LITTLE GRAY BOATHOUSE ON THE BIG MUDDY RIVER
(Copyright 2023 by Richie Swanson)
ELECTION NIGHT, NOVEMBER 3, 2020
I dreamt I lost my home, my boathouse on the Mississippi, on election night, November 3, 2020. The wrong presidential candidate led in electoral votes as I climbed the ladder to the sleeping loft. The election map online showed key battleground states shaded pink, and I lay down nauseous, devastated that an incumbent who ignored environmental protection, who raged against people of color and immigrants, who spread hate and falsehood might win in a landslide. I slept fitfully, a nightmare visited me: a cargo ship larger than an oceangoing freighter somehow steamed beneath the old “Wagon Bridge” a half mile downriver from my house. The huge ship dipped beneath the bridge and bobbed up, scraping trees from the bank on the back channel’s north shore. The huge ship kept coming. It scraped the shore directly opposite my boathouse and smashed people to pieces. Body parts and trees tumbled down a hill, though the opposite shore is actually flat. People screamed and fell helplessly, and emergency vehicles filled the parking lot above the boathouse on the south shore. I went up to the lot, and flashing lights blocked me from reaching the portable toilet across the lot, the kind used at outdoor concerts and festivals. A policeman told me I must move my boathouse across the river, so the people could gather on my shoreline rather than the north bank, which continued to collapse into the water.
I went inside and lay on my boathouse floor, exhausted and sleepy. A big black poodle shoved through my front door, followed by its master. I looked outside my door, and people crowded on the deck around my boathouse, waiting to rush in. I stood opposite the poodle’s master and told him he had to leave. He pulled out a pistol, a black automatic, and I drew one too. I stared across the tiny boathouse, fourteen by twenty two feet inside, and realized one of us had to shoot.
I woke harried, distraught. Until I checked the election map. The battleground states had turned blue, the incumbent would lose. Tundra swans hooted high in the sky, sounding like children crying out with joy, playing on a distant playground. They were migrating from eastern Alaska and northern Canada as they did every autumn, and a flock of mallards waited as usual outside the boathouse–dark shapes on a dim gray flow in the indigo dawn.
I felt blessed, still witnessing daybreak on the river 33 years after moving into the boathouse. I poured corn kernels for the mallards onto a plank, and the ducks watched cautiously, keeping their distance as a muskrat slipped onto the plank, pointing its snout at the ducks, ready to snap and claw. It hunched above the corn, and its fur gleamed coppery-red, and I saw pelts stretched on the drying racks of Indian women…pelts pressed flat and piled into bales…bales loaded into canoes paddled by French-Indians and Native Americans to Yankee clerks at the nation’s first trading posts on the upper river.
After the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812 placed the Mississippi firmly into the hands of the United States, the American Fur and other companies eagerly pursued the rich beaver resource on the upper Mississippi. But beavers had previously been overhunted by the French and British, and by 1836 muskrats comprised ninety-five percent of pelts traded on the river. Muskrats also became a means of currency more trusted than government script and bank notes. Twelve “rats” (muskrat pelts) could buy a pouch of Venetian beads; twenty rats, a hundred pounds of lead for musket balls; forty, a rifle with a percussion cap.
So, the muskrat deserved to eat first—its ancestors had helped fuel the economic development of the nation that eventually included the State of Minnesota and city of Winona, whose laws allowed me my floating home. The muskrat fingered corn from my plank into its mouth, and its tiny black paws also spoke an ancient story of the Anishinaabe, Native Americans who have for centuries called the “greatest river” the Michi-zee-bee.
The first people of the Earth quarreled and killed one another too much, and the Creator flooded the land to purify it, wrote Edward Benton-Banai in The Mishomis Book, The Voice of the Ojibway. Waynaboozhoo–a culture hero, a spirit with human attributes—survived the flood by floating on a huge log. Some birds and animals joined him, and Waynaboozho decided to create a new land. He dove down into the flood, hoping to find a handful of Earth. The flood was too deep, he failed. A loon, merganser, otter and other creatures also tried and failed, and then Muskrat said he would try. Muskrat was riddled and teased. He dove down, remained under a long time. He floated up dead yet held a little ball of Earth in his paw. A turtle volunteered to bear the weight of Earth on its back. The Four Winds blew the dirt in all directions. Waynaboozho sang, the animals danced in a circle. The land grew into “Turtle Island,” and the Creator “made it so that muskrats will always be with us because of the sacrifice that our little brother made for all of us.”
