How now, brown cow, how red the heavens streak at dawn how shrill and warbled the rooster’s morning cackle how the whole Earth now seems to vociferate in anticipation of another morning broken.
How greener the pastures on each side from the last how sweet a whiff of sunshine through the trees how soft the fleece how fat the sow how each day seems to slip through the slats until the crickets peep and it’s moonlight on the meadow.
How black the night, how grave the vow, how can you blame me, I mean really how— can you possibly blame me, how one dark evening fate stole through the slits while I slept still— some old evil spirit, here to turn a good thing bad.
There is a Gnostic theory that Eve’s serpent, rather than a harbinger of Satan, was actually a gift from Sophia (Σοφíα, wisdom).
His message was: This world is false. Your reality, this garden, has been contrived by Yaldabaoth, and he is insane.
So when Eve ate of the apple she fell not into sin, but into a state of freedom from illusion.
You need not worry about me; the most that I worry about is that I shall get stuck in the mud and cant get out.
Oberlin student’s letter home, 1851
Mud! Dripping from boots, from the wheels of carriages, from the hooves of runaway hogs; tracked across the floors of Tappan Hall, on skirts, on hands, under nails, smeared on books. The principle ingredient in the early days of Oberlin was mud. The wet, clay-ey mess of (mostly) fallow, thick earth on everything. If you haven’t already noticed, Oberlin is a swamp, and was to an even more alarming extent before the college found a way to properly drain itself. This mess, this swamp, is described in one student’s letter home from 1845: “The soil is very clayey, I should think, for when it rains it is very muddy and there are so few sidewalks that it is very difficult to walk more than a rod without getting a free shoe in the mud.” Another student wrote, “I was more disappointed in the appearance of the soil, than in any one thing. It looks almost like a swamp.” One resident was so taken with the “Ohio Mud” that he devoted an entire newspaper article to the subject titled simply: “Mud!!” Tenured faculty member James M. Buchanan abandoned his position in part because of the swamp, and Reverend Charles Grandison Finney himself wrote that “had it not been for the good hand of God in helping us at every step, the institution would have been a failure because of its ill-judged location.”
THE PARTING OF TREES
So why journey away from the rolling hills of the East coast to this glacial plain, this muddy, muddy swamp?
It seems this “hastily decided upon” location was chosen less for its individual qualities than for the fact that Ohio, not so long ago, was the frontier. Ohio, and likewise Oberlin, were virtuous in their separation from other parts of the world, not necessarily in and of themselves. The benefits of separateness were the foundational ideology that brought Oberlin’s first missionaries bushwhacking. Oberlin was not just different from other institutions of higher learning back on the east coast, it was separate. It existed “eight miles from everywhere,” meaning “eight miles from sin” (according to Oberlin historian Geoffrey Blodgett), and the corruptions that festered in more civilized parts of the frontier. Yet this connects Oberlin to the most vital facet American historical self-imagining: Manifest Destiny. It was then possible (and important) to create a perfect utopia, a nineteenth-century hankering that did not receive as large an amount of popularity again until the sixties.
Much like Oberlin’s founders, those first students arrived in this area via a parting of trees. A Mrs. Dascomb wrote of her first journey to Oberlin, “When we were passing through the woods, I was so delighted with the black squirrels, the big trees, & above all, the beautiful wildflowers,” that at times while riding on the carriage she forgot to watch out for “scraggly limbs that every now and then gave us a rude brush.” She almost “[got her] eyes torn out, seconded perhaps by an unceremonious lash from a neighboring bough, wd. [would] Recall [her] to the duty of self preservation. Glad were [they] when an opening in the forest dawned upon [them] & Oberlin was seen.” And what could she have seen? The tangled fingers of budding trees part ways to reveal a (mostly) barren clearing. A few structures shudder closely together, a few men meander around in pairs, talking in low voices. If she arrives around sunset then, stepping down from the carriage to narrowly avoid moistening her laced shoes in a puddle, she sees her reflection, windswept hair blending with the sky above, softly graced now with light orange wisps.
BITS OF BONE // ORIGINAL LANDSCAPE
Oberlin itself was less than aesthetically appealing for many of its first visitors. There is an abundance of students’ letters home complaining of the lack of scenery, opportunities for swimming, and soil that was, well, ubiquitous. One disgruntled visitor wrote of Oberlin, “In the first place it is surrounded by trees. You cannot see more than two miles at the farthest… The bildings are not very near each other and probelay would look very lonesom to you as you are accostomed to see them surrounded by shade trees and [shrubbery] while here it is a rare thing to see even a rose bush.”
Though Oberlin was surrounded by a dense “primeval” forest, for some reason it never occured to first settlers to save some of these trees on the campus proper. By 1846, only two trees stood in Tappan. Likewise, the abundance of mud made sidewalks hard to construct, the clay soil made farmer’s lives difficult, and even in the regions near Plum (Plumb) Creek where natural beauty was more readily available to be gazed upon, “old log bits, bits of bone, peaces of leather, &c—stumps, rail fences &c. &c.” got in the way. Yet, “when attempting to take in a different point your heels fly from under you,” and the observer would fall flat in a puddle of Ohio mud. Much of Oberlin’s early relationship with its environment consisted of embattling it in a struggle, or taking refuge from it. Frontier communities, while offering the unique ability to world-make away from constructed civilization, also had the unique challenges of whatever natural environment they chose to settle on.
