A Hole in the World: Lonesome Crowded Lake Country

Of course this banishment from a steady economy comes with dark consequences. Drugs and alcohol fuel the Northwoods daily atmosphere.

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There are places in Northern Minnesota that are lost in a dimension and time of their own.

You can only find them off the freeways, miles down some serpentine county road. They have names reminiscent of a spirit of the land that some believe is extinct. Some say it has been snuffed out. If it is true, then the names are merely reminders of a soul and not supplementary to its remains. They fan no embers but creates memorials to a flame.

These places are resort towns now. The logging industry has been thwarted by public disinterest and nosy governmental regulation and the small farms are mostly gone. But if they thrive anywhere in North Country they thrive in the rich soils east of the Red River, from the very edge of the Minnesota’s westward swing of the Laurentian deep into the heartland of the state, where there you can still notice the machine life breath of an economy in the air, riding on the wind.

The geographical center of Minnesota is located on Big Island in Fishtrap Lake, in the Lincoln Lakes area. This island is owned by a millionaire, who you can find sitting on a modest dock that juts from massive white pine and exotic cedars not typically found in that region. He’s laconic. He’ll wave to you as you kayak by. His cabin is as modest as his dock and were you to pass the island on a speedboat you may very well miss it. Just the way he likes it, I’m sure.

But when you move North you enter the regions propped tremendously through the years by heavy industry. The industries are gone now, and after nightfall, you can feel it. A ghostly feeling. As if a great experiment were tried, and what stands there now is the failed attempts.

Recreation drives these economies now. Resort towns where old boom towns used to reside. The impact of recreation on the local economies boggles the mind. The town of Park Rapids fluctuates in population alone so much through the seasons that it seems to be two different communities altogether from the summer to the winter months. From around 3,000 in the winter to somewhere close to 50,000 during the summer, according to locals there.

Of course this banishment from a steady economy comes with dark consequences. Drugs and alcohol fuel the Northwood’s daily atmosphere. Minnesota’s Forest Area is held hostage by alcohol, as are most towns in their position. Locals become perpetual tourists, trapped in the party atmosphere their town has to create in order to make money. In the summer there is no time.

The nights become muggy eternities, dreamy twilights that last forever. A retirement of the soul. The peace and tranquility that the Northwoods brings are only half of it; don’t let them fool you. But a chosen few really understand the land that gives them their lives of decadence. Others swim in a psychological funnel of nostalgia and drunkenness. Opiates run rampant in these communities, and until very recently they have not really been discussed. Fueled by intoxication, an already intoxicating landscape can become perilous to the soul.

You’ll find the lakeland-lifers at the resort bars every night. A different one but in the same town each day of the week. They stumble out the bar when they leave, after listening to the folks singers passing through, stuck in their own perpetual intoxication. A twilight zone, if you’re not careful.

The land is what snaps me out of it. If I remain in that bubble of decadence and blissful loneliness too long without a reminder of what it was supposed to be about, I become that stranger in a strange land that so many of us crave to be. To know the weird freedom and entrapment of waking up in a resort hotel and watching the wealthy come to and fro with their fishing rigs and grinning children and watching the local fisherman drink in silence, all over a cup of cheap coffee and a four-star breakfast. To know what it is to step out the door for a cigarette and smell the tourism and the lake breeze  and the inexplicable lostness.

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

-Hotel California, written and performed by the Eagles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere booms come and go like tumbleweed.

Dream Shepherd

Under night.
Night touches the dark tracks
of pine
rooting in the between-worlds,
there rouses spirits
once called tricksters
once called teachers.

Now they only frighten us,
so we tell stories
of how they might condemn us.

I hear the whip-or-will.
It sings from the first moment
of utter dark
to the first moment
of pregnant light.
My tracks are soundless
and take flight
in the dusky shadows
as doves
or peregrines,
birds that may take my
step to dream heights.

The night world and the world
of dream
are not separated,
but are like two silver paths
who meet in a center
at a crossroads.

