and my mother’s, (John Livermore) arrived in Boston on the same ship. They were English Puritans fleeing the persecution of Archbishop William Laud. They must have become acquainted during their three-months voyage before landing in Boston and going their separate ways and intermarried Puritan descendants in New England and New York. The last immigrant to marry into my family came from England in 1814. My parents married in 1941, uniting two families who voyaged together 305 years earlier.
I gave in, ordered the kit, spit into the tube and sealed the sample inside its mailer. Why am I spending $79 for this? I wondered. What can it tell me about my ancestors that I don’t already know? I sent it off, confident of the results: a preponderance of British DNA with soupçons of French from the invading Normans and maybe a drop from the marauding Danes.
With surnames liked Searle, Christie, Livermore, Baldwin, Cook, Eliot, Stewart, Smith, Wheelock, Wood, Douglas, Taylor and Warren, I had no doubts my family originated with the English and Scots. Searle is one of the commonest of English names–like Anderson in Minnesota. My extended family tree included only one set of Dutch ancestors and that one very recent. We came from what was called ‘good Yankee stock,’ a phrase better fitting the bull of highland cattle. What they meant was, we were white Protestants from Britain or maybe the Netherlands.
Six weeks later, when the email with my results arrived, I opened the link to see a colored pie chart before me. Things aren’t always as they seem and neither am I. A large lemon wedge—41%—said West Europe (France, Netherlands), an apple green wedge—19%—said British (English, Welsh and Scottish), and a gray wedge—40%—said ‘Other.’ That’s me? Not what I expected!
And what’s in the ‘Other?” That category included 18% Irish, 11% Scandinavian, 7% East European and 2% (possibly) Italian. In the State of Minnesota, it’s useful to claim some Scandinavian ancestry. Call it street cred. Besides, it’s good for my marriage since my wife’s great-grandparents emigrated from Norway.
What does this mean in the end? Or doesn’t it mean anything?
Regardless of what the DNA tells me about my past (and it’s fun to speculate and wonder), my identity is determined by where I live, whom I live among, the language I speak and the cultural norms that guide my thoughts and actions. You and I are creatures of the present time. Our strains of DNA entered our family lines long before recorded history when the coastlands and rivers were the crossroads for traders and raiders, for people seeking refuge from other groups or finding good land for crops. The Saxons, Frisians, Franks and Gauls settled in Britain before the collapse of Rome. Migration and trade after that deepened the mixture. The various genetic strains represent peoples and cultures that, like yeast in bread dough, are invisible but inextricably bound up with the mass of flour and water.
Unless our ancestors and immediate family lived in extremely isolated communities, it’s probable our DNA contains many contributions from varied sources over time. Were it possible (and I wish it were), you and I might look back in time to see our common ancestors and their struggles or even the moment when they received the genetic link that binds us now. I know that moment was there—is there—but we can’t see it.
How you and I see each other has more to do with culture and language than invisible DNA. Yes, we may notice differences in racial traits at first but, unless either of us is a bigot, we aren’t likely to linger for long on skin tone or the shapes of eyes and noses. We will be listening to expressions of values, ideas, opinions, humor among many other traits. You and I will know the other by our demeanor; whether we smile or glower, act kindly or harshly, with modesty or egotism. These things will quickly tell us whether we are apt to be friends.
I have no idea where my most ancient origins began. My veins don’t run with the ‘pure blood’ from any group—and it’s likely yours don’t either. Though we are free to interpret our past as we choose, there is at least one over-riding lesson we can draw from our DNA. Racial purity is a lie.
You and I probably share a relationship much closer than we may suspect because it isn’t obvious on the surface. But if we pay attention to our DNA, we can’t sustain the fiction that we are so different from others as to put them in a separate category. There is no ‘other;’ there is only ‘us.’ Our DNA makes us children of many fathers and mothers; at the level of our DNA, we are the ‘spittin’ image’ of each other.
To most people, June 6 is D-Day but, in my family, it’s Mom’s birthday. Born Janette Elizabeth Christie in Montclair, New Jersey, she would be 100 today had she lived. Why do I pay special attention to her birthday 17 years after she died?
