Plot Project

The poetry of the earth is never dead.  ~John Keats

A Slideshow of Photographs of my Plot Spanning January Through May:

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2/15/11

The wind blows across my cheeks and I can hear the trees creak. The steady drip of melting snow provides a rhythm, and the caws of black birds lends a haunting melody to the whispering of wind. There are chimes in the distance. Why do we put out chimes anyway? To remind us that the air moves and force us to listen to it by covering it up? It’s soothing, but the purpose is a bit strange.

We rarely listen to nature. We have to set aside time– a week of vacation in the “wilderness” documented in a facebook album so that everyone can recognize our outdoorsy-ness. Thoreau would be disappointed. Our escapes to nature are lived like the rest of our lives–attempts at recognition.

There’s a mountain of dirty snow at the end of the driveway.

This plot is a backyard. Half civilized and half wild. Walk across campus and down the steps beside the library, make your way down Ole Avenue, make your way between the French House and Schmidt Honor House (the large white one with the bench made out of skis gracing the front porch) and there you will find this plot of seemingly insignificant land. At first glance it seems like a mere transition from the street to the football field that lies just beyond its reach.

I wonder what this space looked like before it was “owned.” Land ownership, like wind chimes, is a strange idea. We should rent it and return it. Maybe then we’d stand a chance of making the world last. “You’re going to blow up that mountain to mine coal? Replace it.”

Watching crisp brown leaves dance across dirt-tinged snow, I think about the deer we saw last night in the middle of the road. Our headlights struck him as he twitched, scrambling on three legs to right himself, his white underbelly exposed. I clenched my eyelids closed out of instinct. I didn’t want to watch him wither and die. Though it wasn’t our car that hit him, I didn’t want to feel any responsibility as a witness.

The deer haven’t had time to adapt. Roads and flying cars bisected their homes. They are stuck in the headlights of our technology and progress. It was painful to watch.

I don’t think about the deer enough.

The green is starting to peek through at the roots of the tree in front of this cement staircase I’m perched on. I am reminded of that beautiful film “The Secret Garden.” I wanted to be like Mary–tending to my own world of flowers and small woodland animals. That movie made me appreciate Spring. What does that say? I learned how to love nature on a screen.

My fingers are getting cold. The wind is whipping. Time to go inside.

2/21/11

There’s something about the sound of fresh snow crunching beneath my boots that makes my eyes well. No one has stepped across my plot yet. The white if unbroken.

Stepping out here at 730 in the morning I heard first the birds and the wind. I was calm.  It was only a matter of moments before the metal screeching began. There must be construction somewhere. We are always rebuilding. That’s what gives us a sense of “progress.” I remember touring a college campus in Kentucky when our guide paused to point out those monstrous hulks of machinery with pride. He told us that you can tell if a college is doing well (aka has a large endowment) based on how much construction is going on. Constant renovation=good news.

I guess St. Olaf is doing alright.

This is yet another example of how our obsession with ranking things based on modernity and progress is a problem. Shouldn’t we put the most value in the institution where the most land it untouched?

For now, I’ll enjoy this patch of land that was left alone. the branches of the pine tree in front of me are bowed. I will look at them instead of the power lines stretched between the limbs.

Let me draw a map of my plot: (will be included in final project, but isn’t shown here yet.)

More to come. This was a great way to start my day–pensive, with snow in my hair.

3/10/11

I’m making a point today to look for the obvious. The birds are out–which makes me think of spring. Each call is so unique, but I don’t have the knowledge to identify them each by name. Why don’t we learn this skill? And, returning to one of our first discussions in class, why are names important?

If I know the name of the bird whose beak is emitting that foreign stacatto string of notes would I be more likely to protect it? Maybe, but not necessarily by knowing its scientific name. My cousin named a squirrel we spotted Milton. She named a fish in the country club fountain “Japan” because it had a large red spot on its white translucent back.