These days the Michi-zee-bee also sacrifices herself for the nation’s economy. I feed the muskrat corn produced by industrialized agriculture that deposits such an overload of sediment and fertilizer into the river that it helps create a zone of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico below her mouth. Most years the “dead zone”—ocean water so deprived of oxygen that clams, mussels, snails and other natural life cannot survive—is about the size of Massachusetts. I buy the corn for my little brother, I help create a market for the shipment of the grain in barges that require a navigation channel dredged unnaturally deep—nine feet, mandated by Congress. The river is currently squeezed between dikes from St. Paul to St. Louis, cut off from her adjacent backwaters and tributaries. Locks and dams maintain her water levels and create lake-like conditions that inundate floodplain forests and other wetlands in some locations, and that dry up marshes and fish-breeding sloughs in others.
Yet muskrats haven’t abandoned their role. One April morning I heard mews and thumps from the water—a male mink swam atop a female, biting her nape, pushing her down through flood sludge wedged against the house (flood sludge=logs, beaver clippings, mats of last year’s wild celery and bulrush, wine-red maple flowers, fish tackle, bait cups, beer cans, sudsy-brown flood-foam). The male mink dragged the female screeching onto the duck log I had tied to the bank to provide a basking refuge for waterfowl and turtles. The female mink hissed, bit and wriggled free. She dove and disappeared in the water and popped out of a hole beneath the woodpile, just above flood-line. The male caught her by the nape and dragged her mewing down to the foot of my plank. He mounted her fiercely. He paused once, and she wagged her rodent-nose, gawking tiny-eyed, looking stunned. She lunged to escape, and he tightened his forepaws around her chest, yanked her closer and banged away for 45 minutes, the plank shaking so violently my floor shook.
Several weeks later, the flood dropped below the level of an old brick sidewalk on the bank, and a mink raced on it in a driving rain and disappeared upriver in riprap. She returned with a muskrat kit, holding it by its nape like a mama cat carries a kitten. She brought the kit into the hole below the woodpile, feeding her own young. She made six trips, probably taking the entire litter, if not the mother too. Such had been the muskrat’s sacrifice this time around.
Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Now my plank rattled as thirty “greenheads” rapped bills against wood, eating corn. The mallards swam to the duck log, shuffled onto it. They fluffed, preened and quacked for more.
LEARNING THE ROPES, NOVEMBER 1, 1987
The day I moved into the boathouse, its owner Mickey directed my gaze to the sleepy-cold current creeping downriver. “It’s easy now, hardly moving at all,” she said, and led me to two ropes tied from the house to a silver maple a few feet upstream. She stepped on the lower rope, and the house slid readily toward us, nearer shore. She was a long-distance jogger, her foot held the lower rope and house easily in place. Mickey untied the top rope, took out the slack, showed me the knot that kept the house moored tight to shore. She untied the lower rope, and I mimicked her knot, understanding the gravity of the situation. Mickey had moved in during the spring of 1982 and had recurring dreams of “waking up in the boathouse, and finding it was floating unmoored in the middle of the channel.” The following year she had pulled into the parking lot during the flood, and her headlights had “shown on an empty space over dark water” where her house should have been. “A large tree floating in the floodwaters had hit the most upstream house tied together with those of us on a shared walkway,” said Mickey. That house and Mickey’s broke loose and floated downstream with the current. The first house ended up lodged against the Wagon Bridge, but Mickey’s passed under one of its arches. Neighbors rescued both with motorboats and tied Mickey’s to a boathouse that was “gin-poled,” attached to a steel spud in the water. Mickey was renting from an owner named Penny at the time but needed a boat to get to its emergency location and had none. “The whole time, I’m sure I pestered Penny about getting the boathouse back to its spot.” Mickey offered to buy the boathouse. “Maybe the whole episode was enough of a pain in the neck for her (Penny), she was happy when I offered to buy the house from her,” said Mickey. “I think I got a bank loan for $700 to pay for it. Oddly, I never had another dream about waking up in an unmoored boathouse.”
