The Wisdom of Nature

In her poignant memoir “Watershed”, Ranea Lenor Hanson points out that Minnesota is an apex whose rivers flow north to Hudson Bay, east through the Great Lakes, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. I rather enjoy the concept of our state being central to three directions. For me, it is a reminder that wherever you are in our state, there are three places you can flow.

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Reckoning Due North

Sometimes that flow is filled with lightning storms, high winds, bears, and other tests of stamina, as Natalie Warren describes in “Hudson Bay Bound.” It is the adventure story about a three-month, 2,000-mile journey north that Warren and a close friend took after graduating from St. Olaf College.

The foreword from Ann Bancroft hints at the essence of the book, which is a chronicling of the human spirit “that pushes through long hours of a day, wrong turns, dams, tough weather, fears, and the stresses such a journey puts on even your closest friendship.”

Warren writes, “I often thought about the psychology behind what makes anyone hell-bent on one thing while knowing that, in the big scheme of things, their greatest passions seem minuscule and unimportant.”

Warren grew up in Miami, knowing Minnesota only as a location “in the gray blob in the middle of the country.” While in high school, she learned from a classmate about the northern wilderness of Minnesota. It compelled her to head to YMCA’s Camp Menogyn, near Grand Marais, as an “adventure in a magical distant land.”

Warren writes of mistaking the sound of loons for wolves, and the letter her mother wrote encouraging her exploration of “the beautiful mountains of Minnesota.”

Another thing the journey taught her was how to “unbiasedly interact with people who were different from myself” — including one naysayer who curtly dismissed this journey of two women as impossible to accomplish. Warren writes: “Honestly, I didn’t understand how sexist our society can be when I was 22.”

She says the trip worried her partly because she was afraid taking three months off after graduation might “mess up” the entirety of her career. “That somehow we need to constantly orient ourselves toward the things we think we want or else we may never get them. […] Looking back, I see how ridiculous this sentiment was and how pervasive it still is in society (especially among college students).”

After her Hudson Bay trip more than 10 years ago, Warren — now a Minneapolis writer and environmental activist — canoed the length of the Mississippi River and won the Yukon River Quest women’s division, canoing 450 miles in 53 hours. Her Hudson Bay paddling partner, Ann Raiho, now studies changing ecosystems.


Out of the Wilderness

Ranea Lenor Hanson’s memoir intertwines reflections about how her body’s health challenges reflect the earth in distress. It starts out in the lands of northeastern Minnesota, where her Dutch father felled trees to build a house and her mother peeled bark to cook over a fire.

Eventually, moving deeper into the woods, Hanson learned an abbreviated history of the land — one that largely left out Indigenous neighbors. “The fur trappers left cabins; the lumbermen, tree stumps; the Finns, grandmothers on swamp farms; the Englishmen, mine shafts; the miners, company towns. All of us came from somewhere else. None of us belonged.”

Eventually Hanson came out of the woods and was an exchange student in Europe, during the Vietnam War. “I discovered, to my surprise, that some people found my life interesting. My new friends had never been in a canoe, did not know how to knead bread, had not built a fire or slept in a tent. They could do other things — dance, drink sherry, prune roses.”

As a graduate student in Ohio, Hanson “began to see the woods where I had grown up as an outsider would. I had thought we were living a real-time regular life, that eating from the woods was what people did. […] We had been part of nature.”

She raised two children on her own, taught at three colleges while pursuing a doctorate, and began to notice how quickly the earth was shifting. “In the summer of 1989, the rains did not come. When I drove north, I noticed that the pines on the southern edge of the boreal forest were dying.” She noted that tent caterpillars ate the early birch and poplar leaves four years in a row. Drinking water from the lakes was no longer safe. “Ticks brought Lyme disease. The moose were dying.”

Hanson taught immigrants and refugees, and held listening sessions about how climate change affected the places from which they had come to Minnesota. Somali students and elders indicated that civil war was precipitated by drought — people fighting over ways to access food for their families.

One student in Hanson’s ecofeminism class told about her grandmother’s lessons about climate change in Ethiopia. “She wasn’t educated — not in the way of being able to read. But she listened to the land. She could grow anything, and she loved each tree.

“Oromo people always love trees,” the student continued. “When grandma grew old, she had to move to the city. The land was not fertile anymore. Her children had left the village. She grieved for her grandchildren because they would not have the good life she had.”

Hanson details what she is learning about how climate change affects those with asthma, diabetes — which she now has — and mental health. She notes that in 2019 the University of Minnesota began requiring its students in the health professions to learn about climate change, that someone in Siberia is working to save the permaculture from melting, that farmers are learning carbon-capturing regenerative agriculture techniques, and that ocean habitat creators are building vertical structures.

She writes: “This is the moment we have. Now. This is the only moment we have. What is the opening, here, at this time?”


Digging in the Dirt

Among the many post-it notes sticking out of my copy of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the story of how pecan trees blossom en masse. “If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act as a collective.”

She writes about the desire for our modern world to see nature’s gifts as true gifts, not commodities. “If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”

I have heard Kimmerer talk about the wish for us to use “kin” as a pronoun for all living things. We might be less lonely, she implies, if we had relationships with everything around us. “As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”

She notes that we tend to see history as a line, “as if time marched in lockstep only in one direction.” Others say that time is a river that we can step into only once, “as it flows in a straight path to the sea.” Kimmerer sees time as the sea itself — “in tides that appear and disappear, the fog that rises to become rain in a different river. All things that were will come again.”

A few years ago, I was privileged to talk to a classroom of students about storytelling with Kimmerer, and to interview her afterward. One thing that sticks with me still is her notion that even when displaced, we can find belonging with the earth and the plants and the water around us. As she put it, “We all belong to each other. We are all part of the ongoing story.”

What inspires me most, as editor and publisher of this magazine, are these words from Kimmerer: “We need to unearth the old stories that live in a place and begin to create new ones, for we are storymakers, not just storytellers. All stories are connected, new ones woven from the threads of the old.”


Visit online for a new Expanding Conversation Guide that explores Suzanne Simard’s “Finding the Mother Tree” book.

Recommended Books

  • “Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress,” by Ranae Lenor Hanson
  • “Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic,” by Natalie Warren
  • “Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future,”
    by Beth Dooley
  • “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest,”
    by Suzanne Simard
  • “Erosion: Essays of Undoing,” by Terry Tempest Williams

from “Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future,” by Beth Dooley

As I write this, a pot of beef stew simmers on the stove, the scent of freshly baked focaccia fills our kitchen, and an apple pie cools on a rack near the window.

After a busy day of work and the week’s raging headlines, the very act of kneading dough, chopping carrots, and sizzling onions helps me relax, gather myself, feel composed and hopeful.

Cooking gives me a sense of control in times that seem uncertain; it is a means of transforming my concerns for our future into delicious meals for those I love.

Cooking is a personal and intimate means of grappling with the climate crisis, supporting our rural communities, and nourishing our families.

The sum of our daily choices will ultimately impact our collective future. If you are hungry for hope and comfort, cooking is a great place to start.