I used to name the animals at my cabin–the fattest squirrel to the most social chickadee. We have two huge bird feeders. My grandparents love to identify. My dog learned the word “squirrel” at an early age. Why do we feed the birds? It’s a universal thing–from the children with baguettes in Parisian gardens to the kids in Mary Poppins singing about paying for birdseed, and the bird feeders present in almost all suburban back yards. It’s a way for us to interact with nature. Almost like making the everyday life into a zoo. But there you run into problems. The animals you feed multiply and come to depend on you. Over time, as is the case with deer in WI for example, the environment can’t support the number of animals, and further solutions are sought (i.e. hunting–I feel like I could go on about hunting for awhile.) So, a handful or two of birdseed, though it allows us to view nature from the comfort of our own homes, coudl do more harm than good in the long run.

Anyway, I should get back to looking at the plot. the row of trees to the right acts as a natural fence between yards. I wonder if this was done on purpose when these homes were built. I imagine there used to be a lot more trees on my plot. Why do we always want to know the exact line of where my land ends and yours begins? I’m thinking now about the snow and the water cycle. I can picture those big clouds of smoke that come from the Malt-O-Meal factory every day, and I think that in each particle of this snow there must be a piece of that factory and every other factory in the area, and the fireplaces/chimneys of homes. I wonder what it would be like to dissect a snowflake like that.

When you sit still long enough the birds come closer. I just felt the flap of wings as a little one scurried into the roof of our house. Makes me think of all the squirrels that used to live in my walls as a kid.

Back to the snow–all of those factory particles. What will happen when they unfreeze and melt into the soil? It would be interesting to track the soil back here and how well it supports growth over seasons. But unfortunately we can’t plant on honor house land–I think it’s ridiculous policy. A house-run garden project could be a great educational and sustainable project. And now, the calming sound of the train in the distance–the sound that led to the industrialization of Northfield. It brought the people here and transported goods. I think that we should rely more on trains to transport materials and people like they do in Europe, and like they used to in this country (minus the buffalo killing sprees and destruction of Native American land and life.) Trains are an improvement upon the incredibly detrimental effects of millions of gas guzzling semi trucks.

3/17/11

On this St. Patrick’s Day I am sporting bare legs and no coat as I sit out on the stoop that leads to my plot. The snow is melting. Finally. I think that last snowstorm was the last big fall. There are rings of dirt and green surrounding the base of the line of trees in front of me. The birds are all talking. I can hear the cars on Ole Ave splashing through the huge puddles that have formed. I wonder about the floods. This is the time they will rear their ugly heads, and I hope it won’t be as bad as it was this fall.

Floods weren’t always floods. We gave them that name when they started affecting us and the things we’d built. Before humans arrived, I’m sure Northfield was a perfectly nice swamp during the rainy season. Now we get upset at Nature’s “wrath” for ruining what we’ve worked for years to construct and for taking a bite out of our commerce. What can we do in the long term to adjust this town to withstand floods? Would renovating or removing the dam in the Cannon River do anything? A sort of trench system?

Giving the bike tour of Northfield earlier this year, when the flood damage was at its peak, it was amazing to see the way people came together in crisis. We all sandbagged and helped to “save the city.” When disaster strikes, people make an effort to step up. They pull out their check books. Just look at all of the relief efforts for Japan, and the way wallets so easily open after natural disaster. But how do we prolong this temporary feeling of the need to “give?” How can we incorporate it into the long term and the everyday? To the prevention in addition to the relief? We need to acknowledge problems before they turn into full flung disasters.

Our Campus Ecology Course is a great way to begin to answer these questions. Through our brainstorming sessions and passionate discussions, we can bring about change and inspire contribution, inspiration, and care.

3/30/11

The snow is nearly gone now. There is some sort of cleaning brush poking out of it. The dirty rough edged bristles look all wrong in that slushy bed of whitish brown. I wonder how many things like this are lost and rediscovered in the Spring.

A cardinal! Red and cautious as it hops about on frosted brown-green grass to my right. Its bright color is what I was always taught to look for as a sign of spring. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem (Oliver–Some_Questions_You_Might_Ask) as I watch this little creature. I think that he does have a soul as his wings flit triumphantly and he soars across the clear blue sky, spiraling spontaneously.

