On Other People's Land

Includes Summer 2019 Approximately-Reverse-Chronological Catchup, Pt. 4, sort of.

  • I want to go home
  • But I am home “Riches and Wonders”, the Mountain Goats
  • Big News enclosed: keep reading, you’ll get there.

Hello everyone. How’s it going? I’ve missed you. I’m back.

There’s something about living in the country, perhaps. Since I’ve moved out here, I’ve written less here than ever before—now a little over three months since the last time I mentioned anything about my life here. In large part, I think, that’s because around here I find it so much more interesting to actually live my life than to write about it. The summertime is here! The strawberries are already done, the raspberries are passing their prime, and soon we’ll be all the way to blueberries, which will carry us straight through to September. Each day that flashes by seems to be packed with the weight of three or four days, and from my vantage point doing the things I’m doing, I can barely glimpse the rush of things I could’ve been doing. Who can find the time to sit down at a computer and document what’s whooshing past like a herd of bison? And the spring moves just as quickly. Fall seems to finish almost before it even starts, and winter, as long as it is, never quite has enough time for all those inside projects I put aside for it. People who prefer living in the city talk about how much happens there. But my life here feels fuller than ever.

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, in fact, and I never seemed to have a problem finding things to write about, and time to write about them. There, I was surrounded by all the problems of modern life that I’ve gotten so much mileage from describing. My daily routine in Minneapolis was nothing but disjointed, a bike ride through traffic and over asphalt to a cubicle where I monkeyed with computer code for a company selling products I didn’t care about in the least, until going home to cook food I bought from a store. I shopped at the bougie, organic store to make it all seem better, but I could only deceive myself just so far. In the concrete-trapped evenings, when sitting on the porch listening to hoopties, sirens, and subwoofers lost its appeal, I would pour out all my frustration with the city into the computer.

Out here, though, I’m surrounded by the health of the land. When I go to town, my bike ride takes me past thick forests, country houses, and fields of stunning fertility where, day by day, grass has exploded up from the cold spring earth in a game attempt to fill up all the space between soil and sky, been mowed and baled, and started filling up the air again, to all appearances unperturbed. My friends are farmers. The house I live in is a hundred-year-old log cabin built by Finns in a little town nearby called Oulu, moved here and modernized by my landlord. It is surrounded entirely by forest, and in the apparently endless back acreage, behind the pastures, there’s a beaver pond full of industrious beavers, which drains into a creek with suckerfish and sandbars.

At least, I can imagine that that’s the health of the land. But it’s only thanks to my disconnection from the land that I can think so. In the city, everything is human-made, and when it’s in disorder, I can tell because the mind that ordered it is much like mine. In the country, understanding order and disorder requires skills I haven’t developed yet. For that I need to live with the land. So far I live on the land. Anyone with a hundred grand to burn can live on the land. There’s an acre or so near me whose deed-holders have fenced it off and strewn it with a couple RVs, the carcasses of a good dozen cars, and a muddy dirt track where they sometimes drive four-wheelers in circles well into the night. Even those people live on the land—and come to that, so do city dwellers, since every city is built on some land of its own (even if some of its citizens might imagine that it’s “beyond the environment, it’s not in an environment”).

Living with the land, though, requires more attention, more intention, more work. It’s something I’m still only beginning to do. For all I’ve written about nature and the importance of growing one’s own food and all that, this year, my thirty-second on the planet, is the first year that I’ve taken even the rudimentary first step of planting a garden of my own. It feels good, finally. I’m getting my hands dirty; I’m watching the beans climb. But I have a lot further to go. Wendell Berry writes, in The Unsettling of America, of going past farms near his own, and seeing hillsides gullied out, topsoil eroding, single crops grown year on year with fertilizers where there should be rotation and manuring, the death of a way of life that embodied the relationship of the words healthy, hale, and whole. Up here, I can see the obvious problems: fields that, in the spring, turn into mud pits and grow stunted corn, a farm with so many cattle that they’ve churned the ground to dirt, forests shot through with invasive buckthorn. But I haven’t lived here long enough, or worked the land anywhere long enough, to see the subtle problems, something in the fatness of the fish or the size of the birches, maybe, that would tell me what work we humans have been neglecting to do.

