Tag: Sigurd Olson

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

The Shepherd’s Life

shepherds-life

Really enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir of a sheep farmer told season by season. I followed his Twitter account for a while and enjoyed the seeming simplicity the stream of sheep pics depicted. Reading this memoir, however, disabused me of any assumptions I’d made about the life of a shepherd.

Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.

But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.

Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.

I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.

Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.

Some Quotes

On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:

This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.

On physical work:

Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.

On the pull of the landscape:

The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

On how city life can shortchange us:

I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.

On functional beauty:

My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

Photo above from James Rebanks’ Twitter account @herdyshepherd1.

Ten Books

In the Filmspotting tradition of naming lists after what you know will be on everyone’s list so should be removed from consideration, I’m going to name this the To Kill A Mockingbird Memorial List of Ten Books That Have Stuck With Me For Some Reason. Acknowledging the usual disclaimers of making lists (it’s not binding, it could change tomorrow, etc.), here are ten titles I’d think of right away if someone asked for a great book recommendation.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
 by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Essential reading, for American citizens especially.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Ostensibly a compact history of the Titanic disaster, it reads like a thrilling and expertly written novel. Though dated, the prose is solid yet so smooth, steadily pressing the narrative on like the doomed steamer it documents. 

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Like Fellowship of the Ring, this book is really a stand-in for the sublime trilogy it begins, yet is also the best book in the saga. Most of what we know and love about TR comes from his presidential and post-POTUS years — the Bull Moose, the assassination survival, the Amazon pioneering — but the man who would do these things was forged in the 42 years before becoming president, which are chronicled in this book. He seized his days with unadulterated vim, relentlessly stacking his resume and making the rest of us look bad. I hope “Bully!” makes a comeback.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Haven’t read this since high school so perhaps my feelings will change with a reread, but this was my first exposure to media criticism and it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was shocking to read about how Sesame Street was ruining education and that our dependence on distracting technologies would doom us to a Huxleyan dystopia of dumbness. These were his (admittedly cranky) opinions, but they rang true to me. And their prescience was and continues to be sadly undeniable. 

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Hard to decide between this and Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?, but I went with the more recent read. Yancey profiles thirteen prominent figures who helped restore his crumbling faith, among them Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and Annie Dillard. As faith falls out of fashion, books like this remind me that religion can be richer and more reasonable than our culture of unbelief realizes.

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.” And: “Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.” And so on.

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
I probably wouldn’t have liked it when it came out in 1978, given that it was a mega-bestseller and cultural phenomenon. But its plainspoken style and challenging yet attainable standards on discipline and spiritual development were a revelation to me. Peck’s four pillars of discipline — dedication to truth, delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, balancing — are all noble and necessary goals for self-improvement I think about, and fail to achieve, often. And when they are paired with his perspectives on love and grace, it makes for a great roadmap for life. (Hat-tip to my sister for the initial recommendation.)

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose
I love a broad history as much as anybody, but I also enjoy when a writer takes an angle on something. In this case, it’s Ambrose profiling the oddly parallel lives of Crazy Horse and George Custer, which converge tragically and infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Like most other Ambrose books it’s a smooth read with an emphasis on good storytelling and capturing his subjects’ humanity. People who struggle with reading history would do well to start with anything by Ambrose.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Here’s where I admit that I have a strong bent toward irreverence in life generally, but in the arts specifically. Pious readers may frown upon this fantastical take on Jesus’s youth and adolescence, but I found it funny, humane, and ultimately honoring of the spirit of Jesus. Like an Anne Lamott book, Lamb walks the line between reverence and irreverence like Philippe Petit on a high-wire: effortlessly and therefore beautifully.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
First read in high school, then again in college. It was even better the second time around (which begat a critical essay for a U.S. history class). “On the Rainy River” remains of my all-time favorite pieces of writing.