The rent I would pay Mickey would be river-rat cheap, ninety dollars per month, but I would also have to heed a second flood problem. I would have to prepare for the spring flood in November. “You have to push the house out before the ice floes come, and the river freezes,” said Mickey. She shared her adventure from the spring of 1984. “Not knowing that the ice froze deeper close to the shore, I’d snugged my house within about four feet of the rocks back in the fall and let it freeze in place. In spring, as the ice melted and the river started rising, the ice around the riverside of the house cleared. But the shore-side of the house and its barrels were still locked in ice almost a foot thick. “The river flowed over that ice and began to lap at the carpet at the front door. Meanwhile the house was beginning to tilt toward shore, and I was afraid I’d start losing barrels from the river end of the house.
“I bought an ice chopper and waders and got to work. With a borrowed ice augur and axes and choppers, Phil (future fiancé) and I worked steadily for a few hours. We’d made deep cuts and broken through in some places, yet there were some areas where the ice was still thick. Finally Phil went home to get his chain-saw. He was able to cut through the remaining ice binding the house, somehow without flooding his machine. What a relief to watch the shore-side of the house rise up! There was still ice frozen to barrels and floor’s frame, but it was it was now clinging to the house ABOVE the water.”
Mickey laughed about the incident and continued my boathouse lesson. She lifted the near end of the walking plank, a sagging oak board about twelve feet long and eighteen inches wide. She pushed its far end against the boathouse, and the house slid farther into the river. “You live back in the Stone Age now,” she said, and got down in riprap and wrestled boulders around until they held the plank in place. She gave me the skinny on the neighbors. “Bonnie’s a deer,” she said of the single mother who lived two boathouses up the row of seven. “She moves quiet like a deer, holds herself quiet like a deer.” Two bachelors and two parents and young boy also lived in boathouses above Bonnie’s, their structures single-storied, each with small floor spaces, only about twenty by twenty feet. “They live here because it’s what they can afford,” said Mickey.
I soon learned all islanders wanted to help one another, but no one knew how long they’d keep their boathouse. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had disallowed boathouses on the river years ago. The State of Minnesota did not allow habitation on public waterways, which was clearly happening here on Latsch Island. The city of Winona owned the island and rented about one hundred license spots where boathouses, docks and boat garages were moored. When I first moved to Winona in 1979, I attended a city council meeting, a discussion about the fate of Latsch Island boathouses. I recall that some folks complained that boathouse owners were living too easy on city land, using city services like the library and streets without paying taxes. Indeed a boathouse resident called Crow walked through the public woods without the inconvenience of clothes, and eventually landed in prison after placing a bomb in a judge’s mailbox. But a county judge, teachers, nurses, potters and other professionals also lived in boathouses. So did a fortune teller who worked at Renaissance Fairs, free-spirit carpenters who wanted to build beautiful boathouses forever, a gay man who educated Winona about HIV prevention, an entrepreneur who owned a gutter service, a river advocate who founded an effective environmental organization, seasonal tree planters and apple pickers, and even a jealous boyfriend who islanders claimed had untied the boathouse owned by his girlfriend’s ex and let it go down the river through the dam at Trempealeau. The press loved to feature boathouse residents, but many boathouses were owned by people who also owned houses in town, who used boathouses recreationally, to boat, fish and gather with friends and family. No matter the owner, the future was iffy. Most of the boathouses in “my row” had already been removed from a shore farther upriver and had been squeezed into the state’s legal right-of-way downriver from a highway bridge.
Old-timers in Winona claimed boathouses were once “everywhere on the river,” and that babies had been born and raised in boathouses during the Great Depression. But by now every islander had attended or heard about a government meeting where the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had expressed displeasure about the increase of boathouses and additions of sleeping lofts. Latsch Island had become the last place where people lived in boathouses on the upper river, despite the state law that forbid it.
Mickey gave me a vote of confidence before she left. “We handpick who’s going to stay in our houses down here,” she said.
* * *
I slept easy that night in my sleeping bag on the floor and woke in the morning to a fog that swallowed the entire river valley. The blue river hissed lazily beneath the gray soup, and Taoist phrases floated through my head. “The sound of water says what I think.” I wanted to receive the river’s gifts, by acquiescing to my own adaptation of Chapter Fifteen of the Tao Te Ching.
As careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
As fluid as melting ice.
As receptive as a valley.
As clear as a glass of water.
As murky as a troubled stream.
I lived by bicycle and foot, had to borrow a car to haul six-gallon jugs of drinking water home. One evening a carpenter-friend dropped off scraps of pine, and after dark I kindled a crackling fire in the black belly of the old coal stove inside. I filled the stove with two-by-fours, happy as a cat about the sudden and radiant heat. The stovepipe glowed orange, then pulsed red. I stepped outside, and now the roar of flames, not water, said what I thought. A chimney fire! The whole place—the new side decks that Mickey had built while swimming in deep water, hanging by an elbow from a board—the phone line connected to a trench she had dug by hand—the sleeping loft she had added—the stove and LP gas tank—waited below flames leaping above the stove cap, firebrands dancing above the roof. I called Barbi my sweetie in town, who had heated with wood in an isolated farmhouse the first winter after her son Jonah had been born. “Close the damper,” she said.
The fire quieted, but thin sheets of ice scraped against the floatation barrels beneath the house, frost shaving off, tinkling delicately like crystal. The sheets came down the river cavern-black, shining like glass, flashing a fluid white light from a moon hidden by clouds. Come morning goblets of ice jangled against one another and knocked hard against the barrels. I heeded Mickey’s warning. I untied ropes, pushed out the house and set the plank in place from the downriver corner of the house. I did the same with the “standout,” a four-by-four, from the upriver corner. The boathouse had no front deck yet, only steel mounts for the plank and standout. I secured the plank and standout with steel pins, and then a southeast wind gusted, and the house swung upriver, crashing against the neighbor’s. The plank and standout climbed the bank, and the front barrels scraped bottom.
If the house froze in where it was, it would remain locked in ice as water rose in the spring. So, I pushed the house out again—into whitecaps rolling backward up the Mississippi. Gusts kept blowing. The house kept swaying and banging the neighbor’s, luckily vacant. I felt like Sisyphus who the Greek god Zeus had sentenced to endlessly push an immense boulder nearly to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down. Yet Albert Camus envisioned Sisyphus happy at the bottom of the mountain, about to push the boulder again. “If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny…The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Besides, the wind had become my big brother years ago. I had quit college in Ohio in 1977 and had headed west on my bicycle, so I could gather material and become a writer. When I had crossed Kansas and other Great Plains states, the wind had battered me until I had retreated into cafés and had scrawled in my journal with wrists so sore I could hardly print.
Nonetheless I continued taking bicycle trips, and wind had blown me into ditches where I’d laid face-down as hail pounded my back, and face-up as dust, pebbles and bits of sage had screamed above me as if chased by a tornado. Headwinds had met me at mountain summits and had forced me to pedal as strenuously downhill as up. Crosswinds had nearly blown me from my bike as the Thunders had hurled lightning bolts all around me. So, sometimes I’d retreated from wind, sometimes I muscled against him. Now I sat on a side deck, set my feet against my neighbor’s house, pushed it upstream with leg-muscle. I let an extra barrel roll between the two houses—a buffer. I tied an extra rope on the front, sat in the riprap, pushed boulders with my feet and buried the standout in place with the rocks. I was Sisyphus indeed, if not Fred Flintstone. But the little gray boathouse now floated in its place, far enough out, so it would float safely free in spring.
The wind turned north, throwing waves for days across the back dock, covering deck boards with glare ice. The full moon approached, and a parade of ice floes descended the river, white forms shaped like continents, some so thick that islanders were known to skate on them. The floes gleamed pearly and silver amid white vapor, crowding from bank-to-bank, and smashed the house’s upriver corner and spun off heavily and slowly, denting barrels. Geese and swans flew furiously south beneath the stars, honking and hooting a desperate-sounding commotion. I lay in my sleeping bag beside the fire and hoped the floes would not bang the house loose or shake the stack from the woodstove. I must have slept because I woke suddenly to silence. The house no longer rocked, and the pearly gray continents stood motionless, locked together by crooked white borders.