But in the end my lack of writing isn’t really so much to do with a shortage of visible problems around me. If I only wrote about problems my writing wouldn’t be much worth reading. Even in the perfect world there are stories to be told, if for nothing else then to celebrate the perfection. And as much as I may want to convince myself that I haven’t been writing because I’m outside working too much, the facts won’t bear me out on that. I spend a hard-to-justify proportion of my time sitting in this old log cabin, only one tree trunk’s width of wall between me and the forest, with my computer open, looking at news and comics and videos.

Most of the time while I’m doing that, I’m feeling guilty for not being outside. The sun is shining just outside the window. The forest is calling. But the thing is: if I went out there, what would I do? The land here isn’t mine, legally or ancestrally; the most I can comfortably claim here is the right to walk around and maybe the right of usufruct, as long as I don’t chop down any prominent trees. I don’t know this land. There are only two non-city places where I feel like I’ve even started to get to know the land, and neither of them are here. One is Crow Duck Lake, where my mother’s family has vacationed every year since before I was born. From memory I could draw at least an approximation of the shape of the lake and the good fishing spots, and if I were dropped off there blindfolded, I could find my way to any part of the camp by feel. The other is my father’s family’s land in West Virginia, where since I was a kid I’ve roamed the hillside in search of deer, old metal junk, and adventure, and I know what crevices next to the house the garter snakes lurk in, and I’ve caught skinks and turtles and frogs, and I’ve walked miles of the endless creek.

It’s tempting to assume that my familiarity with these places comes because of the time I spent there as a kid. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started actually learning the lay of Crow Duck Lake, and my appreciation of the place has deepened as I’ve learned my way around it and explored farther afield, finding blueberry patches I never knew as a kid. Likewise it’s during my deer hunting trips to the West Virginia land that I’ve felt like I finally related to the place as an adult. I treasure the memory of a walk up the hill just a couple years ago, talking with my cousins Travis and Jackie about our grandfather, his life and his death, in the same way that I treasure memories of splashing around in the creek on an inner tube with Travis twenty years ago, before Jackie could even walk.

To build a relationship with land, the important thing isn’t to have grown up there. That helps, of course. But the important thing is to be able to come back to it year after year, to know you’ll be back again. You explore because you can imagine yourself coming back to the places you’ll discover. You spend time outside because even if you don’t know what you’re learning there, you know when you come back to that place, even ten years from now, you’ll remember what you learned that day. Your picture becomes fuller, your friendship with the land strengthens. It becomes a kind of kinship, eventually. After long enough, we may trust the land to hold us more than we trust most people we know. The land is genuine. It will not let us down if we don’t let it down. It is a good place to be buried.

And this lies at the root of the anomie and anxiety that I feel, even after I’ve moved out to the country where, the theory goes, I shouldn’t feel that anymore. I have no permanent place here. I have yet to live anywhere more than a year. No room I’ve lived in has felt like my room, just as no forest I’ve wandered has felt like my stomping grounds. The last grounds I really stomped are in Minneapolis, where I haven’t lived for three years, which is as long as I lived there in the first place. Being surrounded by lushness and greenery is well and good. But it’s time to find a place where I can build a house and build a home.

This mission takes on added significance, and becomes more possible, now that Misty and I are engaged. Wait, let me say that more slowly and sonorously: Misty and I are engaged! The reason you’re hearing about this here is that when it happened, in late May, someone in my family was planning to pull together a family reunion over that Zoom thing that everyone’s using these days, and I wanted to announce it there. But then the reunion didn’t happen, and continued not happening. It was only a few days ago that I realized I could announce it here, and avoid having to decide who hears first. No, we don’t have a date picked out, or answers to any other questions you might have. The sum total of what we’ve done to plan our wedding is to decide that there’ll be one.

