|ECOLOGY AND MEMORY: THE ESSAYS OF PAUL GRUCHOW
O bird on the green branch of the dying tree…
Sing me toward home…
LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND: Part I
I remember the first time I heard Paul Gruchow’s voice.
He was being interviewed on public radio, his subject the North American tall grass prairie. The voice I heard was eloquent, persuasive and lyrical - qualities I was soon to find in his essays. It was an original and startlingly intelligent voice. I felt that I had been waiting to hear it for a long time: A native of the Midwest passionately making connections between present and past, exposing the distance between our environmental rhetoric and the reality of our policies and lives, exploring in personal terms the relationship between damage and healing. What I heard was a regional writer with a gift for telling the story of ecology, which is the story of particular places.
In his first book, JOURNAL OF A PRAIRIE YEAR, Gruchow begins by telling us the experience of the prairie is one of "immensity" and "immersion".
"The essential feature of the prairie", he insists, "is its horizon, which you can neither walk to nor touch. It is like the horizon of the sea." The scale of the prairie is so large it cannot be adequately photographed. "The experience" , he declares, "is a kind of baptism." But immersion reveals a tragedy: The integrity of the prairie ecosystem -- its capacity for sustaining an underground forest of roots twenty five miles long for every square meter of sod -- has been violated. On a 600 mile drive from Winnipeg, Canada to Worthington, Minnesota Gruchow cannot find any land that has not been turned over "furrow by furrow."
Baptism will lead to pilgrimage in JOURNAL OF A PRAIRIE YEAR and in all the books to follow. Sometimes the direction is backward, in time, to the wonder and pain of a boyhood farm in Western Minnesota. Sometimes the journey involves leaving human communities in order to walk or canoe into wilderness. Always there is a return to the writing desk, followed by another pilgrimage back to nature.
"I had come to the lake because I had been writing about it for days, and the more I wrote about it, the less I could remember it. To write about something is to take leave of it. I needed to find my sense of the lake again. "
In all these journeys, the damaged tall grass prairie and Gruchow’s agricultural roots will not be forgotten.
In speaking of Thomas McGrath - perhaps the greatest poet of the Northern Plains - Dale Jacobsen cites McGrath’s LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND as an example of what he calls "circularity." For McGrath, the boundaries separating past, present and future, inner and outer, merge until time itself becomes a circle. Circularity is, for McGrath, the ambiguity we have inherited from nature and history. A repetition can be a comforting rhythm to fall asleep by, such as the night rain, or it can be a curse, as when soil erosion or domestic abuse become intergenerational.
Circularity has been important in Native American tribes and is found in many peasant cultures as well.
In his historical novel, PIG EARTH, John Berger explains how a French peasant’s life is committed almost completely to survival. The peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors. And yet, for the first time in history, the survivors may not survive for the culture worshipping progress is a straight road envisioning only future expansion, while the culture of survival envisages a circle of repeated acts. Any transformation a peasant imagines, Berger says, involves his becoming again the peasant he once was. Berger contrasts the culture of the peasant - un-insulated, open to seasonal changes or the natural process of aging - to that of the urban, Twentieth Century consumer, living in a suffocating, over serviced limbo. If the urban planners have their way, Berger warned twenty five years ago, there will be no more peasants.
Paul Gruchow was born in the middle of the Twentieth Century into the American equivalent of peasant culture. In JOURNAL OF A PRAIRIE YEAR, the paradox of circularity is everywhere, growing directly out of the author’s childhood. Remembering his grandfather’s death (Gruchow was four), he recalls sitting next to the corpse,
"nauseated by the scent of flowers and of body perfume. We waited a very long time in that parlor, and the odors of the place grew as we sat there, waiting, I suppose, for condolences to be said. The room grew cloyingly hot. There was a tropical steaminess about it. But when we went to bury my grand- father, we encountered a bitter wind, and the snow was running again For a long time after that, I smelled the odor of death in the snow winds."
Writing, in part, "the history of my home place", Gruchow points out how it had to be settled twice: From 1874 to 1878 swarms of Rocky Mountain locusts came, chewing their way across the land, eating everything in sight: grass, corn, the grain in the bin, handles of pitchforks, the sills off the windows, even the harnesses of horses standing in the yard. Visiting the schoolhouse of his youth, he finds it gone, a cornfield in its place, "and all the corn in it was dead and dying." The church, still standing, was no longer used for worship, the parsonage boarded up. Finally, the grieving pilgrim finds the graves of his parents: "My tears were a kind of benediction: something wet in the midst of all that thirst."
