2008 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Virginia M. Wright-Peterson

Virginia M. Wright-Peterson has written extensively about her native Minnesota homeland and places abroad. Her co-winning essay, “The Natural and Unnatural History of Marion Township, is part of “Finding Ourselves in Empty Places,” a collection of essays that trace her journey through the Midwest with her young daughter in the wake of her husband’s death from leukemia.

When she isn’t writing, she is teaching English and Humanities at Rochester Community and Technical College, growing native plants in her small greenhouse, walking with her three canine companions, and biking and reading with her daughter, or traveling. Recent adventures have taken her to Iraq with the Red Cross, to the Peruvian Amazon, and to Algiers as a Fulbright Scholar.

By Virginia Wright-Peterson


In the Beginning

Kristina, in her thirteen year-old wisdom, convinced me to move back to our hometown, Rochester, Minnesota, after I had taken her on a five-year journey across the Midwest in pursuit of a graduate degree. I thought a lot about the path we had taken. We had lived as a family in Rochester; moved to Duluth, where her father – my husband – became ill with leukemia and died; and then Kris, our loyal basset hound Mona Lisa, and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. After following me around, she asked that we move back to Rochester. It seemed like her turn to chose.

Earlier in my life I had moved from Rochester to Minneapolis and back. Later, I relocated to Arizona and . . . back. I seemed to have my own migration pattern, quite unlike any animal I have encountered. I seemed to migrate backwards, always arriving where the winters were worst, record breakingly so: the saguaro cacti had snow on them the day we drove into Phoenix, Duluth experienced the worst winter on record with 136 inches of snow, and Lincoln endured a winter storm that leveled trees causing tornado like devastation.

Specifically, Kris wanted us to move to the ten acres my paternal grandparents bought in 1933. At first I thought her idea was ridiculous. The place was ten miles out of town, a former greenhouse and tree farm business now in ruins. How could bookish people like ourselves live someplace like that?

All of this made me wonder about how things get to a particular location. When I was little, the U.S. Post Office called our place Rural Route 3. Since then, they have given it a house number on a specific avenue within Southeast Rochester. The Olmsted County Recorder’s Office and the State of Minnesota claim we live on the S½ of the NW½ of Section 106 in Range 13, which is within the legal boundaries of Marion Township. Our latitude and longitude, now used for global positioning, are N43.5637 and W9.22053 degrees, Planet Earth. Our extended family just refers to it as the place in the country.

All of these addresses and ambiguous terms like Midwest are relative: north or south of some point rather arbitrarily deemed the center or beginning of a human-made system. Greenwich and the Equator, the beginning points for latitude and longitude, are not very real to me.

Neither are the legal descriptions, which are based on surveys and a grid system that the United States government created when new citizens and the railroad crept westward a century and a half ago. At that point, the entire country was divided into 640-acre sections, one square mile. Each township consists of thirty-six sections, building blocks of land. Townships then fit into irregularly shaped counties like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Only humans abide by these invisible markings. Black walnut trees, sumac, and golden rod sprout up at will. Crows and cardinals fly, nest, and feed where they find it most hospitable. White-tail deer and wild turkeys cross roads and fences without hesitation. Moles, raccoons, and woodchucks move-in with determination despite attempts to discourage them. Even neighborhood cats and dogs wander through our place like its theirs, following their own system of routes and paths, oblivious of the borders and reams of human generated paper that document who and what goes where.

Human markings and mapping are helpful tools for navigating, but they didn’t contribute to leading us back here to the county that has been home to five generations of my family. It’s the region where I was born and gave birth to my daughter, and I have come to learn after a year of living here, it is where I want to stay put. As I stand in our yard with no desire to leave, all of those markings – east, section 16, and 60th Avenue – evaporate.

Since it wasn’t a part of my plan to move here, our arrival felt like an interruption, and as happens so often with interruptions, it caused me to pause. I found myself standing under the pines and hackberries my grandparents had planted nearly a century before. All of time opened up and the past slid around my shoulders like a cloak. With each breath I took, I was keenly aware of the present moment, and visions of the future filled my imagination.

After decades of wandering, I found myself burrowing down, sending my taproot deep into the soil of these acres, this place steeped in history, mine and others larger. Poet Joyce Sutphen, a fellow Minnesotan, expresses similar sentiments in her poem “Homesteading”:

Long ago, I settled on this piece of mind,
clearing a spot for memory, making a
road so that the future could come and go,
building a house of possibility.

