Exercise

This is just a quick follow-up post to yesterday’s and a note on the joys and dangers of writing exercises. This morning I wrote a poem titled Continental Divide based loosely on the exercise I described. When checking out the fact that Minnesota’s divide goes in three directions, I found the roadside marker that I linked to. It mentions a drop of water falling, which became part of the poem I wrote this morning. Or is it a poem? Is it finished? Probably not. Will it be finished? Hard to tell. It looks like a poem, and this morning I think it is a poem in some stage, so I’m happy. But that’s the danger of exercises. They may give me something that looks like a poem and feels like a poem, but only time will tell whether it is a poem I want to claim as my own. Of course, isn’t that always the case with early drafts!

Continental Divide

We were reminded of the meaning of the term “Continental Divide” a couple of times this summer when we crossed it in places you might not expect. Traveling east towards Duluth from the Mississippi Headwaters, we crossed it when we left the Mississippi River basin and entered the Great Lakes basin. We tend to think of the Continental Divide as one line running down the highest mountains in the continent, but there are actually several lines, on each side of which, the rivers flow in different directions. Minnesota has three. The Mississippi heads north for a while, then turns south, flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, as everyone knows. The Great Lakes feed into the St. Lawrence and flow east to the Atlantic (more on this, in a minute!). The Red River, as I learned during the news coverage of this winter’s flooding, flows north into Hudson Bay. There are contintental divides in the west (Rockies) and east (Appalachians) as well.

But I was most surprised to learn that Ernest Hemmingway was born near the continental divide in Oak Park, Illinois, just west of Chicago. A little sign in Scoville Park alerted me to this fact. From this slight rise eastward, all water flows into Lake Michigan. Or it used to, at any rate, until they re-engineered the Chicago River to flow south out of the lake (instead of into it) by digging the Ship and Sanitary Canal that connected it to the Des Plaines River in 1900. Checking my facts for this post, I learned that two other rivers or creeks were reversed in the area before the Chicago River was.

Writing this on a rainy afternoon, I am reminded of the importance of watersheds, and the sometimes subtle ways that they define our geography and the cultures that live in them. This summer we thoroughly enjoyed traveling along the Mississippi and the shores of two of the Great Lakes. Aidan and I even had a chance to swim in Lake Michigan–a bit of a shock on a rather cool July day! And we enjoyed stopping to read the roadside markers that told about the land and its history.

That reminds me of an exercise I thought about giving to my creative writing students (but didn’t, since the semester was nearing the end, and I didn’t know if they would be driving anywhere). Stop sometime to read a Historical Marker — how many do we speed past on the highway without taking the time to read — and read about the place or event that it describes. You might be inspired to learn more about that place and write about it, or you might use words from the sign in a poem or story that has nothing to do with the immediate subject of the sign. The point is to take a moment to stop and consider the landscape and the words someone has used to record it.

The Father of Waters or What I did on my Summer Vacation

One of the places we visited this summer was the Mississippi River. It’s hard to call this a ‘place,’ though, since we crossed and recrossed it all summer long, starting with our first trip down to Natchez to the Great Big Yam Potatoes old time music festival in May. There we walked along the bluffs of the river and visited the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. On July 3rd we watched fireworks along the river in Dubuque, Iowa, where we had traveled for a reunion. The next day we toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where we saw channel cat, alligator gar, and lots of other fish, plus river otters, exhibits, and even a dredge riverboat. Traveling back to Osage with my mother, we stopped in Guttenburg, where my ancestors first crossed the river into Iowa, then went on to McGregor. The view there from Pike’s Peak (yes, named after the same Zebulon Pike who named the other, taller peak) used to be our favorite view of the river, and a frequent stop when I was a boy, anytime we headed east on Highway 9.

Mississippi at Pike's Peak
Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Though we always cross the river on our way to Iowa, spending this much time along it reminded me how important a presence it was for me growing up. We lived along the Cedar River, and often biked a mile or so out a gravel road to fish or swim in it. But the Mississippi was always grander, and always called us back whenever we could go.

Another site along the river that we visited were the Effigy Mounds. These were the first Indian mounds I saw as a kid, and I probably didn’t realize they were so unique. I did become interested in the mound-building cultures, and gradually came to realize that other groups built mounds that were higher and perhaps more impressive all along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

After spending some time with my family in Osage, Kim, Aidan, and I continued on our journey, this time to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca State Park. There we heard and saw a loon, biked along the lake, walked across the stones that span the river (placed there by Civilian Conservation Core workers in the Depression when the headwaters were ‘restored’ after a logging dam upstream had been removed), then waded back across to where we’d left our shoes. There in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the Mississippi seems much less powerful, more tame. It is hard to imagine the small stream it is at its head when you drive across it in Memphis or walk the bluffs in Natchez. And it is hard to imagine, when you’re wading across, that this insignificant stream will become the Father of Waters, a central channel for transportation, trade, and culture that has been the backbone of the continent for centuries.

I am reminded that Walter Ingliss Anderson carved a magnificent sculpture, almost a totem, that he titled The River or Father Mississippi. In the center stands a blue man with what appear to be antlers or the tributaries of the river emanating from his head. He is flanked by ducks on each side with a stag deer on the left and a possum, a crane, and other animals on the right. Most of the statue is gone, but a picture can be found in Christopher Mauer’s biography of Anderson, Fortune’s Favorite Child. I have often thought of writing a poem of the river to add to my Barrier Island Suite, which was inspired by Anderson’s logs. Traveling along the river this summer may give me ideas for how to begin.

Taking the plunge

For awhile, I’ve been saying I should start a blog to have a more personal presence on the web. So here goes… I plan to use this as a place to write about my life and record ideas. Subjects that might appear are poetry, translation, writing, violin and fiddle music, teaching, parenting, nature, living in Mississippi, growing up in Iowa, and who knows what else. Sometimes I may write about the backstory to poems I’ve published in my two books Time Capsules and Landscapes and Architectures, about the process of writing, or about issues that I hope to turn into a poem or that I’m interested in for other reasons.