To add to this muddy mess were farm animals and fowl running amok across the village. In 1841, “75 Hogs Turned loose in the beautiful Village of Oberlin—to ravage, waste & discomfort & Destroy the fairest portions of our gardens, vex the peaceable Inhabitants, and in particular to war against to most defenceless, Ladies & Children.” The loose hogs raised such an issue that not one or two, but three whole committees were formed under town ordinances for the explicit and sole purpose of dealing with the abundance of rampant farm animals. The animals were apparently not passive trespassers, either. Citizens often reported being “assaulted” by wayward livestock. Cows, pigs, and chickens would “swarm upon and soil the sidewalks and crowd themselves into whatever door yard is open to their forcible assault.” Individuals who refused or neglected to contain livestock would be “notified & admonished” and “void of all regard to the rights of his neighbor & the community.” A hog was not “morally responsible for his actions,” so “the owner must of course be morally responsible for all trespasses by his Hogs.”
The hogs served to muddy the streets and were, in part, what made it necessary to implement sidewalks and boardwalks. The mud made just the act of walking in early Oberlin hilariously difficult. The few boardwalks constructed to aid foot travel proved slippery as a result of poor construction and/or livestock tracking mud onto their surfaces, and numerous letters home detail students falling over themselves while walking, especially those students wearing petticoats, or, “the fairer sex.” Apparently, sidewalks were also capable of inhering moral virtue. In 1861, the editor of the local paper declared, “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous. A proper degree of risk is exhilarating, but the amount we daily encounter, is destructive and discouraging.”
Here, Oberlin’s land management blends oddly with the village’s perceived moral duty to be a tidy, well-ordered community and live in accordance with the town’s founding sensibilities. After pushing their way through the trees and settling in a swamp, clear lines needed to be drawn between the natural and the civilized. Which is ironic, considering Oberlin left civilization in order to exist outside of what it deemed to be morally corrupt. Yet Oberlin felt it had a duty to prove to the rest of the world, and indeed to God, that despite its departure, it was still a suitable, perhaps even utopian, alternative to civilization elsewhere. Oberlin was infused with morality, and apparently the things that were most likely enemies of this morality were natural elements that threatened to overtake an otherwise proper society. Yet even still, Oberlin had mud, it had hogs, and these were physical markers of its geographic and ideological departure. Oberlin was in the frontier, but only so long as these natural frontier elements didn’t encroach on its proper society. Hogs were only morally corrupt when on the loose, and somehow a “degree of risk is exhilarating,” at least according to the paper.
BITS OF BONE // FIRST WOMEN
Though Oberlin loves to pride itself on being the pioneer of coeducation, Oberlin’s first women were admitted on the basis of a “means to end,” according to Oberlin historian and former professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett. Apparently, Oberlin found it primarily important to educate the “minds of those who were going to make first impressions on small children.” The more Christian teachers and missionaries, the better.
Female students at Oberlin had the apparent reputation of being far less outwardly radical as a direct result of coeducation. Blodgett cites some nebulously termed “recent studies in women’s history,” which show that emancipated college women in the nineteenth century became huge agitators in the suffragist cause, settlement house projects, and other reform movements. Yet these “agitating” women were mostly recruited out of women’s institutions in the East. Blodgett claims, “One can find very little evidence of feminist militance at Oberlin before the Civil War, and when it emerged it was slapped down.” Even after the war when suffrage movements gained traction in other parts of the country, Oberlin was “strangely passive” and perhaps even “hostile” on the subject. Women were more likely to be indoctrinated into missionary work or married off after graduating Oberlin. “Perhaps part of the reason for this,” says Blodgett, “is that Oberlin women in their formative college years learned stern daily lessons in how to behave in the presence of men. They learned that they were expected to behave like ladies.”
Yet women were rarely even in the presence of men. The sexes were separated in all areas of college life except the most highly surveilled: dining halls and classrooms. Up until the 1890s, even library hours were segregated. According to Blodgett, “Having embarked in somewhat ad hoc fashion upon authentically radical arrangements for bringing large amounts of men and women together for educational purposes, college authorities spent the rest of the century trying to curb the most feared consequences of what they had done.” What could be more damaging to a pious Christian community’s reputation than a “sexual scandal”? So in order to prove itself worthy of existence, an “air of conservatism” surrounded the institution with regard to coeducation. Extra stress was put on Oberlin’s first women to “behave.”
