Beyond the Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner (1992. Penguin. ISBN 9780140159943)
William Gilpin, a 19th century promoter of the settlement of the American West, is cast early on in this biography by great fiction writer Wallace Stegner (The Angle of Repose) as the fool, as the comedic foil to the steadfast, dedicated, determined teacher-turned explorer/ethnologist, Major John Wesley Powell:
If William Gilpin was enthusiastically part of his time, yapping in the van of the continentally confident, Major John Wesley Powell was just as surely working against the current of popular optimism in the policies he developed, and decades ahead of it in his vision. It was to be his distinction and in a way his misfortune that in an age of the wildest emotionalism and nationalistic fervor he operated on common sense, had faith in facts, and believed in system.
The major revelation that Powell’s journeys down the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon, to include exploration of the surrounding streams, rivers, creeks, buttes, mountains, and bluffs brought to the American public and the scientific community is this: The line being tossed to the frenzied schools of would-be Californians, Coloradians, Wyomingites, Arizonians, and Dakotans, that the West was a place of vast mineral resources, open land, tillable soil, and timber was only partly true. What, in Powell’s humble estimation, Gilpin and the other “boomers” left out was this: The vast majority of the American West between the Mississippi and the Rockies was arid and nearly impossible to farm. Water was the resource, not gold or silver or coal or timber, that would dictate how and where the West should be settled. It was Powell’s understanding of the ecological fragility of the vast plains, canyon lands, deserts, foothills, and mountains, and the necessity of protecting water for human consumption, that would drive American civilization beyond the 100th meridian.
To this end, Powell, as depicted by Stegner, worked his one-armed slender frame to the bone for nearly forty years of travel, research, and Congressional politicking, always begging and shucking and jiving for financial assistance to back his efforts. When, at the height of his powers, he was given the reigns of both the US Geological Survey, the first consolidated effort to map the entirety of the continental US, and also control of the Irrigation Survey-the bureau that was designated by Congress to set water rights and policies for the arid West-he urged Washington to adopt a socialistic view of water and water rights. Powell’s singular vision, that water in the American West was a resource that needed careful planning and protection, to include the establishment of an elaborate reservoir system to store the snow melt waters of the Colorado and other major Western rivers during the spring for the heat and dry months of the summer (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Powell) ) eventually came to fruition but not without the downfall of its promoter. In the end, Powell’s push for communal farming and water use, which included a ban on new settlement and development while his surveys were being completed (much to the chagrin of Senators and Congressmen from the affected states), was his demise. But Major Powell’s careful research and study of the natural world in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, including the detailed analysis and categorization of the indigenous people, their languages and cultures, was the work of dedication and tenacity that no politician could defeat.
I picked this book up at the gift shop on the south rim of the Grand Canyon because I believed it simply chronicled Powell’s desperate and dangerous rafting trips down the Colorado. But that was a mistake: This book, written by one of the 20th century’s best American fiction writers, is so much more than an adventure story. It is, as the wild fires rip through our beloved West, a prophecy of things that have come to pass. I don’t think it’s difficult to decipher what Powell might think, looking down from the heights of heaven, to see Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver using potable water to green up lawns and golf courses.
4 and 1/2 stars. A must read for anyone concerned about the future of development in the West.
They are old men now. Actually, they are very old men now. But in their day, they were (collectively) a Vice President (and Senator, Ambassador to Japan, and Minnesota Attorney General); a criminal defense lawyer, fur trapper, and gemologist; a Peace Corps diplomat, economist, and outdoors enthusiast; and a plaintiff’s lawyer, Democratic delegate to the 1968 National Convention, and avid hunter/fisherman. They range in age; from Harry Munger, the eldest, to Bruce Meyer, the youngest; 89 to 83. Mondale is 87 and Millard, a mere 85. They have battled cancer, heart attacks, stomach ailments, bowl disease, loss of spouses and children, and a host of other conditions through their “golden years”. Their vision has dimmed and their hearing is sometimes non-existent. Two of the four use C-Pap machines to sleep at night. Their gaits are unsteady: quiet, slow steps to avoid catastrophic falls. And yet, there they are standing on the wooden dock outside Ignace Airways, waiting to board a DeHavilland Otter for a short flight, a flight all of them relish and remember from years of fishing together. They are headed to Elsie Lake in the backwoods of Ontario. The “younger” guys, two men in their late fifties and early sixties (myself and Sammy Perrella), help the fertile octogenarians into the Otter and claim seats. The Otter slips away from the pier. Randy, the bush pilot, fires up the powerful single engine that will lift tons of humanity, gear, and food into the still Ontarian air. And then, they are airborne, returning to the Litman Camp for another week of walleye fishing.
