I’m the type of guy who enjoys tooling around the back roads of rural Minnesota (and Wisconsin) not looking for anything in particular beyond landscapes and vegetation, farms and streams, quaint villages, migrating birds, explosions of winterberry, moody bogs, and luminescent spirals of pale green moss on the trunks of maple trees.
I’m curious to know what might be found in Yucatan (Houston County) or Meadowlands (northeast of Floodwood) or Argyle. (Well, I guess everyone knows where Argyle is.)
And it’s my good fortune that Hilary also likes such excursions. She’s usually got the highway map and the Vincent Atlas open in her lap, helping me find the way into the heart of the country, and back.
You can’t spend much time roaming the countryside, however, without beginning to ask yourself what really goes on out there. I grew up in a school district (Mahtomedi) that had town kids and farm kids, and it was pretty obvious they lived in two different universes. We would complain about having to mow the lawn or take out the garbage once a week; they would often have hours of chores to do after school every day.
I never set foot on a farm during my adolescence, however; a teenage party at Mary Jacobson’s orchard was about as close as I got, and it was dark the whole time. Nor was I envious of those who were carted off to join Jim Rudeen on his uncle’s farm for a week in the summer. They invariably came back worn out from all the work they’d had to do.
I recently spent two weeks in a less-than-glamorous corner of north central Minnesota, and I put a thousand extra miles on the car during that time. I saw a lot of interesting countryside yet came away with the same nagging question: What really goes on out there?
A few days later a very good answer fell into my lap by chance, in the form of an economical little book, The Last Hunter, by Will Weaver. Weaver is well-known to most Minnesotans who read, what with “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and Red Earth, White Earth to his credit. He was raised on a dairy farm outside of Park Rapids.
The Last Hunter is ostensibly about deer hunting. In fact, if offers a very good portrait of what it’s like to grow up in rural Minnesota, how four brother manage to farm in the same vicinity, how the generations interact, how kids grow into hunting under the guidance of their elders, what it feels like to lose touch with the land, and how hard it is to come back to it.
Weaver left the farm and caught the literature bug as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. He describes the atmosphere of rebellion on campus, the looming war in Vietnam, the scramble for deferments. (I was at the U at the same time and remember having a lengthy discussion with someone in my Robert Frost class about splitting wood. Will, was that you?)
In those days Weaver’s ties to the farm mostly took the form of frozen packages of venison, pheasant, grouse, and walleye that he’d retrieve during monthly trips back home. He used these to woo his later-to-be-wife Rose, but lived in dread of the moment he’d have to bring Rose herself home to Park Rapids, thus shattering his persona of a Shakespeare-quoting aesthete.
She knew I was from a farm—but I was not ready to share the real details of farm life. My old-world dairy barn with its wooden stanchions. The rank smell of calf pens. The dark winter mountain of manure. The frozen deer blood that lingered all winter on the tailgate of my father's pickup. The cold garage hung with frozen fox and coyotes. The carcasses of skinned beaver and mink and raccoons that we tossed into the hayloft as winter food for the barn cats; the clattering, dried skeletons I removed in spring with a pitchfork. The sick cow that had to be dragged, bellowing, from the barn by rope and tractor, then shot. Hunting and blood trails and butchering and farm accidents—all of this I held back from her.
The visit goes well enough, but Weaver’s career path soon takes him (and Rose) far from Minnesota—all the way to wooded hills above Santa Cruz, California. The success of his novel Red Earth, White Earth further alienates him from the countryside he once called home. Tribal leaders from the White Earth reservation and the AIM movement say they’re out to get him, while local farmers are equally upset, claiming that he’s portrayed them as a bunch of rednecks.
But Weaver does eventually return to Northern Minnesota, and to the hunting he loves. In later chapters he deftly interweaves a narrative of his futile attempts to get his children to hunt with references to his father's declining health and changing farming methods in the region. With a French fry factory in Park Rapids and a potato chip factory in Perham, farmers shift their focus increasingly to capital-intensive potato farming, and huge irrigation rigs spring up across a landscape hitherto largely dedicated to pastures.
I’m not a hunter myself, though I love tromping through the woods in any season. Weaver’s description of his family hunting (and trapping) traditions offers a corrective to the common stereotype of drunken maniacs who’ve been baiting their chosen “prey” for months. In the Weaver family, drinking and hunting didn’t go together. And the hunting was part of the larger effort of a rural family to exploit the “fat of the land,” a phrase that, to Weaver’s father, referred to “anything that could be gleaned, picked, fished, or hunted—and put to good use for the family.”
Using deer hunting as a thread allows Weaver to cast light on many aspects of family and work life in a region where the north woods gives way to farms and ranches, without becoming unduly dramatic or confessional. It’s a beautiful and subtle portrait, like a faint star we see more clearly because we’re not looking directly at it.