Women were also, not surprisingly, relegated to the domestic tasks required in village homes and dormitories. They washed dishes, ironed, and sewed for other students. This provided a welcome break from the natural fatigue the female brain was inevitably prone to after spending a period of time studying. One woman wrote on behalf of the “young ladies”: “After having our mind absorbed in some abstract subject until we become weary with intense thought, we repair to some household duty & the mind & body becoming relaxed, we return to the page we left & grasp the thoughts with avidity, & instead of the pale face which too often belongs to the student we see a continual freshness & glow… here domestic economy, which is true should be inoculated by the mother is carried on to still greater perfection, here knowledge of domestic affairs, high intellectual culture & even refinement of manners are considered as consistent with each other.”
PERFECTION // MANUAL LABOR
It is primarily in the realm of educational innovation that the Oberlin colony tried to find the latchkey to perfection.
The domestic chores relegated to Oberlin’s first women were part of a larger system of manual labor, enacted to both combat the natural obstacles to frontier life and somehow instill in young men and women the virtues ingrained through laboring in the woods. The system was an attempt to both engage with Oberlin’s landscape and cultivate its likeness to God’s kingdom. In the eyes of the institution, Learning and Labor were inseparable from one another: “It meets the wants of man as a compound being, and prevents the common amazing waste of money, time, health, and life,” proclaimed the first College report.
Oberlin became known as the “poor man’s college,” in contrast to older institutions in the East. It allowed students of little means an education at the cost of their physical labor in Oberlin’s initial construction. Indeed, the system’s ability to provide alternate modes for covering the financial cost of an education was in part what attracted Black student applicants—some formerly enslaved people, some not—to apply. Black students seeking college degrees in the nineteenth century were met with countless obstacles, financial and otherwise, that resulted from systemic racism; Oberlin was by no means exempt from this reality, but did create limited opportunity within it. This system allowed lower income students, both Black and white, to access an Oberlin education, though not all who applied were in need of the financial assistance. As a result, many of the earliest applications highlighted an applicant’s moral virtue, physical prowess, and good nature, without any mention of scholarship. A Middlebury student wrote to Oberlin in an expression of his wish to transfer: “I think the classical books which are studyed [at Middlebury] have a bad influence in forming the characters of young men. They have in a great measure an attendance to corrupt the habits, morals, and minds of those who pursue them, to say nothing of the time which is lost in commiting to memory ideas which are of no consequence.”
One student wrote in 1837, just four years after town and college were founded: “Nearly all the labor since this Institution was was first established, has been chopping, logging and burning brush; and this too, a great portion of this year, ankle deep in mud and water!” Oberlin’s earliest students cleared the land, constructed buildings, conducted special projects for private residences, etc. One early timecard reads: “2 hours burning Stumps, 3 Hours building walk for Prof. Finney, 3 Hours hanging Gate etc., 4½ Hours preparing … sewer for Prof. Finney.” Eight cents an hour was the going rate for shoveling manure; seven cents for “picking up sticks.”
In service of this belief in Oberlin’s heavenly potential, students worked: felling trees, cutting the stumps away from their roots, dragging the stumps to a brush pile, lighting the pile on fire, standing and staring into the flames, covered in mud, cicadas droning overhead, the smell of wood smoke drifting around them…
The driving force behind this “perfectionism” that influenced Tappan and his peers was a departure from belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinism placed heavy emphasis on mankind’s original sin: when Eve bit into the apple and fraternized with Satan in the garden. Because of this sin, Calvinists believed each person had their own pre-determined fate in the afterlife. The ripple effects of Eve’s first sin had made it entirely impossible for humans to not sin.
But the breakup of Calvinist theology was ushered in by an age that was no longer entirely status-oriented, but celebrated the achievements of the self-made man. Along with this, a heavier emphasis was placed on human achievements, and the possibility of human perfectionism. This is partially why Oberlin’s founders felt motivated to create a utopian community, why they placed so much emphasis on the morality of this community, and why they ultimately held the men and women behaving in this community to high standards of judgement. They hoped that they could somehow teach perfect behavior through manual labor and later, the inauguration of coeducation.
PERFECTION // LADIES AS CIVILIZING INFLUENCES
In the same way working the land was thought to bring about stronger character in Oberlin students, women were also thought to be civilizing and moralizing forces for their male peers. Apparently, working alongside women “exploded” the male idea that “a lady is a toy or a plaything” according to the Oberlin Evangelist.
One male student wrote after moving to an all-male boarding situation that he missed dining with women because, “Without the restraining and refining influence of ladies, it is found impossible to maintain decorum, and instead of our meals being a place to cultivate refinement and to refresh our minds from our studies, it is only a place for satisfying hunger.”
What is it about women that was so able to provide such “refreshment?” The same student wrote earlier: “The society of such a collection of boarders, is just what could be expected from a lot of young men living secluded from ladies. Some would like to have everything carried on in the best of order, but others only wish to swallow their food and run.” Manual labor, a system that made for “sound bodies and clear minds,” perhaps possessed refreshing properties similar to those conferred by sitting next to a woman and engaging her in conversation over dinner. Like a cool breeze, like a stroll in the garden after being cooped up in the library all day. Something different, something immutable, something primal.
