Saturday, October 31, 2015

November Ramble

Nowadays "getting away from it all" isn't all that difficult. Unplug the computer and you're halfway there.

The other day we went one step further and ventured north into the increasingly leafless farm country northeast of town, with Taylors Falls as a vaguely defined point of terminus.

We stuck to the freeway through Forest lake and veered east on Highway 8—a route we've avoided for years, due to the heavy Friday afternoon traffic, the stoplights in every little town, and the generally "junky" appearance of the countryside.  But on a gray Friday morning in late October, the landscape seemed fresh again, and the towns had regained their character.

Lindstrom, Chisago City, Center City. I have trouble remembering which one I'm passing through, or whether I'm in a town at all, rather than the latest accretion of exurban sprawl. But I'm sure it was in Lindstrom that we stopped into one of those small bakeries that inspire all travelers with hope. This one seemed to be dominated by cookies, and I was tempted by the orange, pumpkin-shaped one, but I ordered three Russian teacakes instead. At the front counter I noticed some oily, misshapen donuts that looked very good indeed. Hilary got a cinnamon version, I got a honey-glazed variety, and we asked the woman to throw in a crispy, too, for good measure.

The total, which also included a twelve-ounce cup of coffee, was $4.20.

There's a little sitting room next to the bakery, but it was full of retired farmers wearing hunting caps with the flaps down, so we decided to sit in the car in the alley behind the shop next door, enjoying our baked goods while looking out across the street to the self-proclaimed "German Meat-Market."
The donuts were good. So were the teacakes—powdered sugar flying everywhere. Only later did I learn that the bakery has a "top pick" listing on Michael Stern's Roadfood website.   

In Center City we veered north along the side of the lake to a small clutch of municipal buildings and a handsome church sitting in a narrow strip of land with water on either side. After bringing our consumption of baked goods to a satisfactory conclusion in the parking lot of another nearby church while looking out a cross the gray expanse of Pioneer Lake, I said:

"I've got an idea. Let's go to Almeland."

"What's in Almeland?" Hilary asked.

"Nothing. But we've never been there."

Our change of route was confirmed when Hilary took at look at the atlas and found that County 9 would take us to Almeland. We could see the sign for the turnoff directly in front of the car.

The landscape north of Highway 8 is largely open, though there are plenty of woodlots, too, and it tends to slope gently toward the St. Croix River, which runs north-to-south roughly ten miles east of town.

We had gone only a few miles  north when I spotted some winterberry bushes in a ditch. We didn't stop because the shoulder was narrow at that point and a man was walking his dog in a field on the other side of the road, but front that point on, we found ourselves staring off into the underbrush with heightened interest.

Almeland consists largely of a gas station/general store, a crumbling creamery with tree branches growing out of the windows, a substantial church, and an antique store housed in the former mercantile. (I later learned the town also has a "cultural center" though we never saw it.)

To my uneducated eye, the antique store was better than average, meaning that it was well-lit, relatively uncluttered, and largely free of broken objects and junk. Hilary examined the jewelry carefully and also spotted two Boda glass "snowball" candle holders that we ended up buying.

One wall of the shop is lined with glass-fronted display cases, and it also has a smaller display in the center room devoted to someone's "collection." The woman who ran the shop told us that these displays, which change every month, feature items on a specific theme accumulated by a local resident. They're not for sale; they're simply there to be admired.

The case currently holds a collection of translucent green dishes, which I could admire even from a distance of twenty feet.

I asked the woman about the famous thresher festival that's been held in Almeland every August for the last fifty years, and she filled me in on the details. Everything from a tractor caravan to the quilt raffle and the evening  dance in the beer garden.

The entire lofty room is painted in the Swedish national colors, and there are some nice woven tapestries for sale amid the flotsam of furniture and glassware.

"I know this region was originally settled by Swedes..." I said.

"Oh, yes, very heavily Swedish. Look at the name. Of course, it's gotten diluted over the generations."

"What does Almeland mean, anyway?" I asked.

"I don't really know," she replied with a sheepish smile.

"Maybe you ought to look that up," I said, not unkindly, and she smiled again.

(I did a little research myself when we got home and determined that Almelund might mean "elm grove." But the town was founded by a fellow named Almquist (elm twig), which also probably had something to do with it. Perhaps I'll send the woman a note.)

As most Minnesotans do know, the arrival of the Swedes in Chisago County was immortalized in a series of novels by Wilhelm Moberg, which Jan Troell later made into a couple of films: The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land. Moberg also wrote a number of casual pieces about the region, some of which were collected in a book called The Unknown Swedes. In one of them he wanders around an overgrown graveyard in the Chisago Lakes region and muses on connections between the Old World and the new one. It's a nice piece, though clearly written for an audience back home rather than here.

