All posts by Eve

reading the river

I begin to learn the very basics of reading the river: learning to see the difference between ripples in the water caused by wind and those caused by branches or rocks just under the water. It’s a funny thing how the kayak wants to go right where the obstructions are, to join the faster water that’s created there. I am aware that I am a rank beginner at this river reading: it’s about equivalent to my Ojibwe recognition: a ”g“ at the end of a word makes the word plural, I know that much!

I’m actually quite good at being a beginner at things: perhaps it’s my only real expertise. I know 300 words and the conjugation of the present tense in as many as 10 languages, but I can’t really speak any but English. I can play simple music on virtually every instrument, but I’m not a skilled performer on any of them. I realize I am in certain ways a total dilettante, a ”generalist“ as my father described me to my chagrin as a teenager. I berate myself all the time for not mastering Greek or the piano, I put myself on disciplined schedules of study that invariably fall by the wayside because the next project requires me to learn the rudiments of the Persian radif and carpentry, kayaking and Ojibwe. After first spending some time with my music, my friend Susan pronounced me a bricoleur, without a trace of disdain, so I’ve decided finally to embrace my bricoleur self, make my peace with my own nature. I have the confidence that I can learn almost anything I need to know to do what I want to do, to make what I want to make. But sometimes I do get lonely for that sense of pure mastery of a single subject. I think of Mark Twain’s immortal description of the river pilot’s expertise in Life on the Mississippi, and I would like to have that mastery in something more, I don’t know, elevated than driving a car, using a Mac, editing audio, setting up a tent.

Although writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that the pleasure I take in dumb little rituals like organizing the car, setting up the tents elegantly and efficiently, keeping my databases and hard drives ridiculously tidy, and a million other tiny tasks, which I execute in a laughably OCD and control-freakish way, are a way of counterbalancing my openness to beginner status and serendipity (otherwise known as ignorance and luck) in the most important parts of my life.

And there is a moment sometimes when I’m writing a new piece when everything falls into place, and suddenly I do have that sense of mastery of the needs of that exact piece and no other, and I feel this oceanic sense of utter certainty: it didn’t exist at all, then the fragmentary thread of something shows up, and then all of a sudden, I know exactly how it goes, what it needs to be. It doesn’t feel like MY mastery at all, more like something visited upon me. But perhaps that’s my version of reading the river. I’ll take it; it’s enough for me, for sure…

cows and corn

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Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.

I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.

I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.

I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…

I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.

And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.

touch beautiful places

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It rained pretty seriously last night, and I woke up before six and set up in the convenient shelter Palisade’s town park offers its users and read some more of this really curious and interesting book, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native American Culture in Motion, by Michael D. McNally. I found it in the giftshop at Itasca State Park visitor center, next to all the tourist stuff – go figure! Anyway, the book is about what the Ojibwe people have made of the Protestant hymns taught them by Christian missionaries. The book’s claim is that a specifically Ojibwe method of singing these hymns — in unison, very slowly and solemnly, usually at wakes or funerals — came into being, and is quite separate from the ordinary hymn-singing that happened under the supervision of the missionaries on Sunday mornings in church.

Hymns were among the first texts that got translated from English into Ojibwe, starting sometime in the late 1820s, but because various concepts central to Christian theology (e.g. sin, salvation, grace) just simply aren’t directly translatable into Ojibwe, one can imagine that the Ojibwe texts are not terribly literal embodiments of Wesley and Watts.

Here, for example, is my favorite re-translation of the Ojibwe in the book. First, the original stanza, from Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove (Isaac Watts), #510 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, for those of you following along at home:

And shall we, Lord, for ever be
In this poor dying state?
Our love so faint, so cold to thee,
And thine to us so great?

And here is Larry Cloud Morgan’s re-translation of the 1910 Ojibwe version of the hymn.

As we are thinking,
As we sing,
Our prayers
Touch beautiful places in us.

