Abbott Road, about 20 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, is an old fragment of St. Louis County Highway 4 (locally known as the Rice Lake Road, though it does not go through or past Rice Lake, and in more recent years as the Rudy Perpich Memorial Highway). It is an arc of gravel about a mile and a half long, on the west side of the current highway. In what is to me recent years, sometime since I moved out of the area in 1984, the northern end of the road has been paved because of the boat access to Island Lake cut through the bank of a gravel pit (also something rather recent; when I was illegally riding a motorcycle—under age and without a license—there was nothing but a 50-75 foot tall bank of gravel set off from the road, the trees from the opposite side abruptly stopping where the heavy equipment had stopped digging; the boat access was added sometime between 1975 and 1984, my life or mind had disengaged from the area so I have no clear memory of when this happened). Along the southern end of the road is one side road, at most a quarter mile in length, connecting to the highway, called the West Turner Road (many of the roads in Gnesen Township, where this is and where I grew up, are broken by swamps and therefore have slightly different names for each segment). The northern stretch of Abbott Road crosses Hay Creek (or crick) which, depending on rainfall is either the original creek meandering through a mud flat and swamp grasses or a shallow extension of Island Lake (part of the power company’s reservoir; usually in the winter it’s just a creek, filling as the snow melts, but some years are so dry it never becomes lake, or vice versa never emptying). Just south of West Turner Road, added sometime after 1984, is the crossing of a major snowmobile trail. There are two more side roads jutting off Abbott onto peninsulas where people have leased land from the power company, originally to build cabins but now to live all year round, one just south and uphill from our driveway and the other a little past Hay Creek.
(If you do not know gravel roads, they are rutted and washboard all year, making it difficult to control your vehicle and giving you the sense that you and your car are being shaken to pieces. In the winter they might be impassible because of snow and ice (I’ve seen winters where the snowplow almost couldn’t get through, the drifts were taller than I was). In the spring you might not get through because it’s mud and, just like in the snow, vehicles could get stuck. In the summer, unless it’s just rained or the county road crew has recently poured oil on the surface, no doubt doing wonders to the groundwater that fills everyone’s well, there’s so much dust hanging in the air for the next half hour after a car’s gone by that it’s difficult to breathe and any laundry on the line needs to be washed again.)
The leftmost of the three blue dots between the Rice Lake and Abbott Roads is a pond in our north field, or what once was a field (now overgrown with alder shrubs). Something misleading about this map is that it looks like it’s all solid ground between those ponds and where the north end of Abbott Road joins the highway. It’s almost all swamp, depending on how high lake level is: some years the water almost comes into that pasture. Anyway, if you were to drive or walk along Abbott Road where it crosses the creek, you would see open swamp to the east and either open water or mud flats to the west (on the map the western side shows it as open water touching up against the road).
That little road just below the three blue dots is our driveway, and a main point in the essay I’m writing. From the house to Abbott is about the length of a city block. It is lined with Norway pine that were, maybe, fifteen feet tall or a little taller when we bought the place in 1964. The drive itself is two wheel ruts with grasses and mosses growing on the hump between. (Not pertinent to this story but perhaps of interest: the south field, which runs alongside the driveway, had been an airstrip years before, perhaps in the 1930s and ’40s, that ran from Island Lake almost to a low gravel ridge overlooking Highway 4.)
(I also need to make a little geographical detour to explain the land itself. Once you climb over the basalt ridge along Lake Superior—that is, the North Shore—you lose sight of bedrock and river valleys. The landforms are so recent that they have little sign of natural erosion (that is, river valleys). It is glacial debris pretty much all the way across Minnesota, much of it flat, former lake bottom. The area of my youth is moraine, alternating between low hills consisting of gravel and boulders, often hundreds of feet deep and miles long, or low, wet areas. Some of the low ground is genuine bog but most of it is the flowage of very sluggish streams and, therefore, swamp. Some of these wet areas are open enough to be called lakes (our momentarily famed 10,000), all of which are quickly filling in with sediment and vegetation. The larger, cleaner lakes in the area are not natural but, rather, part of the hydroelectric system.)
The point of this essay focuses on the end of that driveway as it empties onto Abbott Road, what you see and what might prefer to see.
In those days, the early 1980s when I was in my mid-twenties, I had moved back to my mother’s house at Abbott Road after a series of personal defeats and humiliations. I did not have a car or any reliable transportation. I did not and could not have a steady job and income without a car. The place, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, is about 20 miles from Duluth. Except for an occasional ride from family or a hitch from strangers (sometimes I’d walk almost the whole way), I was stranded.
Most days I would walk the “neighborhood”, becoming quite familiar with the gravel of the road, the stunted trees (almost alpine or taiga in shortness), the fields and flowers and shrubs, the edges of the lake and swamps, and, in winter, the snow (sometimes I’d lie flat on my back in a field deep with snow and stare at the stars). In those days there were still very few houses, usually of families that had been in the area for several generations, people my parents or grandparents had gone to school with.
