Thursday, October 31, 2013

An Evening with Louis Jenkins

It was a droll event…which is no doubt what the overflow crowd of listeners who made their way through the fog to Common Good Books last night was hoping for. Louis Jenkins’s prose poems are full of commonplace phrases and brief, concise descriptions rather than wildly imaginative flights of fancy or dramatic personal confessions. Yet  almost invariably, there’s something mesmerizing about the plodding pace, the deadpan tone, the unabashed sense of futility, and the subtly twisted logic by which a seemingly ordinary train of thought veers slightly from its presumed course into a zone where metaphysics and the rocks on the beach are indistinguishable.

It wouldn’t be easy to convey this effect in a few words or lines—it depends so heavily on the meticulous pace with which a thought-cluster unfolds—but the poem “The Fishing Lure,” might be taken as a case in point. Here the speaker compares the wide-eyed look he’s taken on due to a lifetime of pondering seemingly inane, unimportant questions, to the look of stupidity—or is it terror?—on the face of a fishing lure. As Jenkins proceeds to describe the lure, it seems he’s changed the subject, though the exercise is an example of those bizarre reflections he was referring to a minute earlier. After dissing the exaggerated appearance of the lure for a while, Jenkins concludes; “There isn’t a way in the world that I’d bite on that thing. But I might swim in just a little closer.”  

Jenkins didn’t read that poem last night, but he did read a few of his other classics—the one about the Florida T-shirt; the one about a “deeply disappointing” life. He read several from his recent play, Nice Fish, and one about the challenge of deciding when to get a haircut which led eventually to a lament about sleeping through the prime of one’s life—a two-hour span.

Jenkins was under the weather and he stumbled a bit here and there. He couldn’t find his sheaf of new poems. It wasn’t the kind of reading that brings new layers of insight to a poet’s work. But it was a lot of fun. And the shelves at Common Good Books are dazzling works of art themselves.

I kept thinking I saw people I knew—Is that Cary Waterman? Is that Julie Ingebretsen?—but when you reach a certain age, everybody starts looking like someone you used to know. I’m sure Jenkins could fashion a poem out of such an experience. For myself, I can’t imagine how it would end.   

Before the event we met some friends at the Neighborhood Café on Selby just off Snelling. True to its name, the cafe actually has the look and feel of a neighborhood place. Good Happy Hour appetizers, generous pours of wine.

Then the neon lights in the fog. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Dessa Unplugged

 Even if you’d never heard a single hip-hop track by Dessa, and knew nothing about her, you’d probably walk away from her recent event as part of the Talk of the Stacks series liking her as a person. That’s where I’m coming from. That’s what I did.

I was familiar with the name only due to the heavy Facebook advertising RainTaxi sent out about her recent book launch at the Walker Art Center. When I saw she’d be appearing at the downtown library, I listened to one or two tracks on her website—neither of them to the end. I like them both, but didn’t immerse myself.
Hilary is out of town, so I called a friend and suggested we meet for Happy Hour at Origami before the event.

“Sounds like a good idea,” he said.  “I was planning to go anyway. I have two of Dessa’s CDs.”

This means that Tim is hip and I’m not. Or it means that Tim has adult children and I don’t. Or that Tim is into all sorts of music more deeply than I am. Or all of the above.

I am deeply immerse in the Talk of the Stacks scene. The series is altogether pleasant and I’ve been to six or seven events. There is something totally agreaable about a good Happy Hour meal at Origami, a nice stroll through a few blocks of downtown (now improved by the sight of colorful stacks of fruit just inside the glittering window of the new Whole Foods supermarket), a free reading in an elegant library with a bit of buzz to it...and free cookies of the chocolate-covered Pepperidge Farm type.

(It was a bit naive of me to imagine the wine they served after the event would also be free. But everything else was going so well!)

Dessa was introduced as the first musician to appear at Talk of the Stacks, but the written word, in the form of her first book of poetry, A Pound of Steam, was the evening’s focus. Eric Lorborer, the Rain Taxi publisher and impresario, sat across from her on-stage, asking her questions about the origin of this or that poem. This gave Dessa the opportunity to describe her approach to writing. She records snatches of conversation and later puts them into categories, depending upon whether they have potential as prose, poetry, or song lyrics. At one point she referred to the “butterfly net" she used to scoop up material out of the surrounding public space, and gestured evocatively from her chair as she did so. One of the next words out of her mouth was “mosaic.”

I’m sure Eric was lapping this up, because he’s a big fan of Surrealist literature, and the technique is not dissimilar to those the Surrealists often used, and probably still do.

As far as I can tell, Dessa isn’t much of a surrealist, however. Her work seems to be rooted in coherent narratives. And it strikes me that her rap performances carry a harsh, rough, edge and stuttering, explosive rhythms very much unlike the dreamy illogicalities of a Desnos or a Reverdy. The three or four poems she read were fair but somewhat lacking in pulse, as if, stepping away from her rapper stance, she’d lost touch with her inner core. I was reminded (though on a different level of achievement) of Duke Ellington, who in various jazz suites of the 50s and 60s strove for “long-hair” respectability but jettisoned a great deal of dance-hall swing in the process.

Throughout the evening it was interesting to listen to Dessa formulate elaborate sentences virtually free of cliché, in response to questions she’d been asked before, but seemed to be answering for the first time, or at least to be reflecting on anew, more fearful of sounding inauthentic or being untruthful than of exposing herself too much. Humor and integrity, insight and uncertainty. It’s obvious Dessa enjoys the workings of her own mind and is sometimes surprised and delighted by what comes out. But her inner censor is usually on high alert, and in response to one of Eric’s questions, she described in painful detail, how excruciating she sometimes finds it, attempting to select from between six or seven responses she might make in a given situation upon which her personal happiness is riding. Her biggest fear, it seems, is that she'll start sounding sentimental. (I'd like to hear a little more sentiment from her myself.)