A century mark is a reminder of our connections forward and backward through time. My mother knew people who had fought in the Civil War, and sailed on schooners; her father gave her rides in open cockpit biplanes, and she watched men walk on the moon. She grew up at the end of WASP era of social prominence in her grandmother’s Victorian house where domestic servants cleaned, cooked, gardened, and kept an eye on her. Her family ‘summered’ by Lake Piseco at the Irondequoit Club in the Adirondack Mountains where she learned to fish for trout and shoot a rifle. A bright student, she skipped a grade, spent her 13th year in France with her aunt and uncle, and returned home, a francophone. Thanks to her grandmother’s generosity, she graduated from Simmons College, a private institution that prepared women for the professions. She chose library science, and her peers chose her as president of the student body. Although she graduated with highest honors, we knew nothing about that until we wrote her obituary.
“Just call me Jane,” she said as her introduction; Janette Elizabeth appeared only on legal documents. Jane is a solid, everywoman name that fit her well. It doesn’t sound snooty and pretentious, like Janette. She married in 1941, and passed the war in New Jersey. Afterward, she, my father, and her brother bought a farm in Minnesota, although neither man had any experience. She agreed to this—provided the house had central heat and an indoor toilet. Over parental opposition, they pooled their life savings and bought–sight unseen–280 acres of eroding fields, sloughs, cut-over woods, a sluggish river, and shabby buildings. On April 10, 1947, Jane, my Dad, my sister and I arrived in Minnesota at the play they called ‘The River Farm.’ Never did I hear her utter a regret over trading the wealth and status of Montclair for life on a Minnesota farm.
She kept the farm accounts, cooked, raised children, drove tractors as necessary, fed lambs with a bottle, gardened, and canned vegetables. She hosted meetings of the University’s Home Extension Service. Jane knew who she was and easily made others comfortable regardless of their background. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions of better-informed farm women with 9th grade educations. Jane simply engaged them where they were and went from there. She made fitting in look easy, focusing on values rather than possessions. After she died, we discovered fine silver and crystal I had never seen stored in the basement. It was like her to think the silver platters from Tiffany’s were out of place in a Minnesota farmhouse.
We all remember our mothers for their meals—famous as acts of love. Jane excelled at mince meat pies, gravies, and was a whiz at turning left-overs into new meals. Ever frugal, she made Christmas ornaments and gifts to save money. But she valued culture and, on Sunday afternoons, she listened to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Besides the St. Paul Pioneer Press, she read the Saturday Review of Literature, worked crossword puzzles, excelled at Scrabble, and read literature. A grammarian, she made certain her children knew when and how to use ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘lain’ and ‘laid.’ She loved Winnie the Pooh, and sprinkled her conversations with phrases like “a little smackeral of something.” A hopeful and intuitive person, she told me, “Don’t plan anything, something good might turn up.”
Whether it was nobless oblige or not, she quietly set about serving others without notice or condescension. She catalogued books at the county library, organized a library for a law firm. As a Civil Air Patrol officer, she served as the squadron’s administrative officer. Ten years after we arrived, the voters sent my father to the Legislature for 12 terms, and Jane became his advisor, critic, strategist, and editor without dropping her other chores. Later in life, she read stories to children at the local library. She filled her life with many roles: wife, mother, grandmother, librarian, advisor, and reader. She was many things to many people but to everyone she was always herself. A simple plaque on her kitchen wall aptly summed up her life: ‘Bloom Where You’re Planted.’
Jane lived at The River Farm for 53 years until her death in October 2000. On that bright autumn afternoon, she lay in her bed, looked out the window, and her spirit drifted across the fields to the river and into the trees beyond. We buried her ashes in the woods near her mother, brother, and aunt. Later, my father joined her. It is a quiet opening on high ground where woodland phlox bloom in June, and song birds call.
“Just call me Jane” was her calling card. She planted her life at The River Farm, and bloomed with values, virtues, mores, and manners that she gave as gifts to her children. Her presence was a gift of unmerited grace, and pausing to recall and celebrate Jane is like a Pentecost, a moment when the fires of love, compassion, and grace rest on us like tongues of flame.
I park my car on the county road and stand next to the mail box. The brisk November wind wipes clean the azure sky, and the sun casts sepia light on the corn stubble, grass, and leaves. From the mailbox I can see our farm in a glance. This is where I first saw the farm as a child. We called the place home for 67 years. Now, with my back to the wind, I take a last, long look good-bye.