These themes - circularity, memory and its ambiguity, going away and coming home - are taken up again in GRASS ROOTS: THE UNIVERSE OF HOME. In seventeen essays Gruchow argues for a return to nostalgia, defined in terms of its Greek etymological root as both a literal and metaphorical going home. In a wide ranging collection that is deeply personal and fiercely persuasive, I hesitate to single out two individual essays for virtuosity, but "The Transfiguration Of Bread" and "What We Teach Rural Children" are such masterful expressions of the book’s themes they invite praise.
"One evening when one thing after another had gone wrong, Mother opened the cupboard door and a dinner plate crashed to the floor and shattered."
From that ominous beginning, the monetary impoverishment of a struggling family is contrasted with the richness of their farm and its household. Homemade bread is offered as the symbol and sustenance of grassroots’ wealth. When the Gruchow children left their small, local school as adolescents and entered a large, consolidated town school, hunger for their mother’s bread was replaced by shame. "We had acquired the preference of the age for anything manufactured over anything homemade. We suddenly coveted boughten bread…We were no longer content to eat hick bread." When Gruchow’s mother finally gave up the making of bread and began to buy a factory made substitute, the triumph of industrialized farming over agriculture had begun in earnest. "The wholesome mystery of bread, the sacrament of it…was never in the ingredients but in the labor, and in the laborers who transfigured them into bread."
"The Bread Of This World" is the title of a wonderful, not well enough known poem by Thomas McGrath. Gruchow’s essay can stand as a fitting complement to McGrath’s eloquent verse in which "The holy loaves of the bread are slowly being born/rising like low hills in the steepled pastures of light/ Lifting the prairie farmhouse afternoon on their arching backs."
"What We Teach Rural Children" is surely a tour-de-force among essays which argue against what Wendell Berry has called the unsettling of America through displacement of small farmers and debasement of local economy and culture. Gruchow’s essay pivots on an exploration of class in America, and on a critique of stereotypical thinking that reduces white, rural people to a homogenous glob. In his view, the denigration of rural people proceeds from the denial that they are an underclass, and from the assumption that they are all alike. In schools, rural children are taught as a matter of course "that opportunity of every kind lies elsewhere" and the failure and decline of rural culture is the fault of parents and grandparents. What we impose upon rural children, then, is "a kind of homelessness." Speaking from his own experience, Gruchow articulates the hidden and not so hidden message of rural education: "If you’re any good you go somewhere else". And we know the cutting edge of that displacement as rural people continue their half century of migration toward so called bigger and better places.
It is instructive to follow the progression of thought from these two seminal essays through "What Time Is It" in which the term "postmodern" is declared to be nonsense - a double negative negating the future by disavowing the past. "It is, of course, the logical extension of recent intellectual history. In this century God was declared dead, and then history followed. The death of time was only a matter of time."
In "Visions", the narrative voice returns to evoke the author’s boyhood bedroom, speculating about the nature of what can be seen in the world and what lies just beyond . In this breathtaking passage, Gruchow is at his lyrical best:
"And then the hour before dawn arrived, crisp and clear, the breathless hour when the animals seem to pause and ponder, the universal hour of reverie. A golden halo of light bathed the grassy ridge tops, but the forest and the river were still cast in heavy shadow. Our sleeping bags were covered with frost, and inside them we were lightly dressed. We awaited the benediction of the sun."
In "Bones", the book’s concluding essay, Grandfather Gruchow’s embalmed body and burial are invoked a second time, death and wildness reconnected, and salvation found in "the ancient cries of gray wolves." The voice here is nostalgic in the best possible sense: The past is not allowed to become an object of sentimentality, but is made to live again in the present. The miracle of a bone, we learn, is that it is evidence of something "never to be repeated that has vanished yet nevertheless endures in bone, a faint white glimmering, in some off-hand place, of life everlasting."
Is this not the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau?
If JOURNAL OF A PRAIRE YEAR and GRASS ROOTS: THE UNIVERSE OF HOME can be thought of as explorations of domestic order and the reconstruction, through memory, of our damaged great plains ecology, then Gruchow’s THE NECESSITY OF EMPTY PLACES and BOUNDARY WATERS: THE GRACE OF THE WILD might be seen as a passing over into an ecology that largely survives, but is vulnerable. Like Aldo Leopold, his conservationist mentor, Gruchow shows how, in empty places, human observation, experience and consciousness are the cornerstones of any viable land ethic. "A mountain is a perception," he reminds us, as much as anything." And so begins a pilgrimage through the Blue "mountains" of Minnesota, the Nebraska Sandhills, the Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin and the Beartooth range of Montana.