The event took on a higher level of interest, I think, during the question-and-answer period, when there was less about literary matters and more of Dessa being herself. Young fans asked her intelligent questions about her career, her life-style, how her gender affects how she’s perceived and what she’s done to navigate and exploit such perceptions to make sure she gets her message across.

Dessa has a degree in philosophy from the U of M, and one fan asked her who, among that crowd, had influenced her work. 

"I hate Kant," she replied. (Good for her!) It seems that the thinkers she's been most inspired by are not the dark and sometimes poetic Continental existentialists, as we might expect from an artist belonging to a collective called Doomtree, but the British analytic and utilitarian philosophers.

"I don't necessarily agree with their conclusions," she said, "but I like the ways they use the language." 

One of my favorites questions came from a young woman in the first row: Why is it that so many more people like songs and song lyrics than written poetry? Her two-fold response was, people ought to explore written poetry more thoroughly…and poets ought to make a better effort to reach new audiences. 

Dessa is moving in the other direction, stretching beyond her base in music in an attempt to reach a new audience that might find it difficult acclimatizing itself to a synthesized studio sound or a rapper’s beat.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pasties—Home Made

It’s always news when a batter brought up from the minor leagues hits a home run on his first at bat. So I thought I ought to let everyone know that the other day I made my first pasty, and it was, well, fantastic. 

As is often the case, I was inspired by the presence of a few stray ingredients—parsnips and potatoes. Then I noticed the chunks of butternut squash in the refrigerator, leftovers from the spicy pork stew that took shape last Sunday.

On my way back from the barber shop I picked up a pound of what looked like high-quality stew meat. I was set.

There are plenty of variations in the standard recipe for pasties. In fact, people enjoy disputing whether a pasty should have rutabagas or not, and indeed, whether meat should be included in the mix. There are Cornish pasties, Upper Peninsula pasties, and Mesabi pasties. In some corners of the world they’re even served with gravy! 

Such variations lead to good-natured disputes like the ones that once consumed the peasants of southern France as to which ingredients make up the “true” cassoulet or bouillabaisse.

Freud classified such issues under the rubric of “the narcissism of small differences,” arguing that people who resemble one another in many ways need such trivialities to provide them with a sense of identity.  But Freud was sort of a killjoy, don’t you think?

My mom, who grew up on the Iron Range, made her pasty dough with lard (it came in a waxy green cardboard box, like a pound of butter) and wouldn’t think of doing it any other way, medical research be damned.

I used Pillsbury roll-out crusts. They ended up pretty thin (something I might improve on in the future), but I avoided the problem so often encountered with commercial pasties—a too-thick crust.

But the key to the greatness of my pasties, I think, lies in the unorthodox ingredients. One cup each of butternut squash, parsnips, beef, onions, and potatoes, all of which must be cut into cubes about 1/8th of an inch thick. (Ground beef just won’t cut it here.)

Hilary’s mom used to make pasties that the family took out on their houseboat on the St. Croix, wrapped in newspaper. But Hilary agrees, the ones I just made are out of the ballpark.

This one’s for you, Mom.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

At Home in the Country

I met my neighbor Pat the other day. She was out working in the back garden and her little dog ran out to greet me as I walked by.

 “Watch out, he’ll lick you to death,” she said.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m….Well, you know who I am. You’ve seen us come and go.”

“Indeed I have,” she cracked a smile. “I especially like to see the men riding by on that little pink bicycle.”

“Yeah, I saw that in the garage. The tires look to be a little low. Say, you have a nice garden here.”

“Thank you. I decided to quit work early and get some bulbs planted.” She’d pulled up some gladiolas that were lying across an antique wheelbarrow.

I said: “When I see the tulips in the spring I always say, ‘I’m going to plant some this fall,’ but I never do. Where do you work?”

“In the nursing home,” she waved a finger to the east vaguely. “My mother’s in there. She’s 104.”

“That’s pretty good. Did you grow up here in New York Mills, then?”

“I’m from here…but I lived in St. Paul for many years. St. Anthony Park. I came back to take care of my mother. Life is much more peaceful here. My kids come to visit occasionally. I couldn’t live in the cities any more. I’d forget to lock the door, leave my purse in the car, lose my way on the freeway.”

I was headed down to the cultural center on foot to print a document. When I arrived Kathy, Betsy, and Jamie were huddled in their tiny office in the back, trying to solve some problem related to a new software package they were testing. Betsy came out to get the proper printer in line at the front desk, and while I sat there fiddling with my flash drive another man came striding vigorously in.

“Is Jamie here?” he asked.

“Yeah, he’s back there.” The man--he was from Duluth--was delivering a demo CD of his duo, and I enjoyed eavesdropping on the banter passing back and forth back between him and Jaime, whom he obviously knew well.

 Kathy was too deep into her Excel sheet to pay much attention to me, but I did get a chance to chat with Betsy for the first time. Bright and outgoing, she’s raising three young sons while also managing various aspects of the center’s arts residency program. She was raised in these parts, and spent summers at the family cabin on Big Pine Lake a few miles west of here.

 She met her husband at college in Indiana, lived in Minneapolis for ten years, working for Target’s .com division downtown. When a job opened up at the bank in New York Mills, they decided to move back up here. Now they, too, have a summer place on the lake.

 “But I’m a city girl, even up here,” she insisted. “I don’t really enjoy gardening, for example, though when the kids get older we’ll probably start one so they can watch things grow. We belong to a CSA.”