The cold collapsed upon the entire valley like a leaden inhalation. I stepped on snow, it squeaked and thudded through brittle air, and echoed crisply from the opposite bank, Wisconsin. The ice growled and sang, and two mythical brothers belched beneath the frozen river. G-a-a-a-a Loop burped in a slow and lazy voice, and G-a-a-a-a Lunk responded in guttural baritones. Each sounded as if he tried to belch longer and louder, and then Mama Mississippi readied herself to thunder. She rumbled, wailed and whined, and then she twanged like an enormous saw-blade. BOOM! BANG! The elbow of the stove’s stack clanged, and the whole house shook as if wall-studs would snap apart.
Barbi brought nine-year-old Jonah and his best friend Matt to the boathouse for a sleep-over. The two boys bedded down in the sleeping loft and discovered a knothole in the floor that allowed them to spy on Barbi and me below. They whispered and giggled all night. We ate all-you-can eat pancakes for breakfast, walked across the back channel and witnessed funnels of frozen white bubbles suspended in clear black ice below a highway bridge–indisputable evidence of G-a-a-a-a Loop and G-a-a-a-a Lunk.
We walked an old dirt road through frozen bottomlands, and Jonah and Matt discovered Batman’s “Bat Cave”, and then we dared to walk on the Main Channel, where crusts of ice angled up where floes had collided. Jonah and Matt broke off sheets and smashed them into pieces across their heads—sheer joy—instant gratification–no Sisyphean struggle necessary–just snow suits that allowed them to make snow angels oblivious to the cold.
* * *
Winter storms blew roaring clouds of snow downriver, and sometimes little white sprites spun past, snow devils jumping and skipping like tumbleweed. I learned to use pine only as kindling, and I bought oak from an old Swede who delivered it in a crooked green pickup with gray-wood sideboards. Carl always wore bib coveralls, whether he was eating a steak at the greasy spoon where I cooked, or if he dropping logs from the bed of his truck. He charged me sixty or seventy dollars per load, about twenty dollars shy of what I earned in a week. After he finished eating at the café, he would lean back in his booth, smile sidewise, flash a gold tooth or two. After he finished unloading his wood, he’d sit in the wicker chair in the boathouse, cup his hands together on his bibs and cock his head with great pleasure. “Ricky!” he said, needing only to stare at the flames and feel the heat, not to speak anymore. I couldn’t imagine how long and hard he’d worked, chain-sawing my wood, or how many years he’d run his farm at the bottom of a hollow outside town. “Yah,” he would say, “long time.”
Carl was the first of several tight-tongued old-timers who “got up wood” for me into their seventies and eighties, some Swedes, some Norwegians. They stacked logs so densely in their trucks a spider could hardly squeeze between the pieces. They said more with the firmness with which they clutched wood than with their words. They took pride they could still get up a cord for whomever needed it, and always climbed back behind their steering wheels, sitting straighter than their sagging sideboards, looking grateful they could help a young fellow who wanted to live simply, close to the critters and birds.
I split wood with a six-pound mall, and as pieces fell around the chopping block, chickadees flew over from tube feeders and pecked into freshly-open larvae holes. Nuthatches and downy and hairy woodpeckers scoured the new stacks, flapping from log to log, yet sometimes they clung terrified and motionless against tree trunks, bills pointed skyward. They hoped to hide from a hungry predator perched ten feet away. Nuthatches froze upside-down. Scores of sparrows vanished inside bushes. Cardinals perched stock-still in brown tangles. One day a black-capped chickadee made a dash from one feeder to another, and a sharp-shinned hawk snatched it into its talons in midair. Another day a starling lay on the ground in the grips of a Cooper’s hawk, and raised and snapped its bill uselessly, and surrendered its vitals in a flurry of blowing feathers as the Cooper’s slurped its intestines like vermicelli.
I wrote every day at the rear window, working on a novel on a Commodore 64 computer, and stopped once when a strange weeping came from outside the front window. A gray squirrel lay sprawled in sunflower seeds littered on the ice, crying a plaintive squeal–a barred owl stared at it from a treetop, its head slung sidewise, dead calm. I cracked open the front door to see better, and the owl flushed—not far. I would come home after closing the greasy spoon, and the owl would soar silently from the same tree, probably attracted to the rabbits and rodents that scrounged through the sunflower seeds at night.