I am re-homesteading. I want to make a new home for Kris and myself in this old family place and rebuild a stable, settled life after my nomadic years and losing my husband.

PreHistory and Post-history

Our first winter back was mild, surprisingly. Scant blankets of snow repeatedly blew away or melted, uncovering the frozen, dormant ground. I began some new routines. Mona Lisa, our proud and loyal basset hound had died a natural death in Lincoln, shortly before we moved. Kris and I were saddened as our small family kept getting smaller. Presumable for security – to protect two women living on an acreage – we acquired Ares, a noble Kerry Blue Terrier.

He and I took long, leisurely walks. As we walked that spring, I noticed something new each time the snow receded, exposing stubs of vegetation, waves of pale, flat grass, and a few things forgotten. One day, I recognized our stoneboat — a flat wood sled used for dragging things — tucked under a sprawling yew. Years ago, when my family used the land for a tree farm, we hauled yews and errant rocks on it, pulling it behind a small tractor. As a child, I loved the bumpy, dusty rides.

I hadn’t thought about rocks in a long time, and a trip to our rock pile would not reveal much of aesthetic or commercial interest — mostly chunks of limestone, representative of our Karstian landscape — nothing like the smooth, bright Brazilian and Italian marble that forms the grand lobby in the Mayo Clinic’s Gonda Building in downtown Rochester. My rocks are more likely to be an ingredient in concrete, providing structural strength, not beauty. I was happy to find that W. H. Auden praises this subtle landscape in one of his poems:

A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places

As I thought more about how I came to be here, I began to be curious about how other things arrived here. Resorting to reading geology and history in addition to reading poetry after my daily walks, I learned that our grassland and farmland – the one I walk across every morning — was once the bottom of an ancient sea that covered this area until it receded 400 million years ago.

After scores of high winds and ice (easy to imagine based on the March storms that can batter this area), our landscape emerged made of layers of limestone, dolomite, and sandstone; porous materials that dissolve easily in water. A labyrinth of tunnels and caves formed and still exist below my feet, mazes of stalactites, stalagmites, pools, and waterfalls. Rivers thunder through walls of limestone where I walk.

Within and between these layers of sandstone and limestone run-off rain and melted snow accumulates underground lakes called aquifers. One of the largest, the Jordan aquifer, covers a good portion of a three state area. Four hundred feet underground and 100 feet deep water, this reservoir provides residents in our area with 12 million gallons of water a day. Minnesota is known for its 10,000 lakes, counting the ones above ground. What would the count be if we included the underground pools and seas?

After the rock formations rose due to shifting of the plates covering the earth, the Great Ice Age ensued, and in four waves lasting thousands of years, forged the earth’s surface. Vast grassland emerged, and animals that we now think of as residents of places like Kenya frolicked through here: saber-tooth tigers, giant moose, dire wolves, bison with horn spreads of six feet, colossal beavers, and large ground sloths (which must be direct ancestors of the portly groundhog who has taken up residence in my wood pile).

Evidence of this prehistoric animal kingdom was uncovered in 1950, when a leg bone of a Pleistocene horse was found during the excavation of a medical sciences building being erected by the Mayo Clinic. Later, in 1975, a seven-foot elephant tusk, most likely that of a mammoth elephant, was found in a gravel quarry in the southern part of the county. Both of these artifacts were found less than ten miles from our place. Apparently our little ten acres was at one time – not a Jurassic Park – but part of a kinder, gentler, Paleocene or Miocene Park.

I am amazed at all of the life that has preceded me on this place. Where I walk everyday so many others have walked before. I am joining an ancient flow of life.

More reading taught me that the earliest human habitation along here occurred when members of the Dakota tribe migrated through, hunting and gathering along the creek that runs through the cornfield next to us, now called Bear Creek, a tributary of the Zumbro River that empties into the Mississippi River. My grandparents found arrowheads, remnants of their presence, when they were working the land.

The Dakota stayed closer to the Mississippi because of the wealth of life it offered. So most year round human habitation began here when European settlers, including my ancestors, started arriving in the 1840’s. This region was part of the Louisiana Purchase under French, and subsequently Spanish, control until the United States assumed ownership in 1803. Minnesota became a territory in 1849 and a state in 1859, a hundred years before I was born.

