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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds exactly like what should happen when a writer goes on a retreat - wish I had been there to be part of the discussion - they look like a great group. Thanks for the fun updates! -- Pat Mc.

Randee said...

I enjoy hearing about this place. My grandmother lived on Crow Wing Lakes when I was little and we traveled through Staples to get there. I recall my dad taking that road with the repeating hill, speeding up over the crest, my stomach pushing up into my chest and dropping in the free fall. My sisters and I let out a "tourtured" giggled each time.