It is in the Bighorns that Gruchow begins to be aware of the nature and value of emptiness He and his hiking partner, John Scholl, are headed toward Florence Canyon and the Cloud Peak Primitive area when they discover they are in "houseless, road less, trail less places. In a sense they were always empty. The places that survive now as wilderness are by nature demanding, uncompromising, parsimonious" It is these qualities Gruchow will find in what our culture has taught most of us to fear and avoid experiencing at all cost, "the void within ourselves, the loneliness, the surviving heart of wildness, that binds us to all the living earth." It is as if the spiritual journeying of the hermetic mystics of the 12th Century has found its 20th Century equivalent in a backpacker.
Although this is not a how-to-do-it manual, there is advice here about a kind of inner discipline in the wilderness that runs counter the tourist’s preoccupation with the quick and scenic. Gruchow urges us to walk slowly, quoting Colin Fletcher’s rule governing pace: "slow and slower." We are told the right tempo is one that allows for conversation and natural breathing, "The right stride returns instinctively to a walker because it is as metrical and regular as the rhythm of a song."
Commenting on the rising and setting of the sun on the plains, he compares it to a Passion Play, with alternating rhythms of death and resurrection. In the mountains "at any moment the sun my precipitously disappear, may retreat behind a mountain, never to return, as if giving way without a struggle to the night. The difference is that night on the plains descends from the heavens and in the deep valleys of the mountains it arises from the earth."
Perhaps the finest chapter in the book, "Medicine Mountain", is a meditation on the idea of holy places. Inspired by the Medicine Wheel - an early Native American stone construction - Gruchow reflects on research suggesting the only historical certainty about the twenty eight spoke, seven cairned wheel is the fact its story has vanished. Walking alone, honoring the speechlessness which "begins awe for life", the pilgrim comes to a deeper understanding of the void as he looks beyond the visible world of the Big Horn and its basin. He feels diminished from such a height and tells us this is good. Echoing Albert Schweitzer, he argues that humility is the beginning of reverence for life.
"The error of earlier ethics," Schweitzer believed, "is that it conceived itself as concerned only with the relations of man to man. The real question is, however, one concerning man’s relations to the world and all which comes within his reach. A man is ethical only when life as such is holy to him, that is, the lives of plants and animals as well as the lives of men." And Schweitzer adds an important and overlooked sentence: "The ethics of reverence for life includes all that can be called love, devotion, compassion, joy and endeavor."
Not surprisingly, Gruchow embraces all of these essentially human qualities on his journey through empty places, returning to Western Minnesota a more conscious, home loving person.
Of his published books, BOUNDARY WATERS: THE GRACE OF THE WILD is Gruchow’s most critically acclaimed. Mary Pipher called it "our Twentieth Century WALDEN" Writing in the BLOOMSBURY REVIEW, critic Abigail Davis described it as "a book of marvelous depth and diversity…Gruchow’s best in a long history of excellent work."
The central essay, "The Grace Of The Wild", recounts in rich and exalted prose the author’s summer "travels in canoe country" - the title of a previously published photo essay in collaboration with the photographer Gerald Brimacoumbe. The text is not harmed from its publication without the excellent photographs of the earlier, coffee table book. Gruchow’s prose is colorful enough to command our attention as he evokes lakes, rocks, campsites and native pictographs in all their changing mood and detail. The essay continues the meditative tone of THE NECESSITY OF EMPTY PLACES - even incorporating a monastic prayer schedule (morning lauds to late night compline) as its formal structure.
Gruchow’s descriptive powers have few peers among contemporary essayists, and here the lyrical quality of his language approaches that of our finest prose poets:
"Faintly at first, like a whisper of wind, I hear the sound of running water. As I approach it, its language becomes more distinct, the babble of many voices in an unfamiliar language. And then I am upon the rapids, the water slipping over stones like liquid silk, its voice now a low murmur, the sound of an astonished crowd."
There are too many passages the equal of this one to quote liberally. One simply has to read them aloud to appreciate the finely chiseled language and its music.
The boundary waters being traveled, of course, is the Quetico-Superior Wilderness - a two-and-a-half-million acre tract lying on each side of the line separating Minnesota and Canada. As Gruchow points out in his preface, he means also to include the whole region stretching from the Northern inland lakes to Lake Superior and Isle Royale in his exploration. In fall the canoe is forsaken for foot travel, and Gruchow is reunited with John Scholl -- his hiking partner. Their trek will proceed across the Northeastern corner of the Boundary Waters, then follow the Minnesota-Ontario border to Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River, and finally descend the arduous Grand Portage trail to Lake Superior.