But what about the Spring? Does it have a soul? Does its brown grass and uncovered roots have feeling? Or the long puddles on the sidewalk, that see countless reflections, but cannot tell the stories of each? And that kitten, creeping by the shed? Does she? She is frozen now. Staring at me as I write. I had no idea she lived back here. Is she a kitten or a cat? She’s big enough to have kittens of her own. Maybe she is taking care of them in there. She too has a soul.

I look up and she is gone. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Maybe if we made more connections like this one, sitting in the cold morning sun in March, we could look at all of the “wilderness” of our back yards as soulful. We could form relationships with nature and her creatures by sitting on steps and front porches and on the ground as we spend so much time forming relationships with people by sitting behind screens.

I’ve discovered that the shrill calls I thought were birds are actually those of playful squirrels–chasing each other between the trees. I can hear them chattering. They sound like a coffee clutch of gossiping women. The ravens are calling back and forth across the street from the tree tops.

I am surrounded by souls. Breakable, beautiful, tender souls.

4/7/11

I have set aside this time to sit.

I remind myself, as lists spiral through my curly head.

Slow down

and smell.

That mossy damp

chirping

scent

of earth.

The power lines cut across my plot. Until yesterday, I never thought much about them–noting only that they are an eyesore upon which my new friends the birds often perch. Those lines carry energy to the grid of Northfield and up the hill to the college we call home. They turned my light on this morning and will ultimately feed me when I leave the house and head to the caf. I am so dependent on them, but I have the luxury of not having to think about them as the world in Japan falls apart.

I never tried to imagine the rooms of the power plant we walked through yesterday–the tubes big enough to curl up in or the list of numbers to call in the event of an oil spill tacked carefully to the bulletin board. We don’t think about disasters until after they’ve happened in most cases. The people at the power plant do that for us–figuring out how to feed the town if we lost all power, and turning on backup generators without the slightest blip in our daily routines. We don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes. I am reminded of the Shakespeare quote: “All the world’s a stage.” But we aren’t all players are we? Some are stage technicians and prop people and directors and managers who watch and make sure no one falls from the top of the catwalk. We should think about the people and the systems that run the parts of our lives we don’t have to think about.

The days are getting longer. The sun is warm across my back. A black bird digs for worms. I forget all about the existence of cars for a moment. And then remember. A world without cars. Could we do it? The space of this backyard would become a lot more meaningful. Our worlds would shrink, and this would become a more valuable space. I wonder how it used to be appreciated…I can see those light green shoots coming from the soil at the base of the stairs. Little heads reaching for the sun. Soon there may be flowers. The world could use more flowers.

4/14/11

There is a stump on my plot where a tree should be.

Last night, walking the sidewalks up on the hill in the drizzling rain, I saw dozens of pale glistening figures inching desperately along the pavement. They were worms.

Sometimes, things like a tree stump and slimy pink strands of tissue moving toward death by puddle bring on a sort of sadness I can’t describe.

It’s cold again as I stick my tongue out and taste a raindrop. It tastes like iron and wind. Like the taste of that first trickle of blood when you bite your cheek accidentally and your whole face scrunches. Rain does that too sometimes, when it’s harsh and whipping through space like it is today. But sometimes it’s soft and gentle, and it can make the furrowed lines of your forehead relax as you turn your face upwards. I don’t think we should run from the rain. We work so hard to fight nature. We build umbrellas and awnings and curse the days that don’t cooperate with our carefully made plans. An outdoor wedding lives in fear of the rain. We call this sort of cloudy weather “bad.” We talk about the rainy city of Seattle and say: “what a depressing place to live.” When did we come to hate the rain? It used to be a thing to worship. Until a drought hits and we realize how much it actually does to help us, we don’t appreciate it at all. We wish it away. We hide indoors. “Rain Rain Go Away, Come Again Another Day,” our children sing. Maybe we should all go out and stand together in it every once in awhile. It’s a romantic scene that is found in several indie movies, but maybe we could benefit from it in real life. It might make us more aware of the system we’re a part of–the one thing we can’t control. Whether we like it or not, we have to adjust to nature. We have to make “rain plans” and take “rain checks.” We’ve spent the last several generations taking from the environment without listening to it. We’re getting to the point where the flood overcomes us.