My arrival in Minnesota is an eidetic memory, a tenacious image of a passing moment. The rain had stopped but the yellowish clay road is boggy. After days on the road, Dad stops the gray 1940 Plymouth on the shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. The lane downhill to the farmhouse is a slick rut of black mud. I sit in the back seat with my infant sister. Low clouds and pewter puddles add to the day’s gloom surrounding the weathered farmhouse with peeling paint, and the slattern barn in need of boards. The moment we stop among the dark, loamy fields and soggy stubble comes back to me. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three years old, and this is my earliest memory of home.
My mother’s family followed the sea, and Dad’s pursued business but my parents threw off city life in New Jersey to go farming in Minnesota. Seeking an independent life, they ignored parental warnings about being broke within six months, and entered a partnership with Rob, Mom’s brother. With audacious courage, my young parents invested their life savings, our future, in a farm they had never seen. They couldn’t turn back.
Our place—the River Farm–consisted of a ‘T’-shaped tract totaling 280 acres. Three 40-acre parcels ran south from the county road and intersected 160 acres of bottomland forest and marsh running east to west along the LeSueur River. Sluggish in summer, the river flooded in spring and on this day its water covered half our fields. A low ridge snaked through the woods and ended a mile away at ‘Bunker Hill’ on our south line.
They bought the farm from John Jennison, my great-grandfather, a shrewd, self-educated, small-town banker. He wore dark suits, lived in a three-story Victorian house, and signed his name with a modest flourish. He loved poetry, and I recall him declaiming, ‘Listen my children and you shall hear/ Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …’.
When Uncle Rob told him which farm we wanted to buy, grandfather asked, “Why do you want that one?”
“Because we like the view,” Uncle Rob replied.
“Rob … you can’t farm a view!”
Dad learned the practical tasks of farming by asking the neighbors ‘dumb questions’ and studying the bulletins published by the Agricultural Extension Service. By ones and twos, he bought cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. We had a small tractor but for years Dad made do with reworked horse-drawn equipment he bought at auctions. When they closed the books on 1947, the farm earned $2,300 and spent $13,000. “We are really in the red,” Dad said.
We were ‘foreigners’ for a time—Yankee Easterners. In our township of German immigrants and their children, we heard accented English in phrases like ‘come here once,’ and ‘so you did that already now.’ Like all newcomers, we stood out in unexpected ways. We milked the brown Guernsey cattle of the British Isles but our neighbors kept
herds of the black and white Holsteins from Germany. Our tractor, a gray Ford-Ferguson, seemed tiny next to the neighbors’ large green and yellow John Deere’s and crimson McCormick-Deering Farmall’s. Everyone shopped in Janesville at Wiste’s Red and White Grocery, bought feed at the Archer Daniel’s mill, and sold grain at the Huntington elevator. However, on Sundays the Mittelstaedt’s attended St. John Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), the Eustice’s went to St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we attended St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Despite our peculiarities, we quickly folded into a closely knit rural neighborhood. During lean, post-war years, everyone swapped labor and equipment at planting and
harvest. This unspoken mutual assistance pact lasted until everyone owned all the equipment they needed. We lived securely, and no one locked his doors in case a neighbor needed to use the phone. Three years passed before our phone arrived, a wooden box with a crank. Eleven other parties shared the line and eaves-dropping was expected. Such neighborly intimacy lasted until the 1960s when private phone lines appeared.
Dad treated farm work like a form of play, a puzzle to solve, a game to win. Possessed of a Protestant’s belief in working out his salvation, he found spiritual contentment in tilling the soil. Farming was a kind of religious stewardship. I was about six when we planted the first of many thousands of trees. He told me about the idea of stewardship and leaving the world better than I found it. The earth was like gold to him—something miraculous to be treated as reverently as sacramental elements. Planting trees and preparing the ground for planting pleased him, and he stayed on the tractor until dusk. In the gloaming, on tranquil May evenings, I heard him whistling Broadway show tunes above the murmur of the tractor’s engine, a contented man.
I was not yet six years old when Dad, short-handed at haying, asked me to steer the tractor and hay wagon. ‘Oh boy!’ This was a rite of passage into becoming a ‘big boy.’ Although I had often steered the tractor while sitting on Dad’s lap, now I would do it on my own. After he hitched the tractor to the hay wagon and loader, I sat the tractor seat, he set the hand throttle, shifted it into gear, and I steered the rig across the field. While I looked through the steering wheel to align the radiator cap with the windrow of hay, Dad forked the hay onto the wagon. I drove
tractor after that a year before I went to school and learned to read. By the age of 10, my chores included feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs for sale, pulling weeds in soybean fields, and hauling manure, picking up bales, and plowing stubble. As ‘big boy’ chores mounted, I looked for ways out of them.