Ross and Jay Litman, two of the four children of Judge Jack and Helen Litman, the camp having been left in the confident hands of the Litman children upon the deaths of the patriarch and matriarch of the family, greet the Otter as it lands. The plane is quickly unloaded. Mike, who is married to Mara-the only Litman daughter, stands on shore, waiting to leave. We pack his gear, some bags of trash and recyclables onto the plane, and Randy shuts the door, ready to depart. The Otter’s piston-driven engine revs. The old sheet metal of the cowling rattles. The newly arrived pick up our bags and begin the process of settling in.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon here back in August of 1978. Oh, we weren’t alone in the Canadian bush. The entire Litman, Munger, and Mondale families, along with the Secret Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and an Ontario Provincial Police officer or two camped with us to provide security for the then-Vice President. My wife hasn’t been back to visit but I’ve been privileged over the past decade to join the four fertile octogenarians, sometimes accompanied by neurosurgeon Dr. Bob (Robert Donley, M.D.), Sam Litman (Jay’s son), and Tony (Sammy Perrella’s son) for five or six days in paradise.
In the bunkhouse, I claim a top bunk and roll out my sleeping bag. The old men do the same. Despite the ages of my bunkmates, the banter is lively and nearly constant. That evening, Ross, Jay, and Sammy man boats to transport us to the walleye “hotspots” for the evening bite. Elsie does not disappoint yielding fish after fish after fish to jigs and spinners tipped with minnows and worms. After a long drive, a short flight, and a few hours of excitement, we eat a hearty dinner and tumble into bed.
The menu and the cooking (handled by Jay and Sammy and Ross) is always exemplary. We eat big, hot breakfasts including eggs, bacon, French toast, blueberry pancakes, egg McMuffins, and sausage. Lunch is a rarity. Dinners this trip include hamburgers and brats, filet of beef, Sammy’s pasta, Sammy’s pizza, fresh fish, barbecue ribs, brisket, and assorted side dishes. There’s not a restaurant in the U.S. or Canada that can top the fare at the Litman Camp. George and I are the designated dishwashers. Everyone, regardless of age or infirmity, pitches in to clean and organize before we leave. Ross, as always, is a whirling dervish of energy, constantly on the move. Jay, to his credit, tinkers, using a methodical approach to repairing the things that need repair.
The political discussions around the dinner table? With an “interesting” election brewing and a former candidate for President in attendance, well, let’s just say that the dialogue becomes spirited; the observations, crystalline.
Despite rainy, cold weather, everyone catches fish.
One afternoon, Ross and I take a detour and end up talking to the only neighbor on Elsie Lake. Imagine, if you can, a lake the size of Fish Lake (near where I live) with only two fishing camps on its beautiful shores. Then take away road access, requiring everyone and everything that comes onto the lake to be either flown in or, during the depths of the Canadian winter, hauled in over the ice via snowmobile. That’s Elsie. Anyway, back to the narrative. Ross and I pull up to the only other dock on the lake to say hello to Ava, the owner. It’s supposed to be a short, “how-do-you-do” session. Instead, the very slight septuagenarian asks us to join her on the deck. I ask the old woman about her personal history and she launches into a story of escape from East Germany, the foreign accent beneath her well-formed English buttressing her words. It’s a harrowing ordeal that ends with Ava escaping to Canada and her mother being shot by a neighbor working as a border guard. Motherless, and having left her father behind, Ava relates a tale of heroism, kindness, pluck, and fortitude that someday might find it’s way into a Munger short story or novel. We thank the old woman for her hospitality and leave, the two of us happy to have learned something of her mettle.
On the only day the sun comes out (except, of course, for the day we leave!) Jay and I motor the pontoon boat across the lake to fish for smallmouth bass. My gold spinner tipped with a nightcrawler or a minnow is an instant hit. I pull in big smallies every fourth or fifth cast. Jay catches a few on flies. The bass are on their nests, depressions created by the fish to lay eggs in Elsie’s cold water. The fish are readily visible, hovering above their nests, aggressively protecting their defined territory. The fish aren’t hungry: just pissed off at our intrusion. It’s an afternoon spent hauling in one and two pound smallies, the fish snapping viciously at our offerings, diving deep and leaping high into the still Ontario air when hooked.
Over the week, we catch a few lake trout, some whitefish (pound for pound the hardest fighting fish I’ve ever tied into), oodles of walleye, tons of bass, and the occasional lunker northern pike (Bruce landing one over twelve pounds). Nearly all the fish go back into the lake with the exception of a few walleye used for the evening fish fry the night before we leave and a few fillets for the fertile octogenarians to take home.
Ever constant and nearby are the dogs: Devin, Jada, and Lilly. The two Labs, Jada and Lilly, can be found under the table at every meal, waiting for Harry to drop them a treat or two. During fishing hours, the dogs are out on the water, keeping their human companions company.
