Creative essay on why Minnesota is an amazing state.
| Minnesota is the new Eden. It is a misunderstood paradise, a lush northern garden walled by coasts of industrialism, concrete, oily beaches, and bronze, shiny people with unnaturally white teeth. In the heart of the northern Midwest the air is still breathable, the trees are still proud, and the people still, for the most part, down to earth. True Minnesotans have their feet rooted in the soil, their finger trailing in the lakes, and a certain pride in their fish and fowl and foot-long mosquitoes. This outlook probably comes of having four seasons: the fire of summer melts away pettiness, winter solidifies liquid instability into steady level-headedness, and spring and fall give birth to sweetness and spirit. Unlike those who suffer the stagnation and decay of the semi-seasoned regions, Minnesotans experience the constant purification of change, and it shows. After all, who’s ever heard of “Florida nice”?
It is an unfortunate fact that not everyone acknowledges the existence of this striking northern paradise. Many, it seems, know all about the sad state, although of course they’ve never actually visited. Apparently, Minnesotans spend most of their time gathered in the basements of Lutheran churches discussing blizzards and cow-tipping in heavy Scandinavian accents. It’s a cold, buggy, undeveloped, uncivilized, uneducated state inhabited by five million simple people who either foolishly see something in the empty, uninhabitable wasteland or are just too stupid to leave. Obviously, a coast-less state is intellectually stagnant. Obviously, there’s no natural beauty when half of the year is frozen over in ice. Obviously, “A Prairie Home Companion” is a radio documentary.
And it’s sad, because while a Midwesterner will undoubtedly travel to the coasts at some point in his or her life and thereby discover their uncontested attractions, a narrow-minded costal individual may go a lifetime without experiencing the need or desire to visit Minnesota. What a tragedy for them, truly, to pass all their days thinking they’re saving themselves a boring, uncomfortable trip to the set of the movie “Fargo”. It’s like looking at the closed door to the Sistine Chapel and thinking you’ve seen the best of Michelangelo.
If the only view worth looking at does indeed involve the meeting of sea and shore, well, it only takes one trip to Duluth to determine that Minnesota is as costal as New York. Lake Superior is easily the equal of the Mediterranean, Baltic, or Red sea, in power, scale, and splendor, the only difference being its salinity. And anyone who has taken an ocean wave in the open mouth may well see the pure, fresh whitecaps of the greatest Great Lake as a distinct improvement. One summer on the superior coast my little brother Will and I were up to our ankles on a deserted pebble beach, skipping stones and trying to outrun the reach of the waves. We wore bathing suits and sweated in the warm summer sun, but our feet were numb. Suddenly, I squared up to the lake and plunged, submerging my entire body in the icy water. It was cold enough that my lungs constricted and it was a moment before I could breath again. That’s the only way to swim in Lake Superior. Unless you’re in a sheltered bay, you’ll never make it going inch by inch. After a few calls of “Chicken!” Will was in beside me, his skinny white chest swirling with the shadows of the rippling, crystalline surface. As my body numbed, I bet him that I could stand the cold longer. We lay with our heads in the air, anchored like muscles to the rocks, letting our legs rise and fall with every incoming wave. For fifteen minutes we drifted, colder than stone, seeming sculpted of stone, watching a massive old driftwood branch bump against the shore.
I don’t remember who got out first, but it would have been worth losing the bet. The sun was hot enough to burn, but the lake had coated us in slippery cold and the warmth slid right off. As I lay in my sleeping bag in the heat of the day, shivering uncontrollably, the lake spoke clearly from within my own waterlogged bones. It was not tame, it was not kind, it could and would kill me without a qualm. It was powerful and uncontrollable and ancient. Superior didn’t get it’s name by chance—a lake like that doesn’t need a tongue to speak. I got the message loud and clear, a Morse code in the tremors shaking through my limbs. And at that moment, as before that moment, and as ever after, I felt the power of our inland ocean, and it stirred my love.