By their very presence, women allowed Oberlin another step forward to that ephemeral latchkey to perfection—men were made closer to the ideal civilization through socializing with the opposite sex. Having women around perhaps kept Oberlin from becoming a sort of primeval male colony in the woods. Having women nearby was also a way for men to manage their sexual urges. The presence of real women, the very hum of them intellectually and physically working, supposedly put male urges to rest—like a lullaby.
Yet while feminine presence was grounding for men, it was also akin to a fresh breeze. So their etherealness, their natural mannerisms, had to be reigned in, segregated to avoid too much enticement. A balance was struck between the natural and the civilized. Perhaps we can draw a parallel here to those unscrupulous hogs: only immoral when on the loose.
ARBORETUM // NEURASTHENIA
The natural look of the Arb has occasionally had to withstand planning and domesticating impulses brought to bear upon it from both town and college.
Robert Stinson, Oberlin Tribune columnist
It is funny then, that Oberlin women were in apparent need of a place of retreat themselves, and that this place of retreat could only be located far from men, far from academia, at the edge of civilization itself.
The mid-1870s saw increasing discussion about a need for “a place for women to walk in quiet meditation.” This place had to be, most importantly, out of the way and in seclusion from male students. It had to be physically and socially separated from men: “a tract of land of seventeen acres containing the only bit of primeval forest left immediately adjacent to the village,” the same forest we now call “the arb.”
Ladies Grove itself was a much smaller area of the sweeping acreage of the Oberlin Arboretum, located a bit northwest from what students now consider to be the arb proper, with its reservoirs and prairies and illegal fire pits. It was an alleviation of an Oberlin-specific coeducational dilemma, keeping men separated from women in all spaces not heavily supervised to avoid a sexual scandal, and even more so, women seperated from men, to calm their nerves in peaceful pursuit of “contemplative rewards.” Like all other aspects of the lives of women on this campus, the Ladies Grove was another attempt at keeping pure the impressionable minds of the “fairer sex.” Again, Oberlin reached for perfectionism by way of separation. Ladies could reach their ideal serene state outside the civic lines drawn by others.
If we can understand Ohio as an imagined frontier again, the water of Plum Creek running past miles and miles of “primeval” forest, separated infrequently by agricultural and clustered communities… If we place these women walking at the edge of this, teetering perhaps on the final line drawn between rural piety and rural wilderness…
It was a world unto itself where these Victorian women could find cure for their “hysteria,” in the warm woolen arms of this wilderness. During the early eighteenth century, Neurasthenia, a make-believe “nervous affliction” originally attributed to the possession of a uterus, was increasingly thought rather to be a neurological phenomenon brought about by the stresses of daily life. The Oberlin Arboretum was at first a place where Victorian ladies could escape these stresses. Perhaps separation for these women had a similar effect to the one Oberlin’s founders pursued when they left the coast; salvation by separation, revelation by seclusion.
When Eve bit into that apple, was she given knowledge that her world had been contrived by an insane deity? What messages, what wisdom, was imparted to those women in the fluttering of thousands of leaves? The world you imagine to be real is actually fabricated to limit you. What else could quell the “hysteria” bred by an insane patriarchy? Where else could liberation from illusion become possible?
Truthfully, there’s not much in the Ladies Grove. Two engraved brick posts swept off the intersection of Morgan and South Prospect Street by the curved, muddied arm of a footpath mark its entrance to this day. Down past these pillars, a hill slopes gently into a forest interspersed with thin trees and tangled underbrush. On cloudy days, when the trees are barren, the forest is foreboding, the spaces between trees reveal more spaces between other trees and the cemetary to the right stands in ominous salute. But when it is sunny, maybe at the beginning of spring, or at dusk in late fall, the forest stands in subtly perceptible communication with itself. Frogs murmur, squirrels perform acrobatics overhead; and in the late hours of the day, the jeers of cicadas merge into one impenetrable wall of warm sound.
Is this what Eve heard as she bit into the apple?
Several women glide through the grove in pairs; a few tread in solitude. One lone woman stoops to kick a clump of mud from her shoe, another snaps a twig in half as she passes under a low branch. Around and around they move, the plumes of their dresses elegantly spill out from their hips like clouds, like pockets of air.
The sun begins to set, turning the sky to a pink and orange froth. They murmur, blending their voices with the loudening symphony of frogs, the babbling creek.
It gets darker, the light trickles in grey. Few women remain; most have carried off to make curfew, to slide into bed, to light their candles. But several don’t. They continue breathing deeply, trailing fingers across moss, across lichen. Suddenly, one woman trips. Her counterparts look over their shoulders and smirk but she is unfazed, she wanted to be closer to the ground, anyway.
Fingers moving cautiously now, the woman cranes her neck forwards and spies a small boulder. She plants her elbow in the soil and rolls it over to reveal a tangled knot of earthworms.
Most women are gone now. One stays.
This woman takes the knot into her lap and watches as it strains against the pressed linen of her dress. Then the worms move deeper, they are looking for a parting in the soil.