One night, after sufficient reflection and libations, we come up with a plan. Ava, it seems, is in need of a husband. Our collective genius devises a scenario where George, a widower, might be willing to “take one for the team” by proposing marriage to the elderly refugee if, and this of course, is the key, her fish camp is part of her dowry. The plan is never implemented though George seems willing to give it a go. And that’s where the term “fertile octogenarian” manifests: in our rousing discussions of how and when the marriage might, if ever, be consummated.
In our travels, we see an otter scoping us out and bald eagles and countless ducks and geese in flight. Resident loons locate a school of bait fish just off the Litman dock and feed and call for hours. Ross points out native orchids, Minnesota’s state flower, the showy lady slipper, as we walk a wooded trail. A tree frog makes itself known. On the ride from Thunder Bay to Ignace, we see a cow moose grazing in a roadside swamp. There is no question we are in wilderness despite all the fine food, noisy chatter, and relative comforts the camp offers.
“I hate having to do this,” Ross says as he dismantles his rods and reels. We are packing for departure when the Sheriff of St. Louis County utters his lament. Indeed. The next morning at 11:00am sharp the Otter and a Beaver will be idling on the now calm water, waiting to fly us back to Ignace. Five days spent with wisdom, age, and good people will have come and gone. But the memories? Ah, they will be with us forever.
Both sides of my family once worked the land. On my paternal side, my grandfather, Harry Munger, Sr. came from a farming family. His father, Lyman Munger was one of the earliest homesteaders in Otter Tail County. But despite Lyman’s attempts at being a philosopher/farmer, his legacy, at least the one that survives, is that of being more philosopher than farmer. His son, Grandpa Harry, spent most of his life working jobs that didn’t involve tilling the earth, planting seeds, and harvesting. However, Grandpa could not entirely escape the enticement of dirt. As a small child, I spent many an afternoon walking with Grandpa Harry through the narrow rows of his unkempt vegetable plot behind an equally unkempt two-story house in Duluth’s Riverside neighborhood. I remember weeds. I remember tangle. I remember raspberries and little else actually being harvested from that garden. My own father, Harry, Jr., has expressed agricultural aspirations but that’s where his involvement with the soil ends. But on the Zuehlsdorf side of my father’s heritage, the maternal side, there’s a history of industrious husbandry and cultivation. My grandmother’s father was a master farmer who owned four working farms outside Fergus Falls, Minnesota. And then there is my mother’s side of things. Her father, a Slovenian immigrant, wasn’t interested in the soil. Grandpa Jack was many things: outdoorsman; resort builder; miner; salesman; and Mason. But he wasn’t, so far as I can recall, a gardener. His youngest sibling, Steve “Stutz” Kobe, on the other hand, loved to work dirt.
Great Uncle Stutz lived his whole life in Aurora, Minnesota. A quiet, single man who, according to family lore, lost his one and only true love to parental objection, Stutz worked not in the iron mines of the Mesabi Range but as a trackman for the DM&IR, the short haul line that served the mines of NE Minnesota. Stutz lived the majority of his adult life with Great Aunt Ann, my grandpa’s younger sister, a woman of kind heart, small stature, and big emotions. She was widowed early in her marriage and, with Stutz’s help raised two dark eyed, dark haired sons in a little white frame house a few feet away from the DM&IR tracks that Stutz repaired.
Last Saturday, as I planned my vegetable garden, first tilling the sandy soil, and then, slowly, methodically placing stakes in the ground to prescribe each row, I thought of Uncle Stutz and how, more than anyone in my family, his love of gardening compels me to fight off age and competing interests to work the soil. He’s been gone at least fifteen years but as I crawled through the dirt, poking holes in the loam with my index finger, laying in seeds, and tapping loose earth to cover my plantings I smiled at the thought that somewhere, in some other realm, Stutz was watching with approval.
Stutz Kobe wasn’t especially intelligent or ambitious or worldly. He was just one of those older relatives who expressed his love of family in very simple and straightforward ways. When I was working on a log cabin that my buddies and me were building in the wood lot of the old Tynjala farm in nearby Makinen, I’d drive over to Aurora, stop in, and see Ann and Stutz. I’d saunter up to the front door, knock, and invariably, Stutz, who was retired, would answer. His greeting was always the same:
“Markie, Markie! Come on in and have a beer.” Then he’d turn and holler: “Ann, Markie’s here. Fix him a sandwich, will you?”
We’d sit in the enclosed front porch, the windows open to summer heat, the screens keeping the flies and mosquitoes at bay, talk baseball and politics, eat our sandwiches, and sip Grain Belt. One time, when I was single-handily adding a loft to the cabin, I showed up at Ann’s for supper, a hot bath, the obligatory cold beer, and a good night’s sleep in Ann’s extra bedroom.
