Thoughts on the bog at Little Rice Lake
Mush and I went out there sometimes, on the east side where the hills drop into a stand of tamaracks. It was a swamp of very old trees and many of them were floating, part of the bog that surrounded the entire lake. I think we had the idea we could get to the open water if we were brave enough to walk out to the edge. We never did, even the largest roots sank a few inches when we stepped on them. When we pressed a dead sapling through an opening in the tangle it went easily, without finding bottom. Along the west side was a more traditional floating bog, a thick mat of willows and grasses. Doc Moberg had leased access there for duck hunting and I sometimes went there with his sons Peter and Steven. Someone had made a walkway from wooden planks out to access the open water. That was the only way onto the lake, unless it was winter.
I drink Islay scotch, COAL ILA and Lagavulin, because it tastes like bog, like animal and undergrowth, it brings to mind lakes in Minnesota. It lets me think of the way beavers lay dams across creeks and how muskrats stack their houses. Its breath is similar to the way the earth itself climbs onto the night air in that country in those short days of afterwinter, when last year’s bent cattails line the shorelines and the wind has yet to find the dust and heat from the Dakotas to force the coming summer.
But I rarely drink when I’m writing. Though I do sometimes let my pencil wander to get some relief from the more difficult job of making everything right. This morning I found some of that writing from a few nights ago, something about falling through the bog on Little Rice Lake and feeling the cold tamarack brown water filling my body and watching the simple daylight disappear above. It told of me watching, in the dark murk, the still winter slow paddling of black snapping turtles. I found Romaine Thomas’s cows, the ones duck hunters frightened out onto the floating willows in an early morning barrage of shotgunning thirty years before. They were standing in the brown sludge at the bottom, their black and white hides leather brown from a third of a century in the tannin water. Sticklebacks and red bellied mud minnows swam in schools under their briskets and around their large nostrils. A springing heifer was on her front knees, the hoofs of her unborn calf showing against the inside of her skin. In that same passage there was a description of a giant pike passing above, strait backed and stalking the weeds for young bass. Details went on at length about the size of the tamarack, how they tipped and began to sink when stepped on and the way theirs and the willow roots reached down and into each other from their grass matted station above.
These things would not fit into any real work, but I am interested in the source of them. Even though I didn’t misstep a tamarack root and slip beneath the bog on that lake; did not become fluid with the tannin stained water and there is no way to know if Mr. Thomas’s cattle are preserved down in those depths, (if they are, surely they are not standing.) These must be the tailings from stories and speculations I know from that place and time. The pike is probably the one Author Rienbold shot with his twelve gauge while skating the thin November ice hunting muskrats there as a boy. I have no idea if turtles wintered there, it’s an educated guess. Little Rice Lake would be an ideal hiding place for an old wintering snapper. She would find in the surrounding south facing sandy hills an ideal place to hide her eggs in the spring.
At first thought, the underwater fantasy seems to be derived from old fears, from stories of men and cattle lost in the northern bogs. But I don’t think this is it; I think these are more indications of entry points into my own history. I know these things have origins in my stories and the memories I have absorbed over time. Working on such things now has merely brought them to the surface. Gunners did scare some of Mr. Thomas’s cattle too far out on the bog where they were lost but I think part of their reappearance came from a story about a farmer who made life like cow mannequins with the skins of butchered Holsteins on brush piles. For awhile one summer they appeared as macabre installations to passing cars as their headlights panned them in the night. The idea there are leather cattle preserved in the depths of a lake in the hills is an easy extension from that. It is likely each idea has a thread that could be followed back to the stories and histories I already know.
Miranda Weiss once told me that if I moved back there I would likely lose these kinds of connections because they are, among other things, expressions of longing for that place. Now, working on this again, varying degrees of these images are waiting everywhere, mold from old and new dreams drawn up from forgotten wishes. The interesting thing is how this improves more useful images, how perfectly I can imagine the way milkweed seed rises when it follows the wind, the suddenness of a great horned owl flying into a night window, or the soft pluck of the bittern in a spring swamp. It seems I am working, not from having, but from desire.