But I’m very happy to be able to say at least that. We’ve always been a bit of a bizarre match, Misty and I: one who gets lost in the written word and one who’s suspicious of it; one who’s taken long practice to notice that he has emotions and one whose emotions are often at the helm of their life; one who geeks out about languages at any opportunity and one who mostly loves them from a distance. But there’s a commonality basic to the two of us that overrides superficial differences, and it’s to do with some of what I’ve been talking about. We both feel implacably drawn to making a healthy life as part of the land and part of the community. Our progress toward that goal might be halting and irregular, but it pulls us both forward, and pulls us together. And our differences make us stronger in the end, because we can learn from each other. I’ve learned things about life that I’m not sure I ever would have arrived at if I’d never met Misty. And my concept of the fullness of life has repeatedly overflowed its limits with Misty, as I expect it will continue to do for decades. As Wendell Berry says, “What marriage offers… is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same… which give us the highest joy we can know: that of union, communion, atonement (in the root sense of at-one-ment).… It is possible to imagine marriage as a grievous, joyous human bond, endlessly renewable and renewing, again and again rejoining memory and passion and hope.”1

We don’t have the land aspect figured out yet, but we at least have a lead or two. I’ve started reading about how to build houses, and I’ve let my friends who are working on houses of their own know that they can ask me for help. It won’t be too long, I think, before I can write on here about the progress of Misty’s and my house made of cob, or strawbales, or timber framing, or all of the above.

But of course it’s not just a house and a parcel of land that a marriage or a life complete. Sure, the house and the land will be where we spend most of our time, and where we put our energy most intensely. But every healthy relationship with the land extends much further than the bounds of one’s own homestead. It’s only a rich paranoiac who comes to the country and builds a private compound with no trespassing signs. (I’m looking at you, Ronald and Grace Hutchinson of 78210 Singer Road, Bayfield.) That person’s web of connections ramifies across the continent along supply chains, vast but brittle, sustained only by the illusory power of money, which did little to protect the Antoinettes and will not help the buyers of a $3,000,000 Survival Condo built into an old Atlas missile silo once their alleged five years of luxury food supplies have run out. A healthy, real web of connections centers on the house and the garden, but reaches out into the community, through friends and work partners and vague acquaintances. Though the deed or lease may describe a certain forty-acre plot as home, in this way home will be practically the entire region, all its trout creeks and saskatoon patches and beaches and bonfires with friends.

Which brings me to one other thing I’ve been doing that I want to mention in this post. One of the ways that I’ve been connecting myself to the community is by learning Anishinaabemowin. I’ve been putting effort into learning the language since I lived in Minneapolis, but it’s alwasy been slow, because I only had books to learn from, no actual teachers or people to speak it with. Last month, though, I got serious about Anishinaabemowin, and took part in a language immersion camp that’s put on by the Fond du Lac Tribal College outside Duluth. It lasts two weeks and it’s called Ojibwemotaadidaa Omaa Gidakiiminaang (‘Let’s Speak Ojibwe Together Here in Our Land’). Normally all the participants stay the whole two weeks somewhere near the college and take a vow not to speak any English the entire time (except the weekend break). This year, of course, covid drove the whole thing online, and it turns out it’s difficult to be in two places at once, so my language learning was leavened with a lot of stuff I had to do at home. But I still learned more about the language than I’ve learned any other place, and I have enough notes in my notebook to keep me busy for months.

Where this ties in directly with the community around me is that I’ve applied to work at an immersion “Early Head Start” (pre-preschool) program at one of the reservations here, Bad River, and although that’s only temporary, I’m looking at making something like a career out of teaching this language, if I can find the opportunities—which I think I can. When Misty and I move in a few days, we’ll end up a fair distance from Bad River. But this region mostly consists of three small towns bookended by two Ojibwe reservations, and when we move we’ll be much closer to the other one, Red Cliff, whose director of language programs I’ve already written to.

Lastly, I just want to mention that if you’re wondering what happened to that Approximately-Reverse-Chronological Summer 2019 Catchup, the answer is that I’m declaring blog bankruptcy. I got three of four parts written, and one of them took me a hundred pages to write, and the last part is just my trip to the Rainbow Gathering. Since I went to that little shindig in the woods, so much has happened in my life and in the rest of the world—the Minneapolis riots, covid, my plan to start publishing a magazine, a truck Misty and I just bought today—that I now have to consider the possibility to be minimal that anyone will have any interest in my hot take on the Rainbow Gathering. Here’s the summary: I went, I hung out with my friends, I climbed on some ropes and met some weird folks, and I watched consensus-based decisionmaking in action in a much-too-big group. That’s that wrapped up, and I’ll be talking more about the other things soon. I’ve broken my writing slump, even though it took me two tries to do it—I managed to delete the first attempt utterly and irrevocably during a computer shuffle—and now I’m back in it for anyone who wants to know more about what I’m doing, or what we’re doing, as I can now say. Thanks for reading. See you around.