Dreams
are made
from the breathing void
and they fly on the wings of bats
into our dozing heads.
There are shepherds, who in that world
guide their dream flock

to crossroads
that see no false light
that do not bare the stamp of man
we find the places of soul offering
portals we cannot cross.
My soul is a portal tonight
that all may cross.

A shepherd,
staff in hand,
points the way over sleep-green knolls
into vernal waters where
he knows nightmares are to be fished.
The flock posesses a unity
swims through the dark river
of nothing
their bevy dancing through ether
colored like flashing coins of deja-vu.

Everything lives under the moon now.

Tonight my soul is open.
I cannot hold a grudge
when power is glistening
in every blade of sedge grass
every trembling bulrush.
Tonight, on the waters
glowbugs haunt
and the ghosts gawk at the beauty,
taking small souls in jars.
Tonight my soul is open.
I do not fear the dark
but am wary at the sound
of footsteps approach

Deer Hunting

Are you on fire in whales skin?
Sparkling, are you spitting?
My love is gone from the skin I’m in
rattling round, making viscous din
the object of my wandering down
to the creek where it was that I first found
something to hold in my eyes and both
a stalk of corn, clouds to roast
despite the risk it entails I’ll propose
we commit ourselves to the task at hand
of handing over our baggage, we land
and I meet you there with open arms
you were there for me when may come harm
snakes don’t scare me, but paranoias deep
I look over shoulders, most nights I can’t sleep
and if I never read the horoscope
horsetail would still fall in hexagon scope
and the mystic would laugh and tell me a lie
and watch me with his wide third eye
so I’ll take you with me to fire a gun
into the flesh of an earthen prize
that causes the flesh to prickle, rise
and that is why I will not lie
most of the time
that is why I will not lie
most of the time

First Monday in Boreal Time

Time sings in the forest
places have their songs
linear melodies break down
a cadence solders
but the melody might as well be
water
or sky
what it sounds like where they meet
I come to crossroads
crossing streams
horizon rushing on toward
aurora
boreal time signatures
are like wings on falcons
time dives and reaches
cloud-sewn peaks
nothing and then
hours, disappearing days,
arriving nights;
those moonsun temples
you cannot stay in one song
long.
Everything has a song
and we are the cherubim,
and we lament so that
evil sounds beautiful
by its beauty it is conquered.
From dark bogs
static spirits flash in peripherals
eyes detect the spirit but
concrete minds shut out
a million shades of one note
leave the angels suspended
the spirits half cocked.

The Sleepless Crow Wing

In the heart of a broad track of hardwood forest, on a bend of the great Crow Wing just north of Motley, I made a campfire. The night was bluish, foggy. The sliver of moon barely eking through the inert gush of moisture. A sigh recoiling across the pale.

The fire I made of scrub oak and jack pine. You get the fire going with dry oak leaves and jack pine kindling. Then you lay on your jack pine logs, and that will usually go up like a roman candle. Jack pine burns fast and hot. After that you get her good and coaled up you can throw on a slab of scrub oak or two. If the coals are hot enough, the oak will take quickly too. If I wasn’t concentrating on writing, and thinking more about the quality of this fire, I would have gone down for some driftwood elm at the river’s edge. But I won’t. Tonight, mostly jack pine will have to do.

A gaggle of turkeys are skirting the edge of the forest around me. They come from the north, from a young spruce grove, and then follow the river bottom west. There are fingers of islands on the north side of the river, the bank that I am camped on, and it’s this side they seem to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the acorns. The fertile, insect-filled soil. I don’t know much about turkeys except that they are silly birds. Of course wise in their own strange way- their sheer numbers and adaptability to new environments can prove that. But if you hang with the turkeys long, you get the sense they are perpetually shitfaced.