In any case, it was written back in 1950—before I was born. Things fade and vanish, or are transformed into other things.

Yet I know for a fact that the ethnic heritage of the area hasn't vanished entirely. We bought a used canoe last summer from a man named Rollie who claimed to be a direct descendant of the original settlers in the Chisago Lakes area--the very couple that appears in Moberg's novels. The vessel had been on many fine adventures, the man told me.

Why was he selling it? He was moving to Utah.

A few years ago a local writer, Sue Leaf, wrote a book about living in the Chisago Lakes area. It's called The Bullhead Queen: a Year on Pioneer Lake. There's quite a bit in it about the seasons, the lakes, and the birds, but very little about the Swedes. However, at one point, visiting the grandmother of a friend, she writes:

The Swedes have an unwritten rule about serving seven different kinds of cookies with company coffee, a rule Tom's grandmother scrupulously observed.

It makes me wonder if there is also an unwritten rule about how many varieties you need to sample to be polite.

But Leaf's most vivid description is accompanied by expressions of regret. Having been invited on a birding trip to northern Minnesota to witness an invasion of great gray owls, she finds that she's already agreed to play the piano for a Santa Lucia Fes­tival at the local Swedish heritage club.

"So on the Saturday when my fellow birders were winging their way north, I sat behind a keyboard, one glum German American in a sea of Swedes. The church basement was trans­formed by sparkling candles, the fragrance of coffee and fruit soup, and the red of Christmas elves and decorative hearts. The sweet children's voices sang 'Nu tandes tusen julejus' (A thousand Christmas candles now are lit upon the earth), and I thought, 'I have lost the opportunity of a lifetime.' "

The book has a good deal of contemporary local color, and is more often meditative than quarrelsome, though Leaf describes herself at one point  as "out of step" with her neighbors on Pioneer Lake, who assert their property rights vigorously against the intrusion of environmental initiatives designed to preserve the best parts of the landscape and fauna for future generations.

Ah yes. The landscape. On a gray morning in late October, following a few days of rain, the burnished leaves on the red oaks provide the most dramatic splashes of color. The shrubby willows are holding on to the last of their yellow leaves. We pulled to a stop several times on deserted back-roads to harvest winterberries that turned out to be merely the red stems of dogwood bushes that had lost their berries entirely.

Arriving in Taylor's Falls from the north, we pulled into a "classic" drive-in that nevertheless displayed stylish banners describing the local sources of the beef, chicken, bison, and vegetables it used. The hamburgers were "hand-made to order" but "worth the wait," and the root beer was brewed on site daily. We were served by a young car-hop with blond hair and a tiny crystal embedded in her nostril. 

She would have been a fitting candidate for the role of Santa Lucia herself.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Welcome to Quebec

Quebec is like our own little France—a New World version, nearer at hand and less encumbered by generations of accumulated attitude. France is inarguably larger, more beautiful, and far richer in historical and cultural sites. Quebec is like a rustic, Americanized France, where we can enjoy the still-affordable seafood, the extraordinary woodpiles, the endless pine forests, and the coastal villages where recreational development seems to have ceased in the 1950s.

Quebec's anomalous situation as a large and regionally confined minority population within an even larger country might well be its most distinctive feature. But communication is seldom an issue, even for a monoglot like me. When you ask, many Québécois are obviously pleased to try out their halting (but often excellent) English, with a sheepish and apologetic charm that belies the fact that you, not they, are the foreigner who can't speak the common language of the province.

Within the walls of Quebec City itself, tourism thrives amid stone buildings dating back to the seventeenth century. The views out across the St. Lawrence River are expansive. No particular sight demands attention, though along with the restaurants, shops, churches, and coffee shops, there are also plenty of small-scale museums to duck into, many of them focused on aspects of the early history of the colony.

You can absorb the flavor of the city pretty well on foot in two nights and a day.

In preparation for our recent visit, I reread Willa Cather's novel Shadows on the Rock. This might seem like an odd choice, considering that the book was published in 1931, and the "action," such as it is, commences in 1697. But the spirits of Count Frontenac, Bishop Laval, and the Ursaline nuns are still abroad in the streets (a little), and Cather's description of the apothecary Auclair at the market in Place Royale, buying pigeons and lard to pack them in for the winter, is only one of many vivid and carefully detailed scenes that will prepare you for your wandering visit.

