Tag Archives: Minnesota

Choppin’ Wood

Rain drips in syncopated streams from the roof of the wooden shed. Out in the yard, disconsolate donkeys stand in soft mud, large heads nosing towards the ground. They have thin brown stripes across their shoulders and down their backs, and their manes stand up like little red mohawks. Their ears are stiff folded velvet, and swivel to create a variety of expressions. Little Eeyores, Britta calls them. I love their dusty fawn gray hair and their patient thoughtful expressions as I scratch between their ears. I feel my heart open up and it is painful and sweet. I imagine a life with donkeys in it, their sweet affectionate presence in my yard, the way we’d go on walks together, the way they would come to meet me and recognize my smell. We’d have a special bond, these donkeys and I.

Perhaps I am guilty of a fairly typical romanticizing of rural life to which we urbanites are prone. The longing for connection to animals, to feel from them some kind of meaningful response to our presence. The idealization of life out here in the crisp air, picturing the smell of wood smoke and skipping over the blisters and sore shoulders that result from chopping wood.

I leave the damp chewed wooden fence, where the donkeys come to meet their admirers. They lift their lips and let out soft brays, watch our retreating forms with wet black eyes.

Back under the shed, Yvonne and Adam and Craig are chopping wood with mauls. A maul is a large heavy axe used for splitting wood. Lindsay has gathered several cords worth of rounds, and she has invited us over for a lumberjack party, to assist her in splitting the rounds into smaller burnable chunks of wood. This is her heat for the winter, which looms closer and closer. It snowed up here in Butler Creek last night, though it has since melted off, leaving muddy roads and cold wet grass, pocked with remnant lumps of snow.

I have a confession to make. I have never chopped wood before. In Montana, I feel that this admission is a major faux pas, which brands you indelibly and makes people look at you differently. As if your hands are as soft as a donkey’s nose. Like you don’t know how to take care of your basic needs. Which is fairly true, in my case.

I’ve lived in Alaska, summers, and have now been a denizen of Missoula for almost five years. I feel that Alaska and Montana give me some cred. I now go backcountry camping and can my own tomatoes, and have had bear encounters, and can identify some plants and birds. Though really, I’m still the same city girl that the Olsons took under their wing, many years ago when I was growing up in rural Minnesota.

“You’ve never been FISHING?” they asked in alarm, their Norwegian souls cringing at the thought.

So, they took me fishing. “Here, help row the boat,” they told me. I grabbed the oars and enthusiastically slapped them into the lake with a splash. The oars skipped over the surface of the water and the force of my pull made me fall backward off the seat, oars flying akimbo in the air. I can still see Gary’s face above me in the boat, reddened by sun and laughter, big shoulders shaking in silent paroxysms.

Not to be remiss about any part of my education, they also took me snowmobiling, bundling me up in old boots, slapping a helmet on my head, and schooling me in the important differences between Arctic Cats and Skidoos. “Don’t fall off,” they instructed after we climbed onto the sled. I would grip the waist of whichever Olson sat in front of me, they gunned the machine, and we zoomed away in a flurry of ice crystals. Did they hit the bumps on purpose to see if I’d fall off? To this day I’m not sure, but fall off I did, over and over, in a tumbled snow crusted heap. I would lay there and listen to the receding roar of the snowmobile as it circled around to pick me up, and look up at the glittering Minnesota night sky.

I could go on, about the time we shot clay pigeons, and eating shit-on-a-shingle, and the many other ways that the Olsons educated me. We both enjoyed our respective roles, I think: I as the ignorant yet enthusiastic novice, and they as the seasoned outdoors-people.

I think of the Olsons as I reach for the yellow handle of the maul. I eye the round of wood and imagine what advice they would offer. “Just don’t hit your foot.” Deep breath, raise the maul over my head (my lord is it heavy!) and swing it down toward the block. Where it dings feebly and chips a tiny quarter inch deep into wood. “Aim for the crack,” onlookers call helpfully. Aim? Ha! I heft the maul again and swing, trying not to picture an axe wound in my leg.

And miraculously find the crack! The round splits in two and falls off the block. I shout in triumph, and lean the maul against the block, wipe my brow, and reach for my whiskey, grateful that my comfort this winter does not depend on my skill with a maul.

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Filed under Minnesota, Nature, Work

Snapshot #1 – Minnesota winter

My life has been a string of love affairs with place. As I’ve considered how to write about these places, I’ve been inspired by my friend Lauren, who is an excellent, thoughtful writer and blogs here. Lately she’s been writing postcards: brief lyrical essays accompanied by an image. I am intrigued by this idea, and have started thinking of the places I’ve loved in terms of a series of snapshots, which I define as image-ridden, slightly longer lyrical essays that tell some kind of story.

This series is also a shout-out to Alaska writing night folks. For those of you who don’t know about writing night, imagine you are sitting in a cozy RV, sipping a generous glass of red wine. Outside, cold rain patters on the roof and drips into the willows. A moose might wander by with a calf or two. Tonight, the theme of writing night is “snapshots,” interpreted loosely. We lean over our notebooks and write.

 Snapshot #1 – Minnesota Winter

Many winters, the snow drifts and piles up while we sit in classrooms under buzzing flourescents and watch the dark sky out the windows. School often lets out early, and we straggle out, scrape off cars or pile into humid buses, and disappear along the road. Highway 19 connects Winthrop, Gibbon, and Fairfax, three points on a straight east-west line on the Minnesota state map. Fairfax is home, Gibbon is the drive-through town of only eight hundred people, and Winthrop is church and high school.

Dad teaches at the high school, so rather than sit on the bus with my peers, I often wait and catch a ride with him. In the winters it is dark outside by the time he locks the physics classroom with its curled yellow posters of the periodic table on the walls and its smell of dust and chemicals. We trudge out through feet of snow to the car.

This particular ride home, before pulling away from the curb outside the school, we have to break through the deep drifts around the wheel wells. The car rocks forward, backward, slides on the packed snow. We need momentum to break free.

With a whine of the engine and final spin of the tires, we lurch up and over the mound of snow and find the churned snow and deep tire tracks which indicate the road.

On the road out of town, it is dark all around . Snow particles race past broken beams of light. I want nothing more than to lift off, away from this straight edged road, to soar away from the tiny farms and patchwork fields, and see what else is out there. I imagine I am going into hyperspeed, that we fly past stars and ringed planets and long-armed galaxies and into the vastness of space.

WCCO lists off counties with winter storm warnings and school district closures. “Renville… Sibley… Brown… Nicollet… Le Seuer…” Everything around us is closed in by the storm.

The road is slick and ridged with sculpted drifts. We don’t meet any cars. We slow to forty-five, edge to the center where the lines flick by, barely visible. The car shudders as the tires hit the wind-packed drifts. The windows fog.

Several miles past Gibbon, the road disappears.

Before the searching headlights, all is snow, swept rounded shoulders and ambiguous humped elephant shapes. Two, three feet deep in places. No tire tracks show the way or give us anything to follow. The car bucks and rocks like a ship through the drifts. Thick snow falls, presses heavy and wet on the windshield. Dad slows the car to a crawl, then stops. He rolls the window down, cranes his head out. Flakes flutter in, fall in a lush layer on the car seat, on his corduroy pants. His glasses are wet and fogged when he comes back into the car, his nose red and scrunched up as he tries to see. He opens the car door, sticks his foot out, sweeps it back and forth to find the road underneath.

We stop, open the door, locate the road, inch forward. Ten, fifteen feet at a time. This is how we find home, hours later.

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Filed under Home, Minnesota, Snapshots