Author, That Reminds Me
Legend has it Paul Bunyan rose from his lodge in Akeley one day with a plan to walk south and view the timber supply. His mighty footprint created a lake, then another, then another. By the time he reached Huntersville, 11 footprints drained the countryside and created 11 lakes. While he scoured the area for old growth timber, the lakes filled, then overflowed, connecting one to another. They continued to rise while Paul scanned the ample varieties and quantities of cordage. With nowhere to go, the overflow formed a river. Paul watched his creation and noted the new river twisted and turned in gentle arcs. “Like a raven’s wing,” he said to Babe. “But, you know, Crow Wing is easier to say.”
Fast forward to 2015. The river continues to flow from the 11 Crow Wing Lakes, meandering, rising, and falling with the seasons. Now it’s January and the river is frozen. The constant, soothing flow of water is on hold, at least on the surface. Beneath a plate of ice, another world exists. Water courses at a constant five miles an hour, silvery minnows dart to nowhere, and beneath them, in primordial mud, turtles and frogs shut down for the winter. Our conduit to the rest of the planet is interrupted.
But not really. The water flowing past the farm converges with the Long Prairie River at Motley, the Mississippi at Pillager, the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. From there, our modest Minnesota waters mix with the big guys -- the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and through the Panama Canal, the Pacific. Our humble river, the one that consoles and cools, inspires and indulges, connects Nimrod to the planet.
Years ago a neighbor, also impressed with this connectivity, floated 35mm film cartridges containing his business card in the river. A note on the back of the card read: Return this to the address on the front. A couple miles downstream from where he made the deposit, the Crow Wing makes an improbable bend to the north. The reluctant river hangs back, creating a backwater bay along the farm shore. The cans floated that far, then snagged in the foliage and bobbed among the shafts of wild rice. Traveling friends, eager to collaborate in a little mischief, wrote letters and mailed them from Florida, Hawaii, all the way from Normandy Beach. Improbable yes, but possible. The perpetrator was not identified, until now.
Literature is replete with the river as metaphor for interconnectedness and the constancy of change. Greek philosopher Heraclitus promoted change as being central to the universe. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Twenty-five hundred years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Man is a stream whose source is hidden.” And, “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” Finally, “…but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men as the water of the globe is all one sea and, truly seen, its tide is one.”
Four o’clock Sunday afternoon, and the day’s temperature tops out at -7 F. Cattle seem impervious and poke their heads in the bale feeder like spokes in a wheel. The flag at the river hangs limp, then flutters to life at the north wind’s provocation. The dog senses it’s walking time and runs down the bank, chancing the thickness of ice. On the river, a scrim of virgin snow billows and collects in miniature contours. No snowmobile tracks outline the shore; open water is reported at bridges.
A pale wafer of sun seems ready to call it a day as we follow the river north. Tawny gold grass trembles and complements our long blue shadows on the snow. At the oxbow which defines the farm boundary, black ash bend and lock branches in ice, victims of last summer’s winds. It’s quiet and desolate. No foot prints, hoof prints, paw prints.
The walk back to the house follows the river through the woods, also quiet and desolate. As the muted sun lowers, it creates miniature pastel prisms in the snow. Soon a hint of wood smoke, jack pine wood smoke. Closer, it’s a welcome aroma. Chickadees flutter at the feeder. A nuthatch scolds. A woodpecker drums a tiny solo.
Visitors remark on the beauty of the river and its environs in spring, summer, and fall. In spring, the joy of waterfowl migration and budding dogwood. In summer, the parade of exuberant high school seniors canoeing on a class trip. A pair of swans lazing in the bay. In fall, the congregating Canada geese, the incredible redness of high bush cranberries. But doesn’t winter’s cold become life-threatening? Don’t you feel lonesome and deserted in winter?
As Emerson declaims, “Indeed, the river is a perpetual gala, and boasts each month a new ornament.” There is no peace like the river and woods in winter. No scene as simple and beautiful as dichromatic trees and snow. No destination as welcome as warm yellow lights of home on a moonlit night, fresh snow frosting the Norways, wood smoke curling from the chimney. Then, across the river, coyotes howl in raucous conversation.
A visiting archaeologist commented that the features that attract us to this spot on the river are the same as those that attracted Native Americans -- a panoramic view up and down the river, not for aesthetics but for defense, and the river on three sides of the oxbow which permits efficient game drives. Dig a foot of riverbank topsoil, he said, and you’ll find artifacts.
Let them be.
A visiting geologist remarked upon inspecting an aerial photograph that the river has changed course. At one time it flowed straight across the base of the oxbow. A riverbed of rocks in the pasture confirmed that.
And while we’re on a scientific bent, why shouldn’t we be attracted to water? It’s sixty-five percent of our physical makeup.
So there you have it. My river, My woods. My paradise. But not really. I don’t own them. They own me.
This essay is one of many appearing in Mevissen’s latest book, That Reminds Me, available at www.jerrymevissen.com.