A creek from our neighbor’s pasture emptied into 50 acres of marshy ground at the center of the farm. The marsh lacked an outlet and the soil didn’t dry out until mid-summer. This struck Dad as a waste of good land and, like a missionary among heathens, he set out to ‘redeem’ it. During the summer I turned nine, soil conservation engineers peered through their transits and drove a line of stakes through our marshy ground. When the dragline arrived, I spent days mesmerized by its work as the huge bucket opened a mile of ditch to the river. After that, a bulldozer shaped the dirt into a levee to keep the river’s floods from our fields. Our project was but one of a greater change reshaping the face of southern Minnesota. In every township, draglines turned winding creeks into straight channels. Bulldozers erased oak groves, brush patches, potholes and sloughs to make way for more fields of corn and soybeans.
No one foresaw that adopting hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and newly reclaimed land would result in bumper crops that depressed prices for corn and wheat. To make up for lost income, farmers planted even more acres, further lowering prices. By the end of the 1950s, we and many others enrolled some of our fields in the Federal ‘Soil Bank’ program to cut surpluses. Ducks and geese changed their migration routes, bluebirds and plovers lost their nesting areas, and it’s been years since I have heard a meadowlark on the farm.
In this small corner of Waseca County, I lived among people whose varied origins and talents shaped my later life. My mother passed on many of her upper-class social graces. She had a college degree as a librarian, spoke French, and encouraged my artistic and literary efforts. Dad focused on teaching me practical skills on the farm in counterpoint to Uncle Rob, a charismatic artist whose idealism never matched Dad’s tenacious persistence. Rob left us after several years to pursue more quixotic adventures.
The Mittelstaedt’s became like a second family to us. Heinz, a German immigrant, had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and his shrewd mind made good use of his limited education. Gertie, his generous, broad-hipped wife, set extra places for us at her table without a fuss. Once, she made room for my sister, uncle, and me at her Thanksgiving dinner when a sudden blizzard trapped my parents in town.
During adolescence, I became a disciple of Ed Iversen, a retired U.S. forest ranger and regular companion on fishing trips and pheasant hunts. He taught me woodcraft, fly-fishing, and introduced Dad and me to canoe trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Opinionated and testy, I could only do things his way or the wrong way. Under his guidance, I learned the elements of ecology and forest conservation, an influence that later led me to write a book on wilderness protection.
Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Geza lived nearby. She had retired from medicine, and he retired from labor arbitration to be a gentleman farmer. A Hungarian Jew, he spoke five languages, played concert violin, and dabbled in writing history. He inspired me to think critically saying, “The mind is a wonderful place to play” over chess games. He was right.
Dad served 12 terms in the Minnesota Legislature while farming and improving higher education was his passion. To advance his goals, he hosted annual summer sweet corn parties for legislators, college officials, and others who wanted to improve Minnesota’s public colleges. Over buttery sweet corn from our field, the guests chewed on ideas, formed friendships, and built a coalition that state colleges into a system of state universities. Though I was then a disinterested teen, I absorbed many lessons in the art of coalition building I would one day need in my career.
I attended a vocational boarding school beginning at the age of 14. An indifferent student, I saw little point to the classes in agronomy, arc welding and carpentry, history, English, and biology. Years later, after college and graduate school, during a career at Cargill, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Second Harvest Heartland, I often drew on the practical lessons and insights learned from the neighbors, and the vocational classes. If nothing else, hours on the tractor seat made me tenacious.
Dad’s active farming ended in the fall of 1961. He rented the fields to a neighbor, took up selling life insurance, and had an auction shortly before I went to college. The stocky auctioneer stood on a wagon and pointed his cane at a plow parked nearby. “C’mon boys, $300,” he called in a rapid sing-song. He tapped the with his cane. “$300. Gimme three, gimme three, three … I see four! Who’ll gimme four-fifty, four-fifty, fifty, fifty …” One by one, the buyers claimed their prizes and we turned a page on the farm.
Many years later, in 1997, after Mom roasted the Thanksgiving turkey and my wife made the pies, the whole family sate table, and looked at the newly fallow fields stretching to the dark trees along the river. We had just finished our 50th harvest. Our last. My parents had managed to ‘farm a view’ that was now covered by a conservation easement. From now on, The River Farm would produce wild grass and trees, not corn and soybeans. The news filled me with unexpected melancholy. I feared the absence of the seasonal rhythms of planting, cultivating, and harvesting would severe a visceral link between the fields that had sustained us and an abiding sense of gratitude.