NOTE: I want to acknowledge the little information available on the experiences of Black women within the college’s domestic labor system and their role in the college’s moral negotiations within coeducation. The works cited in this piece focus on the experiences of the earliest female students at Oberlin and do so without fully acknowledging the disparity in experiences between women of different identities. Published in 1943, Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College in particular generalizes the student body’s experiences as those of white students, erasing the individual experiences of students of color. I sought to write a piece focusing on Oberlin’s initial relationship with its landscape and how this mirrored the indoctrination of coeducation, but there are many factors beyond gender that influence a student’s experience at Oberlin and it is important to acknowledge these complexities.
I have this very distinct memory from when I was thirteen. It lasts about ten seconds—the first ten seconds after waking up one morning. I am exhausted, but my body wakes itself up with the sun as it has done for the past three days. The first thing I see is the patterned red and orange fabric of someone else’s sleeping bag. I feel a cool breeze sift its way through the thin nylon of the tent wall and brush against my cheek. I hear… I hear the sound of something howling in the distance. I think for a brief moment that it is the highway, and that the sound I hear is cars speeding past one another. I think of the highways that I pass by back home in the suburbs of Minneapolis—the subdued brown of the noise barriers that flank them on either side, the way rain or snow amplifies the sound tires make against pavement.
But a couple seconds later, I blink and become aware of the fact that what I am hearing is not the highway: It is the wind howling over a lake. I am not in the suburbs or anywhere remotely near a road—I am on an island inside a tent. The island has no name.
When I think back on this moment, the feelings attached to it are muddled. First is the panic one feels waking up in a strange place. On top of that is a layer of shock produced by the realization that this unfamiliar place contains familiar stimuli—the howling noise—but these stimuli are caused by a different phenomenon—the wind. Realizing this in a brief instant jolts me back, all at once, to where I am without the ease of context. I can point precisely to where I am on a map, but beyond that I have no idea what surrounds this area. I have no idea how to leave this place if I wanted to. I am at the mercy of it. The wind howling. Wilderness.
I grew up near Minneapolis, Minnesota. I like to think I’m more Minnesotan than most, though, because no member of my extended family on either side has ever lived outside the state for more than a couple years, and they’ve always come back.
My mother’s family lives north of us in Duluth and some small towns outside of it. The journey north to see them is guided by a slowly shifting landscape on either side of the highway. Prairie and wetland give way to dense boreal forest. The air saturates with a cool sweetness blown off the enormous lake we hurtle towards and, driving at night, stars twinkle and slowly become more visible overhead.
Perhaps because of this I’ve always felt that my life is oriented north. It’s a strange and deep longing. Especially when I was younger, I felt a sense of calm knowing we were driving north, even if it was just for a quick errand. I used to crane my neck in my car seat to observe the compass on the dashboard. On the occasions that we’d visit a cabin belonging to my aunt’s father-in-law on a lake somewhere near Isabella, Minnesota, I exclaimed with glee: This is the farthest north I have ever been!
Maybe there’s a sort of magnet inside of me like those inside of compasses. Maybe I was in need of a point of origin. I’ve heard of people who have never been to the desert before longing for that landscape with a kind of pre-nostalgia. When we’re young I think we long to return to places we’ve never experienced. For me, that place existed in the Northwoods. There seemed a sort of clarity unique to that area. Somewhere up there, humming softly, an ancient calm permeates everything in hues of deep green, misted white, and the bright purple of lupine in summer.
When I was thirteen, I went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness for the first time with a camp my next-door-neighbor had introduced me to. We spent the first two days at base-camp preparing for our voyages: packing food, planning a route, choosing canoes, getting to know one another. After that short time was up, we embarked on a five-day journey through the ‘back-country,’ carrying our packs and canoes on our backs on the paths between lakes.
The Boundary Waters is a 1.1 million-acre region of protected forest that straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border just west of Lake Superior. It is located in the northern portion of a state that is eight percent water and has a combined shoreline of 45,000 miles—more than the sum of both the inland and ocean coasts of California. The BWCA is an interconnected series of waterways that is littered with boreal forest. Looking at a map, you can see what little green is visible there. Most of the surface is bespeckled in blue. Look closer and you realize that not all of the dots have been charted for depth, leaving a portion a deeper and smoother blue—elegantly and mysteriously free of topographical lines.
The BWCA occupies a smaller portion of this protected wilderness, for which camping licenses may be bought. The area makes up the northern third of the Superior National Forest and contains over 1,200 canoe routes, twelve hiking trails, and more than 2,000 Department of Natural Resources (DNR)-maintained campsites. The area was set aside initially in 1926 to preserve its “primitive” character, and in 1964 it became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
In the tent again, I am at the mercy of the wilderness, but not entirely. I am here for the first time with four other young girls and two tough, older women—our guides. As I’m looking back on it now, I realize these women must not have been in their twenties yet, but to me they were ancient, and stronger than I ever imagined I would be. Technically we are at a summer camp, but the actual base-camp is far away from us. Now we are “on trail”—in the woods surrounded by an impossible vastness. There are no roads or motors anywhere near the island. There are no houses and there is nowhere to purchase firewood or food. Everything we have, including our five canoes, we’ve carried and paddled with for miles.
