Johannes Punkt Interviews Marissa Lingen

marissa-lingen Michael: I asked Johannes Punkt (whose story “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” is in Reckoning 1 and goes live on the site next month) to interview Marissa Lingen about “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” because he’s from Sweden and I thought he might have interesting things to ask her, and because I’m trying to do everything I can to foster cross-pollination between Reckoning authors, artists, readers and yes, editors.

Johannes: I love how you write nature as something incredibly personal. Who do you write like, do you think, on your best days? Who would you like to write like?

Marissa: I want to write like my best self. I am inspired by so many other writers, but I have a hard time saying, “I want to write like Jane Yolen” or “I want to write like John M. Ford” or “I want to write like Octavia Butler.” I want to talk about relationship and society the way Octavia did, I want to have the interplay of ideas Mike had in his work, I want Jane’s range in talking to all sorts of audiences. I try to learn from everything I like, to see what makes it go. But at the end of the day, I can only write like me. If I’m lucky and work very hard, I can write like the best me.

Marissa: I’ve been reading more personal essayists lately as well as writing this piece–usually I write fiction. So I can say more particularly that I am inspired by Elizabeth Dodd and by Karen Babine, in this form, and I’m always looking for more inspiration.

Johannes: Since you wrote about wilderness—what is your favourite wilderness in writing?

Marissa: Since you’re Swedish there’s some chance you’ll actually know what I mean when I answer this! My first wilderness in writing was the robber’s woods in Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daugher, and I think that that writing about being a little girl in the forest, sometimes with her little boy friend, imprinted itself and the forest on my heart when that was me too. All the others since then have been paler echoes—some of them wonderful, but none as vivid as that first literary wilderness.

Johannes: Reading your piece, I couldn’t help but think about it and about how notions of private/public property shape the landscape and, in turn, those who grow up there. Have you and your Swedish cousins talked about Allemansrätten [A Swedish law that means that even if you own land, you can’t stop people from going there/temporarily sleeping there, &c. That’s the gist of it. In English it’s called “freedom to roam.”]?

Marissa: Yes! They had us out to their country house when we were visiting last year, and it came up then, because we walked out on the road but came back through a field and some woods that were adjacent. I had read about what a large percentage of Swedes go berry-picking or mushroom-picking—an even larger percentage of Finns, I think, under the same type of law—and it totally makes sense compared to here, where people mostly don’t do that. My best friend does urban foraging, but she always asks very carefully. She goes to the door and knocks and says something like, hi, I see your mulberry bushes are full of fruit going to the birds, would you mind if I picked some. And then she makes jam. And of course I don’t want random strangers wandering in and eating my tomatoes, but having a common understanding sounds appealing indeed.

Johannes: Related to the previous question: You write about wildness and wilderness, like a stewardship of nature almost. How do you feel about ownership of land, tamed, half-tamed, or not? (Is it something that elicits emotion?) obviously you wrote that the waterfall was “[y]ours” but the two feel like very different kinds of ownership, no?

Marissa: They’re very different indeed. My feelings about land ownership get complicated. We own a house on a third of an acre here, with woods in the back. When we moved in, the woods were part of a long strip of forested land that crossed ten or twelve people’s private property in going down to the city park. It wasn’t a large woods, but it was nice. Now several of our neighbors have chosen to cut and landscape that, which changes the feel of the whole. And of course that’s their prerogative, but it makes me gloomy.

The kind of possessiveness that I feel about Minnehaha Falls is an entirely non-exclusive possessiveness. It’s mine, it’s ours—and I want that “ours” to be as large as possible. I want all the people who live around here and even visitors to feel that they have some relationship with the Falls, some responsibility to see that it’s cared for. I think under our current system having it be a public park is the best way to do that, but if it can be a public park that makes people feel that they are part of the public, even better. I fear that too often “the government owns it” ends up feeling like “no one owns it, no one takes any responsibility,” when it should be a collective feeling of *everyone’s* responsibility. Ownership should feel more like “I need to take care of this [possibly with some other people]” than like “I can do whatever I like with this and no one can stop me.”

Johannes: Your piece discusses adjusting to disability. I got mine relatively early; I can hardly remember what it’s like to be “normal.” You seem to ground yourself with those memories and patterns; what do you do when the world is too xenoformed, too alien to adjust to? If it ever is.

Marissa: Oh, it is sometimes. Yes. There is a level of vertigo that results in dreams of being on a malfunctioning space station with the gravity going haywire, because that’s how completely disoriented my body is about up and down, and that’s the metaphor set my science fiction writer brain has to process those sensations when I’m unconscious. So my brain is literally saying: this is beyond our planetary reference frame, this is an alien environment.