“I like the principle," I replied, "But isn’t it hard to use up all those vegetables? Really, how much eggplant and kohlrabi does a household need? I live ten minutes from the biggest farmers’ market in the upper Midwest. Just think of the leeks, the parsnips, the fresh duck!”

 “I know,” she agreed. “And it’s fun to go to the farmers market! The strange thing is, here we are in the middle of farm country, and the produce at the supermarket isn’t really very good.”

 “People are growing cash crops, I suppose, rather than truck farming.”

 “They’re growing potatoes for McDonalds. That’s what they’re growing.”

 Betsy and her husband were off to the Wisconsin Dells for the weekend to rendezvous with some college friends. Three couples, eight kids, sitting by the pool, gathering firewood in the nearby woods. She offered to bring in some kale that was sitting in her fridge and would otherwise never get eaten.

 “If you think of it,” I said. “You’ve got a lot going on.”

 We discussed the relative merits of Door County and Bayfield (Betsy’s husband is from Green Bay). Somehow the Cedar Cultural Center crept into the conversation, and I described a lukewarm concert of Sami music that Hilary and I heard there recently. A little later we found ourselves analyzing the difference between events that support an organization’s mission and those that advance its mission.

“We don’t want to book local cover bands,” she said. “It might be popular, but that’s not our mission. There must be a middle ground. We could, maybe, have an Octoberfest? There are plenty of Germans in the vicinity, it would be fun, and we could raise some money.”

By Friday afternoon I was really starting to feel at home. Why? Because Hilary came up to visit. That afternoon we took a spin through the lake-stream-marsh country north of Fergus Falls. We spent some time hunting down the Zorbaz pizza place on Little Pine Lake but found it a little schizophrenic. The bar was packed and overloud, the adjoining restaurant was rustic...but deserted.

After a fruitless search for a restaurant called the Cactus Grill, we settled for some deep-fried Chinese food at a strip-mall in Perham, then returned to my hippie pad for a rousing Scrabble tourney that ended in a tie.

We drove an hour north to Itasca the next morning, took a fine hike through the sodden but golden woods, and ran into a couple from Sweden along the way. He'd been transferred to Minneapolis for two years, and he and his wife were on a weekend excursion.

"Do you like it around here?" I asked.

"Very much so," he replied, in slightly clipped but otherwise perfect English. "It looks a lot like Sweden."

On our trip back we stopped in Huntersville (not much to see there, but who knows? We might canoe the Crow Wing River someday) and Wadena. It continued gray and misty but the rain never really got serious.

The next morning broke cool and utterly clear; we took a spin west down Highway 108 to Maplewood State Park where we hiked through spectacular maple forests and out around some fine kettle lakes.

We had the buffet lunch at a supper club north of Pelican Rapids. An Octoberfest polka party was taking place in the room next door—with live accordion music.

I almost wish now that we'd taken an Octoberfest helicopter ride. Maybe next year?


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Trains, Rivers, Books

Another beautiful morning, I walk downtown past beds of still-blooming snapdragons and dodge beneath mangy plum trees, the fallen fruits of which have been tossed in little heaps on either side of the sidewalk.

 Suburban tract homes stand beside worker dwellings sheathed in antique linoleum shingles. Boats are parked in front yards, tires lean against garages, a disused barbeque grill sits rusting behind a shed.

I pause at the railroad tracks, which stretch to the horizon and gleam in the morning sun, and gaze at the grain elevator standing a block away to the west.

I have no idea how those things work. They must be privately owned. Does everyone heap their corn into the same big bin? There must be more than one grade. How do they keep track of it all?

Then I hear a train whistle, off in the distance. I’ve been hearing that sound ever since I got here. I’ve seen a few trains go by from a few blocks away. They don’t slow down, but merely blow their mighty whistles seven or eight times as they approach.

Now, standing twenty feet from the tracks, I wait.

I’m surprised at how long it takes the train to arrive. I didn’t measure it but it could have been five minutes. Maybe more. As the train approaches, the conductor blows the whistle again seven or eight times. The screechy, metallic, reedy, bellowing noise is almost frightening, as is the clattering rush of the cars, many of them double-stacked with Hyundai containers. The semaphore is down across the roadway, of course, and its hidden bell, clanging somewhere nearby just above my head, adds to the exhilarating cacophony.

 It never occurs to me to let out a shriek the way Liza Minnelli does in Cabaret, but I am hollering inside, and it feels good.

 A few hours later I return to the other end of town to drop off a few of my books at the cultural center, in case someone should say to the gift shop clerk: Who is this guy who’s reading tonight?

A kindly looking woman named Kathy was sitting behind the desk. I introduced myself, and before long we were talking about the swans at Tamarac Wildlife Refuge. “That’s my favorite place in the world. It’s so peaceful there.” She says.

 To judge from her remarks she’s had better luck than I did getting photos of the swans.

“Across from one of the broad overlooks there’s a small pond,” she tells me in her soft, high-pitched voice. “Two adults and two baby are often drifting there. The other day I just sat by the end of the pond, and after a little while, they came over right in front of me, almost as if they wanted to say hello.”

A tall gentleman comes striding up from the back of the gallery and introduces himself as Jamie Robertson, the director. We discuss the likely attendance for the evening event, and move on to the broader scope and mission of the center. Jamie was formerly the dean of students at the Leech Lake tribal College in Cass Lake,  and he tells me a bit about what’s been going on in that neck of the woods.

At one point he mentions a sign he once saw in the window of the local bank at Cass Lake. It said, in Ojibwe, Bring Your Money Here. He uses the Ojibwe tongue to describe it, and that reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask people around here. Has he ever heard anyone refer to the hills of western Otter Tail County as the Leaf Hills. (The term is derived from the Ojibwe phrase Gaaskibag-wajiwan which I'm told means Rustling Leaf Mountains.)

