Clouds generously sharing rain everywhere, every day, every time it starts to warm up and it seems like I am finally going to catch up with summer, who is still in the lead. The gap widens, so I tell myself stories to keep up my spirits. I pretend that I live in Scotland, where this would be normal summer weather. Or project into the future to autumn when I will wear an incredibly heavy cardigan I have nearly finished knitting, one that will keep me very warm. Or wrap myself up in a wool blanket and end up taking a nap. Or stuff myself silly with strawberries topped with a few grinds of black pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or ponder the allure of Minnesota and the north for Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Nearly halfway through the book, I stop and catch my breath. Babine tackles topics that move me, that excite my interest. One’s relationship to the place we are from. The legacy of our grandparents. The power of water. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we are from. The color green.
I have been to Minnesota four times. The first time was on a road trip with a friend while I was still in high school. What remains are memories of listening to a Nina Hagen mix tape on the drive up, of touring Minneapolis’s art galleries, of eating delicious Ethiopian food with my hands. The second time was a perfunctory visit to check out the University of Minnesota. The third time was an afternoon side trip from Superior to the delightful city of Duluth, a city lucky enough to be perched on Lake Superior that I hope to return to some day. The fourth time was to attend a seminar on posterior cortical atrophy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. All urban experiences of Minnesota. I know nothing of the landscape Babine passionately describes. Reading this book is taking a journey to a real place filtered through her perception, and I am having a good time on this vacation. The name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language and means “somewhat clouded water.” It’s fitting to read these essays under a very clouded sky.
Yes, on a rainy day like today, I’m forced to accept the terms and conditions for living intimately and in harmony with this element. Babine writes: “We want to be surrounded by all the forms water can take because humanity is not predictable and constant. We want the ice, we want the snow, we want the rain, the hail, the flood-even when the presence of water is destructive, it still reminds us that water is a give and take, and we can’t always have it good. We want the humility that water brings. It reminds us that things can always be worse.” In another chapter, she narrates her experiences “on the fringes” of the major 1997 flooding of Fargo-Moorehead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks by the Red River. We tell stories to make sense of events larger than ourselves and to put a finger on what has changed in us as a consequence. I think of what just happened in Orlando and how important it is for those who survived to tell their stories about what they experienced in the hope of making sense of it all.
Hope makes an appearance in this book as Babine seeks to understand the effect that the mythology of the American West had on her ancestors who lived in South Dakota. As I type this line, hope resurfaces with the sun, which has already started to dry the tiles on the patio. One day the tomatoes will ripen into a blushing red and it will be warm enough for me to wear this cotton sweater and and attempt to blend in with the sand.
Don’t lose hope as you wait for the sun to come out again!