The Ojibwe version may not have a whole lot to do with Isaac Watts, but it’s definitely taking me someplace I want to go!

remembering Big Sandy Lake

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Big Sandy Lake is the site of one of the unforgivable events in US-Native American relations. The DNR map chooses to ignore the event altogether, which really disturbs me. In 1850, the US government decided it wanted the Ojibwe bands that were spread over the upper Midwest east of the river all to move up here to Big Sandy Lake. So they told them all to gather there in order to receive money and food from the government. In good faith, about 4000 people gathered in late October, the government’s deadline, and waited. No money was forthcoming, and the food the US gave the Ojibwe was spoiled and killed about 150 people from dysentery. In early December, the Ojibwe finally decided to give up waiting, and on the trip home another 250 died from exposure and starvation.

Somehow this story embodies for me all the greed and bad faith and yes, pure evil, that our government has manifested in relation to the Native peoples. I mean, come on, you want to trick these people into relocating, fucked up in the first place. And then you give them spoiled food and renege on the promised funds? The people in charge cannot even pretend to justify themselves: it’s genocide, pure and simple.

And I was terrified that I would show up at Big Sandy Lake Recreation Area, which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and be confronted with a nice campsite full of RVs and overweight vacationers, and this appalling history would be conveniently invisible. And in fact, the campsite is exactly as I’ve described it. As I sit here looking out at the Lake, a powerboat full of folks is going by blasting 80’s classic rock, but there is also a memorial set up by the Ojibwe right in the middle of the campground, and at the overlook up on the road, there is another marker placed by the Minnesota Historical Society. I burst into tears at the overlook: the marker starts with a quote from an Ojibwe leader, Flat Mouth, saying “I hold the US government responsible for the children we have lost.”

I don’t know why this particular atrocity gets to me so badly. (After all, there is no shortage of terrible stories about the US government’s dealings with the Native peoples, including the government of our very favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.) Perhaps it’s because there are echoes of the Turks’ forced displacement of the Armenians from their ancestral lands in what is now eastern Turkey, another mostly ignored genocide, which is excused in sort of similar ways. The Native peoples (and the Armenians) were simply in the way, they needed to be moved so the new state could take root, we didn’t really mean to kill them off, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of nation-building.

And I end up getting very very interested in people like Henry Schoolcraft, and Archdeacon Gilfillan, [8/22/09: or maybe not Gilfillan; as Richard is reading further, he’s not such a sympathetic character] the white men who repeatedly argued for the rights of Native Americans at a time when everyone else seemed just as happy to kill them off or push them far enough away that they couldn’t make trouble. The analogous people in the Armenian genocide are Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and the American doctor Clarence Douglas Ussher, who wrote impassioned letters and articles documenting the genocide as it was unfolding, but sadly not successfully enough either to prevent a million deaths or to force an acknowledgment of what happened.

So what is the point of all this, really? The point, I think, is that we should remember the dead of Big Sandy Lake and Lake Van the way we remember the dead of Dachau and Auschwitz. We should remember Schoolcraft and Morganthau the way we remember Schindler and Bonhöffer. Attention must be paid. It must.

a song and a dance

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I had a marathon paddling day today (thirty miles!!!) because there aren’t many choices for pulling out along this stretch of the river. So one choice was to do two days on the river, camping overnight at one of the sites available only from the river. I considered doing that, because a river-access-only campsite sounds really cool to me, but then I realized I would have to forego coffee the second day, because I’m not really set up for coffee in the wild, so I decided I’d rather do a long day of paddling. I put in at Jacobson campsite, which we had happily lived in completely alone for two days: it’s a “primitive” site, meaning pit toilets, no shower, but a really excellent source of very cold, very clean water, so we were totally happy there. Mac and Richard had kayaking days when we were at that site, which had absolutely no cell service, so I did a lot of reading, about which more later, and tried a run one morning, but the mosquitos on the ATV trail were brutal, so I gave up after about a half hour.

