A couple of months ago a civic leader in the Twin Cities was quoted in the newspaper as follows: “The region is a product.” I’ve been mulling that over ever since. The word “product” sticks in my craw. It objectifies the land, and pushes it away.
In a related matter, I spoke out at my church recently in defense of the land, and a man who disagreed with me said that he, unlike me, lives “in the real world.” I suppose that was better than saying, “You’re nuts.”
The civic leader quoted above might also claim that he lives in the real world. I believe both these guys are referring to that which we humans have constructed: the buildings, the roads, the economy and the culture. The man who used the word “product” probably meant we should promote the region as we would a product in order to improve the economy here. That sounds reasonable.
But the region is made up of more than what we have superimposed upon it. A nutty person like myself might argue that the land, the streams, the lakes, the trees, the birds, and the animals might be considered part of the real world, even here in the city. What then? How would we proceed? What if we loved it?
Late last fall my husband and I were walking around Lake Harriet. As we approached the north end, near the band shell, I saw a guy standing there staring at the water. He looked up and asked, “What is that?” I looked at the swimming animal he was pointing at and said, “That is a muskrat.” He said, “That is a muskrat?” I said, yes. “A muskrat?” Yes. “It is a muskrat?” Yes. Then he walked away.
Objectifying the land has gotten us into a lot of trouble. It has allowed us to lapse into ignorance about it, to abuse it. Tony Hoagland, in his poem, “Reasons to Be Happy,” writes: “We were wrong about so many things./We thought the world was mute,/or just disinterested, or dead.”
There are ways of describing this region that are both accurate and tender. What a remarkable place! We live at the convergence of three bioregions: oak savanna, prairie, and big woods. In the book Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez, savannas are defined like this: “The savanna overstory is broken, patchy. Trees cover only about a third of the land and grow singly or in copses. The understory is composed largely of tall grasses, sedges, and wildflowers.” This once described the north metro area.
In that same book there is this description for what once made up the south metro area, prairie: “The herbaceous makeup of the prairie was so diverse, each species extending roots as deep as its height, that even the frightful fires from lightning strikes, with flames forming tearing twisters a hundred feet high, couldn’t destroy it. Then plows came.”
I was biking along the Mississippi River. I stopped when I saw a group of people standing around looking up. I did the same, and saw an eagle soaring just overhead. A couple of people walked up, looked at the large bird with the white head and tail, and asked, “What bird is that?”
The Big Woods of the west metro area, what we now call old-growth forest, is defined in the book Home Ground as follows: “Forest as elder, where trees coexist in the full spectrum of their development—from seedling to sapling to ancient, to snag and generative nurse log…. What old age gives the individual person, old growth conditions give a forest: a life-library of survival wisdom, flexibility, initiative, and a sustaining life process.”
While only remnants of these three bioregions remain here fully intact, some of the animals and plants and birds that lived in them are still with us, and they occasionally break through what distracts us and they get our attention. I was skiing in a large south metro park once. Afterward, while sitting in the visitor center warming up, a man came in and loudly and nervously reported that a dog had appeared behind him, and had followed him for a time. Shouting at it didn’t chase it away. What he saw was probably a coyote.
I actually find visitations like these uplifting. They feel like glimpses of an alternate universe, one that is certainly in the backdrop, but it is here, it is hanging on, and it is biding its time.
The Tony Hoagland poem mentioned above ends like this: “What were the names/of those old Greek gods?/And where did they go?/Atlas—that’s the one/who spent a long time/holding up/what did not belong to him.”
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.