We find firewood near our campsite that is “dead and down” and no wider than our wrists. We burn it only in the designated fire grate. Food scraps must be carried out in our packs and not tossed down the latrine or burned. We wash our dishes at least 150 feet from the water’s edge. When we brush our teeth, we spray out the paste in little droplets. If we were to see a group of more than four more people—and we never do—we would not congregate on a portage, campsite, or lake.
While the Boundary Waters isn’t in another class of wilderness, perhaps it should be. In comparison to my experiences in various other wild places throughout the country, I’ve found the BWCA has a certain unmarked quality to it. In other protected areas, the paths are somehow more well worn: There are signs, and the trails on the maps are named. In the Boundary Waters there are no signs. There are no rangers gliding by on motorboats, there is no evidence of human life outside of your own and even that becomes somehow strange and alien, reduced to periods of intense movement and absolute stillness.
I kept a diligent and water-stained diary during this trip in 2009. The first entry reads:
We cook with lake water, we drink lake water, we swim in lake water. We can’t taste it but we know it’s there. The way the water moves, ripples and sways creates an intricate pattern. Decorating where the dense forest breaks sloping down to the bay.
Paddles break the surface creating whirlpools, disturbing the quiet peace. Then restored again. The wind paints the water and the moon pulls it towards the bays.
The canoe’s rhythm is a lullaby. No noise, wind slowly gliding over the water dancing on the waves. The whole arrangement is low haunting melody, playing harmonious with the cheerful singing of birds.
One night on that trip as we are nestled in our line of sleeping bags, thunder intensely reverberates around the lake and a few seconds later lightning strikes. We exit the tent in the pouring rain and retrieve the life vests we’ve stashed under the canoes. All seven of us, counselors included, then sit scattered throughout the forest on the vests. The logic behind lightning drills is quite simple: we scatter to lessen the likelihood that we are struck at once. If one of us is hit by lighting or crushed by a falling tree, the loss is numerically lesser than if all of us are struck huddled together in the tent.
We have adorned ourselves with protective layers of rain gear, but this barely helps. The wind howls and rain pours down into my lap, slicks my pants to my skin. I can hear my fellow campers around me loudly singing to distract themselves above the noise of the thunder and wind. I imagine what it would be like to get struck by lightning. The flash and the sharpness. I crane my head to watch the trees wobble ominously over my head.
At the age of thirteen, the self is a particularly nebulous concept. So sitting there in the forest absolutely vulnerable to the forces of the natural world I experienced a kind of fear that was so refreshing in its absolutism and rawness that I almost forgot who I was. To that storm, I was no different than any one of the boulders or stumps that surrounded our campsite. I was equally disposable and equally organic.
On trail we aren’t allowed to have watches. We move through the environment in the daylight hours and retreat at dusk. We eat when we are hungry, and sleep when the light fades. I lose track of the days, too. Dates are meaningless and years are equally irrelevant—July 12, 2009 becomes “Day Three.” I feel ancient and dirty. I no longer remember what I look like without access to mirrors, and this adds to my bodiless sensation. At first this is disorienting to me and I find myself trying to steal peeks at the highly guarded watches of the counselors. But eventually I lose interest and my body begins to merge with the surrounding elements. I am entirely alone with my mind and the minds of those around me. I find myself returning to my body as a kind of shelter unto itself.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proclaims that the Boundary Waters “allows visitors to canoe, portage, and camp in the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago.” But when I am in the Boundary Waters I don’t feel like I am hearkening back to any point in human history. When I am in the Boundary Waters, I feel as though the place I have immersed myself in has less to do with humanity than it does with eternity.
There is a difference between being humbled by wilderness and interpreting its emptiness as simply emptiness, or that which is capable of being conquered. Words like emptiness and nowhere connote a kind of hierarchy. If something is empty, then it is empty of something and can or should be filled. Nowhere implies a similar theme; if a place is nowhere then it must be outside of somewhere.
As I explained earlier, the Boundary Waters is a vast and interconnected series of waterways. No motorboats, no planes below 4,000 feet, even, are allowed to infiltrate its protected bubble. But something that I’ve been forced to come to terms with recently is that nothing, not even a wilderness as pristine and seemingly limitless as the Boundary Waters, is disconnected from outside influences. The earth resists our attempts to delineate it.
While mining within the BWCA is illegal due to its protected status, mining directly outside of it is not. Twin Metals, a mining corporation with offices in St. Paul and Ely, Minnesota, proposed a Sulfide-ore copper mine located a few miles from the BWCA in the Kawishiwi River watershed. In the frantic final days of his administration, Obama refused the renewal of mining leases owned by Twin Metals, Minnesota (a mining company owned by Antofagasta, the multi-billion dollar Chilean mining conglomerate). Before this can come into effect, though, the area must undergo (and is currently undergoing) a two-year environmental review to assess the economic, social and, of course, environmental impacts of this proposed mine.
But since Trump’s election, two Minnesotan senators, Tom Emmer and Rick Nolan, have been attempting to end the environmental review and reinstate the leases to Twin Metals. They drafted a bill, H.R. 3905, that is currently making its way through a series of votes. If it passes, it could have devastating environmental implications in the region as it would immediately end the environmental review, and reinstate Twin Metal’s leases, allowing them to mine in the region.