  1. The Unsettling of America, pp. 126–7, 124. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015. 

File under: writing, love, relocalization, Anishinaabe, teaching


Reply Reply

Haylee

History

It’s been a long time but always appreciate your words and adventures. This is Haylee (previously Hayden) of the Bike Dames Hayden & Haylee (who is now Haze). So happy for you and your boo, and looking forward to hearing more about your adventures.

Chuck

History

Hey, good to hear from you. I knew you were still on the mailing list, but had no idea if you actually read this. I hope you’re both doing well down in California, if that’s where you are. I’ll always remember my random little visit down there with you two. Tell Haze I said hi, if you’re in touch.

Reply
Alphi

Alphi

History

Finally I have time to read your blog again. Congratulations!! I see you guys are developing souls together frm the very beginning. I read many stories including Misty and the last was the story of how you and misty got names in Ojibwee. What an inspiring journey~ I am planning to send a letter (covid 19 made me postponed to send the letters earlier). I will email you to get the updated address. Stay healthy and happy for both of you :) Sending my warmest hug from Indonesia

Chuck

History

Thanks! Good to hear from you—I was just starting to wonder if my last letter ever reached you. I guess you’re back from Borneo by now. No need to hurry writing back, but I’ll certainly be glad to see your next letter whenever it shows up. I suppose it would be a little too difficult to try to invite you to the wedding, though…. (My mom got invited to a friend’s wedding in Sri Lanka a couple years ago, but he was marrying the daughter of a fantastically rich couple.)

Reply Reply

Aunt E.

History

So glad to hear of your progress in life and your decision to permanently share it with another human being. I’m sorry I’ve never been able to meet Misty in person. Congratulations on your engagement!

We are stranded in a messy apartment in a retirement facility. We moved into this independent living arrangement on March 1st, just as covid-19 hit the country in full force, and we don’t know what has happened to many of our possessions. I do, fortunately have in this room 8 or 9 copies of each of the books you published for me. They are definitely my legacy to the family.

I also want to encourage you to follow your writing career. Publishing a magazine sounds like something you can successfully accomplish. And teaching is also a route we always expected you to take. Don’t be too concerned about finding your “home”. When you get there, you will know it.

Sending love to you both.

Chuck

History

Thanks, Aunt Ellen—and sorry to hear you’ve gotten stranded in an in-between state. If I remember right, you were at least moving to Colorado, so now that you’re there, you can visit your family? (At least from 6 feet away or so.) Misty works in an assisted living facility now, and tells me about the loneliness of lockdown there. We both feel for you there. (Misty wonders if you get as much fun out of watching caretakers there as Misty’s own residents do from watching them.)

I’m happy to know that the paths I’m following now are the paths that someone older and wiser than me figured I’d eventually take, having watched me grow up.

Love back to you from Misty and me both.

Reply
Kaiti Coomer

Kaiti Coomer

History

What a wonderful blog. My nine year old and I stayed up late together tonight and talked about my experience in school. I told her about you and Tara Banks and how the 3 of us went to prom together. She couldn’t believe people go to prom without an official date.

Anyway, I remembered you had a blog and decided to look it up and show her! I’m so glad I did! Life sounds beautiful and I couldn’t be happier for you.

Congratulations on the engagement!

Chuck

History

Wow… haven’t heard from you in years, Kaiti, and when you catch up with me, it happens to be when I’m announcing this! Good to hear from you. I still remember a bunch of the times we hung out, like that bowling alley birthday party I had.

As for prom, I guess I always was one to go against the grain a little, but then of course the other half of the equation is that I was pretty oblivious to most social cues, as I’m sure you remember. I had a lot of fun, though. If your daughter’s already starting to think about prom at age 9, maybe my story of not thinking about it until, like, two weeks beforehand (if that) can get her mind off it for a few years.


P.S. Didn’t we go with Amanda Schrenk too?

Reply

Hit Enter twice for a new paragraph. You can use asterisks to make *italics* and **bold**, and you can make links like so: [link says this](and goes to this address). Other fancy formatting possible via Markdown. (More)