Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pasqueflowers

On the dry southeastern faces of the prairie hills, the first native flowers of the spring, the pasqueflowers, were in bloom... 
Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year

I biked out Hall Avenue with the wind in my face, down the narrow rumble-stripped shoulder of Highway 19, and down the loose buff-colored gravel of Canada Avenue to the far entrance of the Lower Arboretum. At the entrance to the Arb, I locked my bike, swallowed some water, and headed east down 320th St. W. My goal was McKnight Prairie, a little over five miles away, and the pasqueflowers.
Pasqueflowers always remind me of the late Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow, who describes them so beautifully and with such care in his first book, Journal of a Prairie Year (1985). He explains how the pale pastel flowers serve as solar collectors, rotating to catch the sunlight, trapping heat and attracting insects who sometimes shelter at night inside the closed petals.

He was a newspaperman in Worthington, Minnesota, when he wrote that first book, but in the late 1990s he was living in Northfield, teaching at St. Olaf, the author of half a dozen books of essays about making a home in rural Minnesota, about belonging to a place. This was something I thought a lot about in the 1990s, when I was staying at home with the boys, baking my own bread, beginning to explore Northfield, learning to love a landscape that was so different from the Finger Lakes where I grew up.  I came here because this is where my wife got a job. How could I make this place my own?

One morning, Paul Gruchow invited me to his house on Lincoln Street for coffee, an invitation somehow arranged by a mutual friend. We talked about writing and fresh-baked bread and old-growth forests. About how in the forest west of the river wild ginseng once grew, and how there used to be pitcher plants in the low marshy places between Manitou Heights and Heath Creek. About things that were gone, and things we could try to hold onto.

He showed me a framed broadsheet of Thomas McGrath’s poem “The Bread of This World”:

On the Christmaswhite plains of the floured and flowering kitchen table
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...

Like McGrath, Gruchow had grown up on an Upper Midwestern farm where his family grew wheat, milled it, and baked it into bread. In his own essay “The Transfiguration of Bread,” Gruchow wrote about how the labor that went into a loaf of bread connected his family to the land and brought a sense of purpose to their lives: “Our souls depended in ways we had not anticipated upon the sanctity of the labors that brought bread to our table...Making bread was a critical element in the purpose of our lives, and one of the ways by which we were literally joined to the land. It was at the center of our culture, a civilizing force.”

Out on Sciota Trail, where it crosses Alta Avenue and bends away from the Cannon River, I stopped for a moment on my walk to look at the old Sciota Township Hall, which was built in 1860 as a one-room schoolhouse. In 1854, Charles Lewis selected this land along the Cannon River as a town site, and in the following year had it surveyed and laid out as a town, which he called Lewiston. Within five years, there was a bridge across the river, a mill, a blacksmith shop, a carriage shop, a post office, a hotel, private residences, and this little schoolhouse.

Within a couple of decades, the land bubble collapsed and speculators could no longer profit from town lots in Lewiston, and the town began to disappear, until the little schoolhouse was the only thing left.

From the old township hall, it’s a straight shot east to McKnight Prairie, a little more than two miles away past broad flat fields overarched with irrigation systems. Before long the prairie came into view—the long brown camelback reclining under a pale blue sky. This is virgin prairie, never broken by the plow, still rich with native grasses and wildflowers. Prickly pear cactus grows in a sandy patch on the west side of one of the hills, and at this time of year, there are pasqueflowers—hundreds of pale purple flowers in the dull brown grass on the top of the hill, opening bright yellow coronas to the sun.

On the hilltop, braced against a stiff wind from the north, I remembered the scientific name for pasqueflowers: anemone patens. Exposed windflower.

Aldo Leopold wrote that pasqueflowers “endure snows, sleets, and bitter winds for the privilege of blooming alone.” But to Paul Gruchow there was something more sociable in their character:

Pasqueflowers bloom at an inhospitable time in a quirky season. They carry the impression of wit and grace. If a pasqueflower were a person, one would want to have it come to dinner at the first opportunity. Surely, that would be the occasion for much laughter and bright conversation.


Before heading back home, I sat for a while among the pasqueflowers, thinking about things that have been lost and things that remain. Lewiston erased from the map. Paul Gruchow, dead of a suicide in 2004 after he had finished writing his last book, a book about living with depression. But here still, returning year after year, are the pasqueflowers. Here is this little patch of virgin prairie.


The walk: 11.29 miles on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 (Earth Day)

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