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Water and What We Know

Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Water and What We Know
    Book Description:

    Consider your place, the place where you feel the most at home: a tree-lined lake, a bean field planted on stolen land, a rig drilling the golden prairie, city streets alive with energy. Written in the language of the northern landscape of experience, Karen Babine explores the meaning of being in your place on a particular day.

    In essays that travel from the wildness of Lake Superior to the order of an apple orchard, Babine traces an ethic of place, a way to understand the essence of inhabiting a place deeply rooted in personal stories. She takes us from moments of reflection, through the pages of her Minnesota family's history, to the drama of the land and the shaping of the earth. From the Mississippi's Headwaters in Itasca State Park-its name fromveritas caput,or "true head"-she explores the desire that drives the idea of the North. The bite of a Honeycrisp apple grown in Ohio returns her to her origin in Minnesota and to pie-making lessons in her Gram's kitchen. In the Deadwood, South Dakota, of her great-great-grandfather, briefly police chief; in the translation of her ancestors from Swedish to Minnesotan; on the outer edge of the New Madrid Fault in Nebraska; through the flatlands along I-90; at the foot of Mount St. Helens: Babine pursues what the Irish calldinnseanchas, place-lore. How, she asks, does land determine what kind of people grow in that soil? And through it all runs water, carrying a birch bark canoe with a bullet hole and a bloodstain, roaring over theEdmund Fitzgerald,flooding the Red River Valley, carving the glaciated land along with historical memory.

    As she searches out the stories that water has written upon human consciousness, Babine reveals again and again what their poignancy tells us about our place and what it means to be here.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4446-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. INTRODUCTION: In This Place, on This Day
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    It’s mid-May, just after the fishing opener in northern Minnesota, and I am sitting on the couch in front of the big picture window, feet propped on an ancient ottoman, cup of tea at my elbow. It is Tea Time at the Lake, that sacred time after Afternoon Naps. My grandparents, who built the Cabin the summer my mother was pregnant with me, taught us to think in Proper Nouns. If my grandparents were here, my grandmother would be filling her teapot and finding thekluntjes,the German white sugar rock candy. But I am alone, drinking my tea out...

  4. Roald Amundsen’s Teeth
    (pp. 1-13)

    Itasca State Park is everything that is right with the world. The root of its name isveritas caput,Latin for “true head,” the name formed of the last three letters of the first word and the first two letters of the second, and this place marks more than the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. When I am away from the North Woods, I feel like my lungs can never fully inflate, and when I get back here, to Hubbard County, I feel like I can finally breathe.

    The world here is green, but it isn’t so...

  5. The Inheritance of Apples
    (pp. 14-30)

    Picture this: a simple knotty pine–paneled cabin in northern Minnesota, on a lake called Third Crow Wing. In the kitchen, an open room, the counters are white and the cupboards are dark brown. The floors are carpeted in colors unique to the 1970s.

    A man, his age somewhere between sixty and seventy, sits at the old oak kitchen table that had belonged to his wife’s parents. There’s a good story behind that table and chairs, but that’s for another time. In one hand, he holds a half-stripped Granny Smith apple. In the other hand, he holds a vegetable peeler....

  6. Water and What It Knows
    (pp. 31-50)

    Most of the surnames of my Swedish ancestors indicate that someone put some stock into where they came from. Their name was not only where they lived, but it became who they were. That is a very solid, comforting thought. Identity as tangible, your name and your history literally a place to return to.

    Thorsander:Thor,Ostra Torsas (a region in Sweden);ander,where they came from. Holm:holm,small island. Dahlberg:dahl,valley;berg,mountain. And Sjöberg, eventually anglicized to Shoberg.

    Sjöberg is pronouncedwheh-berg. (Shoberg is much easier for the average American to say, probably why they changed...

  7. The River—1997
    (pp. 51-70)

    Ground yourself.

    This is the southernmost part of Glacial Lake Agassiz that once covered parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, North Dakota, and Minnesota during the last ice age. The lake itself was never static in size, changing as the glaciers advanced and retreated in Canada, but at its largest point, the lake may have covered as many as a quarter-million square miles. When it disappeared, about 7,500 years ago, it left behind several large lakes, including Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, and Red Lake. The rest of what remained was flat, thick-clay land. The land was not...

  8. The Canoe
    (pp. 71-83)

    This is the year Nebraska became Settler Nebraska, the year that the white government in Washington thought they could turn the Great American Desert into the Breadbasket of the World just by legislation and blind ambition. Mostly, it worked, changing how the story of the Heartland would be written with four incredibly earth-shattering pieces of lawmaking: the Homestead Acts, which encouraged settlement of the Great Plains, farming a land that was never meant to be farmed; the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, including the University of Nebraska, where I now sit, as well as the University of Minnesota my...

