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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Walk with Hope

Mom just went into the hospital.  Old neighbor just discovered inoperable cancer.  On Monday, a dear friend will discover if she too has cancer.  My heartfelt prayers for all.  What else?  Where do I go to find my source of hope?  Of light and life?

To the prairie.  Better still, to walk the prairie with a friend.  So I invite you, now, to walk with us.  May you find what you seek.  And if not in pictures, then please, come, walk the prairie with us.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Silence of the Land

As the year’s first warmth and sunshine arrived, Linda and I rushed out with the bumblebees and monarchs.   Unlike these flower feeders, we planted future flowers around Home the Land Built:  49 trees and shrubs, 150 perennials, 8 pots of annuals, 7 tomatoes, a kitchen garden’s worth of herbs.  And as I dug, or especially when I paused, wiping away dirt and sweat, I felt myself in conversation with The Land.  Not that I was actually talking.  I’m not that crazy yet, but I’m working on it.  Still, all things have their way of communicating, if only I can listen.

The Land had a story to tell.  But it was hard to hear.  Hard because it was buried beneath the grass and the green, and the riot of possibility.  Hard because I could feel---in spite of acres of newly emerging prairie---the Land’s pain.
Strange how such a tale could emerge from the ground, from digging in the dirt.  A narrow wild hedgerow separates our 2 acre homesite from the plowed and planted state land to the north.   While the vast majority of our new plantings were well south of the hedgerow, we planted four spectacular native trees---river birch, bladdernut, witch hazel, shagbark hickory---into or just south of the hedgerow.   And as soon as my shovel slit the hedgerow sod, the Land began to speak.

Until these four trees, all I’d ever hit was a heavy, reddish soil.  Not quite clay, but close.   Technically, according the US Geological Survey, it’s called a silt-clay-loam.  Except of course when we dug near the house, where the soil had been backfilled from excavation.  Then, as one might expect, the soil would technically be called compacted crap.    But the hedgerow was another thing entirely.

The hedgerow soil was stardust.  So light.  So black.  So full of life.    Unlike the others, we felt no need to amend it with compost (yes, this is the first humanure compost adventure folks, that’s me out there on the tree).  What a thrill!  What an abundance! 

What a sadness!

The Land’s pained story was there for me to hear.  As it always had been.  I wonder how often I’ve mistaken not listening for silence?

The story of the Land soil goes something like this.  Long, long ago, before the European settlers arrived, all the soil of the Land was light and life-filled.   The music of the soil creatures---ambitious ant, leaping springtail, lumbering waterbear---was there for all to hear, their song of life and death and life renewed.  And this soil, unique only to this little corner of the state and the nearby driftless region, was a gift of the last glacier.  Having oozed around, not over the Land, great winds blew dust off the glacier, only to settle on what is now the so called silt-clay-loam subsoil, creating the most fertile soil imaginable.  Loess, the soil scientists called it. 

They should have called it lost.  For that is soon what happened.  Moldboard plows ripped the prairie sod.  The cream gentians screamed.  But who listened?  Wheat was planted.  The mycorrhizal fungi, that great connecting web infusing nearly all non-agricultural life, said I don’t know you.  But who listened?  June downpours ripped the Land into gullies.  The light soil washed away, became a mud-slide, burying the town of Beaver 39 times in one year.  But who was listening?  Soon the topsoil was gone and all that remained, all the remains on the Land, is the near lifeless subsoil.

Except for the one place the plow never touched:  the hedgerow.  No wonder I walk up into the hedgerow, always a foot or two.  There lies the last remnant of the glacial winds.  The last remnant of the light and life that once lived here.  Ten thousand years of prairie soil building will not replace the gift of the glaciers.  It’s gone.  Forever.  Or at least until the next glacier detours around us.

Until then, I will do what I can.  And the best I can lend is my ear.  Listen.  No more will I enable the silence of the Land.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I thought I knew how I was going to feel.   Why wouldn’t I?  I’d imagined this day ever since the journey began, and that’s nine years ago.  This was no personal, never-to-publish, cathartic work.  I’d just finished one of those.  In June 2004, when I took the first timid steps into The Corridor, I dreamed that one day others---you even---might read the story.  And then, best of all, maybe you and your friends and I could chat about it.  People person that I am, that’s what I was most looking forward to.  Intimate gatherings.  I imagined (almost) nothing would feel better.

But today, when Amazon first posted my Kindle book,
followed soon after by the paperback,
I felt…well…I didn’t really feel anything.  I’m trying, digging down for those feelings that must be there.  But I have yet to unearth them. 

Maybe I’m scared, I told myself.  Maybe readers will freak out.  Here I am, naked before the world.  The Corridor fleshed out a part of me that I let few see.  Or maybe no one will read it.  Or worse yet, readers won’t react.  Perhaps I’ll have no long-anticipated conversations.   

Nah!  That’s not it.  I’m not scared.  I’m the gold medal winner in fear recognition. 