"This is canoe country," the author informs us, "but despite my bum knees, we mean to walk."
And walk they do. It is the most difficult of all the hikes Gruchow chronicles in his books, in large part because of the uneven, demanding terrain. This is, after all, CANOE country. The last part of the trail -once endured by French Voyageurs carrying hundred pound parcels the whole seven mile length - I personally remember as a slow descent through hell: clouds of mosquitoes, biting flies, jagged rocks of such size and angularity they in no way resemble a staircase. The border trail, if it can be called a trail, is a kind of via negativa of the body and soul -- a test of spiritual will. For Gruchow, perhaps, that is the point - not the postcard sunsets on the lake or predictable comforts of the resorts that dot the Northern landscape. "The road is long and difficult," said the mystic saint, John Of The Cross. There is a dark night in which the soul finally awakens - and it is out of reach for tourists.
The border trail and its wrong turns; a lost rope needed to tie up food and elevate it beyond the reach of bears; an early winter; the scalding of an arm when a tree stump proves to be an unsteady table; fourteen hour hiking days; middle aged knees; the refusal of the ground to be level at night -- all of these travails seem to be background for another, more subtle theme: friendship. Friendship, we should recall, was Plato’s enduring concern as a philosopher. It is, paradoxically, the concern of the poet McGrath and the conservationist Leopold and the humanitarian Schweitzer. We take as a truism of the modern world that "no man is an island" - even our greeting cards are variations on this theme - but we struggle to believe it. Most of us believe ourselves to be too sophisticated to wait on our personal islands for messages in bottles, but we accept confirmation of our relational natures by e-mail. Most of us feel we don’t have time to cultivate the leisure Plato argued is a condition of friendship. But in the wilderness, Gruchow reminds us, there is all the time in the world if the traveler goes on foot, goes light, and is willing to be lost - at least some of the time.
Many of the best passages in "Walking The Border", as in other accounts of trips gone awry, involve the impact being lost has on friendship: how it strains and tests the hikers, calling for greater patience than either normally possesses; how ultimately it strengthens and deepens their mutual respect. Not surprisingly, in Gruchow’s work friendship, family, community and nature are of a piece What is important are the connections, never to be forgotten, between these graceful and ultimately mysterious realities. What is required is the willingness to be opened by uncertainty , and as Plato would affirm, to realize we share our ignorance with other human beings.
"Think of our life in nature," Thoreau tells us. "Who are we" Where are we?" We do not know. And that is the point.
In "By Light Of The Winter Moon", three college students reading WALDEN and Gruchow - their instructor - decide to try a North Woods version of Thoreau’s experiment. In dead of winter they will stay in a log cabin near the end of the Gunflint Trail, in the heart of Minnesota canoe country.
There may be no more exact description of light in Northern literature than Gruchow reflecting on the light a full moon casts on snow, which he calls "the most beautiful light in the world":
"Its glow seemed to emanate not from the heavens but from within the earth and to radiate out into the darkness of space. The second most beautiful light in the world is the light of the midday sun on snow, light at its most transparent…Sunlight on snow sparkles, moonlight shimmers on it. Winter days are naked; winter nights are veiled in blue lace and sequins."
Cross country skiing on a snowmobile trail over a frozen, snow covered lake, leading his students into an experiential form of learning to support the discussion of WALDEN, Gruchow returns to the idea of friendship:
"And the landscape conveyed a strange aura of intimacy. Vastness, emptiness, austerity have the paradoxical effect of opening up the self, of rendering it vulnerable to the persuasions of the heart. Noise, busyness, bustle, abundance - the trappings of industrial life - are enemies of intimacy. Is it any wonder that our industrial lives are so violent."
Violence, of course, is the enemy of friendship, community its foundation and true home.
One of the stories within this story is that of James - a difficult student - who is led from anxiety and withdrawal to an appreciation of wildness. The group experience coupled with the surrounding wilderness gradually draw him in, as Gruchow masterfully weaves a parable about the power of nature to transform both teacher and learner - education’s forgotten purpose. Finally, the author as teacher realizes several years later he had failed his own course by failing to recognize how "there is a wilderness in my study, and in my kitchen, and in my bedroom…if only I had the alertness to discern it."
