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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Still living close to the changing land

Posted 5/27/20

These days, I’ll suddenly pause in the middle of something and think, “Wow, 67 years old. I’m gettin’ up there!” Sometimes, it’s when I’m doing something …

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Still living close to the changing land

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These days, I’ll suddenly pause in the middle of something and think, “Wow, 67 years old. I’m gettin’ up there!” Sometimes, it’s when I’m doing something strenuous. I’ll let out a little “Ouch!” and wonder if it’s a warning sign to slow down, lighten my load and take two trips instead of one. After all, I’m not thirty anymore!
Another thought on the passing of time, “Wow! I’ve lived on this same piece of land for nearly forty years.” I’ve begun to realize lately that this relatively tiny speck of “real estate” on this extraordinary planet is changing right along with me. We’re growing older together — I and the land, with its forests, fields and flowing waters. Let me try to paint a picture.
Over the years, when meeting someone for the first time, I’ll inevitably be asked, “Where do you live?” I typically answer, “Linden Grove,” believing that my township is an adequate reply knowing how little it reveals about me. I’ve always thought of this place as “a small island nestled in the middle of a giant spruce swamp.” Not very inviting I know, since it conjures images of swarms of mosquitoes and perpetually wet feet. But for me, it’s home! It hasn’t a dramatic beauty, like the Canadian Rockies or the north shore of Lake Superior, but it has an allure. After four decades I’ve discovered that much of the appeal lies in its private, quiet, subtle beauty. Not a “tourist destination,” but my home.
Let me start with the “island” part. Much of Linden Grove’s landscape is dominated by a vast undisturbed black spruce forest. That’s because it’s situated at the extreme southeastern border of the Glacial Lake Agassiz Plain, created by massive advancing and retreating sheets of ice formed in stages over a period lasting well over two million years. Melting was finally complete about 10,000 years ago, leaving this region scraped of its natural topsoil, along with much of its relief. Linden Grove is not noted for rolling hills. Whenever I refer to myself as a “flatlander” I usually get a chuckle, but it’s true. In 1972, when John and his buddies first laid eyes on this 40-acre parcel, they discovered an old-timey gypo cabin with a unnamed creek a short hike away flowing between two steep, wooded banks. That triggered their resounding, “Yes!” John’s been here ever since.
Three creeks surround our “island”. Their main source of water is the accumulated snowmelt or rainfall that seeps in from these miles of wetlands. I’ve witnessed the power of its springtime flowage. These headwaters continually move downstream, widening our once narrow Plum Creek, merging with the Little Fork River a quarter-mile through the woods, gaining volume as these waters travel on to join the Rainy River, fed by its many tributaries, continuing north to Lake Winnipeg and ultimately, feeding into Hudson Bay. Nothing short of awesome!
The island grows and shrinks with the forces of nature. It was once farmed, but Linden Grove is not Field Township, located just east of us at a slightly higher elevation, requiring less ditching to grow crops. Field’s farms are broken by fewer patches of lowland too wet to till and woods relentlessly reclaiming cultivated land to make “wild” again. When we first arrived, we tried to bring back some of our abandoned fields but we soon learned that we lacked the same kind of sisu needed by the original homesteaders who first broke ground here in 1903. Consequently, these gumbo clay fields are now covered with twenty years of regrowth, mostly native species like spruce, aspen, and willow brush. Looking east from our front window, spring is a sight to behold blanketed by soft-green leaves barely the size of mouse ears, the blush of red osier, milky-colored catkins and glorious early morning sunrises. But with time, we know this much loved vista will be no more, exchanged for a gradually maturing forest.
Its wildness has been one of the most cherished aspects of this place. Until recently, John and I were the only residents on this two-mile gravel road. An ancient black spruce bog stretches untouched for five miles south and west of us. Although rare, one can spot small popple islands, somehow able to support a few large pines, rising up from the swamp. Some especially brave, or desperate, homesteaders actually punched trails through the muskeg to try to farm these tiny tracts. Those trails can still be spotted one hundred years later. I often imagine the toil required back then to make a life in this harsh environment. Truly admirable!
The remote seclusion of this place had allowed an abundance of wildlife. Fewer humans gave animals room to flourish. In earlier years, sightings of bear, bobcats, fisher, pine marten and wolves were common, not to mention a vast array of resident and migratory birds. Paradise!
But more recently, things have changed. The arrival in the 1980s of the Potlatch plant south of Cook played a part. The increased demand for pulpwood created a near twenty-year logging boom. More and more pulpwood — mostly aspen, balsam, and black spruce — was required to meet the needs of ox-board plants and paper mills. And production of larger equipment significantly increased the speed at which the wood could be cut and the rate of disruption to key habitat.
Another source of pressure on the land has been ever-increasing human activity. Hunting shacks have sprung up all around us. The sounds of firearm enthusiasts target practicing is now a regular weekend occurrence, disturbing the peace. It seems like we’ve become a “destination spot,” also contributing to a notable decline in the diversity and abundance of wildlife. And then there are the effects of climate change. Despite debate over the specific causes and their degree of impact, these noticeable changes are now undeniable. Sightings we once took for granted are no longer.
With every change, one can apply a “cost-benefit analysis.” For example, it’s obvious there is no shortage of deer. Certainly great for hunters! And if you love berry-picking, massive clearcuts can render extraordinary yields! But then there are the beaver, “a whole ‘nother subject!” One which I’ll happily go into in my next column. Until then, please be safe, and stay tuned.

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