The wind gusts are moving the branches of the trees that are left, but the power lines stand still. They are the reason those men came at seven in the morning late last week with chainsaws in hand. It’s funny how much stronger something man made can be when it conquers a towering tree that took 50 years or so to grow–falling to the ground in a matter of minutes.

I read last night about how an anthropologist studying American culture believes we all, to some extent, explain our lives through the context of the creation myth of Genesis–even if we don’t define ourselves as “religious.” We do with the earth what we want, explaining away our exploitation with statements of what we need. What if we built our communities around nature instead of through it? This is something Frank Lloyd Wright believed in. It is what is required of a truly “designing mind.” We see it in Regents Hall, and a Boat for Thoreau.

I think of Becca Carlson and the tour I took at her newly built sugar shack last weekend. She built that maple syrup making house in pieces, feeling each part with her bare hands before she raised it. She explained how to tap trees so that they would heal–harvesting their sap year after year, but keeping them healthy. She built relationships with the countless people who helped her–the man who taught her to weld her stove, the curious students who walked by and stopped to chat. The community that developed around such a tiny structure amazed me. If we built more things this way–learning from one another and developing skills that have largely died off in our technology driven world, we might actually be happier.

The grass has become a brighter shade of green.

I’m feeling more optimistic.

Becca's Sugar Shack. Taken from her blog @ http://sto-umyumyum.blogspot.com/

PS- My plot project entries always seem to turn into journal-like entries. Why? I think that just sitting in one place for 30 minutes or so at a time makes you think. It frees your connecting (and designing) mind. Everything seems to unfold when you don’t have to try.

4/21/11

Today is the first day I’ve been out here since the big dirty snow pile has been completely gone. Despite the April snow storms we’ve been having, the grass is a beautiful shade of green. There are chickadees nesting in the eaves of the roof–they hardly even notice me anymore and are fat with fresh worms. I can even see the buds forming on the thin fingers of the branches on the trees. There are blue bells growing at the base of the tree in the middle of my plot. They remind me of the days I spent in my backyard at home playing with my pet rabbit and picking flowers. It makes me think of the chapter on family that Sanders wrote in “Hunting for Hope.” As he points out, I acquired many of my early values in that small space. I learned what it meant to play, and how to interact in the community that was the “neighborhood.” I learned to be patient as my Dad helped me plant herbs in my own little potted plot every spring. I watched throughout summer as my basil, rosemary, and thyme came into full bloom. I went out every day to water my tiny plot, and carefully cut pieces of those herbs to be used in my Dad’s famous pesto. We spent evenings eating dinner outside and talking about our lives. I don’t think about those beautiful days and nights often enough. They truly are beautiful in the way Sanders describes “beauty”–as a feeling that you are a part of something greater. An inexplicable contentment with the universe.

I never took the time to fully appreciate the two trees at the back of my plot. They are casting long elegant shadows watch. The great tree closest to the wire fence that leads to the track might as well be a queen. Her branches extend the length of the height of a lesser tree. That’s the only way I can think of to describe it. They seem to defy gravity.

The same can be said for the pine trees to the left of the shed. Those branches stand out horizontally and droop with the power of old age. I feel like I could talk to them. I just need to listen harder. I’m reminded of the way we so often forget to listen to the older generations–the way we take in that wrinkled and faded skin and fail to appreciate the stories it tells. We need to make more time to listen to scars and telling folds of skin. There is so much we can learn from those who came before us–whether that means land or humans. Sometimes it’s better to look back than to keep our eyes so fixed on the future…

It’s time for breakfast, but I feel for the first time like I could sit here all day. This isn’t a chore anymore. I’m really starting to see.