Waterways do not taper off where the U.S. government has drawn lines on a map. They continue onward and are connected with less protected areas outside of the preserve. I spoke with Scott Beauchamp for about an hour on the phone one evening as the days were beginning to shorten in late October. Beauchamp is the Director of Media Relations at Save the Boundary Waters, a national campaign that works to influence legislature and spread general awareness of environmental threats to the region. He told me, “The issue with this type of mining [is] it’s a very water-heavy area, and all the water of the Boundary Waters is very interconnected, and these proposed mines are on the Kawishiwi—which directly flows into the Boundary Waters—so the pollution from those mines would flow right into the Boundary Waters. Because [it] is so clean right now and so interconnected, it would cause devastating pollution throughout the wilderness.”
So the chemicals will more than likely flow from the somewhere, the outside world, into nowhere, and potentially destroy it. The earth shows us, through its infinite connection to itself, that you cannot protect a portion of it; you must protect it all.
One lake is entirely covered in yellow and orange lily pads. We stretch out our hands to feel their leathery surface. The bottoms are coated in a kind of green slime that we rub between our fingers. The canoe slowly glides forward, making the sound of an exhale: shhhhh…
Toxic pollutants will affect aquatic ecosystems, and infiltrate the waterways, resulting in a decrease in biodiversity on land, too. Mercury levels in fish will rise, putting human health at risk.
Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) Congresswoman Betty McCollum pointed out in a statement condemning the mines that 92 percent of sulfide mines in the U.S. have experienced failures and directly impacted the water quality of surrounding areas.
The Forest Service cited the potential environmental impacts of sulfide-ore mining as rationale for their decision to deny the leases under Obama. “We’re concerned about the impacts of copper-nickel mining in sulfide deposits, because there is extensive research that shows that should impacts occur, it would be virtually impossible to mitigate those impacts,” said Kathleen Atkinson, a forester with the U.S. forest service who specializes in the region. Moreover, sulfide-ore mining is generally more toxic than taconite mining, which is more common in Minnesota.
Not to mention that Antofagasta, Twin Metals’ parent company, is no stranger to environmental violations. In 2009, a sulfide deposit site in Chile called Los Pelambres dumped 13,000 liters of copper contaminate into the Choapa River. In 2014, the Chilean Supreme Court found Antofagasta guilty of cutting off water to the village of Caimanes as a result of its waste dam upstream.
On trail we are constantly moving through different environments, and I come to realize that each lake has its own personality. Some are narrow and shallow with reeds and an abundance of dragonflies. Some are wide and twisting, surrounded by rocky outcroppings. The angle of the sun also affects how I perceive each new lake. In early afternoon, the water sparkles and becomes daunting as I struggle to force my arms into another paddle stroke. At dawn, the lakes are more serene. I come to find my physical and mental states reflected by the world around me. When I struggle with a canoe on my back, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and the world is lit with a garish intensity. When we slide into a campsite in early evening, I feel calmer—nurtured by the deep purples and blue streaks of the clouds above.
In press releases, Twin Metals spokespeople framed the denial of their leases as a direct assault on hardworking Minnesotans, denying them of a mine that could provide 850 jobs and sustain itself for thirty years. Executive director of Mining Minnesota Frank Ongaro called the move “nothing but political B.S. All this does is chase investment away from the U.S., and makes us more dependent on foreign governments for our metals,” he said.
Up North Jobs, based in Ely, Minnesota, is one of the leading dissenters to the environmental review. It makes its position quite obvious: Denying mining companies the opportunity to develop federal land is akin to stealing jobs and resources from Minnesotans. In an open letter “To Repeal Federal Land Withdrawal,” Chairman Gerald Tyler writes: “The decision by the Obama administration and the USFS/BLM [United States Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management] to conduct a study and complete an environmental impact statement… is a shameless attempt by the anti-mining activists and their federal agency ‘friends’ to preemptively quash the development of Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed project by delaying exploration until at least 2019, and perhaps for an additional twenty years if a moratorium on prospecting is imposed.”
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak is in support of mining as well. Ely, a town with historical and geographic ties to the BWCA, is no stranger to mining controversy nor, for that matter, wilderness conservation controversy. “It takes the hope out from all the people who looked for a brighter future with great paying jobs, family, living wages, a boost to the economy,” he said.
However, Beauchamp makes the case that, while mining would provide a certain number of jobs for northeastern Minnesotans, these jobs are ultimately temporary and the loss of the Boundary Waters would result in deeper economic loss. “Our position is, if you look at the size of this, it’s very, very, very likely that it will pollute the boundary waters. So you’re kind of forced into a bargain, or not necessarily a bargain, but a decision,” he says. “You know, is it going to be these mining jobs for twenty to thirty years? Or do we want to try to work with the clean, sustainable Boundary Waters that we have right now? Because you can’t have both. […] There’s over 17,000 jobs that depend on the boundary waters… why would we throw away that economy for a few hundred mining jobs?”
