The first wheat was taken from the fields last Sunday, and now semi-trucks loaded with grain travel the county roads to the elevator in Hazel.
Sandhill cranes grazed the shorn field south of our place Monday. I parked my bike on the shoulder of the road to photograph them in the early morning light. Oblivious of my presence, the cranes high-stepped across the field.
Questions. Always questions. Why do I live here?
Stretching to Manitoba on the Canadian border, northwestern Minnesota lies within the ancient lakebed of Glacial Lake Agassiz. The landscape is flat as far as the eye can see. Along the western edge of the state, the Red River winds its way northward toward Lake Winnipeg and finally to Hudson Bay. River forests trace the outline of the Red River and its tributaries. In the summer the river is alive with beaver, otter, catfish, eagles, kingfishers and cormorants. Deer come to the river’s edge to drink. Willows overhang banks, and in the shallow recesses cattails and reed grasses shelter redwing blackbird nests. Above the river, cliff swallows swoop and dive snatching mosquitoes in mid-flight. Overhead hawks screech. In summer the river is filled with sight and sound.
Question: Why do I live here?
Theodore Roethke wrote in his poem The Far Field:
Deep in the greens of summer sing the lives
I’ve come to love. The vireo whets its bill.
The great day balances upon the leaves;
My ears still hear the bird when all is still…
The land here is fertile. To the east and west of the Red, field against endless field is planted in wheat and soybeans. Trees circle farmsteads protecting against the unchecked winds of winter or line railroad tracks that cut across the unbroken landscape. Where all available space is put to cultivation, wildness must be opportunistic. In ditches dug deep to drain the low-lying soils, cattails and willows stake claim. In shaded culverts false dragonheads and touch-me-nots erupt in purples and oranges. Come mid-July water parsnips send up umbels of white blossoms. Muskrats forage for seeds and roots. In early-August, mallard ducklings mature. Sandhill cranes tutor their young.
Why do I live here?
To the west of our property there is a shrubline, an old field partition untended and wild. It is here I snowshoe in the winter; it is here my husband and I pick Juneberries and chokecherries in the heat of summer. Aspen, slippery elm, willow and box elder grow wild in the shrubline. In the early summer strawberries carpet the open spaces. In the height of summer, falcons take flight from trees, hummingbird hawkmoths pause at milkweeds, monarch butterflies dance in twos and threes. I hear the yellow-bellied sapsucker in the dark foliage but rarely see it. Pileated woodpeckers leave fresh shavings at the base of trees. Turk’s caps throw back their petals beneath openings in the tree canopy. Bindweeds flower in the morning sun.
On these long days of summer, I ride my bike in the early morning and evening photographing the changes. Yellow coneflowers and sunflowers stand tall now in the brushland; goldenrods form carpets along ditch edges. Half-grown fawns gambol down country roads. Redtail hawks hunt high above the train tracks. Magpies congregate on stacked hay or along abandoned telephone poles. Sandhill cranes take to the air in pairs.
Why do I live here?
N. Scott Momaday described the Oklahoma plains in The Way to Rainy Mountain –
Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of the objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.
And so it is in northwestern Minnesota.
Why do I live here, you ask?
I answer, “Because I live here.”
N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (University of New Mexico Press, 1969): 5.
Theodore Roethke, “The Far Field.” Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975): 236.