Ten years ago it was a rare sight to see a turkey on this river bottom. In fact, for the first half of my life, I don’t remember hearing a word of the bird in the jack pine forests of Central Minnesota. Now it is a common sight to see meandering packs crossing highways almost anywhere in the state. The gaggle that has been waddling through this river bottom is at least forty birds strong. I counted on afternoon with a friend. You see, turkeys are not sneaky birds, and nor are they hard to sneak upon. There are hunters who will deny this fact. They will tell you that it’s simply not true, that the turkey is a cunning and illusive animal.  The truth is that the turkey is a bumbling bird, a clumsy bird, and a daydreamer. I have observed these traits in the turkey for years now.

My neighbor pack is ruled by one enormous Tom. The bastard wanders with his huge plumage unraveled, his glorious red gobbler wobbling, his neck erect and his eyes furious. In this way he walks about his tribe of luscious turkey vixens, his forty-some feathered geishas that he apparently gets free pick of whenever he chooses. And what does he give in returns? It must be protection.

The human male cannot imagine the life of a male turkey.

The fire burns low quickly. Stirring only patches the gaps. Fixing requires work. More oak to make the night. Superheat the coals before I fall asleep.

I don’t usually use a tent when I camp. Unless it’s going to rain, I don’t see the point. The chances of being eaten by an animal are about as good as being struck by lightning, or less. The weather in Central Minnesota in the spring is fairly predictable (there are always vicious exceptions to every rule in Minnesota). But just to be certain of my safety, I will often bring my trusty old shotgun for protection. It’s an ancient bolt action, but she’s as reliable as any gun ever made and she bucks like a damn mule and sounds like a formidable cannon. Any sane living thing would stand down at the sound of a simple charge of seven-and-a-half shot into the leaves. But bears can be sick.

More to the point, some people can be sick.

Coyotes purl through the willows and the elm at the other bank. They yowl and yammer through the night, from the first hints of sundown to the first hints of sunrise. There are nights when the band on the south bank will begin the eerie chorus, and suddenly there are yammers to the north of me. Like happy ghosts. Pranksters in truth. It does not take long to hear the bizarre humor in their songs. The way they do not fear the darkness and somehow rejoice in their own chaos, in the chaos of the river and the Crow Wing’s long and winding course.

Before I fall asleep, I often hear the echoes of a train whistle, and a barn owl in the oak above my head will answer it. As if the whistle is somehow a question posed by machine, a question asked to a machine in its lonesome transit and the owl whispers the reply onto the drifting wind but that whistle is too loud, and no machine will ever hear the answer over its own racket. It will disappear into the night and go drifting on the southern rim of the Crow Wing. Asking forever, wailing, splitting the soft abyss of the night. The river, on the other hand, is loud and boisterous on most nights. Woodpeckers get restless against the trunks of rotten oaks, gangs of coyotes taunt each other most nights from across the river, turkeys wander like drunkards through the dry leaves, otters splash and play in the shallow pools, and somewhere a wild cat screams bloody murder and stalks the darkness. I never feel quite isolated here. It’s a busy neighborhood, to be honest, and like New York, it never seems to sleep.

Wave Goodbye, Waves

under the royal star

she raked her fingers through earth

bone on bone,

calm as the lake was calm

so that no one could speak it,

questions,

who built this basalt cliff?

this Precambrian universe at the verge

of the north,

where you can smell the world

like a city stench

or place polluted

and to go back seems

ludicrous

unnecessary?

 

she picked up two pieces of

igneous art, and tossed them

into the water of two hundred rivers

two thousand streams

she was old;

gray hair

and decades here

someone put their hand on her

shoulder,

told her, “don’t be sad anymore,”

but the sadness would stay,

and the falcon flew

splitting a sunrise into

mirror equators

of fire,

marooning her soul,

a little.