He adds, “We need to be focusing on the Boundary Waters as a resource. As long as we protect it, it’ll be around forever. How do we use that to create an economy that helps everyone become employed and not endanger the wilderness?”
One of the only people I see besides the members of my group on trail is an older man resting at the head of one of our portages. It is late morning, the sun dapples his face. As we unload our canoes I hear him softly explain to one of our guides that he’s been out here for months paddling his way around the area in a grand loop. He sports a rugged grey beard and smiles at us good-naturedly. Before we embark on the trail, he is off with a pack and canoe on his back, the veins in his calves bulge and he disappears around a bend.
I wonder if wanting to save the Boundary Waters is a stance taken mainly by people who have the economic resources to make a visit to the wilderness. I asked Scott, “I’m just thinking about mining supporters who are pro-jobs up there… Do you think that they have access to the Boundary Waters in the same way that people who are pro-Boundary Waters? Does that somehow have an impact on their stance on it? Do you have to experience it in order to want to protect it?”
He answers, “It’s really difficult for me to say whether or not people have been there, because I think it really just depends on the specific person. But, you know, I think that a lot of people are looking at [mining] as a way for them to support their family, which is something… you know, it’s not like we’re against mining, we’re just against mining in this place. We don’t think we should sacrifice the Boundary Waters for it.”
On my last foray into the BWCA, as a camper at age fifteen, our group ran into some trouble. The route we had chosen appeared to have been abandoned for a number of years, and the portages were heavily overgrown and almost impossible to navigate. On top of that, many people in the group experienced injuries and we had to back-paddle an entire day’s distance to our drop-point after one member twisted her ankle on a tree root.
At one point, we mistook a dried-up waterfall for a portage and found ourselves on a small, unnamed lake with no connecting routes. How long has it been since someone experienced this lake? I thought as we aimlessly floated and our guide panicked with the map. Eventually we were forced to bushwhack our way out down the side of a cliff. Later that day, I got a concussion during a portage, and another member slipped on some wet rocks at our campsite, injuring her spine. No one had a phone and we were a day behind. We needed an ambulance, but were down three paddlers.
On the morning we were set to evacuate for the second time, our guide woke us up when it was still dark out. Our campsite was on a peninsula surrounded by hollow and barren trees—ravaged in a forest fire. We were tired and dirty. We hadn’t seen anyone outside of our group for five days. Suddenly, in the distance, a fleet of canoes emerged and we flagged them down. They were gracious—a troop of Boy Scouts from South Carolina—and helped us radio a nearby hospital while we ate their trail mix.
It is not so much the exhaustion or fear that I remember most clearly. Upon entering the ambulance I noticed among the bright white lights and oxygen tubes, an analog clock hung near the back door. This was so jarring to me that I began to cry with a mixture of relief and regret. For the first time in a week, I knew what time it was. Suddenly, all at once without the ease of context, I am jolted back into a space where time is meaningful. Yet now it feels unnatural in the same way the whiteness of the interior of the ambulance feels unnatural. In that moment, the only thing that felt real—natural—was the dirt ground deeply into my skin.
This is how I’d rather exit the Boundary Waters: through its rivers and lakes and bogs. Paddling silently from mid-morning until dusk. Meandering slowly until houses start to become visible and the low murmur of voices again is audible. Paddling some more until the hum of cars cannot be mistaken for the wind.
In November of 2017, I received an email from Save the Boundary Waters with the subject line: BREAKING. My stomach dropped as I opened it and read that H.R. 3905 had passed “in a close vote” by the House Natural Resource Committee on November 8, 2017. The bill is now cleared for a vote by the full U.S. House of Representatives. The Boundary Waters Need Your Help More Than Ever, it warned.
So this is how I fear I’ll only be able to enter the Boundary Waters from now on: in the first few moments after waking, hearing the sound of the highway, and mistaking it for the wind.
After the longest and hardest portage of my first trip through a place called “Howl Swamp,” we emerged at dusk to our surprise on a sandy beach. The portage was brutal, through mud and dense forest and the most mosquitoes I’d ever seen in my life. My arms shook with exhaustion as I attempted to keep my concentration away from the swarm of insects that had entered the hood of the canoe to bite my arms and face. The portage seemed to go on for miles, but all of a sudden my boots touched water and I flung the canoe off of my shoulders to see the expanse of a large, sparkling lake. We spent the next twenty minutes splashing in the shallows and rubbing sand on our muddy skin in the waning light.
Of course, this lake wasn’t our own discovery. Of course, hundreds, or even thousands, of people before us had come upon this very lake and paddled its water before us. Of course, long before the Boundary Waters was even categorized by the U.S. government, people had called this place home. Of course we knew this. But there is a difference between being awed and humbled by emptiness and wanting to conquer it.
When I threw off that canoe and witnessed the scene before me, my first thought wasn’t that this was all mine. My first thought was how big the clouds were and how their pink reflected off the water. My first thought was how clear it was, and how peacefully it lapped at the shore—the stillness and vastness of the scene before me. My first thought was, This is the farthest north I have ever been.