This part of the river feels very different from the headwaters section before all the lakes. By now the volume of water has about doubled, the DNR maps tell us, and the municipal boat ramps are mostly located at late 19th century ferry crossings, each of which has the requisite steamboat wreck lying in the bottom of the river. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is pretty difficult to imagine passenger boats steaming up this part of the river: it has reverted to something closer perhaps to what it looked like in the early 19th century, when the French were trading with the Ojibwe, and logging and settlement had not yet begun.

In the course of an entire day of paddling: 8 am to 6 pm, I saw precisely one other person: a guy fishing from the side of the bank. I heard plenty of people though: most of this area is farmland, and behind the layer of trees lining the bank, you can hear the sounds of farm machinery and glimpse farmhouses and even a vacation home now and again. But the river itself is too low for powerboats: only the most knowledgeable or foolhardy would risk running an engine through these waters, and fellow self-powered boaters are few and far between. Kayaks and canoes are a real rarity, strangely enough, given that they are the ideal way to travel on the river up here.

I got out and took a lunch break at Ms. Keto campsite (get it?!) where the banks were a clay-mud that was so dense and thick, it actually brought back my childhood fear of quicksand. One step in that mud takes you down about a foot, and you feel like your feet will never emerge with your shoes still on them, and trying to get into the kayak while extricating from that muck is really a trick!

We had planned to stay at Big Sandy Lake, but the campground was full, so Mac and Richard set us up at the town park in Palisade, which is this great little town. I can’t explain it, exactly, but Palisade feels like what one dreams a small town would be like. After dinner in camp, I proposed we get some ice cream (it’s finally really hot summer weather) and as we walked up to the gas station/general store, a woman outside greeted us and said “Are you here for some ice cream?” and proceeded to serve us with some amazing quality of shared pleasure in the treat. I don’t know how she did that exactly, but I want what she’s having. Her co-worker at the register said something about the kids dancing in the parking lot, and I said, “Well, you have to dance somewhere.” and the ice-cream lady said, ”Yes, my youngest daughter is all about a song and a dance, that’s all there’d be if it was up to her. It’s great to be around her.“ I’m not making this up, people. Here we are in this tiny town (population 118), the sort of place my urban prejudice imagines is rife with gun-toting meth-heads looking for trouble to stave off meaninglessness, and instead, the gas station is the locus of a kind of magical quotidian joy that treasures serving ice-cream as much as eating it, and dancing in the parking lot on a summer’s evening as the perfect entertainment.

charged again

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kayaking day today on a real summer day — the river through this area was straightened by the loggers so it’s practically a canal, no trouble to find the channel. and on some turns you can see the Blandin Paper Company smokestacks ahead in Grand Rapids, sort of a weird and unexpected sight in this waterway that’s nearly completely empty of people. two powerboats passed me, heading up to the lakes, but other than that, my company is birds and insects, and no doubt lots of fish as well.

when the wind was with me, I would stop paddling and just feel the current and the wind easing me downstream. when it was against me, if I stopped paddling, I would end up at a complete stop in an excellent equilibrium of upstream wind and downstream current.

I’m getting comfortable enough with this kayaking business that I begin to be able to just ease into thinking in that nice, loose, relaxed way that I so enjoy on a long car trip, with the added pleasure of the mild physical exertion of paddling. I could definitely get used to this life! a good thing, since I’m going to be doing this for a while!

one of the things I was thinking about was the whitman poem, and corey and steve and yvan’s comments on it, which I really love. I’m thinking that perhaps by “charged with”, Whitman didn’t mean that contentment and triumph are demanded of him, but more that the energy of contentment and triumph fill him, like an electrical charge. I like thinking of contentment and triumph as a continuum, and that they are visited upon me, not as an act of will, but by my learning to be conductive..

