Wild city // Drought

I biked along the creek over to Minnehaha Falls last week. The creek is very dry. There are stretches with no water at all, and stretches with small pools of stagnant water. A stream, by definition, is water that runs, but the water in our creek is not connected. We have no flow. The falls could be called Minnehaha Trickle. Tourists there were shaking their heads. “Not much of an attraction,” a guy said to me.

This September was the second driest on record in the Twin Cities. The driest occurred in 1882. The third driest? 2011.

The word drought sounds as unappealing as it is. In some dialects the word is used to mean thirst. If the earth is thirsty, we are thirsty. I have heard people say “drouth,” which sounds quaint and rural, like when someone says pe-o-ny instead of peo-ny. I assumed these were mispronunciations, but I have found drouth in my dictionary, along with “drouthy.” We have a drouthy creek, a drouthy falls. 

I grew up in Cloquet, in northern Minnesota, and it was a fall drought that created the conditions for our biggest disaster, the Cloquet Fire, in October of 1918. Sparks from passing trains ignited slash (waste wood) left behind by loggers. Dry conditions and a stiff wind sent the fire out of control. Most of the town burned to the ground. People lost everything.

My grandmother, who is still alive at 97, was a toddler during the Cloquet Fire, but she remembers it. She was put in a wheelbarrow, covered with a quilt and wheeled down the street. She peeked out and saw burning telephone poles dropping around her. 

Afterward, Cloquet residents were stoic. Therapists might call their reaction shock or frozen grief. I am interested in the idea that our past has not only shaped us, but that it is always with us, and that even things our ancestors experienced before we were born affect us. 

Every year on Oct. 1 it is as if I pass through a membrane into another emotional land. The darker side of my psyche wants to express itself. I become mopey, testy. Old hurts rise to the surface. My sleep is patchy. I have frightening dreams. The Cloquet Fire happened 36 years before I was born, but I wonder, each year when the calendar turns, if I walk into the fog of that unexpressed mourning.

We are all, in October, on the descent to the darkest time of the year, and we are suggestible beings. Much is taken away from us: long days, summer ease, flowers, birdsong. We are grownups, we know these things will all come back, and we know we are not supposed to overreact. And something about the change feels right. The cooler days are refreshing, the leaf color beautiful, the darker nights good for reading and resting.

But at some level we do grieve. I do, anyway. I feel better when I put words to what I am feeling, rather than push it under.

I watched the first presidential debate last night. Neither candidate mentioned global climate change, which I found disorienting. I’ve been learning about groups who are working to reduce CO2 levels and help us make a transition away from fossil fuels. There is quite a lively grassroots movement out there.

I attended a symposium in September called, “Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream.” It is an outgrowth of a Latin American movement called Pachamama. My daughter, who is presently studying in Bolivia, emailed me the definition: 

“Mama refers to a very holistic and profound understanding of mother earth, although labeling it as that is a huge simplification. Words that begin with pa signify two of something. The word signifies that the ideal state of the world would be opposing forces in equilibrium.”

The Pachamama movement began with indigenous Ecuadoran people called the Achuar, who pay close attention to their dreams and use them to guide their actions. They dreamed of an outside threat, us, with our thirst for oil. Rather than prepare to fight, they invited people from the north to work in partnership with them. They set up eco-tourism opportunities and preserved their rain forest. The Achuar believe that at this moment in history we have to work out of both the mind of the industrialized world and the heart of the indigenous world to ensure that human beings survive.

The dreamer who needs awakening? It is those of us who are using so many of the earth’s resources, with such drastic results. The new dream, according to the Pachamama Alliance, is for an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on the planet. I have to say that when I first read that language on the Internet, I cried.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.