It has always saddened me that I’m not a naturalist, one of those cool people who can name all the trees and flowers and small creatures met on such walks. I don’t know of anyone in my youth who could have taught me much and I, in my turn, was of a TV generation.
In the low ground there was tamarack and northern white cedar (in this area it tends to be dominated by tamarack) and a type of ash, probably black or green ash, and occasionally willow. On the higher ground balsam fir, paper birch, popple (aspen), which is something of a weed, shrub alder, various spruce, and as the ground becomes higher and drier and the forest more firmly established, white pine, sugar maple, and all those leafy trees I’ve never been able to identify (basswood, maybe). There is wild blueberry. Pussy willow. Diamond willow (I have a wizard’s walking stick of this, from my Tolkien days of the 1970s). Hazel. Choke cherry.
There are so few of the smaller plants that I can name. In the fields are daisy and devil’s paintbrush and some sort of thistle. By old farms the raspberries have gone wild. Wild strawberries. Ferns. Since I was a kid lupines seem to have spread along the ditches and the edges of fields (I don’t remember seeing them growing wild when I was young, but I didn’t really pay attention to flowers). All kinds of unnamable and possibly unnamed grasses. Horsetail ferns. An abundance of mosses. All the larger rocks and tree trunks are covered with lichens. Puffball is the only mushroom I can name, though we had all kinds, especially on tree trunks.
Along this particular stretch of Abbott Road, running from our driveway down to Hay Creek, I remember horsetails, wild strawberries, devil’s paintbrush, and all those mysterious grasses growing in the sand deposited at the edge of swamp and forest as rain washed it away from the heavier pebbles and stones of the gravel roadbed. In the forest of the higher ground were ferns and mosses and mushrooms; birch, popple, balsam, and the occasional maple. Closer to the creek, in the swampier ground and the overgrown pasture were swamp grasses, alder, and ash. At the edge of the flowage there was pussy willow and cat tails. And probably more alder (it seems ubiquitous).
Not much can be said, by me, about the fauna of the region. The seemingly dominant life forms have exoskeletons and wings. Most obviously, there are mosquitoes. There are the generic flies, which might be houseflies. There are the gigantic, biting horseflies and the gorgeously colored, delta-winged deer flies, which give the most painful bite of all. There are biting gnats and pesky little midges or no-see-ums. And so many colors of lovely damselflies and dragonflies, which frighten children because they’re so big. June bugs to cling on to your window screens for a week early summer and ladybugs in the fall, most of the other beetles going unnoticed by ordinary humans. There are several species of hornet, bee and wasp; numerous moths and butterflies (it seems luna moths are not as common now, or even then, as they were when I was a kid). Of course there were ants: mounds of black or red ants; tiny red ants in rotten wood; great big flying ants (a rare sight and maybe not a separate species). Of course there are other arthropods, especially in the wet soil with the moss and rotting trees, under every stone and deadfall, silverfish, centipedes, and millipedes.
The birds you’d hear and see all the time but I can name only a few: crow, maybe raven, blue jay, grackle, barn swallow, chickadee, cardinal, redheaded woodpecker, and all those little brown things like sparrows and finches. You could always hear the loons from the lake but rarely see them. Other aquatic birds could be found at the creek such as mallards, geese, blue heron, redwing blackbirds, and the occasional kingfisher.
Only two kinds of turtles are common, the painted turtle and the snapping turtle (I’ve been charged at by a one-eyed snapper), and two kinds of snake, the garter and the copper belly, all of which could occasionally be seen at this intersection of driveway and gravel road.
There are several native toads and a couple of species of frog, though leopard frog is the only one you’d readily find (again, there seem very few compared to what we had 50 years ago—I hope it wasn’t because my uncle George and I killed so many that one day in 1966). It’s probably been 50 years since I last saw a salamander. It is my belief that there is a newt native to the area but I can’t recall having seen any.
Except for the very petite chipmunks and red squirrels (most unlike the hulking gray squirrels common to Minneapolis parks), the mammals keep out of sight. Common night visitors are, of course, skunks. Porcupines are shy and rarely seen except for the residue of quills in a dog’s nose. Woodchuck less so, but still rarely seen. Badgers, wolves, foxes, and coyotes are extremely rare but not unheard of. My grandfather claimed to have seen a cougar in the distance, several miles from this particular driveway. Black bear and white tail deer are very common and usually the only large mammals you’d see by day. Moose on the loose could become a draw for the whole township. Rabbits. Rabbits. Did I say fuckin’ rabbits? All kinds of little mice and voles. At the water are beaver and muskrat. The small insectivorous bats are not as common as I’d like them to be.