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Today was my first biking day; Richard took the kayak across Cass Lake and Mac scoped out an excellent new (free) campsite for us SE of Winniebegoshish that can be headquarters for a few days…

I decided to backtrack to the town of Cass Lake before heading on, and I am so very glad I went there.

It’s a very small town – the sign says pop. 170, so there are probably more people vacationing in the campsite a couple miles away than there are inhabiting the actual town. The main street has a municipal center with a cool mural, and a bunch of services: drop-in health center, senior center, daycare, library. at the end of the main street is a house with an array of handmade murals in front and the smell of sage wafting from the chimney. I stopped to read and take pictures of the signs, and a woman came from down the street to ask if I was a reporter, and she explained that a big oil company has paid the Ojibwe Nation $10 million to be allowed to run a pipeline through Ojibwe lands, and the signs are protesting this, asking for the deal not to happen.

The woman, Nancy, is a teacher in the public school at Cass Lake, where 85 percent of the students are Native, and they do teach Ojibwe in the school. There is also a BIA school, and a college as well. She told me something about the “boarding schools” where Native kids were sent well into the 50’s, which were more like re-education camps. You can learn more about this history here. With a history like this, it must be hard to regard education as the ticket to a better life, that’s for sure…

Nancy was really generous with her time and spirit, and I really enjoyed and learned from our time together. When I got back on the bike path, I noticed for the first time these posts, placed every 500 feet or so. clever, right? you do this nice environmentally sensitive thing of putting in a bike path, and you run your oil pipeline right underneath it.

”It’s so peaceful here. I just love it!“ said a woman heading into the showers at Cass Lake campground this morning, having driven there from her campsite a tiny walk away

the earth remains forever

While I was paddling from Bemidji to Cass Lake today, Richard spent some time in the library in Bemidji and found some microfilms of early nineteenth century local newspapers – a fascinating trove recording the lives and voices of lumberjacks, shopkeepers, etc. who were part of a temporarily flourishing economy in the area not unlike the gold rush farther west. It was a timber rush, and after the trees were downed and floated down the river, towns that had sprung up overnight to support the lumber trade disappeared nearly as quickly.

The first night of our travels, we stayed at Wanagan’s Landing, wanagan being not the name of a person, but of a traveling kitchen boat that moored along the river to feed the loggers. we learned this from Keith Butler, who lives just up the road from the campsite, and who came down to visit and tell us stories. He also told us about a ghost town called Mallard, a couple of miles away.

Here’s a picture of the town at its height (from an information board posted at the site):
Mallard Then
and here’s a picture I took of the same location on 2 August 09, after going to the church I told you about the other day:
Mallard Now

Makes me think of Ecclesiastes more than Jonah:

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. [1:4]

It’s an interesting thing: we read each night about Schoolcraft, Tolliver, and Sibley, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day and Little Crow, but as I paddle along this river during the day, no matter how well I keep in mind the layers of human history this river has witnessed, there is very little in the way of actual markers or voices to embody that history. The Mississippi River is not the Parthenon or Stonehenge or Macchu Picchu. Quite the contrary: it obliterates human history, or is at least indifferent to it. The bones that the Ojibwe buried on the ithsmus between Lake Andrusia and Cass Lake where I pulled out this afternoon have been washed into the river. And no traces of the mission the Episcopalians built there remain, either.

The birds remain, the reeds, and the new trees that have grown to replace the ones cut down in early nineteenth century. And the river itself: that definitely remains.

In a way, it’s all very melancholy to think about, but I find it oddly comforting. Walmart and the Super 8 and Applebee’s will also disappear sooner or later, and probably no one will lament their loss.

“I have charged myself with contentment and triumph.”

a difficult charge to live up to, from my man Walt Whitman, but if he managed to avoid despair and desolation in the face of the Civil War, I can certainly at least aspire to his mystical engagement with the wonders of this world, exactly as it is, rather than as I might wish it could be.

today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death, so along with the Whitman my brother so eloquently posted in the comments yesterday, I am posting a recording Joycie introduced me to in 1985 or 86, which I regret not playing at her funeral. full volume. I play it every year in her honor.