What do I do practically: well, there is a practice my best friend refers to as “Marissa is brachiating again”: that is, going from branch to branch like a monkey. Only I am doing it in the house: getting around without falling over by reaching for the next thing to steady myself on, going from touching a wall to a chair to a countertop. That’s one of my best coping mechanisms in my small, immediate world. In the larger one–my assistance needs and coping vary a lot depending on how bad a day it is. Sometimes my cane is enough. Sometimes I need to take a friend’s arm. Sometimes the only thing that will work is patience, waiting for a day when the world and I are better lined up.

Johannes: And, lastly, it’s a new year and stuff. What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Marissa: I have Maria Dahvana Headley’s Aerie at the top of my stack of Christmas books. I loved Magonia, and I’m looking forward to Aerie very much. Last year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and I’m now going through the rest of Solnit’s work a little at a time. I also read my first Gerald Vizenor novel, Treaty Shirts, which I loved, so I’m reading the rest of his stuff a little at a time too. And of course there are new things coming out that I’m eager for—Thoraiya Dyer’s debut looks pretty great, and our mutual editor has been talking up Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, so I’m excited for that.

 

Read “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” in Reckoning 1.

Johannes Punkt writes with an accent. Previously published in Minor Literature[s], Pamphlets for the Apocalypse, among others. Studies translation at Lund University, Sweden. Email: johannespunkt@gmail.com.

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How Far Are We From Minneapolis?

Marissa Lingen

Reckoning 1

My Swedish cousins were very confused by the walk through the woods down to the Mississippi River. “How far are we from Minneapolis?” they kept asking. And we would repeat: we’re in Minneapolis. This is part of Minneapolis. We’re in Minneapolis right now. They gazed at us in frustration, unsure what part of their excellent English was not getting through. “But how far? How far to get to Minneapolis?”

The urban park land that stretches from just upstream of Minnehaha Falls down to the Mississippi is mitigated, human-focused land. It’s not wilderness by any reasonable definition. And yet the small wilds, the contained wilds, have their place—not to substitute for larger conservation efforts, but to preserve specific landforms. And more, to set aside green space not as a thing that city dwellers visit, but as a thing that we live with intimately.

The park navigates the space between human and wild expertly. At the top of the Falls, there are lawns, even small cultivated gardens. There are statues and plaques. Picnic tables and a bandshell and even a little restaurant that’s open in the warm months. And there is the destination on the official tourist checklist: the Falls themselves. The statue just upstream ties them in explicitly with Longfellow’s poem (though it would otherwise have nothing to do with the area—Longfellow’s Gitchee-Gumee—Kitchi Gammi, Lake Superior—is three hours north). All of that is the farthest thing from wild. But if you take the stairs to the bottom of the falls, a trail leads along Minnehaha Creek, to a wide, grassy meadow with no amenities, except that it’s fun to run around in. Follow it a little more, into the trees, and before you know it you’re alone, you and the bunnies and the squirrels, heading down to the Mississippi.

Close to the Falls, the WPA stabilized the streambeds against erosion back in the 1930s. Those walls have been rebuilt and expanded into a pool area slightly downstream. When I was eight, we took my great-grandmother there on a picnic, and she told us about how she would take the streetcar and walk to get down from Nordeast Minneapolis, where she grew up, for Sunday School picnics beside Minnehaha Creek. Our family was so poor then that Great-Grandma couldn’t afford the white dress she needed to participate in her high school graduation. But they could still enjoy the park, even before its WPA improvements. When we brought her back, she was so shaky she needed my dad’s arm, but she could get there. She couldn’t go up to the Boundary Waters into the wild woods. But this, with shaky steps, with help, she could do.

I didn’t know how soon that lesson would apply to my own life.

Further along, the main signs of human habitation are a stretch of boardwalk where the trail tends to get mucky in the spring, and a bridge and bench at the confluence with the Mississippi. And, of course, the trail itself. The other people you meet here are quieter than the people at the top of the Falls. There are conversational hikers, friendly hikers, but the kids’ birthday parties, the raucous laughter, are left back in the entirely human environment of picnic tables. Between that and the half-wild environment of hiking trails, there is space and the sound of water. It is a very short walk.

Sometimes you need the walk to be short.

“But we have seen her in the woods,” One of my Swedish cousins said, when I was diagnosed with a major balance disorder. More than anything else, that spoke to the frustrations I was feeling. They thought of me as sure-footed, swift and eager to show them my favorite natural surroundings. I thought of myself that way.