In the following decade, Dad breached the levees and tile lines, restored wetlands, and planted trees. Despite his good stewardship, I felt increasingly disconnected from the farm as it became something different from the childhood grange that had formed me. Mom and Dad stayed on the farm until the end of their lives. Now they rest across the river on the ridge near a granite boulder among the bloodroot and wild phlox where they used to camp and watch the migrating songbirds. There was a tenacious majesty to their persistence in ‘farming a view’ and bringing about a landscape that reflected their vision. They never described their intention concretely yet they worked at fulfilling it with silent determination.
I haven’t lived at The River Farm for nearly 50 years but I have never left home completely. None of us do. The farm I remember, the one that haunts me, is the farm of my youth where each field presented a distinct face, depending on the crop and the season. I still see the oats turning amber in July with thunderheads coasting along on the horizon. On long-shadowed August evenings with cricket songs, I see corn standing next to velveteen alfalfa hemmed by the woods lining the river. In this promised land of memory, the scene is more artistic than agricultural. This is the farm I where I grew up, and where I still grow up.
As a youth and young adult, I was too green to appreciate the dismal prospects of this soggy tract with its draughty house and battered barns. Now, 70 years later, I am amazed at my parents’ tenacious grit in bringing this run-down farm to a productive peak and then, after 50 years, expanding their vision to turn the fields and woods into a landscape wilder than it was when we arrived. It looks as if we had never farmed it. This morning I came to the farm to hand the keys to its new owners. After a brief history of the place, and a few minutes of small talk, I wish them well as I leave the house.
I get out of my car by the mailbox, the spot where Dad stopped the car in 1947. We held title to this land for 67 years but the land possessed us more than we ever possessed it. This tract of southern Minnesota soil belongs to someone else now but it is still my family’s home in the geography of my heart. My parents, neighbors, and friends still live there in memory. Their words point my way forward, like cairns on a trail across level plains. With my face to the sun and back to the wind, I need only close my eyes to see the farm again as a three year-old because time is fluid and memories flow easily between 1947 and now.
I fish. I fish because it’s been a predestined part of my life since the age of two when my Dad gave me a book; Trout, by Ray Bergman. Published a couple years before my birth, it is a literary classic on trout and how to fish them. In the fly-leaf, my 23-year-old father inscribed his hope we would fish together someday. And we did. For 62 years.
Fishing fills me with wonder because it is ancient and yet still an essential foraging skill in certain parts of the world. In my life, however, fishing is an art, the subject of literature, and imbued with romance. Trout bedazzle me with their cunning beauty. Red and black spots speckle the bronze sides of the brown trout, and the mottled green-black sides of the brook trout are intensified by the contrasting red and white trim of their fins. Brown and brook trout are beautiful creatures of such allure as to weave a spell over those who seek them. I’m hooked.
Trout draw me to the stream and I’m enthralled with the life living along it. A day of fishing infuses me with the sound of running water, and the shrubbery twitters of warblers, thrushes, and catbirds. I see more clearly when blinded by light, broken and refracted on the riffle of water sliding over the shingle of limestone. Delicate mayflies, ephemeroptera, rising from the water’s film, mating and dying, tell me trout may soon feed with carnal abandon. And most of all, I’m enchanted by the trout themselves. The world as they see and know it intimately is a world I can’t enter, except through imagination.
Our home waters is a half-mile of a spring-fed stream in southeast Minnesota. For more than 60 years, my father and I fished this stretch of water flowing along the base of a sheer, limestone cliff where delicate harebells and ferns grow on narrow ledges. A hundred or more feet above us, ground-hugging junipers lean over the cliff like curious gargoyles. Our stream chuckles sibilantly over limestone shards, and gurgles around blocks of stone in the deeper pools beneath the bank. This is where Dad and I first fished together, and where we last fished together.
Early on, along these banks, he taught me the rudiments of fishing. In my first years, Dad fished close by me and, if he hooked one, handed his rod to me so I could learn to play the trout and bring it to the stream bank. Sometimes he stood behind me, his put his hands on my arms, and guided my cast so I learned the timing in setting the hook. If I was too slow, the trout spit out the fly. If I was too quick, I jerked the fly from its mouth.
