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Blog Title Photo

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blue Earth

The flat prairie turns time into sculpture. It wrings weariness from a linear passage, which rushes to complete itself and throws skyward from a wheel of round earth. Time itself is made round. As a small speck traveling across a vast earth open to a vast sky, one can only be patient, listen for truth and wholeness, amidst silence.

Details invite inspection. A farmhouse, hidden by a cluster of maples, poplars, and rusting pieces of equipment, seeks shelter from the prairie winds.

The engine beat becomes music. The horse plod in years past, became music. Buffalo, thunder, all were music. Amidst such space, all sounds are music.

We are part of the horizon. We are moving.

My son and I were crossing the great plains in Southern Minnesota. Here it was easy to imagine tying the wheel of the car, and going to sleep for an hour. These were oceans, of corn, of wheat, of grass.

Straight as an arrow our vehicle flew like a piece of silver flint across a nascent green. Some fields were planted, others recently plowed. The prairie sky could show rain one moment, sun the next.

"Man-KAY- to!" . . . . Arjun had a go at the word.

He and I were practicing our Minnesota accents. All along the way we had been told the Minnesota way, to say Mankato. The word was Dakota, as so many place names here are, and meant "Blue Earth River".

We lapsed into silence, the metaphor of blue earth lodged in our minds.


"Mahkaato, that's the way the Sioux say it." Arjun reminded me.

The Dakota Sioux. Such a noble presence here just years ago. Everywhere in this state, and in South Dakota a few more miles down the road, there are bronze statues of native Sioux chiefs. But the reality today is hardly the same as the bronze portraits modeled by white historians. There are reservations, there are laws specially targeted at the native populations, there are slums outside the big cities.

And there are the place names, now intoned in a Brooklyn sort of Scandinavian. Arjun and I called it "Fargo Speak" after the Kohn brother's film. According to the locals, the Kohns overdid the Minnesota lilt.

There was a slight rise in the prairie, a few trees, and lo! the ground seemed to be moving. A giant freight train headed by six locomotives catapulted parallel to us across the empty vastness. We couldn't see the tracks, only the backs of engines, and two miles of grain cars and tankers.

We stopped and got out, waiting for the train to catch up I clicked a shot of the engines, . . charging like a dragon across a grassy plain. Silently, we imagined buffalo, herds miles long crossing ahead of the wagon train, plowing and fertilizing the earth just as the farmers here do. Except that now they plow with machine, and fertilize with ammonium nitrate brought by the very tanker cars the train was pulling.

Like the milkman of old, the freight brought back the empty grain hoppers and dropped off full tankers of fertilizer. Back to the farms of Western Minnesota and South Dakota, returning from mills in Mankato and others around Minneapolis.

Minneapolis was a grain capital, the Mississippi gave it open barge access to half the continent. It's a hub, of trains, barges, and trucks, bound to and from farms north, south, and west, as well as markets in all directions.

This train was segmented so that sections of it could be dropped at local farm co-operatives, six cars for Mankato, four for Sleepy Eye, nine for Florence.

"Look at the number of cars of fertilizer!" Arjun and I took a census, approximately the same number as cars of grain. "That's a lot of foreign oil!"

This train embodied the very equation of survival in North America and illustrated for us the fundamental flaw in that equation. Indeed our croplands are fertilized with nutrients made primarily from petroleum. We thought how the re-enrichment of the soils here in the west was a service performed by the bison, for free. They roamed wild, they grazed the tall grass prairie. Nothing they took lost it's roots. Everything grew back. And they fertilized the soil as they went.

Now the horizon was moving. Grains and fertilizer were moving, but instead of moving in the bellies of a million moving bison, it was was towed by the belly of a modern mechanical beast.

The train was beautiful. I took a picture. Then we got back in the car. . and drove alongside it for twenty eight miles.

We made a detour and left the train behind us. The sun was beginning to set. We rolled into Mankato and stopped outside the train station. UBS, (originally the Union Bank of Switzerland) had established a brokerage in the old passenger station building. The place was boarded up. Space for Lease signs were up. The glory days of stock trading in Mankato were over too. The big banks were making a hasty retreat.