The one detail I have definitely left out of this description, perhaps because I find human structures and other artifacts unimportant, is the garage at the end of the driveway. There was a two-car garage on the north side of the driveway, with tar and sand shingles for siding and rolls of tarpaper for a roof. Neither my father nor step-father ever used it for cars; maybe for the temporary storage of a tractor or wood saw (someone had a frame with a Model-A engine and a 30″ blade for cutting logs into firewood). Since I moved out in 1984, the roof caved in under a heavy load of snow and the rest of the garage has collapsed but remains by the side of the road as an eyesore.
By now you might have come to the conclusion that I had a deep connection with the land and simply couldn’t get enough of it. That might be true now. In 1983, the year that I think is the focus of this essay, I was 26, miserably unhappy, desperate to find love and sex (in that order, strange as it may seem), broke, and, as I said, stranded. I had almost no social life and no one in my life who knew or cared about art (except for one very eccentric—or crazy—friend who seems to have been a collection of looped sound bites about what she thought of art and the good life). Especially at night, when I was at my most creative and self-pitying, I wanted to be doing anything but swatting mosquitoes and listening to the dog barking at all those night creatures.
All of this is background to a poem I wrote, probably in 1983 (revised at least once around the turn of the century and maybe again a few years later), called “Heathens in the Trees”. It was a mad rush of crazy words perhaps not written at this intersection of driveway and gravel road but certainly conceived there. Between 1980 and 1984, while I was a young adult living in Gnesen Township, I think most of what I wrote was a combination of a love affair with words, especially incomprehensible or exotic words, and cabin fever: so much of what I wrote then were wild words.
I will give you both the text and a recent reading of that poem. (If you find it to be nauseating, irritating, incoherent gibberish I sympathize and might even agree with you. If you find it offensive you need to stick with Disney.) It can also be downloaded, pay what you will, as part of a collection, EP and chapbook, at bandcamp.com, called Six Sonnets and Some Wild Words (the title is quite a bit longer than that).
Birds without feather bleed the sky,
bright blue is draining toward black
and all the false stars hover
over the city in the distance.
The ditch grows without frogs,
the weight of their desire spent
and no longer pressing down on the mud,
the tadpoles sucked up and re-ejaculated
like live ammunition in a fast-action porn flick,
the hollow swelling between roots and rocks,
selling its mutant algæ to city fishermen
as bait for river nymphs, limnads
and other titillations that’ve gotten away—
each sportsman wants his rod to be ready this time.
All along the road
where forests threaten civilization,
heathen are nailed to trees
by the unknown judges of the road.
Until they die they eat dust
and rocks thrown by spinning tires.
They drink the liquid excrement of birds.
Their hair is long and dirty
and tangled into deceptive stories.
Their robes are of black wool
begging for fire.
Sap mingles with blood and urine,
draining the ditches dry
as it flows through the rocks
to the center of the earth,
freeing the snakes.
The moon hums radio jingles
while priests cry under the street lamp
and nuns run in circles,
naked but for their pastimes.
We’d join them if we could
but it’s a sacred ritual reserved
only for those whose undergarments
have been blessed for public examination—
no skids, no pee stains, no menstrual blood,
no wasted cherubs who leaked from his holy dick
after that last Sunday’s confessions,
no nocturnal impressions stretching the cotton.
Telephone wires grow taught from distress
as we tell our friends the news.
Every one of us speaks as a prophet
to announce the new polycarbonate age
about to reshape our coffins and beds
so we forget death’s a transition
from prime time to late night—
until the wires overheat with the resistance
inherent in every inevitable apocalypse.
The trees give rhythm to the moon’s song,
like plantation a capella on every beat,
ignoring the heathen pleadings from below,
with a chorus of mad brahmin
hanging in the branches by their toes—
ugly bats to add high harmonic drones,
it makes even the weekend pederast hum along.
Wires snap free!
dancing in worm twists
like all the goddess’ arms swaying chaos
and it’s the end of the world
because it’s the last time you’ll ever get close to her—
she’s mad now and smiling like Kali—
strangling the heathen billboards—
nailed to the burning ash—
forcing vowels from their erratic mouths,
songs gracing their orifices
like a symphony of flatulence
outshining the moon…
until King Sodomy, sixty feet tall
and a red pecker the length of Cadillac hearse
loping in front of his sagging paunch,
dances over the hill just ahead,
legs bowed, eyes green and rolling—
if you don’t adore him he’ll poke your eyes out
and shoot hot semen into the sockets.
On either side, a train of quadriplegics
being towed for his amusement…
A carpet of red and black laughter
spreads from under his magnificent feet
to cover all lands in every direction—
choking heretics and saints
with scalding jizm down their throats,
giving life to whores
and their resplendent cunts,
blessing them as we should all be blessed,
leashing on the world the mythological slut,
the great dream-beast of every man…
and to gigolos learning their trade.
Fire! Fire! Light his ass on fire
and blow-dry the heathens for next christmas!
We want them toasty and clean!
Night screams for release!
A small beggar laughs
and only a puddle remains in the road,
water bugs crawling about his toes,
and wild telephone wires
protruding from his ears, dancing.