“I live in the town of Leaf River, and I’ve never heard that usage,” he replies with a bemused look on his face.

“It comes from the same Ojibwe phrase someone used to name Inspiration Peak back in the 1880s,” I say. “But I haven’t met anyone around here who’s heard of it; maybe I should just drop the reference.”

“No, actually that kind of thing can be very interesting,” Jamie protests. “better to keep it alive, at least in print. In fact, when I retire from this position, I have a dream of developing a sort of historic atlas of this region, with contributions from artists like the ones we have here, to preserve the various traditions and keep them moving forward.”

 It sounds like a good idea to me, though I can’t quite envision what such an atlas would look like.

My afternoon excursion was to Old Wadena, which is located a few miles north of Staples on the Crow Wing River. It’s a county park now, set in the midst of what appears to be a tree farm. Two hundred and twenty-five odd years ago there was a French trading post there, just downstream from where the Partridge River meets the Crow Wing. One of the first recorded battles between Ojibwe and Dakota warriors took place there in 1783. The Dakota, who lacked firearms at the time, attacked the fort and were repulsed by a coalition of voyageurs and Ojibwe braves.

The picnic area itself is enclosed in a split-rail fence and pleasantly wooded, and there’s a path along a little bluff above the Partridge River that eventually drops down to a little bridge. Continuing along the path, you soon reach the confluence of the two rivers. I sat there on the grassy bank for quite a while, watching the leaves swirl in the current under the surface of the water and looking out at what appeared to be a row of silver maples, their leaves pale and yet filled with afternoon light, on the opposite bank.
The fort is long gone, but in other respects things don’t look much different here, perhaps, than they did in 1783. Then again, maybe they do. Two hundred years ago the surrounding landscape was covered with forests rather than farms, and there were quite a few majestic white pine in the mix. (The original mill at New York Mills was built to cut white pine and ship the lumber back east.)

On my return journey I took Highway 210 west from Staples. I wanted to see the drumlin fields. The highway bobs up and down as it crosses these elongated hills formed by passing glaciers maybe 30,000 years ago; no one knows quite how.

The banners hanging from the streetlights in the largely deserted village of Hewett say “On the Move”; perhaps they should have said “Moving On.”

There are Amish farms here and there along the highway and the countryside is gorgeous, with long marshy stretches full of willows between the folded hills. The wind was whipping something fierce, and it gave the silvery leaves in the lowlands an added luster.

But I find it’s hard to take a good picture of a drumlin. To the eye, they stretch away impressively. To the camera lens, they look like nothing but half of a low hillside.


In the evening I was the focus of an official meet-and-greet set up by the cultural center. I arrived ten minutes before the event to find that there were two people there—Kathy Anderson, with whom I’d been discussing swans earlier in the day, and Betsy Roder, the gift-shop manager and director of the center’s residency program, whom I had not previously met.

“I’m glad I could make it,” she said, smiling, as we shook hands. “The city council meeting got over early. The session last spring went ‘til eight.”

“I’m glad, too,” I replied. Then, looking around the largely deserted room, I said, “Well, if no one shows up –” but Betsy cut me short.

“What do you mean? We’re here!” 

Good point.

Two rows of chairs had been set up opposite a lonely-looking metal podium, just beyond a table arranged with bars, coffee, and bowls of corn candy. A nice spread.

And other women did begin to trickle in and sit down, one after another, until we had a group of eight avid readers, most of whose names I’ve forgotten. They all knew each other, of course; from her chosen spot at the far end of the back row Kathy kindly introduced them to me as they arrived.

One of the women, I learned almost immediately, was in the process of writing a book about her mother. Before reading a short piece about French-Canadians in the Red River Valley, I learned that everyone in the room claimed to be Finnish, with the exception of a tallish woman named Pat who was mostly German—and a lapsed Catholic, to boot.

One woman arrived with her teenage daughter. “The reason she doesn’t look like me is that her father is Japanese,” she said.

Her daughter, who had taken a seat in the row in front of her mother, was grinning from ear to ear.

There was a story there, but I didn’t pursue it. Everyone in the room already knew it, no doubt.

I eventually read a few short pieces. One about French-Canadians, one about the Nisswa music fest. But mostly we all chatted amiably about whale-watching and travel and writing and book production and the book-buying compulsion.

I asked the young Japanese woman after the reading “Are you a writer?”

“I write songs,” she replied in a shy, excited voice.

“You mean, with guitar music?”

“Yes. I wrote my first song today.” She went on to explain that she’d written many lyrics but only today put her first song to music.

Are you going to put it on Youtube?” I asked.

“Someday,” she giggled again.

I ran out to the car to get some books out of the trunk. Meanwhile, my Japanese friend had gone over to the piano in the back corner and commenced to play a series of arpeggios, adding an element of pleasant chaos to the already animated conversation in the darkened gallery.

Her mother started to tell me about the three kilns she’d had to sell recently—evidently she was a potter—and how much she now regretted doing so.

I would have started in on the Hamada-Bernard Leach-Warren MacKenzie theme, but others were pulling out their check books and waiting for me to sign things. 

I eventually sold a few books, ate a brownie, learned a little something about stray cats and a young boy’s upcoming birthday party, and left the center feeling that things had gone pretty well.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Exploring the Neighborhood

 In an effort to "meet the community" I decided to attend a church service, it being Sunday morning, and me with nothing pressing on my schedule. The church at the far end of Main Street, across the tracks and past the cultural center, looked promising. I learned from the website that it has a female minister; it welcomes "those who will ask questions of faith so as to add purpose to their lives," and the social hour takes place before, rather than after, the service. I imagined myself stepping into the fellowship hall perhaps fifteen minutes prior to the service, meeting and chatting with a few friendly people, and then moving on to the service itself.