When I’d visit during the summer, Stutz would pridefully show me his carefully plotted, diligently weeded vegetable garden. Over the noise of passing ore trains rumbling behind the house, I’d study the man’s handiwork and admire his fortitude. I can’t say I consciously knew during those brief moments that I’d someday try to emulate Stutz’s green thumb. But later on, after Rene’ and I married and we moved to the country and inherited an already existing vegetable plot, when I came in contact with Stutz at funerals, weddings, visits, or Kobe family reunions, my great uncle always asked: “How’s your garden?” In truth, while I’ve tried hard to replicate the diligence that Stutz injected into his cucumbers and potatoes and tomatoes and sweet peas and pumpkins and assorted other crops, I’m more Munger than Zuelsdorf when it comes to working the land. Still, Stutz’s quiet, steadfast example manifests every summer as I weed raspberries, hill squash, or pick ears of sweet corn under August’s swelter.
I’ve been blessed with many mentors in my life. Some of those folks were college educated. Others, like Stutz, were quiet, hardworking people whose advice was based, not upon great intellect or learning, but upon finding and accepting life’s simple pleasures. I thought about the lessons Great Uncle Stutz gifted to me last Saturday afternoon as I put away the tiller, dusted off my jeans and scrutinized my newly planted garden.
Minnesota’s Fishing Opener. The Mungers and the Scotts. Used to be the Mungers, the Scotts, the Tessiers, the Nelsons, the Lundeens, and the Listons. It’s a tradition at the Scott place that began 49 years ago by the six fathers. Now there’s only one of the original dads left: Harry Munger, who’s in Florida and won’t be making his way north until the end of May. Used to be, in addition to the six dads, later five (tabbed “The Iron Five” when Jim Liston, Sr. dropped out) we had upwards of twenty boys and men crowding the Scott cabin on Whiteface Lake north of Duluth. This year, there’s an even dozen, including Patrick “Poncho” Scott, Tim “Scurvy” Scott, myself, my brother Dave, and assorted other Scotts and Mungers. Three of my four sons made the trip even though the weather forecast for NE Minnesota calls for it to be cold, windy, and snowy. This is one year the weather prognosticators are spot on.
Thing is, no matter the fishing, no matter the weather, so long as the Scotts invite us, the Mungers show up. Sometimes it feels like we’re intruding on a family outing. That feeling lasts for about a beer or so. Then, as we start catching up on family news and as the old stories start being retold, the warm glow of a half-century of friendship exudes itself and any angst or trepidation about being at Pat Scott’s lovely home, tromping through her kitchen and taking over her place, dissipates.
The Mungers arrive with two boats in tow; Matt’s new pickup towing my Crestliner; and my tired Pacifica pulling my dad’s old Cadillac open fishing boat. Matt and Chris launch the Crestliner at the public landing. I clamber aboard, turn the key, and the 4 stroke Mercury 60 horse purrs like a kitten. In minutes, I’m down the lake, beaching the boat at the Scotts. Chris and Matt and Jack launch the Cadillac and Chris pilots the old aluminum boat across open water, the cranky two stroke Evinrude unwilling to draw gas from the tank, requiring my third son to resort to putt-putting into shore with the four stroke Honda trolling motor. Later, I’ll take the Cadillac out and get the Evinrude roaring, discovering that the line from the gas tank to the motor wasn’t quite snug. Once on shore, I trundle over to the Nickila place, John Nickila being related by marriage to the Scotts, and ask permission to tie up at the his dock. After a brief chat, I move my boat and secure it for the night. Or so I think.
Food is never an issue at Opener. In year’s past, the eldest Scott, John, and his younger brother Tim, had coordinated the menu. My job? Bring the minnows, which I order in bulk from the Fredenberg Minno-ette. Last year, fishing was so good at the Opener, we nearly ran out of minnows but that’s a rarity. Usually, we dump dozens of extra chubs and shiners behind the Scott garage, fertilizing Cabin Circle’s majestic white and red pines. After a hearty meal of barbecue chicken and Pat Scott’s secret recipe hotdish, it’s more conversation, more beer, and a few games of smear. I get Jack to sit in and learn the game. Or at least, he begins to understand the nuances of trump, tricks, and the like.
Saturday morning. I awake to find that the stern line on the Crestliner came loose and that the boat has turned in the wind. My Boy Scout knot tying obviously failed. Chris turns the boat around and re-secures it to the Nickila dock. No damage is done.
The photo above says it all. There’s a couple inches of new snow blanketing the landscape and our boats. Tim and John’s eldest, Joe, take the grandkids up-river in hopes of surprising walleye. The Mungers are content to sleep in. The past two years, we’ve done well on Whiteface, better than any other two-year stretch since the Scott’s began inviting folks up in 1967. This year? Not so much. The Scotts roar back to the dock after an hour and a half of fruitless fishing. Breakfast is gobbled. Dishes are done. And then Matt and Jack and I gather up winter clothes, minnows, fishing gear, and head out in the Crestliner. Chris mans the Cadillac and guides for his cousin Jon and Poncho’s son Christopher. The other boats go back out as well.