I’d enter the boathouse at night and turn on the light, and a deer mouse would somersault from the coffee maker, or a gray house mouse would shoot like a shrew-shadow along a wall. I’d grab a piece of wood from the stack outside, and a fuzzy dark bulk would lie motionless in a gap in the stack. Shine a flashlight, it didn’t budge, seemed not to breathe–a possum playing possum.
When the river finally thawed, I made my first duck feeder, framing a square of plywood with two-by-fours. I floated it outside the front window, and a great blue heron landed on it. It raised and depressed its head plumes, looking like a perturbed old gentleman, a dignitary clearly annoyed by the allocation of fish at a fisheries meeting. Old Man Heron thrust his head sidewise and held a gangly, reptilian eye parallel to the coffee-colored current. He turned into a gray-wood statue, the breeze wafting the tips of his belly plumes. He stabbed the river and instantly squeezed a mooneye longwise in his pterodactyl-bill. Both the yellowish eye rings of the mooneye and the golden eye rings of the heron seemed about to burst with primal intensity. The heron shuffled his bill, and down the throat went the mooneye. The heron stabbed the water three more times, never missed, and suddenly a song sparrow trumpeted, perched in red osier above dwindling patches of snow. I yipped inside, my own primal intensity set afire. First of the year!
Mickey also had spring pastimes at the boathouse. “One afternoon, the sun was strong, quickly melting the trailing edge of the ice as the river flowed out from under it,” she said. “A couple neighbors and I entertained ourselves, curling stones out onto the ice, trying to get our missiles as close to the melt-edge as we could. Then we’d wager how long it would take for the ice under a stone to disappear.”
“I can still remember the way the light in spring filtered down through the new maple and cottonwood leaves,” says Mickey. “I’d be hiking around on the rip-rap, yanking on lines, fighting with stubborn knots, feeling the warm breeze full of promises.”
SPRING 1988, MOM VISITS
Indeed spring brought me the same optimism, even when my mother visited from Connecticut. Mom never knew who her father was. She told me she’d been given away at birth. She said her grandmother had come to visit her and had found her unattended, howling in her own vomit in her crib. Grandma Mimi had taken Mom home and raised her, and Mom did not learn the identity of her biological mother until a half-sister visited and taunted her with the fact. Mom lived enraged, the pain of abandonment always boiling below the surface.
As a boy, I never knew when Mom would “blow her stack.” A cash register girl at the A & P would glance at her the wrong way, Mom would launch into a tirade, and I’d feel everyone in the store staring at our family in disbelief.
Mom threw things at my father and ranted about his inabilities. She cried while she cooked meals, afraid they wouldn’t work out. She cooked bacon with fingers in her ears, afraid the grease would pop, and the noise would terrify her. But she loved nature, especially the beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, the city where she’d been born, where we lived. She loved to turn horseshoe crabs upside-down and marvel at their prehistoric legs amid the “rotten-egg smell” of low tide. She loved the way gulls screamed when she tossed pieces of bread to them, and loved to bait her own hook and catch blowfish on Long Island Sound.
She visited the boathouse in April and lit up when two sandhill cranes bugled, flying above the river. “Listen to that! Just listen! Listen to it!” We sought out the sound. We camped an hour away in a state forest, and Mom, Barbi, Jonah, Matt and I climbed a viewing tower in pre-dawn darkness, and the calls of cranes exploded in a meadow below us. Cranes danced without inhibition. They arched red-caps backward, pointed bills skyward. Tossed weed-stems and other debris from their bills into the air. Opened wings, leapt, bowed to one another. Twirled, circled. Hopped daintily up and down, flapping enormous wings.
The cranes blasted their calls and shook the air with a success so loud it vibrated inside our bones. Sandhills were nearly hunted to extinction by the early 1900s, but hunting bans, wetland restorations and other conservation measures have enabled their recovery.
Mom bonded naturally with Jonah and Matt, since each boy suffered a parent who had vanished from their lives. Mom grew up in Connecticut a couple blocks from a village green and a colonial-style church, shaped by a Puritan heritage that would judge Jonah and Matt as “illegitimate,” born out of sin. She told me old high-school acquaintances still looked at her as if she were a “bastard,” yet now she camped in the free air where neither Barbi nor I regarded the boys with any such vicious judgement. She cheered the way Jonah threw a tennis ball against a park shelter. “With a vengeance! An absolute vengeance!” She clapped when Matt and Jonah showed up with an uncanny amount of firewood: they had “beat the system,” crawling through a gap at the bottom of a fence of a bin of for-sale wood that was still closed for the season.
