Sunday, June 05, 2011

Paul Gruchow and the faith of cranes

I call this my medicine wheel garden --- on optimistic days or when talking with folks who will need no detailed explanation.

Medicine wheel after the sacred hoop of Native Americana, representing the circular nature of life’s path, the balance and interrelatedness of creation.

But this medicine wheel started with no particular significance. Medicine wheel gardens are mostly just EuroAmerican green-thumb conceits, after all, and have only the meaning ascribed to them by their creators.

Although some Native Americans, including those who once lived in Iowa, certainly gardened, what we now call medicine wheels are rocky, not designed for greenery, located on the northern Great Plains, most numerous in Canada. The best known is in the Wyoming Big Horns.

Now that is a sacred place --- but somewhat overrun by tourists (now fenced; not so when I was a kid), tangled with meanings attributed to it by researchers and New Age types. Some Native Americans won’t go there anymore because of all tourists, spiritual and otherwise.

No one knows who built it and there are varying theories about why it was built --- but it’s been in use for a long time.

My medicine wheel started much later --- obviously: When I decided to dig a hole in the back yard and plant stuff. Looking for a pattern, I opened a book called “The Medicine Wheel Garden” and thought, “why not?”

Most of the gardens in that book had rocks, but mine doesn’t.

The centerpiece is a clump of Indian grass, not evident here yet because Indian grass is a slow starter --- soon it will shoot up, plume out and dwarf everything else. In a good year, it will stand dramatically and beautifully upright well into winter.

Oriented by direction, sunrise colors are planted to the east; sunset colors, to the west. The north is white; the south, cool blues and lavenders. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I am not a purist and I get lazy. More colors will become more evident later.

Planting the other three directions --- up, down and here --- well, that’s beyond me.

I try to expand it a little every year, but it’s pretty small.

Anyhow, that’s the story of my medicine wheel garden --- a story that’s been a detour on the way to Paul Gruchow (pronounce it GREW-coe), where I was intending to go in the first place.


The thing about Paul Gruchow’s writing --- lyrical, insightful, informed, passionate, disciplined --- is that he left so much unsaid; but said enough.

His first book, published in 1985, was “Journal of a Prairie Year.” His second, which I’ve been rereading, “The Necessity of Empty Places.” A few others followed.

Gruchow sparred with clinical depression, however, and it killed him during February of 2004 --- suicide at age 56. The outdoors was one aspect of his therapy. Dead, in the dead of winter, in Duluth --- you’ve got to wonder. He also had recently finished a book about this last battle of his. Perhaps writing about the darkness that plagues us is not always wise.

None of that is evident in his other writing.

His passion was for the prairie and the plain at a time when trendier “nature writers” preferred the desert Southwest, wannabe Edward Abbeys.

But The Necessity of Empty Places, with the exception of four “Book One” essays, is mostly about the Wyoming Big Horns --- including a meditation on Medicine Mountain, where that wheel that brought my silly little garden wheel to mind in the first place is located.

Cut loose when the newspaper he edited in Worthington, Minn., was sold out from under him, this trek from native territory to the mountains was a white man’s vision quest --- a quest that led him as it turned out back to the upper Midwest.

And the premise is that “empty places,” necessary for healing, should not need elaborate justification, economic or otherwise, but merely be allowed to be.

Perhaps my favorite essay is an account of a spring trip --- a recurring pilgrimage --- to the Platte, starting in Grand Island and then following the North Platte toward the Sandhills, to view the Sandhill cranes as they rested and fed.

Following their ancient calendars, the cranes have rested and fed here for millennia, gaining the weight needed to continue a journey that began in the Southwest to nesting grounds far to the north.

In the year of “empty places,” Grucow’s pilgrimage coincided with Christian Holy Week.

Out before dawn for a sunrise service of another sort on Easter morming, Gruchow inadvertently spooked a congregation of cranes:

“The morning had come while I was unaware. I stood, stretched my legs, shook the kinks out of my back. The thousands of cranes in the meadow shrieked in alarm and rose into the air as one body, the force of their wings sounding against the weight of the air like the rolling of a thousand snare drums. They fanned out until they filled the sky and churned forward, their wings wheezing, parting in a circle around me. I stood agape, like the women at the empty tomb. When no sound remained but the champagne music of redwings, I went to breakfast.”

A little later:

“I find structure in the life of cranes, but not in my own life or in the lives of my children, I realized, because I see cranes in communities but I think of humans individually. The paradox of Easter is the paradox of rebirth. Yet the death and rebirth of a community is not paradoxical. An individual sandhill crane is born, matures, and dies; but the community of cranes returns century after century to the same meadow at the foot of the sandhills along the North Platte River in southern Nebraska. It is this truth, the transcendence of the species over the individual, the way in which a community endures and accumulates a history despite the frailties of the creatures who inhabit it, that we celebrate when we stand in awe before the great seasonal migrations. The story of Easter is not paradoxical either if we think of it in the same way: If we will think not of the individual existence, which is fleeting, but of the continuities of the human community --- the continuity, despite everything, of human life, of culture, above all, of faith.”

And finally, after driving north ahead of a great spring snow storm toward home with cranes headed north, too, far above him:

“On the radio the next morning I heard reports of the storm in western Nebraska. Eight-foot drifts of snow. Thousands of motorists stranded. Interstate highways closed. All commerce at a standstill. I was glad to be safe at home. The cranes were safe too, I knew. The ancient faith of the cranes, which had set out so blindly a month earlier under a warm southwestern sun into the treacherous northern spring, the ancient faith of the cranes had once again been affirmed.”

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