We arrived by car from Greenville, Maine—a three-hour drive—and dropped down to the Boulevard Champlain immediately after crossing the St. Lawrence River on the freeway. This proved to be a shrewd move, as we soon came upon  La Promenade Samuel-De Champlain, a gorgeous strip of parkland running along the north bank of the river. The landscaping was pleasant and the sculptures scattered here and there were modern ... but appropriately dressed in nautical themes and materials. Maybe it was due to the fact that we'd spent the previous day hiking up and down steep hills through the Maine woods, but this sunny strip of land, which ran alongside the river for several miles, struck me as a joyous masterpiece of civic art. The people strolling, jogging, and  walking their dogs, looked exactly like the people you see on the paths at Lake of the Isles, yet they seemed, somehow, a little more sophisticated—maybe because they were all speaking French?

Our next stop, driving through the edge of the Lower Town and on to the old port, was the farmers' market. The fruits and vegetables were well polished, though many of the stalls were devoted to agricultural products rather than produce. The vast cheese counter displayed a hand-written list of cheese varieties in five columns, each variety followed by a price per pound. I'm not much of a cheese expert, which may explain why I recognized few of the selections. Among the offerings from the second half of the list were Maistre Jules, Migneron, Monnoir, Noble, Old Amsterdam, Origine de Charlevoix, Pailasson, Parmesan Reggiano, Pleine Lune, Pikauba, Peau Rouge, Petit Poitou, Pied-De-Vent, Pionnier, Pizy, Porto Bleu, Prestige, Raclette Du Village, Raclette Kaiser, Raclette Poivre Vert, Raclette Griffon, Raclette De Compton, Raclette La Grappe, Rassembleu, Ratoureux, Rebellion,  Sacrebleu, Sein D’helene, Secret de Maurice, Sieur Corbeau, Stilton, Tete de Moine, Tomme D’elles, Tomme de Grosse-Ile, Tomme de Kamoraska, Tomme des Demoiselles, Tomme des Galets, Tomme des Joyeux Fromagers, Tomme des Joyeux Fromagers Agee, Tournevent Frais, Vacherin Chaput, Vacherin du Village, Valbert, Verdict D’alexina, Victor et Berthold, Victor & Berthold /Reserve, and Zachary. It's pretty clear we're not in Kansas any more.

Skipping the cheeses, we bought a savory pastry of some sort from one of the bakeries and proceeded through afternoon traffic up steep hills into the heart of the old city, where our hotel was located. There was a frenzy of activity in the narrow street at the door to the hotel, as quite a few guests—most of them from Europe, I believe—were trying to dispose of their vehicles and haul their luggage through the door into the lobby. We did the same, and twenty minutes later we were negotiating a narrow hallway with uneven flooring to our cozy room, which looked out over a nondescript courtyard. The room was equipped with a huge armoire, a miniscule bathroom, and some almost-kitchy modern art on the walls. Ah, Europe! 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoreau Smear Piece

As the political cycle swings nearer to election time, 'tis the season for "smear pieces." These are the articles in which the actions and pronouncements of a given candidate or political insider—Bernie Sanders, the Koch brothers, or  whomever—are selectively examined and relentlessly skewered, which can be great fun if the subject happens to be someone you dislike.

But I never thought I'd be reading a smear piece on an individual who died a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet this is what New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz gives us in her recent article, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia."

The article would have been better had the author stopped to actually consider the question she raises. It's right there, in italics, under the author by-line: "Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?"

It's a fact that Thoreau's works have been cherished by generations of readers. Schulz describes it as "cabin porn," but Walden is firmly ensconced in the American canon. It's often pointed out that his writings had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. How could these giants of integrity and compassion have been so thoroughly duped?

Schulz never answers that question. Instead, she cherry-picks a litany of criticisms in defense of the argument that his work should never have been canonized, is not worth reading— and the sooner we open our eyes to the fact, the better.

None of her criticisms are new. Generations of readers have been informed of the fact, or discovered it for themselves, that Thoreau had a misanthropic streak. (Many writers do.) By assembling the most callous, holier-than-thou remarks by Thoreau she can find into a single screed, Shultz makes him sound smug and priggish indeed. But that isn't the effect one gets when reading Walden, Cape Cod, or Maine Woods.

Schulz has entirely missed Thoreau's sly and subtle humor. And she's insensitive to his language, which is astonishingly modern. I would argue that Thoreau is the greatest American prose stylist of the nineteenth century, and also its greatest poet. I'm not referring here to the man's verse, which is weak, but to the poetry of his prose. Time and again, when reading Thoreau, we feel that we're in the presence of a surrealist avant la lettre.  