In BOUNDARY WATER’S last essay, "Wild Isle", the unique environmental balances (which once included wolves and moose) of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale are explored on foot after a harrowing ferry ride across choppy water. There are wonderful descriptions of animals encountered on the trail - most memorably a moose at Washington Creek - and information about the island’s natural history and topography. Gruchow ends by recalling the distinction Thoreau made between "wilderness" - which is limited to a specific geographical and ecological space - and "wildness" - which is the nature in and all around us. Remembering through self-hypnosis his surprise encounter with the moose, Gruchow tell us he has returned to Isle Royale many times without leaving his reading chair:
"When I go there, I retreat into the wildness of my own brain, transcending the limits of living in a world of words or of my own kind alone and reveling in the grace of the wild"
In addition to the four published books discussed here, Gruchow’s work includes a collection of essays first published in The Minnesota Volunteer -- a DNR magazine -- which explore Minnesota’s scientific and natural area preserves. Appropriately named WORLDS WITHIN A WORLD, the subjects range from a Root River bluff side goat prairie to an old growth forest, Lutsen Woods, above Lake Superior. The books is handsomely illustrated by photographs, the majority of them taken by Minnesota native John Gregor.
At the time of his tragic suicide in February, 2004, at age 56 there were dozens of uncollected essays, lectures, critical book reviews, tape recordings, book forwards and at least one unpublished manuscript -- a gripping, soul baring memoir which explores Gruchow’s struggles with childhood abuse, major depression and the failure of the mental health treatment system to help him. This final, important work will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2008.
Among his uncollected essays, three of my favorites are "What Cranes Say" (recorded by American Public Radio and read by Noah Adams); "Eight Variations On The Idea Of Failure" (published in OLD FRIENDS, NEW NEIGHBORS: A Celebration Of The American Essay , American Literary Review, Fall, 1994); and "The Meaning Of Natural History" (published in PRAIRIE ROOTS: Call Of The Wild by Ice Cube Press, North Liberty, Iowa in 2001.)
"What Cranes Say" is an account of the Gruchow family’s annual March visit to Southwestern Nebraska, where Sandhill Cranes gather by the thousands annually on their migratory journey across the Western United States. The essay explores the dependability of the cranes’ journey and Gruchow’s equally faithful honoring of that ancient pattern. It is an enchanting entering into the eyes, ears and voice of the cranes themselves.
"Eight Variations On The Idea Of Failure" is a cryptic, Zen-like meditation on the nature of success. We are asked to consider the life and work of Henry Thoreau, the little known Kentucky regional painter Harlan Hubbard, the poet Emily Dickinson and Gruchow’s own mother - people whose work was thought, in each of their lifetimes, to have failed because it could not be bought and sold for profit. "What if one’s life were not a commodity either," Gruchow asks, "Not something to be bartered to the highest bidder, or made to order? What if one were simply to go home and plant some manner of garden?"
"The Meaning Of Natural History" - a chewy, more conceptual work - argues for an understanding of earth’s history as being synonymous with natural history. In support of this idea, Gruchow cites the work of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and Edward O. Wilson in affirming our commonality with all of life.
How are we to access the importance of this considerable body of literary work?
I suggested earlier that Gruchow’s voice is eloquent, persuasive and lyrical. I have said that ecology -- the greatest metaphor of the Twentieth Century -- and memory -- the foundation of human culture -- are inseparable in his writing. I have compared him to the Great Plains poet Thomas McGrath, seeing an awareness of circularity, a pattern of leaving and returning home, in each author’s writing. His own words, "There is no death so final as the death of a memory", could serve as a motto, it seems to me, for a Paul Gruchow Reader.
"What anthropologists distinguish as cultures," Ivan Illich writes, "the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different memories." For these essays to be of enduring value and excellence, we must leave them believing our damaged ecologies - the places where we live - can be made whole in part by remembering them when they were whole, then living in such a way as to restore them. We must come to a deeper understanding of ecology itself: that it is metaphor more than science - the remembered and passed on story of individual places. And how, for Paul Gruchow, this remembering and telling becomes, at its best, song.
Jane Hirshfield, musing on the nature of poetry, calls it "language put into the forms of remembrance." Quoting Yeats, "The friends that have it I do wrong/whenever I remake a song/Should know what issue is at stake:/it is myself that I remake/ she might well be describing the accomplishment of the deep ecologist whose method is the art of the personal essay.
One of the highest compliments that can be paid a writer is to say that his or her work continues a heritage, a tradition of similarly important work. When I think of our Twentieth Century essayists and poets of place - of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, of Thomas McGrath and Mary Oliver- I see how Paul Gruchow’s work has been nourished by and helps continue this succession.
As we begin a new century and millennium, desperately needing to see, as Martin Heideger has written, that "we have forgotten that we have forgotten" I am grateful for the journeys, the life long pilgrimage of Paul Gruchow. When I head to the restorative silence of the wilderness or retreat to the wildness within my own house, I will take him with me.