There is more than one lake in Minnesota. In fact, there are ten thousand, but those are just the ones we talk about. It’s the other lakes, the hidden, the forgotten, the remote, which have the greatest capacity to move the human heart. Paddle through the Boundary Waters in the autumn when the crowds are low and the leafy trees shine out amid the green-black of the pines. Portage far in, sacrificing your shoulder muscles for the sake of privacy. I find it is the absolute silence that worms its way in through my ears and possesses me, slowing my actions and focusing my senses. Under its power I speak less and touch more, move less and accomplish more, think less and experience more. As an aid to spiritual fullness and personal reflection, I can think of no equal. And even if you’re the Dalai Lama, little in need of spiritual enhancement, the stunning juxtaposition of rock islands, ancient trees, eagles, moose, stars, loons, and impossibly pure water is worth the trip.
Of course, you don’t have to be on a lake to be enchanted by the North Country. The smell of the boreal forests of the north is the reason for the “pine fresh” detergent scent. Mixed in among the dark, tangy conifers rise the cream and black pillars of aspen trunks and, in autumn, their splashes of bright gold leaves. Closer to the ground, lichens in orange, gold, mint, sea foam, and olive paint the rough rock outcrops with abstract designs. Rusty pine needles are a thick carpet to muffle footfalls, as they ought to be silenced in a land so deeply sacred. Powerful creatures inhabit the forest. Wolves. Moose. Grey owls on hushed wings. The two bumbling black bear cubs that raced before us down the trail. Somewhere under the canopy of woven needles the mighty serpent Mississippi uncoils from its source, noble blood flowing along its slithering path to the sea.
Other parts of Minnesota are quite nice as well. The headwaters of my own life sprung from the junction of three rivers in the Twin Cities area. This eastern region, once a part of the great hardwood forest that covered countless acres in the upper Midwest, now sprouts more condominiums than oaks or maples, yet the land remembers. On patches of unclaimed earth deep-rutted trunks rise around patches of grassland. Deer and woodpeckers and foxes and hawks still roam in their shrinking territories, adapting where they can and leaving when they must. In autumn the river bluffs are daubed with red, yellow, and fiery orange, preparing the eye for the forthcoming cooler side of the color wheel.
But winter in Minnesota is just as beautiful as any other season, if you dress for it. In good years when the snow is a down comforter on the land and icicles are as impermeable as glass, exquisiteness exists. There is a fragile elegance in the lacework crafted by snow-coated branches against an inky sky. The feathery touch of large flakes is comforting, the groaning of a frozen lake, eloquent. Two dried crabapples glazed with ice can freeze you where you stand until the weather threatens to do the same. Even as you move on, stamping to keep all ten toes are in working order, you look back at the blotch of saturated red against the flawless white because the color compels you. A winter red is richer than any summer hue. It is elemental and pure, yet so many people pull their hats over their eyes and turn their faces down against the wind and never once know its truth. Even native-born Minnesotans commit this sin.
One warning, my converted costal friends: not all of Minnesota is as Minnesotan as it might be. Beware parts of the south—they might as well be Iowa. And in the places where the western borderline is plowed under in a cornfield, you may feel you have entered the Dakotas. Not to offend our neighbors, who do their very best, but they are not Minnesota. I’m sure that their tourist industry could use the business if you like that kind of terrain. Otherwise, stick to the north and the east and be delighted.
Maybe it’s a good thing so few people recognize the natural splendor of Minnesota. A population boom would be tragic—we’d have no place to stick all the newcomers but on the unspoiled land that attracted them. Building high-rise apartments along the North Shore would be the moral equivalent of putting a choke-collar on a wild arctic wolf. But I feel awfully greedy keeping the knowledge to myself. It’s sad to think of all the people who are missing out, whose lives might be fuller and richer for the experience of my homeland. I’m touching a reflection of heaven in my Northern paradise, and so long as we don’t make ripples, the reflection should be big enough for all.