  9. Deadwood
    (pp. 84-103)

    The story of the West is the story of hope. Of hope so insistent that it compelled movement over large distances. Of hope so pervasive that it soaked the Plains soil like rain. Of hope so tangible that it rose higher than the Rockies, driven up by cataclysmic forces, for nothing worth dreaming comes without a price. Of hope so expansive that it became the air, inhaled and exhaled, until it pushed through the atmosphere and collided with the stars and brought them down, close enough to touch.

    Boot Hill is filled with dreamers.

    The road leading up to Mount...

  10. Petrography
    (pp. 104-119)

    Scant feet from my toes, the world drops off. I’m staring across the canyon created by the Missoula Floods toward Dry Falls in Washington State, intense sunlight highlighting the water-formed cliffs. The sun turns the small pools of water at the canyon base to bright, improbable blue, the color of my mother’s eyes. Dry Falls, I have learned, is the largest waterfall in the world, but it hasn’t been wet since the last time Glacial Lake Missoula flooded, ten thousand years ago. When it was wet, it was ten times larger than Niagara Falls—about 400 feet tall and 3.5...

  11. Recorded History
    (pp. 120-144)

    As I sit here, Mount St. Helens is rumbling. In the past week, the news has been full of reports of thousands of small earthquakes and movement in the lava dome of the volcano. It could erupt in a matter of days, they say. For some reason, this news is very exciting.

    I lived in Washington State for a time, but not near the volcanic mountains of the western side. I lived on the eastern side of the state where the worst we had to worry about were memories of the ice age floods that tore apart the landscape. This...

  12. Holden
    (pp. 145-151)

    Late June 2005. Trail to Hart Lake, Railroad Creek Valley, Holden Village, Wenatchee National Forest, Eastern Cascades, Chelan County, Washington. A four-and-a-half-mile hike, it is rugged enough that it’s hard to judge how far we have walked. The sun is hot and high in the narrow strip of sky visible between the sides of the valley, the light and heat often filtered through the trees but not enough to lower the temperature.

    We are surrounded by water, inside and outside. We carry three backpacks between the five of us, filled with the bare minimum required for this hike in this...

  13. Faults
    (pp. 152-160)

    A 5.9 earthquake shakes the East Coast on August 24, 2011, toppling spires and cracking walls at the National Cathedral, agitating the confidence of people who had never recovered from the earth-shattering moments of 9/11. Californians sneered. But the last time the earth moved like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building. On the East Coast, buildings shaking means something completely different from anywhere else in the world.

    Charles Darwin writes, “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet...

  14. Grain Elevator Skyline
    (pp. 161-175)

    August 1984. Five of us are packed into a maroon Pontiac, driving through a blinding rainstorm south to Clara City, Minnesota, for my great-grandmother’s funeral. I am five years old; Kristi is three; Kim is eighteen months. Our father is driving; Mom is in the passenger seat. All I remember of my first real introduction to the home of my maternal grandfather is that rainstorm, so heavy that I can’t see the hood ornament, and being upstairs in my great-aunt and great-uncle’s house, sobbing with the rest of my second cousins, and my mother singing “Children of the Heavenly Father”...

  15. I-90
    (pp. 176-193)

    The black of the sky is as dense as the black under my tires, broken only by the occasional lightning white of oncoming headlights. We are past the threshold of time where late becomes early, but the sky has not yet begun to lighten, and I feel a strange comfort in this cocoon of untime. This is the point of time before the world is fully awake. Those who are awake are thoroughly caffeinated. In the passenger seat, I have two Stanley thermoses filled with cheap Earl Grey spiked with lemon. My travel mug with its Cabela’s Outfitters cozy is...

  16. Ballerina in a Snowsuit
    (pp. 194-201)

    Phyllis Olson was seventeen years old, a willowy girl with curly brown hair and water-blue eyes, tough in ways only a girl who lived through the Depression, descended from four generations of Swedes in the farming country of eastern Minnesota, could be. She spoke English as her first language, the first generation of her family to do so. Her parents spoke English, but they spoke Swedish around each other, especially when they did not want their children to know what they were talking about. On November 11, 1940, Armistice Day, she was attending her first year of college at St....

  17. The Weight of Water
    (pp. 202-218)

    Two months before my maternal grandfather died in his sleep, I spent a month with my parents, forty-five miles away from where I grew up in northern Minnesota, and each week of that month I spent a night with my grandparents. While the town I grew up in doesn’t call to me, the Cabin remains our family’s emotional home, that small, two-bedroom cabin on a shallow lake, with a picture window that looks out onto thick trees that obscure the water when they are not pruned back. On one of those nights, my mother and I pulled into a driveway...

    (pp. 219-220)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-221)