Maybe I’m overwhelmed.  Too much, too fast.  I mean it was just today that Amazon said, “how about publishing a Kindle version”.  So I rebuilt all the Corridor maps, and the formatting, uploaded, set a $0.99 tantalizing price and pressed the publish button.   And then, I get this text from Linda saying my book’s on Amazon and I think she means Kindle but when I check---wading through a backwash of books with Corridor in the title---its Kindle AND the $14.24 paperback.  Yes, I’m stunned. 

But I’m not overwhelmed. 

Believe it or not I think I’m sad.  It makes no sense whatsoever—I feel so relieved to be done with writing and re-writing all seven versions and editing and copyediting and proofing and self-publishing---but truth is I feel grief.  It’s over.   By far the biggest project in my life and it’s over.    At least this part of it.    So I guess that’s OK.  Whether it makes sense or not, I can let myself grieve.  Out on the prairie maybe, with the breathtaking lupine.   Probably not with a smoking hot chainsaw.

My mom called today to tell me how much she liked the book (she qualified for the Mother’s Day galley copy) and said I should keep writing.  As appreciative as I was, I could feel her disappointment when I responded with a sigh.   “If people really like it, I’ll write another.  Some day.”  I told her.  “Right now, I want to reap the harvest.” 

So yes, read the book if you're drawn to it.  And then---please, please, please---invite me to a conversation.  With your book club.  Your church.  Your beer buddies.  Your school.  I could spend hours with just you and a cup of tea.   Don’t let distance daunt you.    I love Santa Rosa.  Galway.  Even Wisconsin.  And there’s always Skype. 

Thinking about a conversation with you, now that starts to get me excited. 

P.S.   If nothing else, you’ll finally figure out what Rah-dur means when you read it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


So green!  So humble!  And never an umbrella.  “We’re always surprised when it rains,” my dear friend and Medtronic colleague Martin Conroy would say.    So of course, I did the same.  Walking home from the pub, streets pulsing with music and Guinness-inspired faces, and then, suddenly, splat, splat, splat.    Soon my sweater would be soaked, but not my spirit.  The music played on.  Ah Galway Ireland.  Love you. 

Then why am I not in love with our little Galway on The Land?

According to meteorologist Mark Seeley, it’s official:  we’ve endured the wettest March to May in Southeast Minnesota history.   I call our May a 12 step program.  12 inches of snow followed by 12 inches of rain.    A cold rain.  A Galway rain. 

And with it a Galway sky.  A blanket of gray.  And here on The Land, where the great dome of the prairie sky is everything, that’s one big blanket.  For me, emotionally, it’s the blanket that’s the challenge.  Were we more like Puerto Rico---where clouds rise off the central peaks to spill a sudden shower, and then, just as suddenly, its blue and warm---I’d feel very different.  My soul longs for the blue.  Needs the blue.  No blue = The blues.

Should I blame it on Home the Land Built?  I mean, what’s it like to live in such a sun-centric home when their ain’t no sun?  Truth is, we’re doing amazingly well.  Not only have I not started the backup electric generator, but I’ve plugged in the extra fridge just because we can.   The heat has been a bit of a challenge (yes it June and its cold, they say June is the new April).  It’s too warm to light the masonry heater.  The overhang in front of the great south bank of windows is doing its job:  stopping what little light there is from entering as passive heat.  And the solar hot water---barely enough for our shower and dishes---has little left over to heat the floor.  So this morning it is 68F in the house.   Tomorrow I’m expecting 65F.  But that’s not terrible.  I’m a Minnesotan for goodness sake, with a closet full of sweaters.  Unlike last summer’s Amazon, we never deal with overheating.  Such a cozy, cool night’s sleep. 

As for the other systems, we have plenty, I mean plenty, of rainwater in our cistern, though the water has taken on a faint smell, reminiscent of Minneapolis water in the spring.   I fear the first flush diverter can’t divert the first 50 gallons into the yard when it’s always wet.   I’ve switched from automatic to manual (meaning I run out in the rain).  So far, I’ve managed to find a break in the rain to empty and wash sawdust toilet buckets.  All systems go!

Don’t get me wrong, the rain is a challenge. Much more so for Lonny and Sandy Dietz, my dear farmer neighbors,  who are now forced to plant their veggie seedlings into the muck.  And if you think I need warm and blue, how about a tomato? 

And how about the Indian grass on the prairie.  Like tomato and corn, so many of the prairie plants like warm and sunny.  Corn, they say, is a prairie grass, grasped and tamed by our Native American ancestors.  Both corn and Indian grass are C4 summer geniuses.  With their extra molecule of carbon, they hold their breath (and precious moisture) all the long hot day, only to huff and puff all the moist night long, igniting their stored solar energy to rocket skyward (you can hear the corn grown). 

So maybe I’ve shirked some of my gloomy-skied Danish roots and become an Indian grass.  A C4 prairie plant.  Maybe that explains why, after a rare day of sunny work on The Land, I find myself staying up late.  Maybe I’m growing, rocketing skyward.  If the sun ever shines.  Until then I need to root down for my inner Dane, toss aside my umbrella and walk between the raindrops in the green, green grass of June.   Ah Galway!  I miss you.