Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 12 - Bemidji

One would think that after eleven days on the road, and having arrived in the security of my old hometown, that I would sleep in fairly late.  Not so. I woke at 5:00 AM, just in time for a crisp clear sunrise, which I documented with a series of three photos.

Sunrise of July 10, beginning at 5:30 AM local time from the front yard of my parents Cabin at the end of Walleye Drive at Lake Plantagenet, Minnesota.

After the sunrise, I turned around and took a photo of the cabin.


Thorson family cabin on Lake Plantagenet, Hubbard County, Minnesota, a few miles south of Bemidji. Photo taken in mottled sunlight at 8:30 AM.

Next door is neigbor George Gackle's cabin, which is built on an identical template.

Gackle family cabin shares a lawn with that of my parents. 

George is my archetype for the tens of thousands of Twin Cities residents who drive north for summer weekends to experience lake life. Because he wasn’t around that weekend, I was able to use the picnic table on his screen porch for my morning writing sessions. 

It was quite cool on the porch that morning.  Wearing only a light coat, I was quite comfortable for the first hour before 6:00 AM.  But during the second, however, my fingers got too work without periodically warming them up, and shakes and shivers began to run through my body. The previous night, temperatures had fallen to somewhere in the low fifties or high forties, making the densely shaded porch too cold to work comfortably, even in the middle of July. The following day the newspaper reported a low of 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was indeed a continental climate.  Most of the groundwater recharge happens in spring, when snowmelt takes place and when moisture from the Gulf of Mexico makes it up this far north.  I the summer, evaporation dominates on the clear-sky days.  Transpiration from the leaves of trees follows a very strong diurnal rhythm. 

John Deere

My dad was the first one down, wearing his John Deere pajamas.  For those of you who don’t know, John Deere is a brand of tractor revered by Midwesterners. The roots of that company can be found in Worcester, Massachusetts, which became the center of manufacturing for farm products after the shift toward mechanization began in the mid 19th century, several generations before either of my Scandinavian great grandfathers immigrated.

Dad isn’t a farmer.  In fact, my Norwegian grandfather was a bit circumspect when he first laid eyes on the skinny guy courting Margaret, the oldest of his children.  In terms of family relations, my Dad had four strikes against him, being a Swede from Fertile who was studying music education at the University of North Dakota. 

To an outsider, the cultural differences between Norwegian and Swedish immigrants was more exaggerated than real, not unlike the differences between baseball rivalries, for example the Red Sox and the Yankees back east, or the Twins and the White Sox in the upper Midwest.  On the second point, Fertile was then – and remains today –a small agricultural village on the eastern edge of Glacial Lake Agassiz.  This is a lake that used to be, the largest lake geologists have been able to document on any planet at any time.  It was created when the outlet of the Great Lakes near the Upper Peninsula, Michigan was dammed by the retreating ice sheet, which had pressed the crust down with its weight.  A fairly shallow, but extremely wide glacial lake from Wisconsin to near the Mackenzie Delta in the Yukon Territory was the result.  Any farmer from the inland hills of North Dakota at that time would have been envious of the stone-free, rich soil of Fertile.  On the third and fourth points of concern, studying music at the university was not my grandfather’s idea of what a man was supposed to do.  

Of course, everything worked out fine, or I wouldn’t be here at the lake with my parents who’ve been married for more than sixty years. 

For two full summers, I drove a John Deere tractor on the family Dakota homestead.  On my best days, I worked from breakfast to supper by steering the tractor up and down the fields, pulling whatever needed pulling: the cultivator, the swatter (which cut grain and put it into windrows), the stone boat (used to skid boulders to the edge of the field, or the sprayer. 

It’s the last point that’s of concern today.  Chemicals applied to farm fields remain one of the most pernicious problems facing American agriculture.  I confess to have played an unwitting role in this damage. I remember going into the shed, grabbing the heavy five gallon cans of something called 2, 4-D, pouring five gallon cans of concentrated chemistry into the five hundred gallon tank, and spraying a mist on seedling plants.  The results weren’t just death by chemistry for insects or weeds. The biological consequences ripped upward through the whole food chain. 