But that’s not how it came down.

As I approached the little white church from the city hall parking lot across the street, I noticed that the marquee in front said "service at 9:30." (The website said 10:30. Oops.) It was already 10:15. The first door I tried was locked. I heard nothing inside, but there were plenty of cars parked nearby, so I tried the other door. It was open. The minute I stepped inside, the sound of a man’s booming voice reached my ears. I turned the corner, took one glance at the assembled congregation, across the expanse of the fellowship hall, and decided to sit in the lobby where I could hear the sermon perfectly well without drawing attention to myself.

The man was discussing a passage in Deuteronomy in which the Israelites are advised to teach their children about God, not just occasionally or during festivals, but every day, through both speech and example. He talked about how much children learn from watching their parents, how busy everyone is nowadays, and how rarely references to God figure in family conversations. He went on the describe how often he had been saved from going down the wrong path by God, how many opportunities had been sent his way, how often he’d been forgiven. It was good stuff, though it was clear to me that the man was expounding rather than working off a script. He kept returning to the same themes—teaching the children, the rush of modern life, the need to be admonished by God. It was like one of those model trains that run on a track high on the wall above the booths in a restaurant—here it comes again!

As I sat there on my solitary pew, with its red cushion, listening to the man intone, I looked at the plastic fig tree next to the opposite wall, the large paper banner that had been decorated with colorful Crayolas by the children, and the walker that someone had stowed above the coat rack. A duck-hunter’s hat sat on the shelf next to the walker, and there was a food shelf bushel on the floor under the long row of coats.

Finally the sermon came to an end and a woman with a pleasant voice began to sing. At that point I decided to slip into the nave and join the congregation. Turning the corner cautiously, I came face-to-face with a woman in high heels who was pacing back forth with an infant in her arms. I smiled at her. She gave me a slightly questioning look in return.

I took a seat in a pew against the back wall next to one of the ushers. He wore a quilted green hunting vest and had a friendly, rugged face. He looked a little like Nick Nolte. The minister, on the other hand, bore a striking resemblance to Eugene Pallette. I read in the program that he was a guest pastor from a church in Baxter. That resolved the gender issue. Before being ordained he’d run the local café in New York Mills for many years.

I sang. I recited the prayers. I noticed that when the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, no one made much of an attempt to keep pace with anyone else, and as the prayer reached its "for ever and ever" it sounded like holy hell. I even threw a small bill into the offertory plate. From where I sat I had a very good view, through the arch to the hallway, of the coffee thermoses and ham sandwiches they were stacking onto serving plates out in the fellowship hall.

The trouble was, when the service was over, I was likely to be the first one to leave, because I was sitting right by the door. But I wasn’t going to just walk across a room full of empty tables set for luncheon and grab a sandwich, so I stood in the hallway and let people passed by.

I had a vague hope that someone would stop and say, "You’re a stranger. Who are you? And what are you doing here?" Many congregations in Minneapolis have designated greeters who scan the crowd like Secret Service agents looking for lonely newcomers, whom they make it a point to welcome. But no one welcomed me. On the contrary, it seemed that everyone was making an effort to avoid looking my way.

Finally, two young woman came to a stop right beside me in the hall. "Do they always have this kind of a spread after a service?" I asked, by way of breaking the ice.

"I don’t know," one of the women said. "I’ve never been here before."

"Really? Neither have I. I’m from Minneapolis. Where are you two from?"

"We’re from here. But we’ve never been in this church. We used to work in Wayne’s café. They called us and told us to come down."

Conversation in the fellowship hall was starting to get lively. I probably would have bumped into some very interesting folks if I’d stuck around, but suddenly, I felt it was time to move on.
And move on I did, first to Perham, nine miles up the highway, where I was impressed by the huge Tuffy pet food factory and warehouse. It’s much bigger, I think, than the Lund boat factory here in New York Mills.
I took a side trip down Highway 228 through the rolling hills of the Alexandria Moraine to Vargas and was rewarded with the sight of two swans drifting in a placid lake edged in flaming orange trees.

In Detroit Lakes I chatted briefly with the clerk in Bookworld. "No, a store of this size doesn’t have the budget to send anyone to the Chicago book convention," she responded to my inquiry, smiling wearily.

I was impressed that they had Javier Marias’s new book, The Infatuations, on display on their New Releases end-cap.

"Has anyone been reading this?" I asked.

"Not that I know of. Then again, it just came in. Can I help you find anything?"

A few minutes later I was waiting in the drive-thru line at Caribou on the next block for a small latte and also a ham-and-cheddar mini-quiche. (Maybe I should have stuck around the church for those sandwiches.)

The lake itself, a few blocks down the hill from downtown, was teeming with coots, most of them just offshore. They’re a lovely gray, but they’re skittish, and seemingly idiotic.
A few hours later, back at my personal retreat center in New York Mills, I was sitting here at my laptop, tinkering with an old essay about Puccini, when the sky cleared. Suddenly the town seemed friendlier; mothers strode down the sidewalk pushing baby strollers.

I headed south on Ottertail County 67, planning to pick up the Leaf Lake Trail, which appeared to be a continuation of 513th Street. (I have good maps.) But I was sidetracked by a small sign pointing the way to the Outdoor Finnish Museum. I took the left turn and proceeded down a gravel road to the park entry—gated and locked. The sign said: open Memorial Day to Labor Day. A smaller sign said Under Continual Electronic Surveillance. But there wasn’t a sign saying No Trespassing.