Beyond that, there was only so much a father could teach a young son, and only so much a youth was willing to learn directly from his old man. Dad fished methodically, patiently working the water before moving farther. From watching him, I learned to cast rhythmically, lay a tiny fly on a spot 25 feet away, and gauge how the currents would affect the drift of my line and fly. After that, I had to learn and develop, by trial and error, my personal style of fishing.
We fished together but separately, keeping several hundred yards of stream between us. When either of us hooked a trout, he or I whistled an alert so the other could watch and enjoy what we hoped was a spectacle. On difficult days, when trout were few, we stopped to compare notes on what flies worked best, or in where in the stream—riffles, pools or deep runs—the trout seemed to be skulking. Or we talked about the type of rises we saw—the lunge into the air after a caddis, the subtle suck that pulled a mayfly under, or maybe subsurface foraging of emergent insects. Wooing a trout entailed fashioning an approach—upstream or down, a particular fly—floating or sunken, a lair—riffles or pools. Out of consultations were memories made and bonds forged.
Decades later, I took my daughters to this stream and taught them fishing the way Dad taught me, then released them to fish on their own. I still see my oldest daughter, red hair pinned up, overalls rolled above her knees, standing in a mountain stream catching one rainbow trout after another. And see my youngest daughter showing off the prowess she honed while working summers on a Wyoming dude ranch. They validated everything I learned from Dad and taught to them.
The anticipation of fishing gives nearly as much satisfaction as fishing itself. The rod, the line, the fishing vest retain residual scents of fish oils and sunlight. A week before the opener, nothing is pleasanter than checking the waders, the boots, flies, and the net. Within these simple tasks lie memories if not stories of other days. Nothing bonds fishermen together like shared memories and tales well told. Some fish stories we tell are true but there are others stories we tell because we wish they were true. And in telling them, they acquire a kind of truth that need not rely on facts.
In the end, whether fishing for food or for sport, I think the idea of fishing and the act fishing constitute a form of seduction. Getting the trout to rise to a fly made of feathers and silk requires great skill. The good cast is an act of physical grace, and choosing and presenting an irresistible fly is the craft of the heart. Like any good seduction, there is a hook hidden within an attractive proposal. But there is an unanswerable question: Who is the seducer and who is the seduced? Is the seducer the exquisite trout that calls the fisherman to the stream to spend his day casting in hope of a conquest? Or is the seduced the trout that falls for the fisher’s proposal, the artificial fly? Like so many pleasurable seductions, both parties share a willingness to seduce and be seduced. And that, perhaps, is the allure of the stream.
Do you write off a mythic account as an entertaining yarn, a bit of folklore or a campfire tale? In other words, does a mythic story lack truth? Minnesotans love to talk about their weather because it is truly mythic in its reality.
Mythic comes from mythos, a Greek word for allegory, narrative, and parable. In ancient times, mythos was used to explain complex, unknowable aspects of life—truths that defied explanation solely by logos—the Greek word for reasoned discourse, an account or an opinion. Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for its weather is truthful when recounted as both logos and mythos.
My state lies in the crosshairs of three major climate systems: moisture streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico, cold fronts barreling southeast out of the Canadian Arctic, and a gentle Pacific flow off the Rocky Mountains. At any moment, any two of them may collide over the state. Non-Minnesotans think our weather is hyped, a fairy tale, like unicorns or Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. It’s true, we brag about our weather to non-Minnesotans, especially around the benighted hot-house souls living in warmer climates. We do it for effect. Our reality inhabits our mythic weather stories.
Today—November 18—is a perfect example. I woke at 7 a.m. to the loud rumble of thunder and strings of cloud to ground lightning, then a heavy downpour that swept floating islands of oak leaves down the street. When the rain stopped, hail plinked against the windowpanes and rattled on the wooden deck like peas in a can. The sun almost shone for a few minutes before heavy mist wrapped us in gray droplets. Sleet hissed as it fell on the leaves. An hour later, the snow began; first as a light flurry, then a heavier fall driven by the wind.
At this time yesterday (2:00 p.m.), the temperature stood at 58° F., the sun shone in a clear sky, and I mowed the lawn for the second time this November. Now, the lawn lies under a pallid sheet of snow, the temperature hovers at 34° F., the northwest wind howls at 35 mph with a wind chill of 21° F.