It’s cold and windy but, praise the Lord, at least it’s not snowing or raining. Fishing is slow. Matt catches two keeper walleye. I pull in a perch and a pike. Jack remains a Whiteface virgin. The other boats don’t do much better.
Steaks on the grill, coleslaw, bread, and hash browns precede another furious round of smear, political discourse, and lamenting the Twins. Tim, the former AD and baseball coach at Hibbing High School, uses some colorful language to describe our beloved major league baseball team, all of us offering helpful suggestions as to how the Twinks can turn things around. Outside, the little kids poke sticks in a roaring fire. The snow is gone but not the cold. All told, our dozen fishermen hauled in a dozen fish, few of which are keepers. But catching fish, the few years we’ve managed to do so at Whiteface, is ancillary to the Opener. Disappointment regarding our collective catch isn’t an issue. After a sauna with my brother Dave and a few cold adult beverages, Jack and I take on Dave and Poncho in a round of smear. Jack makes some rookie mistakes and given that this is Whiteface, no quarter is given. We get trounced.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever beaten you at smear,” Poncho announces, placing the cards in the center of the table as he smiles. “It feels pretty damn good.”
Sunday morning. In the old days, Bob Scott would drive to a nearby Catholic church for Saturday or Sunday Mass with his three sons. Tim and I talk about that tradition, trying to determine when it ended, but the conversation morphs into a discussion about deer camp, another shared experience from our youth. Ken Hubert, a friend of the Scotts and mine (we were in each others’ weddings) wanders over to check on how we’re doing. Ken is newly retired, the former AD and girls’ swim coach at Faribault High School. His mom and stepdad have a cabin a few doors’ down. I envy Tim and Ken and the missing John Scott. They’re all retired and free, so long as the money holds out, to pursue their dreams. I try to keep my envy in check but it’s a tall order. As always, after a hearty breakfast of Bob Scott recipe pancakes, the boats are back on the water. The snow is gone. Sunshine toys with us into early afternoon. Jack catches a snaky pike, breaking his fishless weekend. But the walleye don’t cooperate.
The boats are trailered. Joe Scott cooks hamburgers and hotdogs on the gas grill. Everyone stuffs themselves. Tim tallies the ledger and we all chip in our share. As the Scotts and the Mungers pack up their gear, Tim is already working on next year, creating a menu for the 50th Anniversary of the Scott Fishing Opener. Hopefully, John Scott, the patriarch of the family, can break away from his retirement travels and show up. But even if John is off gallivanting the globe, if the Mungers are invited, we’ll be at the Opener at Pat Scott’s place, fish or no fish.
Saturday. I’m up at the crack of dawn. There’s a big pile of cow and pig poop waiting for me to move, shovel by bitter shovel, from ground to wheelbarrow and then back to the earth. The Larsons, the folks who mow and bale hay from the field surrounding our home on the Cloquet River, dropped off a mountain of aged shit for me to consider. Free of charge. Sustenance for the soil as payment for feed for their cattle. I stand in the cool early morning air sipping coffee, thinking of how many wheelbarrows of decaying dung it will take to cover my modest vegetable plot. Steam rises from the cup. I spray myself with DEET and fill up the Troy Bilt’s tiny tank with gasoline. I shove the throttle to “fast”, push the choke to “full”, and yank the starter rope. The old tiller coughs, then dies. Another pull and the eight horse idles like brand new.
I till the sandy, largely inert topsoil of the land that I call home, working furrows into the hard, sandy loam. A flock of twenty mergansers, the males green headed, the females-dusky red, scuttles along the black surface of the river, heading downstream. The cause of the ducks’ retreat? Our nearly three-year-old black Labrador, Kena (pronounced “Keena”; Celtic for “the greatest champion”), is prancing along the top of the riverbank, searching for a tennis ball. She finds a dirty, torn up old specimen and, when I take a break from tilling, the sweat already streaking my face, she follows me, ball in mouth, insistent that I throw the disgusting sphere. I do, and, instantly realize my mistake. Labradors are notoriously persistent. I have started a game that will endure longer than my patience.