We returned to the boathouse, she continued to play hooky from her past, just fished with the boys on the back dock, just watched the spring flood rise, the river grow brighter as the sun climbed higher in the sky every day. She passed in 1996, but cranes still bugle from the sky every spring, and I still hear her cheer, and thanks to an Ojibwe story, I also hear the “pretty voice” of a loon inside her heart.
The crane clan was one of the original seven clans for the Ojibwe, and the loon clan was another, says Anton Treuer in The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Living in the Modern World. The two clans once “dominated the civil chieftainships across the country.” The loon with a pretty voice would speak first and do most of the talking at councils, and the crane with a commanding voice would deliver the last word.
I know Treuer’s sharing his people’s culture, not mine. I don’t claim any inside or direct knowledge of Ojibwe or any other Native culture. I don’t claim any indigenous birthright to American soil and don’t deny the colonial thefts of North America and other continents. But I admire Native stories greatly, since they inspire me to cast away the Eurocentric and anthropocentric traditions I learned in school.
Treuer’s story reminds me that Mom had the pretty voice of a loon inside her as well as the commanding voice of crane. She played the piano magnificently and read stories to her children beautifully. But rage constantly ignited her commanding voice. She screamed, and I hid inside my bedroom, wrapping my pillow around my ears. She screamed, and her rage sank into the entire family. She screamed, and her voice commanded that we hear the rage and fear that wracked her.
She died in fear, terrified to undergo a cataract surgery, afraid to see any doctor about a growth she believed was growing inside her. She died of heart failure alone on her sofa, unattended in her house, afraid to seek or accept medical help. She remained inside the tragedy of her origins, but these days sandhill cranes can be heard from the boathouse during breeding season as well as migration. They remind me that nature, if given the right conditions, can heal herself.
SACRED BUSH, SACRED TREE
I did not know it when Mom visited in 1988, but a Lakota constellation that speaks powerfully of natural renewal can be seen from the boathouse shortly after sunset on the Spring Solstice. It’s formed of stars in Triangulum and Aries and looks like “a branch with the bark stripped off,” says Ronald Goodman in Lakota Star Knowledge. Oral traditions called it Caŋasa Ipuyse or “Dried Willow” after red-osier dogwood, a species of shrub that grows on my bank as well in the Lakota homeland.
The inner bark of the red osier “is the principal ingredient in the smoking mixture used while praying with the Sacred Pipe. Caŋasa Ipuyse stands for “the whole Sacred Pipe” which is used in a ritual by both the powers in the sky and people in their winter camps to “rekindle the sacred fire of life on earth.” The “Dried Willow” enters the Zodiac, the sun’s path, during the time of the vernal equinox. Its bowl is lit by the Big Dipper–the “ritual spoon” employed by the Wakaŋ Waste—“the sacred above powers of good”—to carry “the live coal of the sun” to the Sacred Pipe.
The constellation marked the end of winter, the start of spring. It told ancient Lakota to leave their winter camps and perform “a celestial Pipe ceremony to regenerate the earth.” It also told them to stop harvesting their sacred tobacco, to let the red-osier grow until the autumn equinox, when the plant was dormant.
When I read this story, I planted red osier in pots on the docks beside my boathouse, thinking of Mom. She was not allowed to grow undisturbed, her demons haunted her entire life.
I applied the moral of the Dried Willow story to my boathouse life: when grape vines or a red-osier or indigo shrub grew luxuriantly and blocked the path to my plank, I tied the vegetation out of my way rather than cut it, and I told friends that I had added a sacred bush to the sacred tree I grew in pots on my docks, the cottonwood.
The cottonwood’s the granddaddy tree of in the upper Mississippi River floodplain forest. It grows the tallest and harbors massive nests of bald eagles as well as the delicate nests of a tiny, endangered warbler who once bred high in cottonwoods across the channel from the boathouse, the cerulean.