There are some very nice buildings in there, and the setting is bucolic. (There were also lots of white-throated sparrows in the thickets on the way in.) One of the structures is painted red, several of the clapboard buildings are white, and quite a few--the ones with the dovetailed corners--are a natural gray, like the similarly rugged structures you see in Embarrass and in Finland on the North Shore. 

I found it strange that the dates posted on the buildings seemed to refer to when a given structure was moved, not to when it was built. Or maybe the buildings aren't as old as they look.

It seemed stranger still that there was a trailer-camp with hook-ups in plain sight behind the historic general store. Nothing spoils the atmosphere of a pioneer Finnish village like a bunch of aluminum Winnebagos parked behind it. Maybe that’s how they finance the enterprise, but it seems to me there are plenty of other fields nearby that would serve the same function just as well.

Of course, there are no Winnebegos there now, just unobtrusive hook-up posts amid the grass. The place was deserted and the afternoon light was spectacular.

I peered in the window of the Ottertail town hall and the dry goods store, full of antique merchandise, but was more impressed by the bright green grass, the bright red barn, and the immaculate white of the clapboard farmhouse. It all looked a little like a surreal Scandinavian dream. (I know Finns aren’t Scandinavian but that’s the association we tend to make.)

I stared long and hard at the sawmill blade—a flat disc of barbed steel maybe three feet across. It looked wicked. But this is how you turn trees into lumber. The mill blades of today are wafer thin, to keep waste to a minimum. Who knows, maybe they’re doing it with lasers now?
Back on the road, I returned to County 138 and continued south. At the intersection to Highway 67 I went straight-on, after which the road is no longer paved. I crossed a reedy stream—Leaf Creek, I suppose—and not long afterwards, deep in the woods, came to 513st Street, where I turned west.

These are the best roads, of course—the ones that traverse the marshy or hilly terrain where you can’t plant crops. The roads where the birds live.
That "street"—it’s really a hard-packed sand road skirting the edge of a swampy creek, miles from any town—becomes Leaf Lake Road after crossing Highway 67. I became interested in that road when I noticed it was very small but passed along the edge of an attractive string of rivers and lakes. It also interested me because the entire range of hills hereabouts, extending down to Fergus Falls, was once known, to geographers at any rate, as the Leaf Hills.
It turned out to be a pretty road, more clay than sand, perhaps, with plenty of gravel, too. The leaves are turning, and it’s interesting to note that there was once a town on the Red River ox cart trail called Leaf Lake. I don’t think it lasted more than three or four years. You can see the diminutive brass plaque, about the size of a Kindle screen, mounted on a bolder at the public landing on the west end of Leaf Lake.
At several places during my mini-road trip I saw flocks of birds rising up, in the way that snow buntings rise up in the wintertime. I finally got a good look at a few of them; they were bluebirds.

I also saw a single, superb, swamp sparrow amid the reeds at one of my stops.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

New York Mills

It’s a bit strange, but I’m getting used to it. A three-hour drive through the drizzle, which I extended by taking a few back roads between Little Falls and Motley. I was rewarded during that detour by the sight of three kestrels on the telephone wires and a trio of sandhill cranes flying by overhead, squawking. I passed two tractors pulling trailers full of some ochre material—like a cross between wood chips and wheat germ. I have no idea what it was. Chicken feed? Kernels of corn?

The countryside near Randall and Cushing is somewhat hilly but it flattens out soon enough. Motley is notable mostly for the Morey’s Smoked Fish plant on the edge of town. I bought some chunks of whitefish and salmon, though the prices are the same as they are in Minneapolis—maybe higher!

When I arrived in New York Mills I stopped at the cultural center on Main Street to pick up the keys to the house.

“Are you Lynn?” I asked.


“I’m John Toren. I’m your artist in residence.”

Her already cheerful eyes brightened further. “Oh! Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.” She pulled a set of keys from a drawer and handed them across the counter. “What knd of artist are you?” she asked unabashedly. (Hemlock? Maple?)

I’m a writer.”

“Then I’m wondering if you’ll be needing the studio space upstairs.”

“I don’t know. I might as well take a look at it.”

“There’s a stairway by the window right behind you.”

A couple was standing near the door, looking idly at some Swedish blown glass—the gift shop extends from the door halfway back into the gallery. The woman came up to me and said, “Did I hear you say you’re a writer? That has always seemed like such a romantic profession to me.”

“It’s really kind of boring,” I replied, suddenly conjuring the image of two long weeks alone in a house I hadn’t seen yet, out in the middle of nowhere. “Actually, I make my living mostly by editing books. And designing books.”

“Oh, I love the center for book arts in Minneapolis,” she said enthusiastically.

“So do I,” I replied. “But I don’t design that kind of book. They tend to be one-of-a-kind works of art. I work on a computer, making books like the ones you see for sale over there on the shelf.”

I told them a little bit about my Minnesota travel book, and added a little sheepishly: "I don’t have anything about New York Mills in it. It’s sort of between regions."

The woman said, “Oh. You should put in something about the B & B we stayed in last night. The rooms are refurbished train cars. They’re so imaginatively decorated! And when the trains come roaring by in the middle of the night, it really adds to the atmosphere.”

Her husband nodded silently in agreement.

Turning back to Lynn, I asked: “So how does it happen that there’s an art center way out here?”

“A man named John Davis created it,” she said, and went on to explain that the building was vacant; they were going to tear it down and Davis said, “Instead of spending thirty thousand dollars to demolish this building, why not give me the money to make an art center out of it?” And they did.

Davis had been painting barns for local farmers for several years and was well-known and liked in the community. (I read this later online.) His experience of rural life had convinced him that there was both intelligence and interest to spare in the vicinity to support such a project. He was right. In 1994 New York Mills was named one of "Top 5 Culturally Cool Towns" by USA Today Weekend Magazine.

