A picture of our daughter in her 'forest house'
The place we live in now in Tennessee is a bit removed from the city, twenty minutes drive in any direction. We are isolated, sometimes involuntarily by the weather and icy roads, but mostly because we like it out here, away from the noise and population centers. There are 'ghost towns' nearby, little villages that once were, and are now no more than names on the map. That has been like that for many years - they still have railroad stops and empty grocery stores on their empty main streets. When I moved down here in Minnesota, the closest I had seen to a 'ghost town' was the non-existant 'Zemple' on the map near Deer River, or famously, the old location of Hibbing in the hills which was moved during the blastings in the mines in 1919.
Relocation of Hibbing Minnesota
Most of the area around where I grew up was just 'blank' on the map, compared to here. It was much more than twenty miles (about thirteen minutes today) between cities. The farm I grew up on, from about the age of 9 until it burned in a sweeping fire in my teenage years - was in Arbo Twonship in Minnesota, down Arbo Road, just south of the Prairie River bridge. It had a collection of small houses on it, a garage, a huge barn, and a field full of cars, machines, tractors, semis and logging equipment. When we lived there, it felt truly remote, like going back in time or into a national forest reserve. I had thoughts, while I was there, of how far it must have been to get to by horse and buggy, and then by Model-A car, and now, in the back of a suburban or pickup truck, carrying tools and animal feed and sleeping bags.
A Different World, in Technology and Time
I think about the cast iron barrel stove, with its cooking racks on top, and kindle supply of branches and logs in a coalshed beside the brick wall. The entire little house was built onto, tar paper shack built over a small brick house, merging the two into one. There was the room with the big clawfoot bathtub, a hand-pump for water mounted on stone beside it, and a plastic five gallon bucket beside it for pumping water and then pouring down the toilet attached to a modern septic tank, installed at a later date in the small room to the side. At nine, I had never seen anything like it - and the novelty soon wore off on that part, I tell you. When it was cold, the water would be carried in big spaghetti pots from the kitchen to add to the cold water from the pump. Now that I am older, and have some plumbing knowledge, I am truly amazed I cannot remember a single time the interior pump froze.
We learned to light the fire - while being taught to be extremely afraid of it. We used Coleman lanterns in the rooms that didn't have electricity, and in the underground dirt-cellar, which was accessed through a trap door in the middle of the living room - just a square hole under the living room rug with a tight-fitting plank door. There were no stairs, no ladder down, and that was also unlike anything I had ever seen. In the summertime- we would can in huge kettles on the stove, and line the jars up in the cellar, beans, tomatoes, corn - my mom knew how to do it all from our garden in town.
We cut grass with an old fashioned push mower. We made toys, walking sticks, learned sewing and crochet (which I had already started to learn in town), and washed and dried some of our clothes outside, using an old fashioned wringer. I learned washboards weren't just for making music, and that they tore up your knuckles, pretty badly! We strung wire fences and chopped wood and fished in the creek from a huge webwork iron bridge (which sadly, no longer exists). We walked down old railroad tracks and crossed wooden foot bridges and were scared to death by ghost stories of an abandoned house miles down the road. I marvelled in the mathematical structures of the old things, and the wilds, and the right-in-front-of-me examples of how things had changed over time. I felt a closeness to the idea that some things last long after we are gone, and some things are fleeting, and that one of the reasons we live is to see the difference.
But a World full of Detail and Wonders
I was already a kid that didn't quite fit in with the others at my school. My parents had divorced, and I took it very hard for several years. Then, my mother remarried, and we 'inherited' this new world - the farm - paths through the woods, old barns, tractors, junk piles, cats with kittens trailing behind them, fields of corn and pumpkins - more gardening space than I ever had in our little town plot, and the garden in town had always been as big as the house. I remember in particular seeing trees I never saw in town - huge yellow basswood leaves, the tiny blue and purple flowers of creeping charlie. There were so many things I had never seen - and weren't accessible by going to pick up a library book really... I remember getting up close and personal with bear, deer and a porcupine that wouldn't take 'No' for an answer and chased me -s l o w l y - for over a mile down the dirt road between my uncle's house and ours. It was a terrible feeling of dread to know he wasn't giving up, and it was a long way home!