I approach my blue Pacifica, intent on unloading dog food, bird food, and assorted sundries from the van. But I’d left the ignition key in the “on” position overnight and the battery is deader than a fence post. I wander into the garage, find the battery charger and attempt to charge the Pacifica. There’s so much oxidation built up on the terminals, the battery won’t accept a charge. I unhook the battery, removed the bolts and nuts that retain the cables and bring them into the house for cleaning. There’s no baking soda to be found, the cure for oxidation, one of the few mechanical tips passed down to me by my very non-mechanical father. Rene’ will pick up soda at Super One and later in the afternoon, I’ll clean the parts, clean the terminals, and successfully start the Pacifica. But now, as cool morning air gives way to swelter, I’m content to hook up the charger. I unload the van through the passenger doors, which, thankfully given the locks are electric, were unlocked. Kena nudges my thigh, ball clenched in mouth, as I climb a ladder and fill a bird feeder with seed. I toss the ball and try to finish my chore before the Lab returns. The feeders have already attracted a purple finch, a pair of goldfinches, assorted wrens, sparrows, blue jays, bluebirds and other birds. I’m hoping for more; perhaps the return of that solitary indigo bunting we saw a few years’ back, the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen in real life. He was here just the one time and hasn’t returned. But one can always hope.
The plot completely tilled, I begin moving the poop. It’s then I realize that I’ve made my job incrementally harder. Damn, I think, struggling to push a loaded wheelbarrow through loose soil, I should have waited until after I’d moved the shit to till.
The heat intensifies. There are no clouds. Birdsong fills the air. Horse flies and deer flies have not yet hatched and it’s too warm for mosquitoes to pester me as I stagger through the swelter. Load by load, my ruined knees bearing the weight, I push through the loamy earth, stop and toss shovel after shovel of rotting excrement onto exhausted soil. I’ve been at this for 33 summers; first at the garden we inherited from the former owners of this land, the Drews, and for the past 17 years, here, working new ground I tilled up with the Troy Bilt on the site of our new home. A pair of sandhills cranks away, too high and too distant to for me to see. A bald eagle drifts above the river, scanning for fish. A pair of mallards bursts from forest, leaving a small seasonal pond behind, a tiny bowl of water that once hosted our young sons and their friends on ice skates. Boys. There are none left around here to help move poop. The three oldest are living lives with partners other than their parents. Jack is away at Camp Ripley, participating in Army drill weekend. Truth be told, none of the boys ever really helped all that much in the vegetable garden. Fertilizing, planting, weeding, and harvesting, with rare exception, have always been the province of Rene’ and me. I break for lunch, my arms tired, my knee braces; the one on the left protecting a bone on bone joint that needs replacing; the one on the right bracing a torn meniscus that needs surgery; and fill a water bottle with ice and tap water. Kena sits on the front porch, ball in mouth. Waiting.
Rene’ is otherwise occupied, cleaning out the rock garden that defines our front yard. She’s hard at it, laying down a new pond liner in one of the fountain pools and patching the other pond basin with concrete. Back at the poop pile, the Labrador insists on another toss. I chuck the ball from the top of the brambled riverbank, the pitch so steep, a man can’t climb it without grasping the shoots of aspen, pine, birch, and balsam that hold the slope together. Kena pounces through thicket and plows into the cold, black water. Once. Twice. Three times I toss the ball and still, she appears at my feet, eyes expectant, ball waiting on the ground between her paws, eager for another go.
By dinnertime, the pile of shit is nearly gone. The garden has been revitalized. Rene’ calls The Eagle’s Nest and orders burgers. I shower and, with the Pacifica’s battery reconnected, drive to Fish Lake to pick up our food. While the cook finishes up, I sit at the bar sipping ice cold tap beer and wonder how many years my body will let me garden.
OK. Here’s your chance to make a difference in the world of digital publishing. If you own a Kindle, use the Kindle app, or have an Amazon account, you can log onto Amazon and vote for the book. if the book receives enough votes in the next 30 days, it’ll be published by Kindle, you will receive a free Kindle version of the book from Amazon, and I’ll get a publishing contract with Kindle. Everyone wins! How do you know if you want to vote for Boomtown? Starting tomorrow morning, you can log into the Boomtown page on Kindle Scout and read an excerpt as well as some other fun stuff about me and the book. Then, if you like the book, simply cast your vote. That’s all there is to it. And those of you that want a printed version, don’t worry. I am only giving Kindle exclusive rights to the eBook and audio book versions of Boomtown. I retain the print rights and the copyright. So, here’s the link to the Boomtown page: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/37ES8OBBSRHHP.
…swift, bright, drift… by Diane Jarpvenpa (2016. Red Dragonfly Press. ISBN 9781937693831)
There is is,
hanging from the top
of a living room painting
like a dogwood pod
or an old dried-up fig.
