Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pondering a Friend’s Visit to Minnesota

Photo by Cynthia Erickson, my neighbor, here on the prairie.

Appreciating Prairie Land, the Big Woods and Minnesota’s Land o’ Lakes
by Charlie Leck

I’ve had a number of people come to visit me from other parts of the nation (including family) who see Minnesota the wrong way. The southern part of the state is grand, graceful and legendary prairie land. The northern part of the state is lakes and woods. There is an awesome beauty in this land that has no great mountains or even hills. However, the prairie has contours as graceful and rolling as a beautiful woman’s body. The wonder of the lakes land can only be appreciated by traveling slowly through them and realizing that no road will lead straight anywhere because it must contend with the thousands of lakes, wetlands and thick forests that interrupt it.

We live at about the dividing line. South of us and west and northwest of us are the great prairies stretching out all across western Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. North of us is the beautiful lakes region of Minnesota with its abundance of lakes of every size – all the way to Lake Superior and the Canadian border – and a vast amount of northern forests (poplar, white birch and evergreen trees of every type).

The prairie land was very attractive to European farmers who came to settle in the United States, and they came by the thousands when the land was opened up. There it was, flat and ready to be worked. Of course, there was the small matter of the Native Americans who had a far different attitude about the land. They didn’t believe that portions of the Great Mother Earth could be owned or possessed. They thought the land was there for us all to share and appreciate,and even worship. How foolish!

Our region was holy land to the Native Americans who lived here. They called the region the Big Woods. Those who came and saw it before it was thinned, like Bradford and Maria Wakefield, the great-great grandparents of my wife, Anne, spoke of the giant hardwood trees in hushed and reverent tones. Here grew incredibly large and ancient red oaks, elms, maples, bass wood and less hard green ash, aspen and ironwood. All around the beautiful holy grounds of Lake Minnetonka, the Big Woods stood so thick that light could not permeate to the ground. It was for that reason that the spectacular and massive lake remained a great, hidden secret for so many years.

The first white men, who worked their way through the dense forest, and found themselves looking at this precious jewel, must have been overwhelmed by the raw beauty of what they saw. Yet, the Native Americans had come here to worship the great spirits for hundreds of years prior to that day of discovery. They had pledged to the Great Spirit that no blood would ever be shed on or about the splendid, sacred lake. It was a place of peace and negotiation.

“…For this was a special place, a place blessed of God. Here a man could find everything he needed for living. Here was water alive with fish. Here were his cousins, the white tailed deer and the black bear. The bison ranged to the western side of the forest. Here were raccoon, red fox, mink, beaver, weasel and the muskrat in his little teepee of swamp flowers cemented with mud, and here were the trumpeter swan and the roosts of the passenger pigeon. Here was the bald eagle, whose feathers a man wore haughtily, for he won them only by merit. In the swamps were the cranberries like drops of blood, to dry, and also to dry was the swamp potato, and all manner of roots, and barks for medicine, and in spots all around the lake was the rice a man needed for his stews and soups. Here were the trees, with their great, straight trunks for man’s dugout boats and the poles of his tipi and travois. And the sap of some of the trees, especially that of the maple, the women boiled down into the sugar that gave savor to food.

“And here, wherever a man turned his head, there was such a variant beauty that often during a day he dropped to his knees, his heart big with thanksgiving. And especially he gave thanks at one knobbed point of land on a northeast shore of the lake, and left there offerings before a polished stone that was an altar. It was easy to see that this was a place favored of God. Even the people who had lived here long before his fathers came had known that and had left monuments – hillocks of earth, upon the headlands.”[Jones, Thelma: Once Upon a Lake, p. 18]
Anne’s great-grandfather, Warren Wakefield, who arrived here in 1857, spoke in his later years about the Big Woods.

“The groves were God’s first temples and no one can doubt that the pioneer men and women who sought to establish themselves in the Big Woods… were religiously and morally impressed by the majesty and grandeur of their surroundings. They were literally dwelling with their creator in a remote garden of his estate…”
I have taken friends driving through the prairie land to the west of us and I am always startled to hear them say, “How flat it is!”

It makes no sense to me when I look out at the prairie and see the rolling hills and the sunken valleys noticeable only because of the shades of difference in the lightness or darkness of color that the sun throws upon them.Rolling – the meadows and prairies are always rolling and the wind, when it is blowing, amplifies the rolling of the land. No, granted, it is not like the jagged, rugged mountains of the great west, but it is more sensuous and graceful – like a Mozart melody.
Oh, how I have come to love the prairie and the land o’ lakes.

The prairie not only rolls, but it waves – great amber waves – and the natural wild flowers of the grasslands and wetlands are simple compared to the vast oceanside land of the California coast. The roar of the Big Sur is mighty like the majesty of Bach. The prairie is more like Beethoven – soft and gentle until the wind stirs it to extraordinary swells of tempo.

Who would ever believe that I would fall in love with the grand beauty of natural wetlands? Oh, my! What color and majesty! And what a home for wondrous wild life! The birds that rise up out of the vast wetlands are spectacular and take my breath away. The great Blue Heron looks so awkward and clumsy – that is, until it rises into the sky with a grace that even makes a prima ballerina look awkward. How many times I am startled each week by the beating wings of the rising Heron, surprising me with its strength and quickness as it flees from perceived threats.

And of the lakelands in the north, I can only say they are so remindful of what heaven must be like. What is more spectacular than groves and groves of white birch trees interspersed with clumps of cedar trees and spruce trees, hiding our view of the vast flat, sparkling lakes beyond them

Should the dark, somber man of endings approach me and inform me that I have but one voyage yet to take in life, and ask me to where it shall be, I would answer that I would like to be set down in Nisswa – to grab a hot latté and then drive along the meandering lakes and tree lines of that spectacular region of Minnesota. I would like to watch a sunset on Gull Lake and breathe lastly the cool, crisp air of October. Then, I would be able to rest peacefully for eternity.

Oh, Minnesota, I love you like the succubus that forever tantalizes me. This is my lovely home and I want no other. I need no pounding surf against the rocks – though Lake Superior gives me that – and I need no rugged mountains climbing skyward. I love the rolling, seductive land of the prairies and the shimmering lakes within the woods.

I live for the changing of the seasons here. I no longer fear the cold, chilling January days. I rejoice in them. I know of no place on Earth that I would rather be in autumn than in the chill of October – right where I am and will always remain – in glorious and splendid Minnesota.

How different we are from the eastern coastlands and the pounding surf of La Jolla and how vastly different than the overwhelming mountains of Colorado. The plains and prairies are so unfamiliar to most Americans; yet, here there is a beauty that is so sensual as to drive a man to madness or to slumbering peace.

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