Today’s storm, like so many November storms , follows the southwest to northeast track of its many predecessors. As the Gulf moisture glides north, it is shunted northeast when frigid Canadian air slams into it over western Minnesota. As I write this, a blizzard with eight inches of snow, and counting, pummels the farms and villages west of Minneapolis. Roads are closed and the plows have pulled back. The plume of heavy snowfall is shifting northeast toward Duluth. For there, it will drift up the North Shore of Lake Superior and bury my cabin under a foot or more. This snow may last the winter. There is a stark magnificence in the North Country’s first snowfall. How I wish I could see it!
We cherish our blizzards because they test us and we survive them! They’re terrifying if we’re caught on the highway but we feel especially cozy and blessed in our homes. Blizzards leave us with eidetic memories. My favorites are those of my childhood on the farm. Heavy snow meant no school and no chores. I was 10 the year we had six blizzards in succession. They all started the same way. Mild temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, then light snow on Wednesday, heavy snow on Thursday, and white-outs on Friday. Drifts of four-five-and six feet piled up in the windbreak behind the house. They rose across the roads like mountain ranges. No one moved.
The county plow struggled to clear a lane by Saturday or Sunday. When it cleared the road, Mom raced to town for a week’s worth of groceries. I went to school on Monday, and things went back to normal until Wednesday, when the snow began again. This pattern repeated itself all of February and into March. We had so much snow the county hired bulldozers to buck the drifts rising eight and 10 feet. Dad hired a ‘Cat’ to clear our 400 feet of driveway—only to have it drift in again. I wondered at a world reshaped by the night wind—and I loved it!
The elderly of the ‘Greatest Generation’ still remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The day began clear with temperatures in the 60’s. Hundreds of men went out hunting ducks and pheasants in their shirt-sleeves and light jackets. Temperatures plummeted, from the 60’s on the 11th to the single digits by the next morning. Without warning, heavy snow—at least 16 inches in Minneapolis—moved in driven by 60 mph winds. When the storm blew out, 49 people lay dead, many of them hunters. This isn’t a myth.
Fast forward a half-century to the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991. It followed today’s storm track. That evening, I took my girls trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We left in a snow flurry and came home an hour later, scuffing through leaves and an inch of snow. How novel! We woke the next morning with 18 inches of snow on the ground, and a total of 28 inches by the time the storm ended two days later. Hardly anything moved for days, and the snow stayed until April. This is a memory, not a tall tale.
Is Minnesota weather mythic? Yes! But it’s not a legend or a fiction. It’s our reality. We don’t create myths to describe the weather of our state. That is isn’t necessary. All need to do is look out our windows and report on what we see. That’s mythic enough.
As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.
Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.
Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.
Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.
State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.
I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.
“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.
Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.
At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.
I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.
All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.
I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.
Let me begin by pointing out the qualitative difference between a tourist and tour-ism. A real tourist is well-informed about what she wants to see and what he wants to do. Modern tour-ism is an industrial system organized to maximize profits for airlines, hotels, national parks and service businesses by co-opting a person’s normal curiosity and then herding them into an artificial experience, too often at the lowest common denominator, for a high price. Industrial tourism, as critic Edward Abbey pointed out, separates the tourist from what he originally came to see by inserting a commercial veil that dilutes the experience the traveler hoped to have.
A true tourist doesn’t expect guarantees of satisfaction from his experience. Traveling is a risk and satisfaction depends on the traveler’s personal resources, her encounters with people she doesn’t know and his capacity to notice new and different things in the places and people he meets. Travel is a state of mined and you don’t have to go to distant countries and continents to be a tourist. No! You can be a tourist, even an explorer, in your own yard. Emily Dickenson roamed the world from her garden and Henry David Thoreau discovered the world from his cottage on Walden Pond.
I often travel to distant places but today I was a tourist in a familiar place as I climbed 500 feet to the crest of a barren ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Today I looked at the route with the eyes of a tourist and saw anew how the afternoon light slanted through the trunks of spruce trees. On the trail, I stooped to admire the tiny blossoms of the twinflower, noted the two-toned green of new fir needles, the tough three-toothed cinquefoil growing in the cracks of a granite knob, and the groove in a granite knob left by a retreating glacier. To be a tourist is to be mindful of the moment, to take nothing for granted, to humbly suspend one’s ordinary assumptions and expectations of the familiar in order to see the extraordinary world in front of him. For me, this keeps the world perpetually new.