An Expanse of Time, shared
I was a voracious reader, and consumed old newspapers, books and comics that were in the rooms of the house, learning archaic words and reading advertisements and submerging into a new world that had already gone away - but had seemingly left open a window. I didn't feel as 'odd' among those books, among Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, and the heroines of Mary Jane Holmes and the street urchins of Horatio Alger- I read the Count of Monte Cristo, and Edgar Allen Poe and the Three Musketeers and the Daughter of Dracula, and knew that the world was so much larger than the pop culture I had seen up to then. There were gorgeously illustrated children's books on American History and animals and plants and also some pretty dark tales of horror and science fiction that my brain turned over and over in the night. I could feel the difference in how in previous eras they had thought of children, and women, and jobs and everything else reading those words. I read different languages, and antique ideas of astronomy, geography, math and science, and then tried to shore them up against what I saw around me. I also read a ton of 1940s science fiction, Asimov, Norton, Niven, A.E. Van Vogt and others - and compared their past thoughts of a future that had and had not yet come to be.
Also we had no phone (our uncle did) and being 1980s Minnesota, we only had a few channels coming in on the rabbit-ears. When we were out there - it felt like we were disconnected from what was going on in the town, and time seemed to pass slower, so a week away could feel like more. It was more - it was FULL of so much more detail and change, plants, animals, seasons ... like a space of time within a space.
Living at the Edge of the Wilderness
far off of Hwy 38
We would spend weekends, breaks, whole summers out there - and there would be other days that as soon as we came home from school in town it was time to shoot out to the farm, feed the animals and so forth, and then come back home. It took hours, but they were good hours. I also remember how we would stop halfway at the God's Country gas station, where they had everything, toys, candy, clothes, food, ammunition, gas cans, fishing rods, nets and duck decoys, animal traps, medicines, pots and pans - it was a waypoint for those living out there so they didn't have to get all the way to town for everything they needed. I remember the lady Cathy would spend time talking with me and looking at the bait in big tanks, and we would catch up on news and what everyone was doing. I had read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in first and second grade with my teacher, and the God's Country was my version of the Nelson's store - brought to life, and fulfilling all of those same purposes.
We worried about sharp objects, nails, tetanus, snakes - any sort of accident, because t would take a very long time - time we might not have - to get into town for help. I remember one day we were out in the woods cutting a tree and my stepfather's lopper tool came down awkwardly and hit him in the side of the head - my older sister and I tied a bandana around his bleeding head and she drove him into the emergency room. We were lucky it wasn't worse, but it was scary. I could only imagine what might have happened in an even earlier era, when the doctor had to be sent for and found, and almost everything was taken care of 'at home'.
I remember one day it was early summer and we had all gathered to go pick plums in an orchard down the road, with another family. We brought baskets and buckets and filled them up with the ripe fruit. There were mosquitoes everywhere. I was bitten so many times I actually got nauseous and had to lay down for most of the rest of the day. There were days and days of plum jam-making after that, which I got to skip. Another summer, the day after I turned eleven, I was swept down a culvert and trapped underwater for a short terrifying time, caught up on the straps of my life jacket. We had went swimming with a few cousins in a large rushing creek, and I had made a misstep. My sister's boyfriend, yanked me up from the debris under the water and luckily I made a fully recovery - but for days and days I felt vertigo, like the water would take me away while I was sitting still.
And Memories.. still.. and living in this world having seen that one up close...
So now I think back on all of those little vignettes. They seem so clear to me still, and I know they shaped how I looked at the world from there to come. When I lived in Fargo in a tiny apartment, I saw no huge problem with washing my clothes in the bathtub and hanging them to dry, if the one washing machine for the complex was broken or in use. I get out in my garden on a regular basis with only a hoe and a bucket - even though my husband reminds me about the tiller in the garage (such a hassle sometimes!) and the hose twenty feet away on the pump... I can't explain the water in a bucket thing.. it just has a different feel to it - the weight of the water, the flow from the cup... I know it in my bones better than the hose and sprinklers, even though they are faster and more 'efficient'.
I'm often out there in my garden with a camera and a drawing pad looking at plants, tracking growth, collecting seeds and drawing the development of leaves. And yet, I am no botanist. I'm just interested, and find this fun. I can sit on the shore or in a chair in the garden and just watch everything happening around me and be happier than an hour in a movie theater. I only wish others could share it quite the same way. My husband, Mark, has this rare ability and 'eyes'.. but so many others are in a hurry or look but don't see the wonder in the details. It is really hard sometimes because I am so excited and there is no one to share that moment with except Nature itself... time in a bucket, revolutions, cycles of regeneration and so forth.
That is why I put detail photography and charts and track things over the years here on this blog. It is only a droplet in the sea of time that brims in my memory, but over the years I am seeking some bigger picture, what am I missing, what have I found, what should I be recording and saving.. who will read about or see or experience this land after we are gone?