IN 1923, PROFESSOR J. Harlen Bretz of the University of Chicago revealed that the geological anomalies of eastern Washington and northern Idaho had been formed by a cataclysmic flood and not, as previously thought, by the slow retreat of ice. If you visit or live in that part of the world, you quickly become familiar with references to “the floods,” which happened 15,000 years ago in the region that is now western Montana.
But as much as I’ve heard and read about floods, it’s Karen Babine’s “Petrography,” which comes halfway through her new collection of essays, Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, that most palpably and viscerally helps me to understand where I live in geological time. Babine explains:
The Missoula Floods were not a single event but happened repeatedly about every 50 years for at least 2,500 years. The ice dam would break and reform; the water would build up until the pressure broke the dam again. The ice dam was an estimated 2,000 feet high, creating a lake that was 200 miles long, 2,000 feet deep, and contained more water than Lakes Erie and Ontario combined. More than 500 cubic miles of water. When the dam broke all that water went straight to the Pacific. A mountain of water.
The ice dam would have made noises. Creaking. Groaning. Cracking. Popping. All kinds of noises that humans attribute to ice. When the ice broke, it probably exploded into brilliant shards from the force of the water. The water, suddenly free, rushed toward the Pacific at ten times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world, shooting downriver at a speed of sixty-five miles per hour. [Glacial Lake Missoula] would have drained in as little as forty-eight hours.
A lake the size of Erie and Ontario combined, draining in two days.
And staring at the Dry Falls in Washington State, she reflects:
Stone is not the eternal act of strength I like to think it is. Water is much more powerful. Since stone is not uniform, but rather a composite of mineral crystals, water can find its way into those tiny spaces — and when the water freezes and thaws, expanding and retreating, the water can force the rock to break.
What does it mean to know a place? To be from somewhere, and formed by a particular terrain? Though Babine, who edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, lived for a time in Spokane (an area located in the path of that prehistoric deluge), her geographical roots are in the northern Midwest, and it is this area of lakes and land that truly forms her consciousness. The 14 essays in Water and What We Know begin at her family cabin at Third Crow Wing Lake in northern Minnesota. In her introduction “In This Place, on This Day,” she writes: “If my grandparents were here, my grandmother would be filling her teapot and finding the kluntjes, the German white sugar rock candy. But I am alone, drinking my tea out of my grandfather’s mug, the one with the violin on it.”
In the second essay, “The Inheritance of Apples,” Babine explains that her grandparents managed an apple orchard in the early 1960s “near New Ulm in southern Minnesota. Both of them came from farming families, but they were not farmers themselves.” She describes their relationship as one based on quiet understanding; her grandfather peels the apples for her grandmother’s pies. Years later, her grandmother continues to share apples and the apple pie of wisdom. “Maybe because a pie is designed to be cut into six or eight pieces and shared,” she says, “the inheritance of the apples is more than the roots that define its origins.”
In this way, even as Babine serves a larger agenda — to write about an ecology of place — she takes up the mantle of stewarding her family’s Midwestern stories. And although her narrative primarily emphasizes our connection to water, she cannot deny her origins in the middle of the country — her deep and abiding ties to that particular land. “I wonder if there are places on the planet where we connect more strongly to our surroundings, like pulse points,” she writes in “Grain Elevator Skyline,” an essay about her great-grandmother’s funeral:
I can feel my heartbeat more strongly if I touch my wrist than if I touch my nose. The geography of the Midwest known as the Heartland grows a mythology of blood and heart, a story we have created for ourselves that tells of a place where the heart beats, the heart of an emerging country, the heart of a people who came to this place looking for home. It is a mythology, this Heartland, one that ignores realities of how such a land was cleared of its inhabitants and its ecosystems, but it is a mythology that persists.
Here, in Clara City, [Minnesota,] I feel like I am standing with both feet on the heart of the world.
Throughout the book, Babine articulates a contemporary ethics of place that affirms ecologist Aldo Leopold’s conservationist goals. And unwilling to perpetuate myths and clichés, she explores and expands on our nuanced North American history.
Consider her trip back to North Dakota, in “Deadwood,” about the town where she vacationed with her family as a child. As an adult, traveling alone, she lets go of the romance the place held for her, and really looks.
Of course, thinking of only the positives of the West probably landed most of these emigrants six feet under, because you can never underestimate a place that provokes such a mythology, where stories grow as tall as the wheat — unless drought or tornadoes or something else shrivels the wheat into dust.
Alongside this human narrative, she unearths deeper stories, geological tales of rock and water that we may not even realize form our way of being in the world. She shows us the great rushing water of the Mississippi starting at the headwaters in Itasca State Park in Minnesota; she compels us to observe, to be present, to feel water flowing through our consciousness, and to recognize our attempts to label everything as a means to hold fast to the land.
According to Barry Lopez,
The central theme in nature writing … is a question:
What are just relations? What is a person’s just relationship with a place? What are the just relations between a community and a place?
Babine asks the same kinds of questions, and puts herself in conversation with others who have tackled similar subjects — Kim Barnes, Gretel Ehrlich, Paul Gruchow, William Kittredge, David Laskin, Aldo Leopold, Kevin McMahon, Sigurd F. Olson, Michael Pollan, Scott Russell Sanders, Thoreau. In “Petrography,” for example, she turns to Irish essayist Tim Robinson, who “writes of the effect of history and memory on Irish place-names, how something that happened long ago is immortalized by the name given to a place,” as her sounding board. Referencing him, she wonders:
What if the core, the basis of language, is something tangible? Stories themselves can often be traced to something tangible — but what if a language is tangible as well? What if the core of a language is rock — granite, basalt, sandstone?
Global climate change is the central issue of our era, and as we move in unprecedented numbers around the world, whether by choice or seeking refuge, we might spend more time thinking about where we are and what the landscape means to us. Writing with the eloquence of Lopez and the compassion of Terry Tempest Williams, Babine is also reaching towards a new generation, ensuring the continuity and the legacy of what she has learned.
“Place means more than knowledge,” she insists. “An ethic of place requires a certain level of discomfort.” She continues:
There are moments at Third Crow Wing Lake, when the wind off the water is just right, when it is impossible to tell if the sound is wind in the trees or rain in the leaves. This morning not a leaf is moving out the big picture window to the west, the window that looks toward the lake, but I can hear something moving out there that catches me off guard, makes me wonder what I am hearing… I don’t mind that there are words beyond my hearing, stories beyond my understanding, here in this place.