 

could she be different this time

how it would affect her in ways

that grounded her, held her

head towards the sky, where

dark spires only scraped

a brittle ionosphere,

pavement whispered threats

and billboards said the opposite

of what they meant

and everyone knew enough people

that one could be replaced

like a tire, or upholstery

 

no human could replace that,

she fathomed, and in that sense alone

staring at the void of sea

gichigami

timelessness became tangible

apparent, bald as the cliff face

braided like cedar bark

she was among it now

nothing could replace

the sorrow

And Then At Last, She Was Pure White

I knew this girl. From down the road. She was very bright, and she had a laugh like a hyena, and the sound of it would rise through the old oaks at the park at the center of town and send birds exploding into the sky. Blotting the heavens. As if every time she laughed a child released its small balloons from its red and pudgy knuckles. Watched them disappear into the unknown parts.

I watched her go out into the world and she had brightness all over. I tried to tell her, “no one wants to see people bright anymore out there. Must you go?”

She refused. She said she was brimstone. Wrath was all she knew. Not bright.

“Wrath?” I said. “Is that what we’ll call it now?”

Girls can be so cruel. She was pretty enough for them all to hate her. And part of the issue was that she loved men. She saw good in them. She liked the girls that hated her. Boys made her into a monument to something I wouldn’t describe to her but I understood. I told her, “don’t go preaching love. They’ll crucify you.”

“Nihilist,” she accused.

“Realist,” I corrected.

Soon she could see the beasts too, though. At first the sensation was fleeting, she told me, it made little sense. Just flashes of some other world in their faces. Some other alien race transposed over this.

“Like that movie,” she said. “With the glasses.”

“Get out now,” I told her. “Retreat to the hills.”

“But what is there?”

“Truth.”

“And nothing else?”

“Perhaps in truth you may find everything.”

“But won’t they crucify me for that too? For truth?”

“Who is they? There is no they in the hills.”

“You’re not being realistic at all.”

“Your brain is beautiful like a forest after a storm. Things are broken but others make homes in the blowdowns. The rain can’t hurt you, the wind only strips away the dead skin. Scrubs you bare. Virginity is a soul thing, sex has nothing to do with it. It’s society that fucks you.”

“They say that sex is everything.”

“I thought that was truth. Truth is everything.”

“You said that, yes.”

But she never went to the hills. I didn’t expect her to, no one does. And soon they were everywhere. Cretin things, creatures that fed on obliteration. On raw quivering blood pools. She told me once she felt like they were sucking out her her-ness. That they were slowly taking every rock that made her solid. Removing her foundation. And they said it was in the name of Transformation.

“It’s called brainwashing,” I said.

“But they said that what I was was brainwashed. That I’ve already been brainwashed, and they’re fixing me now.”

“Can you wash something that has already been clean? When you started you were clean. Maybe you’re dirty now, but you’re the dirty that you know. They’re grooming you. Taking away the grime that makes you clean in your own eyes. And trust me, when they have finished cleaning you, you will be dirtier than you’ve ever felt and you will not know yourself again.”

“How do you know? About me?”

“It’s the same with everyone. I know these vultures. Come back to the hills. To the dirt that is caked under your fingernails.”

“I’m strong, I can bear it.”

“The world itself can’t bear it.”

She wrote me a letter the other day. It was a piece of herself. A piece of porcelain. It was polished white, as pure and snow-white as anything ever was. In the right light it looked Oleander. There was no return address, just this chunk of her that had no name and no identity. But it was pure. I put it on my shelf and drew all over it. I drew stick figures of the things that she used to be. Her family doesn’t recognize her. But they don’t recognize themselves either.

Yesterday I woke up and the moon was rising with the sun. Everything had a holographic glare. I saw that there were cords attached to the heavens and that we had conscripted upon the seas the internet of things. People were in the bays hoisting towers of shimmering electricity. Skyscrapers of lightning. They were certain it would end our trouble. Where is the trouble? I asked my neighbor. Where is it? My neighbor said, All over the world. Are you blind? I said, Yes, that must be it. I am blind. Thanking you for pointing that out.

 

copyright Taiga Quarto 2017

featured image by Emma Katka. copyright Emma Katka and Taiga Quarto 2017

check out Emma’s work at https://www.instagram.com/emmakatka/