The Course of Civilizations

After breakfast with my family, my godfather, uncle Keith, relayed an old Twin Cities joke he learned when was attending the University of Minnesota.  Here’s how it goes.  One resident of Minneapolis tells another “Better Flush. Saint Paul needs water!” Minneapolis has the good fortune to be on the upstream side. This fact is of significance for all cities that share the same water supply. 

Invariably, there’s a historical trajectory of conflict.  Here are the stages.  Stage 1: No Euro-Americans have settled yet.  The river is close to its natural state because the indigenous peoples had neither the desire nor the technology to change rivers very much.  Stage 2:  Settlement begins at or near the mouth of the river, its downstream limit.   A city dependent on the river for navigation and irrigation is born.  Stage 3:  Settlement continues upstream, sometimes far upstream, new cities are born on riverbanks, and farms cover the watershed.  Stage 4: Civil engineers and chemical corporations wreak havoc throughout the watershed for private gain. Stage 5:  Everything is negatively impacted in a cascade from top to bottom.  At the top are places like Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi River.  The bottom is the spreading dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, killed by a lack of oxygen in bottom waters ultimately caused by too much agricultural fertilizers spread on the land.

Lake Plantagenet, where I sit this morning on a large rustic porch overlooking the water drains through the Schoolcraft River to join the Mississippi River about seven miles to the north.  


Mississippi River at its northernmost point, Bemidji, Minnesota (this photo was taken the previous year).

From here, the river flows into the lake, is transformed by lake processes, and then different water flows out the other side.  Bemidji, the first city to transform the river by sending its wastewater downstream.  

Remember the fatal bridge collapse in Minneapolis on interstate 35W a few years ago.  While the nations attention was riveted on the tragedy, I noticed that the salvage work was hampered by the gray-green turbidity of the water, caused by soil erosion and too much algae in the water.  

Academic Homecoming

The final stop of the day was planned months ago.   I was scheduled to give a public lecture on my new book, Beyond Walden sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  My talk was in Sattgast Hall in the very same room I heard my first college lecture.  


Sattgast Hall, Bemidji State University, on the lake.

The topic was introductory geology, the year 1969, and the professor was James Elwell.  Forty years had elapsed without any form of communication. Now we were in the same room. I was here to thank and honor him for the role he played in taking a kid that barely made it out of high school and setting him on a course toward a career in science, rather than toward military service in Viet Nam.  He had come as part of the audience, to honor his former student simply by attending.  July 9 was indeed a day for the family history books.


These limnology facilities are part of Bemidji State University. 

They are improved, relative to when I attended there from 1969-1973, but fall far short of what's typical for oceanography

Americans are living longer.  Three other former professors were there as well.  All played an equal role in setting me straight. Adelle Elwell taught me biochemistry and anatomy, and is now running a science education center in downtown Bemidji. Hal Borchers was my professor for Invertebrate Zoology. He actually looked up my grades before coming to the lecture, having kept such records his whole career. He let the audience know I’d done just fine.  Robert Baker taught me ecology and conservation, subjects that have stuck with me more closely than the others.  


Wall of fish in the Harold Peters Aquatic Laboratory, Bemidji State University.

A highlight for me was to hear my little brother sing one line from an old Willie Nelson song: “Momma’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”  Eric is a much better musician than me, and does a great Willie Nelson imitation, even when asked unexpectedly to sing without warning from the center of an audience.   That line is to accompany a side that shows me as a child with a cartoon callout containing a historic, mid-19th century image of Charles Whittlesey, America’s first glacial geologist. 

Charles Whittlesey, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In the carefully staged studio photo typical of the day, he looks just like an authentic cowboy, with a large felt hat, tough outdoor clothes, and boots.  A closer look, however, reveals a rock in one hand and a rock hammer in the other, rather than a rope and a pistol.  Indeed, I did not grow up to be a cowboy. I’m a geologist who writes. 

The lecture was over and the day was done.