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Walter Hawkins: I’m Goin’ Away on Love Alive II

I visited this high volume ritual on patient and hopefully not too long-suffering Richard and Mac in the midst of driving around Bemidji today doing various errands, which take on thrilling overtones when you’re camping out. Laundry! Groceries! Oil Change! we also had a few hours in a pleasant cafe in downtown Bemidji where I tried to get the bills organized, if not actually paid. we set up camp at Bemidji State Park, which is blessedly nearly empty midweek, and laid out all the clean laundry and organized it into little subsections, each going into its own plastic bag. and each category of food into its own bags as well. totally OCD. I feel like I’m re-inventing skills the army has been inculcating in recruits since forever: a place for everything, everything in its place. but with a small car and three people suiting up for three different kinds of activities, it can get crazy pretty quickly if we aren’t anal about it!

Richard made a fine dinner for us with the new groceries, and read to us as he has each night from Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out
by Annette Atkins, a really wonderful book about Minnesota history for the general reader. Totally recommended!

go with the flow

We woke up to the first sun we’ve had since arriving up north, a very welcome thing! packed up camp and headed to the next landing so as to avoid a small bit of the river that even the DNR warns is tricky to navigate, figuring it would be good to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s adventure. the idea was for Mac and I to split the day’s paddling, so Mac put in and had an untroubled run to the next landing, and then I suited up and put in for what we planned as a quick four mile stint to the next landing, Pine Point. we met Andy and Bettina, who were heading out for the same patch of river, and Andy warned us about the part after Pine Point landing, which he and the DNR agree is really tough to navigate. so the plan was that Mac and Richard and I would all meet at Pine Point landing, pull out, and head to Bemidji for internet and laundry and a night in a motel. cool.

so I get in and start paddling and pass Andy and Bettina and the man I assume was Andy’s dad (I didn’t meet him properly) and say goodbye, and it’s really great out, sunny and warm, and I strip down to my bathing suit and I’m happily paddling away, and I pass what I think might be Hennepin Creek, marked on the map, and I keep paddling, and I keep paddling, and I don’t see Pine Point. there IS no Pine Point. and I keep going and going, and the wind comes up and it gets overcast, and I put my shirt and lifejacket back on, and at one point I begin to think I am paddling around in circles, but I know that’s simply not possible, because I am always heading downstream, and at another point the wind is coming straight at me and the tops of the reeds are blowing upstream and the only way I can know I’m going downstream is by looking at the underwater reeds, which always do point in the direction of the current, and I keep paddling, and by now I’m sure I made a wrong turn and I’m on Hennepin Creek, and I look at the map and there is a bridge over Hennepin Creek about six miles down so I figure I’ll pull out there and flag down a car, and I’m working hard not to fret about how much the guys will be worrying about me not arriving at Pine Point, and I just keep paddling, keep losing and finding the channel in this reedy swamp, keep getting my hopes up when I get close to a stand of pines, and keep having my hopes dashed, and then suddenly there’s a campsite: Iron Bridge! not four miles, but twelve miles from where I put in! and I’ve made it through the un-navigable part of the river, the part that we had decided to skip! and I’ve done it basically without a map because I thought I was somewhere else entirely! and I feel TOTALLY proud and great about this and simultaneously really worried about Mac and Richard, who are probably completely freaking out that I haven’t yet arrived at Pine Point.

SO I flag down a car, and it’s Maureen, who calls the cops to have them go to Pine Point and tell Mac and Richard to come get me here, and she waits with me til we’re sure the guys are on their way, and she is totally kind and generous and interesting and fun and seems not to be in a rush at all. Maureen, if you read this, THANKS AGAIN for your kindness!!!

so the guys show up and we head into Bemidji for the fabulous Super 8, which feels like a totally luxury hotel: shower, internet, and bed. What more is there?!?