In late May cottonwoods release “snowstorms” of seeds above the river, white puffballs like dandelion seeds that float dreamily through the entire valley, filling the sky. The puffballs also create fluffy white borders along the shores of the river’s sloughs and channels and beside the river’s highways. But when I search the floodplain forest here for a cottonwood sapling, I can’t find one.
The red buds of silver maple also rain down in spring, forming rafts in sloughs so thick that water snakes move across them, and migrating warblers and larger birds like the disappearing rusty blackbird swarm and walk across the burgundy-colored mats, feeding on insects. Later in spring the maple’s helicopter seeds—keys—twirl down from treetops and float so densely against boathouses that some of my neighbors mount outboard motors to docks and loosen the mats with a churning engine rather than try to send them downstream with a canoe paddle, as I do.
Before the locks and dams, the river dropped so low in late summer and early fall that people walked across her. Mudflats emerged. Cottonwoods, river birches and other trees pioneered the muck, and islands formed. Now the historic forest of the slow sinuous river is gone. Floods last longer and crest higher in the channelized river than in the old natural river. Silver maples thrive in the wetter conditions. They create a closed canopy that shades out young cottonwoods and also swamp white oaks, black willows and river birch. When the canopy opens and sunlight reaches the forest floor, the exotic Reed’s Canary grass usually moves in like an army of European settlers on Native ground, choking out tree growth altogether.
But cottonwood seedlings sprout between sidewalk cracks and in gravel lots and lawns in town. I transplant them in pots on my docks, and when they grow five or six feet high, Barbi and I move them to parks.
I surround my house with cottonwood saplings and evoke a cottonwood chant shared by the Dakota writer Ella Cara Deloria in her description of a Sundance Ceremony in her novel Waterlily:
“You! You living ones, who sing the hillsides of the clouds!
Give ear to me!
You, called the red woodpecker!
You, the flicker!
You, the robin!
You, the crested woodpecker:
This is your tree; your home.
Here you raise your young…”
Barbi had similar thoughts about a boathouse. The son of Bonnie who held herself “quiet like a deer” had reached walking age and was apt to fall in the river. Bonnie sold the boathouse to Barbi in the spring of 1988. One single mother provided for another. Barbi bought her first home, a place to raise Jonah. She paid a whopping 5000 dollars for it.
To be continued…
 Gilman, Rhoda R. “Last Days of the Upper Mississippi Fur Trade.” Minnesota History, Vol. 42, no. 4 (Winter 1970) pp. 132-140.
 Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. 1. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, First Bison Book Printing: 1986. p. 8.
 Benton-Banai, Edward. The Mishomis Book: the Voice of the Ojibway. University of Minnesota Press. 2010. p. 8.
 Benton-Banai. The Mishomis Book: the Voice of the Ojibway. pp. 29-34.
 Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force. “Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone: 2020 Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Site.” https://www.epa.gov/ms-htf/northern-gulf-mexico-hypoxic-zone.
 Maslowski, Michelle. Boathouse Notes. Message to Richie Swanson. January 18, 2021. Email.
 Watts, Alan. Tao: the Watercourse Way. Pantheon Books, New York. 1975. p. 90.
 Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. p. 91.
 Maslowski, Michelle. Boathouse Notes. Message to Richie Swanson. January 18, 2021. Email.
 Maslowski, Michelle. Boathouse Thoughts. Message to Richie Swanson. January 17, 2021. Email.
 Gerber, B. D., J. F. Dwyer, S. A. Nesbitt, R. C. Drewien, C. D. Littlefield, T. C. Tacha, and P. A. Vohs (2020). Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.sancra.01
 Treuer, Anton. The Cultural Toolbox: Traditional Ojibwe Living in the Modern World. Minnesota Historical Society Press. 2021. pp. 47-48.
 Goodman, Ronald. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Theology. Siŋte Gleska University. Mission, South Dakota. 1992. p. 7.
 Ibid. p. 50.
 Guyon, L., J. Sloan, R. Van Essen, and M. Corcoran July 2016. Floodplain Forests and Water Quality in the Upper Mississippi River System. Report to the Audubon Society. Natural Great Rivers Research and Education Center, Lewis and Clark Community College. p. 9.
 Deloria, Ella Cara. Waterlily. University of Nebraska Press. 1998. p. 115.