Twenty years later, looking down Main Street on a misty Saturday afternoon in October, you’d never guess it. No doubt in summer, when the Great American Think Off takes place here, the place is jumping. But as I drove through town most of the activity seemed to be at the bowling alley. Aside from the couple I was chatting with, there was no one in the gallery.

Well, I know there’s at least one artist in town, and he’ll be staying in a one-bedroom bungalow, across the tracks and two blocks down from the cultural center.

“Do you know where the house is?” Lynn asked.

“Just down the street?”

“Yup. On the right hand side, across from the bait shop. It's the same color as the trim on the façade of this building. Go in the back door—the front door doesn’t lock.”

I thought I knew what the place looked like, having done some research on Google Maps, but as I pulled slowly down the street none of the buildings fit the image their roving camera had taken of a house enshrowded in cedars. I remembered the number as 224 Main Street but it turns out such an address doesn’t exist. I suddenly wished I’d looked at the color of the trim on the Cultural Center more closely, or better yet, brought the fact sheet from home. I was a little concerned about fumbling with a big set of keys at the back door of some stranger’s house. I could see the headlines in the Wadena Pioneer Journal:

City Man Shot Attempting to Burgle House

Maybe with the subhead—elitist thief had 120 books on ancient Greek philosophy and a case of fine French wine in trunk.

I finally chose the house with the most distinctive color—a blazing cadmium yellow, not unlike the chicken feed I’d seen earlier in those trailers. It was next door to the house directly across from the bait shop, which I’d already ruled out—the garden was too elaborate, too well-maintained. As I stepped around the back I looked over the fence in that direction and saw several elaborate, hand-crafted metal wind-chimes hanging from the laundry pole. Maybe an artist lives there, too?

The first key that I tried worked. Hallelujah! I stepped into a large mudroom, took a half-flight of wooden stairs up to a frame door, opened it, and stepped into my little four-room, two-week, coenobitic cell. It was only 50 degrees inside, but I liked it immediately.  

So, what am I going to read? I have everything here from Virgil’s Georgics to Carol Bly’s Letters from the Country. John Berger’s King to Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice. Early Greek philosophy to Paul Ricoeur; Ernst Cassirer and Seamus Heaney; Glenway Westcott's Wisconsin novel, The Grandmothers, and Charles A. Eastman's Indian Boyhood. I even brought up a short biography of James J. Hill.

So, let me repeat: what am I going to read?

Looking at the clock on the computer screen, I see it’s 5:47. Hilary has been home for an hour. I wonder how her day went? I’m making vegetable soup, though the refrigerator is so small, I doubt I’ll be able to get the leftovers into it. I’m listening to Remede de Fortune by Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1340). Rather haunting and atmospheric, like today.

I’m slowly getting used to the idea of typing ephemeral comments onto a computer, rather than writing them out in a journal.

I actually brought up some of my old journals, thinking it might be a good idea to copy some things out of them before throwing them away. In a journal of 1986, the first noteworthy remarks I find are roughly halfway through the book. It’s a series of quotations from Thomas Merton:

 “After all, if our salvation consists in finding ourselves in God, it means finding ourselves as God is.”

 “Who can comprehend or explain the mystery of what it means to awaken to one’s own reality as an existential consequence of the fact that we are loved by reality itself?”

 “Some of the Fathers stress the idea that ‘the true image of God is the man who does good.’…Others…are absorbed in the thought that the divine image in man is especially constituted by man’s freedom.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken an interest in ideas framed by such terminology. For example, what does it mean to be “loved by reality itself”?  If, as Merton suggests, you can’t comprehend, much less explain such a “mystery,” then how does it present itself to you? What form does it take?

I’m not feeling “loved by reality” right now, I can tell you that. I’m feeling a little closed in by the rain and the house and the strange new neighborhood, which I don’t know anything about. I’m not feeling scared, exactly, but there’s a hint of apprehension in the air. I’m in unfamiliar territory with nothing pressing—no assignment, no commitments—to keep me moving ahead.

Well, you know what they say: familiarity breeds affection. Perhaps we feel “loved by reality” to the degree that it has become familiar to us, that we've become a part of its family.

I wrote those quotes out at a retreat—three days of silence during which I had a lot of time to spin theories. During that time I also wrote an essay asking the question: Who or what is God?

Before long (this back in 1986) I’m remarking, “For my part, I am a great lover of vegetables. It is not only the flavor of the carrot, a potato, a green bean or a turnip that excites my interest. The very presence of one of these products of seed and soil consumes me with love. Everything honest, simple, enriching and content with itself is to be found in a potato, everything bright, sweet, and elegant in a carrot; while a fresh green bean both smells and tastes of rich and exotic earth.”

The gist of the ensuing argument is that vegetables are not my god, nor is my wife my god, nor my own pleasure in thinking about such things. These are all aspects of the dynamic force that animates my affections and draws me outside of and beyond myself.

I’m eating my vegetable soup as I write these words. It’s good.  

I just took a walk downtown through the night and the drizzle. Not many people out. A few cars passing in the rain. Lots of them parked down by the municipal liquor store, which I’m guessing is also a bar. It reminds me a little of walking the night-time streets of Mahtomedi.

Now I’m in for the night. In the morning everything will look different.


Hilary called. It was nice to hear her voice. She said I sounded a little strange. (I think it's the phone, a feather-weight princess phone that runs through a satelite connection.) She’ll enjoy her time alone in the house, though she’s got a fairly busy day tomorrow.