I spent a lot of the first year inside. I did the things I absolutely had to do, but when even the most level paved ground pitches and yaws under your feet, it’s hard to add unnecessary tasks to your day. One of the hardest things about disability—especially as you make the transition from hoping it will be temporary to realizing it won’t—is figuring out how to keep the parts that are most important from who you were before.

I couldn’t make a trip to real wilderness. I couldn’t reach the sorts of sprawling forests needed to make life possible for countless species including our own. But even on a bad day, like my great-grandmother, I could take someone’s arm and get to the bridge over the falls. I could inhale the smell of iron-rich Minnesota soil in the water, almost like blood in my nose and mouth. On a better day I could make it down the stairs into the woods. I could take deep lungfuls of the quiet green smell. I wasn’t very far away from people. But I could be away from people, in one of the places I have always belonged.

The Falls park let me be the person my cousins had seen in the woods and find the limits of how I could be that person based on how I was feeling that day, not defaulting to the worst-case scenario like I’d have to on a long trip. And that gave me strength to keep going while we were figuring out an imperfect solution that would allow me “real” hiking trips later—on good days, in good months. The Falls park didn’t demand my best days. It was there for me every day.

Once I was back on my feet, I took a friend’s kids to the park around the Falls, and the thirteen-year-old wanted to know what we were doing there. “Is it the tallest waterfall?” she asked dubiously. “The most volume of water?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “and it’s ours.”

Certainly there are things that make the Falls unique—geological, historical. I love The Laughing, Leaping Water, a blog about the history of Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Park. But what I love about the Falls are the things that make it beautiful, the things that make it ours. If we let our experiences of the natural world be reduced to a tourist checklist, we miss what’s important about them. We miss the details.

You can experience the Falls, the walk down to the Mississippi or the nearby Minneapolis lake parks on a single visit. Coming back over and over, you learn to understand them. How high is the water? Is that typical for the season? What does it mean for the months to come? What does the water smell like? Did it smell like that the last time the leaves and the grass smelled like this? What does the combination tell me? Is there a lot of garlic mustard around the path down to the river, a little, buckthorn instead? How are we doing with removing those invasives? How far does the ice extend this year down the path into the sunny section? When do the Falls freeze? When do they melt?

You can smell the air, look for invasive plants, admire the swirling currents in the water as it passes, on your first visit. You should! They’re great! But they’re even better in context. This place has so much to teach us.

When you stand at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek with the Mississippi River, having walked the length down from the Falls, you’re watching the lifeblood of the center of North America. It’s all part of the same gigantic system.

Maybe the Indigo Girls told you that “the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” Amy and Emily wouldn’t lie to you about something like that. It’s true, and Minnesotans are supposed to make a pilgrimage to that unassuming spot. But a pilgrimage takes time. The headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca are four hours north of Minneapolis. Great for a weekend trip, no good at all for every day. You can’t make a pilgrimage like that for just a minute on your way home from work. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t flee to the smell of freshwater and trees if it takes four hours to get there. When I heard that my beloved aunt’s surgery had not been effective, that she would have to live with a debilitating condition for the rest of her life, I did all the things I needed to do, updating other relatives, running errands, holding her hand while she cried. And on the way home, I went back to the Falls.

My Swedish cousins love to hike, and to walk in parks and gardens near them in Stockholm. But for them, the two never meet. Parks and gardens are planted, cared-for, manicured. Beautiful. But not a bit wild. There’s no gradient of setting from the managed to the natural. There are grand monuments, mighty rivers and beautiful natural forests, but nothing like this semi-wild park in the middle of Minneapolis.

The grand and the mighty are worth experiencing. But bucket list tourism doesn’t give a sense of rhythm and scale, and it can’t work its way into a city dweller’s daily life. The things that make Minnehaha Falls Park less wild make it accessible. People who don’t have a car for a four-hour drive or the money to rent one can get off the lightrail very near the Falls. People who can’t hike to the confluence—like my great-grandmother, like me some days—can still walk or wheel to the top of the Falls and take the water in, take notice, take stock of what’s the same and what’s different. Someone’s bicycle abandoned in the rocks at the head of the Falls, a mitten frozen in the ice dams. Leaves upon leaves upon leaves. And they can come back tomorrow, next week, the end of the season: has the bicycle gotten pulled out? Is the ice thawing around the mitten? Are we done with leaf season? On a day you’ve gotten bad news, if you live in a city, you may want to go hide in the woods. You know it doesn’t actually work like that. Your life is still there. But this mitigated, urban wilderness gives me a piece of those woods to flee to, to breathe in, to make myself part of.

Pristine, no. But beautiful, and ours.

Read Johannes Punkt’s interview with Marissa here.

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