Beside the station a network of tracks led to some huge grain silos and a giant mill-works. Arjun stepped out into the railroad tracks and inspected the kernels that had fallen between the ties. All corn. This mill made corn meal, corn flour. This was the end of the line for kernels of corn brought from all over the prairie. Business was way down., the mill wasn't participating in the corn revolution. The ethanol debacle had passed Mankato. The town felt empty.

We found people relaxing at a park near a juncture of the Minnesota and Mankato Rivers. Both sides of the confluence were bordered by tall bluffs that gave way to the prairie flats, both north and south.

On a sandbar where the two rivers met a couple was jumping up and down. They had just caught a giant fish. Arjun doffed his shoes and ran across the pebbly rapids to have a closer look. I settled into the grass and watched the sun head down.

Later as the park going crowd thinned out, we drove back to the center of town, to the station and the rail yard near the flour mill. There was an old gent walking around looking at the grain cars and some of the flour trucks that had pulled up to the mill.

He was from Peru and introduced himself in broken English. He said he was here to buy flour trucks, for his business back in Peru. He explained how the trucks have to be specially designed to get the flour out using compressed air. He said this mill in Mankato mainly made corn flour.

The Inca of Peru also worshiped corn, as do all Native Americans. They planted the corn beans and squash together, and called them the Three Sisters. The beans restored nitrates to the soil, all three produced food. The combination minimized pests, the squash leaves kept weeds at bay, a minimum of work was necessary to keep the combination going.

Yards away between the station and the mill, there's a small park. It's titled "Reconciliation Park". The truth of it sinks in slowly.

Here in Mankato, after the Dakota War of 1862, the largest mass execution on U.S. soil took place. President Lincoln managed to pardon 262 Sioux warriors, but thirty eight got the noose in this very place. The language of the plaque is vague. Only upon rereading does one get a sense of what happened.

There's no bronze statue of a Sioux war-chief here. What is offered instead is a cast concrete sculpture of a bison, ghostly white next to the train tracks.

And a plaque. It reads "I come to you in my humble way to offer prayers to thirty-eight Dakota who perished in Mankato in the year 1862."

Perished? . . Perished means they fell over a waterfall, or maybe were defeated fairly in battle. But these men were hung. This was after a war, a war which they lost. But hey! This is Reconciliation Park. It's there to make it easier to forget, or remember, depending what you know.

A chorus of inner voices erupted . . .

"You're a tourist. You come out here you eat our food. What do you want to do? Stir things up again. We built this monument to try and put this rest. We want it behind us. You Yanks come out here and criticize."

"I accept my full share of responsibility, as much as any man alive today. All my life I've eaten food that comes from these plains. This is Eden. Eden Prairie one of the first settlements outside what is now Minneapolis said it in a name. The beauty was staggering. Drop a seed and a farm grew. Throw a stone and dinner was served. Lie on the earth and the stars danced. Sing a song and the ravens and wolves sang back."

"But don't try to lie to me about what happened. Don't put a up plaque up that says thirty-eight Sioux braves perished when in fact they were hung. You don't hang warriors. Only barbarians murder their enemies after they've surrendered. So if you're going to put a fucking plaque up try and write it honestly for craps sake. Don't lie about it. Lincoln acting on advice, remotely was able to save some of them. But thirty eight is a big stain on the notion of liberty. Right here where they grind white flour."

"And when you write the history put some truth in it:"

"Here the United States Government, acting with wrath and indignation, murdered thirty eight citizens of the land who were here long before it was. Rather than imprison them, or forgive them, it hung them."

"And don't call the fucking place Reconciliation Park. Give a name proper to what it was. Call it Murder Park, or Future Uprising Park!"

"Let's get the record right guys. It doesn't matter that I'm a tourist. Who ever put this up is a participating in a cover up. Standard US policy this is. Who are you creeps?"

The red sun dropped and dimmed into the black bluffs. It was nearly dark.

I managed to quell my inner rebel, when I noticed a freshly cut rose, lying on the Earth.

On the Blue Earth.

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