Reading Carol Bly’s Letters. She complains a lot about other people, but she can also write:
“…farming is truly absorbing. It has the best quality of work: nothing else seems real. And everyone doing it, even the cheapest helpers like me, can see the layout of the whole—from spring work, the cultivating, to small grain harvest, to cornpicking, to fall plowing.” (p. 10)
She describes how the rural Scandinavians are reluctant to feel things; they don’t feel like discussing the Vietnam War and chide their children for crying during Charlotte’s Web. I see elements of myself in that description. I’m not in the habit of forming vigorous opinions about foreign policy and then speaking out about them. On the other hand, I have no difficulty showing enthusiasm for things. I cry in movies. I misted up a little just the other day, reading Caddie Woodlawn.

I’ve had the music off for quite a while now. It’s nice just to hear the gentle rain and the occasional swish of a passing car. I did get the soup into the refrigerator. It’s turning into a pleasant evening. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Biking Menomonie and Beyond

I have long been a fan of Minnesota landscapes, which range from dramatic cliffs and bluffs to aspen parklands and wooded moraines. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at my book, Seven States of Minnesota.) But every time we venture east along I-94 into Wisconsin, I am struck by the fact that they have some gorgeous landscapes, too, against which Minnesota can set no real equivalent.

The Driftless Zone straddles the Mississippi, extending a good ways into both states, but Wisconsin has far more of it than Minnesota, and as you move away from the river, its hills offer more radical contours and striking vistas. There is something pleasingly sculptural about the way the fields follow the lay of the land as they rise to meet the heavily wooded hilltops. 

We headed that way not long ago to bike the Red Cedar Trail with friends. Though the day was mild and clear and the leaves were beginning to turn, there were few cyclists out. We followed the river south from Menomonie, hugging the shore for a few miles, passing wooded embankments and sheer cliffs of unquarried sandstone (Dunnville sandstone from the Wonewoc formation, deposited 510 million years ago?) The river was green, then blue, then green, swirling in the morning sun, and we could see long gobs of seaweed fluttering from submerged rocks in the swift current. 

The trail crosses the river north of Dunnville and the second half is slightly more open and agricultural. The last few miles pass through the Dunnville Wildlife Area, and there are likely to be hunters out at this time of the year, but no one took a potshot at us. The only sounds we heard were the squeaking of cedar waxwings, the sharp “pip” of cardinals, and the blustery wind in the cottonwood trees.

The bridge over the Chippewa River makes a fitting turnaround point. It’s about thirty miles there and back from the trailhead in Menomonie. In the summertime the broad, sandy beach just downstream from the bridge can be full of picnickers, most of whom come by boat, but the only people near the river when we arrived were standing on the bridge. They looked to be a pack of college students from nearby Eau Claire, most of whom were deeply engaged in texting on their smart phones. (Maybe it was part of an assignment?)

We’ve biked the Red Cedar Trail many times. What struck me with greater force on this occasion were the natural and cultural accoutrements to be found in the vicinity. We are dinner at Jake’s Supper Club on Tainter Lake, and it met every expectation: outdoor seating on a deck with a fine view of the lake, a decent and affordable house wine, a varied menu. I should have ordered a manhattan followed by prime rib (the Sunday special) but was content to have the lemon-artichoke chicken with a huge mound of lukewarm but obviously hand-mashed potatoes on the side.

Our drive out to the supper club took us north on Highway 25, and the broad fingers of wooded hillside extending down from the northwest into the river valley were ablaze in the setting sun. Spectacular.

The next morning we drove to Durand and biked the tail end of the Pepin Trail east, arriving at the same bridge across the Chippewa we’d visited the previous day from the opposite direction, passing snakes of three different species along the way.

We gave the Old Pepin Courthouse (the last remaining wood frame courthouse in Wisconsin) only a passing glance. Old, but ugly. I was more impressed with the Eau Galle Cheese factory a few miles north of town—once again on Highway 25. It takes some doing to fight your way past all the scarves, jewelry, and hand-made soap on display in the entryway, but the cheese is worth pursuing. Their Parmesan took first place in the United States Championship Cheese Contest a few weeks ago, and at $7.99/lb it’s a real bargain.

True to the character of the region, the locals pronounce Eau Galle as “Oh Golly,” just as we in Minnesota pronounce Milan “my-lan.” No one seems to know where the name Milan came from, but the probable origins of Eau Galle lend credence to the local pronunciation. In early documents the river was referred to as Augalett, Augallett, and Au Galet. Galet is French for coarse pebble—what in Britain they might call “shingle.” In early times there was a heavy gravel sandbar at the mouth of the Eau Galle River. (I’m not sure if it’s still there today.) French traders probably referred to it, as they passed it going upstream on the much larger Chippewa River, as the “river of the gravel sandbar.” That would be the river “au galet,” the French pronunciation of which would be o galay.

Our final stop before heading back toward the freeway was the childhood home of Caddie Woodlawn. It stands in a beautiful park-like setting just off the highway. There’s a historic monument describing how the book of that name got written, and there’s a one-room log cabin fifty yards off to the south. A much larger, white frame house stands fifty yards to the north, and I’m sorry to report that from the text on the monument’s brass plate, it’s impossible to tell which structure was the one Caddy grew up in.

In the introduction to the book itself, Caddie’s granddaughter remarks that you can go to a park south of Menomonie and “enter a small gray house and see exactly where Caddie” once lived. Now, the house to the south is small and gray. The one to the north is white and somewhat larger. All the same, it’s clear enough from the book that the Woodlawn family lived in a multi-room house. So someone must have painted the “small gray house” at some time in the past. And in fact, in 2005 the Menomonie Sunrise Rotary Club took it upon themselves to “restore” the previously gray and unpainted structure where Caddie was raised. Mystery solved.

What that little log cabin is doing there is anybody’s guess.