Walden isn't a book to be read in a single weekend, or even in a single month. It's a collection of essays, in fact, and the reader can turn to the chapter on ponds, or the village, or sounds, and be immediately engaged in Thoreau's descriptions and also his musings, which compare favorably with Montaigne's. That's why you so often see people carrying Walden along to the cabin or the campground. A few sentences, absorbed at random, send one's thoughts off in exactly the right direction.

Schulz at various points describes Thoreau as narcissistic, egotistical, and arrogant, none of which adjectives can be squared with his extraordinary capacity to attend to and describe the things he sees and hears all around him, or the personal devotion he inspired in his own time and continues to inspire today. If he's unhappy with his neighbors, it's usually because he feels they've lost the capacity to attend to life's quotidian marvels. No doubt the lives of "quiet desperation" he criticized so pithily also had virtues of which he was unaware, but readers from his day to ours have been inspired by his work to reexamine their values and ideals.And that's a good thing. He can be harsh and condescending, but it's also clear that he's well aware of the histrionic and absurd elements in the persona he's cultivating. 

In his book TheThoreau You Don't Know, Robert Sullivan paints an attractive portrait of Thoreau's personality and social life, well researched, convincing, and entirely dissimilar to the badly lit Instagram Shultz has given us. The gist of her article seems to be: I don't like Thoreau, and I don't see why so many others do.

Well, that's not much of a story.

I opened my copy of Walden just now—I've never read the whole thing—and came upon the following passage on the first page of the chapter on sounds:  
"But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remem­bered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Happy Aufheben Day

For many years, Columbus Day has been noted chiefly as the day when you go to the bank to make a deposit or withdraw some cash only to find that the bank isn't open. "What the...?" you say to yourself, then read the note pasted on the glass reminding you of the holiday.

But with the proliferation of ATMs, which can now accept checks you haven't endorsed, and are even too lazy to put in an envelope or total up, Columbus Day has largely faded into insignificance, and even become a magnet for protests and quasi-historical criticism.

Some municipalities, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul, have replaced Columbus Day with a new holiday, Indigenous Day. I like the idea of having such a holiday, though I'm not sure celebrating it on the day Columbus first spotted land in the New World is a good idea.

Then again, there is a certain logic to the association. Indigenous people would probably never have quit fighting one another and come to consider themselves members of a single extended family except as a response to a larger and otherwise indomitable outside force.

It's easy to understand how offensive Columbus Day seems to Native Americans, and many aspects of the explorer's character make it difficult for whites and Latinos to get much excited about him, either. But I can remember the days when we were required to memorize the red-letter days of early exploration:

Columbus - 1492 / Ponce de Leon - 1507 / Balboa - 1509? / Cortez - 1513 / Jacques Cartier - 1536

I don't recall that any of these men were being celebrated for their humanitarianism, honesty, moral fiber, or ethnographic curiosity. Back when the holiday meant something, Columbus Day was a celebration of two things: courage in the face of the unknown, and the freedom and economic opportunity opened up by immigration.

These elements of the holiday have also come in for derision, of course. Sailing west across an ocean into the abyss for eighty-one days can hardly be considered a courageous act, we're told, when Breton and Basque fisherman had been fishing off the coast of Newfoundland for centuries. And the fact that countless millions of immigrants, many of whom faced oppression, torture, or starvation in their home countries, found new lives in the Western hemisphere loses its luster when we stop to consider that the land wasn't really theirs to take.

For myself, I find such reasoning a little shallow, and look forward to the day when our understanding of historical events  and movements sheds both its gingoistic triumphalism and its petulant adversarialism, subsuming both attitudes in a more complex and all-embracing vision.

I'm not sure what a holiday based on that notion might be called, or when it would be held. Somehow, I don't think the idea of celebrating "Aufheben Day" on August 27 (Hegel's birthday) will catch on here in the States any time soon. Besides, considered in isolation from specific events, the concept loses its meaning.

This year, on Indigenous Day, I think I'll re-read Follow the Dream: the Story of Christopher Columbus, a gorgous children's book by Czech immigrant Peter Sis, and then maybe flip through the pages of They Sought a New World: The Story of European Immigration to North America, with its wonderful illustrations by William Kurelek, whose Ukrainian parents settled in Alberta.

After a light dinner of homemade acorn bread and orzo-wild rice salad, maybe we'll settle in to a double feature on the tube: Terrance Malick's brilliant The New World, and Jonathan Wack's wacky Powwow Highway