So begins Twin Cities singer/songwriter and whimsical poem, “Holding On”, a piece about a misplaced, solitary bat that enthralled me. My favorite line in swift, bright, drift is included in this poem:
A changling in its perfect frailty…
Stunningly simple and yet, so descriptive. So unlike my prose, where words beget words beget descriptions that sometimes beget redundancy and confusion. Here. there is sparse clarity, the poet setting forth scenes and emotions without extraneous verbiage. This is not to say that these simple poems channel verses written during childhood; little bundles of word play wrapped in neatly rhyming couplets. Rather, as demonstrated above, Ms. Jarvenpa (known as Ms. Jarvi when performing music) asks us to suspend our disbelief and walk with her through cosmopolitan backyards and along the banks of wilderness streams as she narrates.
Broken into three short sections, a half-dozen poems or so in each section, I read swift, bright, drift twice, not because the poetry is difficult but because I knew I’d likely missed something, some hint of the poet’s intuitive love for place, family, and nature. My only criticism is that this volume feels truncated. But then again, due to its size, this slender book is one a reader can revisit at his or her leisure, carefully examining the cut of each wordsmithed gem along the way.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
One Man, One River
When great men or women die, the passage of time acts like rust working on iron: as years roll by, the societal remembrance of the departed slowly dissipates until there is only a vague recollection, a caricature of sorts, of the deceased left for consideration. Many of you have no idea who Willard Munger was or how his story is interwoven with that of the modern St. Louis River. Hopefully, this short essay will recall his fight to clean up and preserve the estuary that is the birthing place of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest repository of fresh water.
Willard was born on a farm in Otter Tail County, Minnesota on January 20, 1911, the son of an impoverished farmer and a homemaker of limited education. After a bout of illness, Munger graduated from Fergus Falls High School in 1932 and began working a series of jobs that eventually took him from northwestern Minnesota to Duluth. Other than a few marine drafting courses taken at UMD to secure a job in the shipyards of Duluth and Superior during WW II, Munger’s formal education ended with high school. However, despite this limited exposure to schooling, Willard Munger was steeped in the conservation ethic of his paternal grandfather, a man who, though a poor farmer, was a firm believer in the power of the political process to preserve the land and water for future generations. Lyman Munger exposed his grandson to the forests, marshes, rivers, and beauty of the natural world to be found in rural Otter Tail County, imprinting upon his young grandson a land ethic akin to that later immortalized by Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold. Willard carried a vague and half-formed appreciation for the natural world with him when he arrived in the Twin Ports in 1935. Settling in Duluth, Munger’s imprecise and somewhat naive understanding of the environment and man’s ability to adversely “soil his own nest” collided with the reality of the tragedy occurring along the banks of the St. Louis River.
Willard Munger settled in northeastern Minnesota at the height of the Great Depression. His first reaction to the sewer laden, foul smelling, toxic waters of the great waterway dividing the industrial cities of Duluth and Superior was disgust. But, with a child on the way and a young wife at home, Munger reconciled the river’s ugliness with society’s need for economic progress and his own need to find work. It wasn’t until Reserve Mining proposed (in 1948) to obtain a permit from the State of Minnesota to dump waste from its taconite processing operation into the pristine waters of Lake Superior and Willard joined the United Northern Sportsmen of Duluth, that Willard came to realize the wrong headedness of what was happening to the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. It was then that the young liberal politician, steeped in the socialism of the Nonpartisan League and Farmer Labor Party of his grandfather and his parents, decided “enough is enough” and began to work against those in power who saw the St. Louis River as an open sewer and Lake Superior as an inexhaustible holding pond for industrial and municipal waste. Though the United Northern Sportsmen’s efforts to stop Reserve Mining’s plan to dump taconite tailings into the lake failed, that effort gave Munger confidence to run for public office. He’d run unsuccessfully, on an economic platform of reform rooted in his ancestor’s socialism, for the State Legislature in Otter Tail County as a twenty-one year old Farmer Laborite in 1934. He lost. He ran again for a position in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1952 under the banner of the newly minted Democratic Farmer Labor Party, placing his passionate love for the St. Louis River estuary, and the need to regulate the waste being dumped into that delicate ecosystem, front and center in his campaign message. He lost again.
Rethinking his strategy, Munger came to realize that he was, in many ways, ahead of his time and his would-be constituents in the blue-collar neighborhoods of West Duluth that he proposed to represent. The environment, the cleaning up of the St. Louis River, was not high on the list of priorities for local voters. Jobs. Taxes. Preservation of social security and pensions. These were issues that galvanized Munger’s fellow West Duluthians, issues that Munger adopted as his own when he won a House seat in 1954. But the fact that Willard publically pivoted away from his dream of cleaning up the St. Louis River did not equate to an abandonment of principle. In 1955, as he took his seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives (a seat he held until his death in 1999) the very first piece of legislation Willard Munger sponsored was a bill seeking $25,000 to study the idea of treating industrial and municipal sewage through regional waste treatment districts. His request was promptly rejected by the conservative forces in control of the House. Undaunted, Munger brought the bill back during the next legislative session. Money was allocated in 1957 to study whether or not all of Minnesota’s rivers, not just Munger’s beloved St. Louis, were in need of rejuvenation. It took Willard Munger the next fifteen years to convince his brother and sister legislators that Minnesota’s shameful abuse of its rivers and streams needed corrective action.