Several treaties were negotiated, pushing the Native Americans farther west and south. Relationships between white settlers and Indians in southern Minnesota were not usually violent and resemble a Laura Ingles Wilder “Little House on the Prairie” perspective until the conflict at New Ulm in south central Minnesota in 1862, when the Indians had had enough. The circumstances underlying that struggle would be impossible to summarize in a few sentences, but the result was that somewhere between 450 and 800 white soldiers and settlers died. The number of Dakota casualties has not been recorded in traditional accounts of the conflict because as one source claims, “the Indians always tried to carry away or conceal their dead.” But, records do document that over 300 Indians were captured and sentenced to death in Mankato, Minnesota, about 80 miles northwest of here. It is difficult to imagine a battlefield and POW camp so close to our home.

As I read the history of this conflict, a hero emerges. An Episcopalian bishop, once described as “the kind of man who would charge hell with a garden hose if he could rescue a few souls,” appealed to President Lincoln on behalf of the Indian prisoners. Bishop Henry Whipple had a long-term relationship with the Dakota bands in the region and was called “Straight Arrow” by some of them. He succeeded in obtaining pardons for all but thirty-nine of the prisoners, who were hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862 in “America’s greatest mass execution.”

Bishop Whipple is described in multiple accounts:
They would see a veiled shadow moving across the white expanse of lonely prairie during a Minnesota blizzard with the thermometer registering 30 below or colder. This would finally evolve into a pair of horse and a sleigh drawing up at the door. Bishop Whipple, with just enough consciousness left to guide his horses would be helped into the house. Basking in the heat of a great log fire, he would be rubbed back to life . . . He traveled in the dead of winter [to disburse supplies to starving Indians] sleeping in snowdrifts [along the route].

He established a cathedral in Faribault and two schools during his career, which ended with his death in 1901. He preached at Westminster Abbey and was received at Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria. I am amazed that a remarkable man might have lived here. Perhaps he rode across our place on one of his missions.

The Indian history of Olmsted County comes to a rather abrupt end after the “uprising” in 1862. The summary comment in a file at Olmsted County Historical Society ominously reads, “Indians were moved out of the area in 1863 for obvious reasons.”

Marion Township, the block of thirty-six 640-acre sections within which Kris and I live, has left little of its history in writing since its origination in 1854. After years of hearing the name Marion Township to the point that I had taken it for granted, only now did I wonder who Marion was. Even my father, a bit of a history buff and someone who had heard the name for several decades before me, did not know either. A quick trip on The Internet led me to the answer. My township had originally been called Finley, but was renamed Marion at the time of its official organization after Francis Marion (1732-95), a respected Revolutionary War general from South Carolina. Why this Revolutionary War general? No one seems to know.

The scant history that has been recorded for Marion Township indicates that it was organized by a “pious and God-fearing” people. The few pages of written history records a list of churches and businesses, a couple of murders, and a description of the lamenting that occurred when the railroad did not go through Marion Village. The loss of the railroad cost Marion the county seat, which followed the tracks to Rochester.

The sketchy history of Native Americans in the area and Marion Township’s beginnings reminds me again of Auden’s poem:

This land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all:
A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite . . .

As for the history of our ten acres, nestled within Marion township, according to the abstract, my grandparents bought these ten acres in Section 106 in August 1933. My grandmother first came here from the St. John, New Brunswick area as a nurse, escorting a wealthy woman to the Mayo Clinic. I am not sure exactly what year she came, or how she met my grandfather, whose family had already been in the area for a generation, but together, they built a tree farm and greenhouse business. A yellow sign with black letters reading “Peterson’s Nursery” stood along the highway.

The sign is long gone, but there is plenty of other evidence of their time here, the trees they planted, the buildings they built, and a family that now numbers sixteen. In addition to the house and a garage, which doubled as a small barn, there are the ruins of five greenhouses, three tractor sheds, an outhouse, and an old pigeon coop. The more time I spend here, the more I feel a yearning like the narrator in Stuphen’s poem:

I came across the prairie with only
my wagonload of words, fragile stories
packed in sawdust. I had to learn how to press a thought like seed into the ground . . .
I felt the land, threading through me,
stitching me into place.

This spring, I plan to bring the stoneboat out of retirement to haul some of those prehistoric rocks up to our front culvert, through which water runs freely most years and connects our above ground world to the intricate underground below. I will begin to dabble outside, an emergence from my bookish past. As the snow melts, I’ll think of the last lines of Auden’s poem, affirming that I have arrived somewhere worth being, a place worth staying.

When I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.