Dreaming, learning, and then executing one’s plan of travel is the true joy of being a tourist. My daughter and I read up on Utah’s canyon country and then hiked for days in Arches, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde national parks without a guide or outfitter. Our most important equipment consisted of open minds to we could see what was before us. I travel this way in Mexico. In the company of a Mexican friend, we rode rural taxis through the mountains to attend patronal festivals, visit indigenous pueblos, and share coffee with her friends. We didn’t have planners, clerks, guides, or tour buses to get in our way.
Our experiences weren’t fabricated according to predetermined metrics of customer satisfaction; they occurred spontaneously out of curiosity, mindful observation and personal interactions. So, go on tour, close by or far away, keep your mind clear, your eyes open, and you will be your own best guide.
Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.
During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.
Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.
Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.
The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.
Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.
It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.
My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.
Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’
Have you noticed that seeds and grains possess identical appearances? Wheat planted as a seed is identical to the grain harvested later in the season. If so, why do we distinguish seed from grain when they are the same object? In the answer to the question lies what I believe is part of the mystery in the human story.
A seed planted produces a plant that reproduces itself as a seed. Grain, however, is a seed transformed by human intention when put in the service for other purposes. Further, I believe the cultivation of grain lies at the heart of civilization. Communal life as we know it, and the cultural elaboration that followed from it was, and remains, impossible without the cultivation of grain. Deep beneath the material aspects of grain cultivation lies a bit of cosmic mystery.
A grain appears identical to a seed but it isn’t. Grain’s destiny isn’t as a means of plant reproduction but as an agent of human transformation. It’s subtle but bear with me. Growing up on a farm, I participated in the differentiation of seeds and grains. Each spring we planted seeds to produce a crop in order to harvest the grains. Seeds were the means to the end, which was the harvest—the surplus production and sale of seeds beyond those needed for planting.
Planting corn or wheat each spring was our act of faith because we couldn’t control the weather, prevent infestations of wheat rust or cut worms, or changes in the price at market. Everyone depends on agriculture—grain—but few of us are directly connected to it. Nowadays we know grains indirectly and invisibly through their by-products: flour, grits, pasta and ethanol. Culturally, we think of ‘harvest’ and Thanksgiving as wrapping up a season in hoped for abundance and material security. It’s a warm, cozy idea but farmers are less sentimental. Harvest is do-or-die; the yield of grain per acre is a judgment on their management of resources and risks. The yield is the fulcrum for debt or surplus.
Grain underlies the larger mystery of settled human populations and the civilizations arising from them. Settled populations anchored themselves around and through the cultivation of wild grasses to harvest their seeds as food. Emmer and einkorn are the Middle Eastern ancestors of the modern wheat. Teosinte, a wild grass of Mesoamerica, became the mother of maize in all its forms, and is no longer a wild plant but depends on humans to reproduce.
Careful observation and selection over centuries produced plants able to produce greater yields of grain per acre, withstand droughts, winds, or blights. Humans chose grains with particular traits to maximize production on various soils and environments. Just as our ancestors domesticated or shaped the evolution of wild plants, in like manner the plants and their needs influenced and domesticated the shape and structure of human communities and cultures.
Dry grains, easily stored and transported, and densely nutritious, made it possible to amass surpluses to support larger communities and specialists, like potters, weavers, warriors, priests, and doctors. Cultivation accentuated the division of labor, the creation of classes, and defined gender roles. The particular needs of each grain—wheat, maize, sorghum, oats or barley—distinctly shaped the labor, lives, idioms, customs, and celebrations of the people who depended them. The relations between grains and humans is a symbiotic one. Neither modern civilization nor contemporary grains came into existence without the other.
Before the ‘Big Bang,’ our universe is believed to be compressed into something the size of a grain. Yet, within its cosmic hull lay everything that was, is, and will be. In a nano-second, this proto-universe hurled toward eternity the myriad potentialities that have and still interact, combine, and recombine as suns are born and die, galaxies form and disappear into black holes, civilizations rise and fall, and people are born, nourished and die.
Like the universe before the ‘Big Bang,’ a seed contains all the potentialities of the plant that grows from it and, by extension, the grain contains human intentions whose use will have primary, secondary and tertiary effects on human lives and civilizations. Grain is transformational in the human story. Although grain retains the outer form of a seed, the reason for its existence—its purpose—is altered, as if in a secular version of transubstantiation.