It’s time for breakfast

Sketches and Hand-drawn Map: 5/7/11

A multi-media sketch of my plot

Texture (taken from a piece of the collage)

An Early Sketch of the Plot

Final Map to Plot

Rough Draft Plot Entries



Hidden History:

Northfield Postcard Collection Now known as Manitou Field, the athletic field was first used in 1930. Haldorsen house, fields, and homes on Manitou Street in background.1931-

Despite an entertaining couple of hours spent clicking through the St. Olaf archives, taking in the smiling faces of Oles across the decades, I found it incredibly difficult to find much news or history when it came to my little plot tucked behind Schmidt Honor House. However, I was able to find a few photographs that hinted at how my plot has changed. In the above photograph, I found an early image of Manitou Athletic Field from 1931. My plot lies to the right, just outside of the frame. I can only imagine that at this moment in 1931 it held the same native trees that are found upon it now, with many more sprinkled in between. If my tiny piece of land could talk, it would tell stories of the construction of that field–the slow (by today’s standards) and intensive transformation of grass and trees to flat gravel lanes and a carefully tended square of green. It would tell you about all of the students it watched year after year, decade after decade, as they stood around that space and cheered. Celebrating victories and suffering defeats. It would tell the tale of the months and years in which the honor houses along St. Olaf Avenue were built. My plot would describe the changing landscape between 1900 and today as trees were cut, parking lots constructed, sidewalks laid, and power lines put up. Stories of Schmidt House would take precedent, the personalities of its original owners and then the dozens of young women who spent late nights laughing inside its walls and playing games in the backyard that is my plot. Observing my plot this semester, I have thought a lot about the environment of my plot and how its nature has been manipulated and changed, but I’ve thought too about the people who have experienced this land and the moments that have taken place between these trees and on this grass. Who else has loved this place?

I don’t know exactly when Schmidt House was constructed, but I assume based on the architecture and the construction of Felland House and Mohn House (which are its close neighbors today) that took place in 1902, in addition to the athletic field construction that took place in 1930, that Schmidt house was built sometime around 1920. Examining photographs of Ole Ave from 1905 (seen below) and the blossoming  St. Olaf campus in 1944, it’s easy to see how much change took place over a span of roughly 40 years. As for my particular plot, I imagine the most change took place when Schmidt House and the athletic field were built, and when electricity came to St. Olaf. Despite acquiring a new purpose for human inhabitants, my plot still saw the settling down of several families of rabbits, birds, bats, and even feral cats. It provided shelter and nourishment for all of these creatures, human and not, beneath its branches and upon its grass.

As for the future, my plot might be in for another drastic change. A few weeks ago the director of Residence Life on our St. Olaf campus shared with our Campus Ecology class a plan that would alter the landscape of my piece of land yet again. Outlining the limitations of student housing and the level of upkeep the row of honor houses on St. Olaf Ave. requires, she casually told us that Schmidt House would be the first to go. She explained that in a few years it would probably be demolished, it moldings and beautiful wood detailing salvaged from the scrap. My hand shot up. “But I live there!” I exclaimed. “Oh don’t worry, it won’t be until after you leave,” she replied. I wasn’t comforted.

There’s something heartbreaking about returning to a place you spent countless hours of your life memorizing so well you could navigate it in complete darkness. I think of the steps of house where I grew up, the hexagonal patio tiles I colored in with chalk every summer, and the two floorboards outside of my bedroom door that creaked in the handful of times I tried to sneak out. I know that the day that house is sold to another family will be sad one, but it’s comforting to know that another set of children will make their own memories in that black and white tiled kitchen and throw their backpacks in that front hall. That might not be the case with this house. I’ve made my own memories inside over this past year, and will make more over the next two, but after that the future is uncertain. This is true too for my backyard plot. What will become of the empty space where this house now stands? Will it be built into a new and modern honor house? Or will it become a green space that fosters community? What new stories will “my” plot have to tell?

I wrote earlier about “if my plot could talk.” In a way, I think that it can. If you sit for long enough, watching life flit around you in a way that is so often lost in the driving desire to get from point A to point B, you can hear it. I hope someone else gets to know this land the way I did–imagining its history, leaning on its trees, and calmly scrawling a unique version of a story that doesn’t end.

Felland House and Mohn House (currently neighbors to Schmidt House) before Schmidt was built (1902)

The Schmidt House Plot lies in the bottom right hand corner

Former 1952 Honor House Ladies and possibly women who once walked across my plot


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One Response to Plot Project

  1. TEG says:

    What great light in your photos. Fantastic.

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