Willard Munger’s foresight led to the creation of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, the WLSSD, a regional waste treatment facility that, along with a myriad of other conservation and environmental legislation Munger passed over a laudatory and lengthy political career, made Minnesota’s waterways cleaner. When Munger began his efforts to revitalize and reclaim the river, human feces floated in St. Louis Bay. The ancient fishery, one that boasted bountiful populations of walleye, pike, sturgeon, bass, and other game fish, was dead. The few walleye that managed to spawn in the turbid, toxic waters of the St. Louis were inedible. The sturgeon were gone, killed off by progress. The pike tended to stay out by the cooler, less polluted waters of the Big Lake. Today, on any given summer afternoon, one can look out across the flat, broad waters of the St. Louis River and see countless fishing boats bobbing at anchor or trolling the repatriated weed beds of a healthy ecosystem. Willard Munger’s persistence, his refusal to accept “no” for an answer, is a big reason why the folks in those boats are enjoying themselves.
As Willard’s staff assistant Ann Glumac once said, “I’ve known many famous, important men in my lifetime but I’ve only known one great man. That man was Willard Munger.” Indeed. Representative Munger’s life should not be forgotten but remembered by posterity as an example that even ordinary men can do extraordinary things.
Happy Earth Day 2016!
(This essay was originally written for the One River, Many Voices project regarding the history and importance of the St. Louis River. It was not chosen for airing on Wisconsin Public Radio but another of my essays, “Ducks”, was. Stay tuned!)
If you are in the area or know anyone with an interest in Finnish history, world history, or literature, pass along this snippet if you would: I’ll be at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center on Friday, May 6th at 7:00pm talking about Sukulaiset; the background and the story. Here’s the link:
Hope to see some folks show up and buy a signed book or two from the Cultural Center bookstore!
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (2006. Scribner. ISBN 9780743297318)
Time for a confession. I have always confused the Thomas Wolfe, renowned contemporary of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Stein with the other Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) who was born seven years before the author of Look Homeward, Angel died of miliary tuberculosis of the brain. OK. So I admit I’m no literary scholar. Cut me some slack already. Still, I love to read and having never read either Wolfe, I thought I’d start with the more senior of the pairing. I wasn’t disappointed.
Eugene Gant, the troubled, talented, confused young protagonist of a family saga entwined with Gene’s “coming-of-age” revelations, is a character that all readers, regardless of gender or upbringing, must eventually come to love. Precocious, intelligent, curious, and adventurous, young Eugene reminds me in some ways of another young man in another coming-of-age novel, Holden Caulfield. The difference between Wolfe’s take on the genre and Salinger’s is not just the depth and weight of the family saga that Wolfe uses to backstop Gene Gant’s journey to adulthood; it is the complexity of the language Wolfe infuses into the story, a choice that is at equal measure frustrating for its winding, digressing, and meandering style, and one distinctly at odds with the reclusive Salinger’s simplified prose. Perhaps the difficulty of tracking the arc of Look Homeward, Angel‘s storyline in and around Wolfe’s sweeping and soaring wordsmithing is why nearly every high school student in America has read Catcher in the Rye but far fewer have delved into this thick volume of Southern musings, anecdotes, and twisted familial disasters.
Though set in the mythical town of Altamount, North Carolina (loosely based on Wolfe’s ancestral home of Asheville), clearly written in the languid and internally conflicted style of other Southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty come to mind), and deeply rooted in place as the overriding character looming behind the story, Wolfe’s take on family and maturation is universal and deserving of closer scrutiny and a larger following. And yet, the difficulty of his craftsmanship, the author’s incessant need to digress and add countless cultural, literary, and regional asides to the narrative, is likely one reason why Wolfe is not studied nor read with the same width and depth that his aforementioned Depression era contemporaries seem to be. But once the reader comes to appreciate the cadence to Wolfe’s elegant prose, the saga of Oliver and Eliza Gant and their expansive brood of little Gants (including Eliza’s favorite child, Eugene) this book truly is a transformative read. Here’s a sample of what I am talking about:
Oliver had about twelve hundred dollars, saved from the wreckage of Cynthia’s estate. During the winter he rented a little shack at one edge of the town’s public square, acquired a small stock of marbles, and set up business. But he had little to do at first save to think of the prospect of his death.
There. That short passage says much, in a mere three sentences, of the inner demons afflicting the hard drinking patriarch of the Gant family. And such wonderful exposition of soul is only the beginning.
4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. An American classic.