With “Luminaries of the Bog,” Agate launches a new series of Paul Gruchow writings to include unpublished works.
For every contemporary voice, there is an earlier voice that warrants our attention, offering fresh insight, understanding, a sense of discovery.
It is true, Minnesota-born writer Paul Gruchow is gone. Like too many other brilliant and beloved people, he was taken down by mental illness, dead of suicide in 2005 after a long struggle with depression (starkly chronicled in his book ‘Diary of a Madman,’ published post-humously).
His writing, thankfully, lives on. In his essays and other published natural history writings Paul Gruchow could hardly be more present. Those who love wild places, who love ideas, will find him waiting (impatiently) in his books: Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Journal of a Prairie Year; Grass Roots: The Universe of Home; Worlds within a World; Minnesota: Images of Home, and Travels in Canoe Country.
Agate is honored to kick off an ongoing series on the writings of Paul Gruchow with the essay ‘Luminaries of the Bog’ from Worlds within a World. Published in 1999 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the book is a collection of essays reflecting on the state’s Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) Preserves. In this essay, readers join Gruchow on a literal and literary exploration of the Black Lake Bog SNA, a multi-state natural area that encompasses over 3600 acres in Pine County, MN and Douglas County, WI.
If you are not familiar with Paul Gruchow’s body of work, you are to be envied, because it means that you can discover it now, getting a taste here on Agate and then mustering a collection from your local bookstore or requesting book by book from your local library. If (like me) your bookshelf already holds all of his books, Agate still has good news for you.
As it turns out—surprisingly, wonderfully—Paul Gruchow kept a journal. Thanks to the generosity of his literary executor Lou Martinelli, Agate has been granted permission to share selected, previously unpublished excerpts from nearly three decades of these voluminous journals. As founder of the Paul Gruchow Foundation, a playwright, poet, writer and longtime friend of Gruchow’s, Martinelli has a unique perspective on the man and his work. He offers an introduction for Agate readers:
“Reading Paul Gruchow’s work is a little like sitting down at the same dinner table with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Paul’s essays and memoir are transformative, revealing the natural world in its microscopic and marvelous detail, while at the same time exploring nature’s relationship to the world of ideas — to intellectual history.
Paul’s life and work are a great gift to me and to everyone who reveres life. Readers will find generative themes running through his work that I might express in such words as nature, community, creativity, sustainability, Thoreau, bread, health, memory, ecology, home, grace, wild, etymology, place, suffering, marginalization, emptiness, joy.
I’d say that the most surprising quality in his writing is the ability to synthesize very complex ideas, in complicated sentences, and make them clear and compelling, something I think he does as well as or better than any contemporary essayist. Although he could be a fierce critic, combining satire and wit, he was a very generous person and that generosity infused his writing with compassion for endangered places and marginalized people.
It is a rare quality to research a subject as completely as he did before writing about it. Paul Gruchow was likely the best read person I’ve ever met, especially in the fields of natural and literary history, though he did not consider himself to be a scholar. He was a very eclectic and very open reader — if I suggested he read something that challenged his beliefs, he would read and think about it.
When I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he said: ‘Tell them I just got up and said a few words.’ “
It is with delight that Agate shares ‘a few’ of those words, beginning with this posting of “Luminaries of the Bog.” Please watch for more to come from our newest contributing writer—Paul Gruchow—in the months and years ahead.
Luminaries of the Bog
By Paul Gruchow
The water in Black Lake is not actually black; it is more nearly the color of well-aged leather. The lake’s color derives, in fact, from tannin, which concentrates in the leaves of plants deprived of nitrogen. Black Lake is a bog lake, and bogs are poor in minerals and rich in inhospitable qualities: acidity, the perpetual chill that lingers in them, the scarcity of dry land. Mosquitoes figure prominently on the short list of creatures that adore bogs.
The lake, now jointly preserved by Minnesota and Wisconsin as Black Lake Bog SNA—our only multi-state SNA—is not the sort of place you would ever just happen upon, although it is only a couple of hours north of the Twin Cities. You drive east from Sandstone on paved county roads, then north again on gravel, through the ghost town of Belden. When the road ends altogether, you park your car and proceed on foot for another mile and a half along an abandoned railroad grade until you reach the Black River. There you put in the canoe you’ve carried with you and paddle downstream, navigating carefully lest you get diverted into a side channel and find yourself hung up precariously on a beaver dam. In a mile or so, you reach the lake, its shallow broody center giving way to floating masses of lilies and pondweeds and these to open bog or spruce and tamarack swamp.
A pack of wolves occasionally crosses this country, and now and then a moose, or perhaps a black bear seeking a place to den up for the winter. When I visited, three or four blinds—weekend dwellings for the few waterfowl hunters who had found their way into the bog during the fall migration—perched like fortifications along the shore of the lake. No longer allowed since the land became an SNA, the blinds were soon to be torn down. The one I inspected had two tiny compartments—one for shooting, the other a windowless bunker as tight as a ship’s quarters—and a boardwalk leading to a privy as tiny as the blind, tucked discreetly into a clump of willows. A trapper might sometimes venture into this country in season too; fishers, martens, beavers, and bobcats live in the neighborhood.
Between 1911 and the mid-1930s, a modest bustle of human activity was a regular feature of the Black Lake area. The railroad was running then, and nearby there were lumber camps and plants that turned out lumber, veneer, barrel staves, cedar shakes, toothpicks, and railroad ties. But the supply of harvestable timber was soon exhausted, and in the mid-1930s a fire swept through, bringing human occupation of the region to an end.
On the late September day I spent there, a deeper silence reigned than I can remember hearing in any remote wilderness. The migratory songbirds had already headed south, the geese had not yet arrived, and not so much as a crow or an airplane passed overhead to break the stillness. The loudest sound was that of the lily pads lifting in the breeze and falling back again onto the surface of the Lake.
It was, despite the abnormal silence, a beguiling place in bugless September. Bright sunlight sparkled on the dark water, a bank of storm clouds gathered dramatically on the horizon, and between the two, the brilliant yellows of aspens and tamaracks and the scarlet leaves of scattered maples made a vivid show of autumn.
My companions—Bob Djupstrom, supervisor of the SNA Program, and SNA management assistant Tim Marion—and I beached our canoe and set out across the bog on foot. Traversing the plush pile carpet of sphagnum mosses—plants capable of absorbing twenty-five times their weight in water—was like hiking in knee-deep marshmallows, the ultimate aerobic exercise. Djupstrom carried a topographic map and a compass in his day pack, and as we walked, he bent tamarack and spruce twigs to mark our trail.
The reasons for these precautions soon became apparent. A bog is one of the flattest places on earth. Although peatlands from the air have such a distinctive topography they are sometimes called patterned peatlands, from the ground the terrain seems featureless. One tamarack or stunted spruce or hummock of sphagnum looks remarkably like the next. It would be easy to wander absent-mindedly a few hundred yards into this landscape and to find yourself utterly disoriented.
We headed toward one of the few contours on the topographic map, an island of northern hardwoods that had found purchase on a ten-foot rise in the landscape. But before we got to that high ground—to the place where ferns grew in firm earth, and the trunks of fallen trees moldered into dust, and pale dry birch leaves lay scattered in the dark woods like stars—we paused to taste the bitter cranberries, still pale as roses. It was then that we noticed the round-leaved sundews.
There are, if you happen to care about such things, plants you want to meet in the same way that there are people from history you would love, some evening, to entertain at dinner. I had been wanting such an introduction to the sundews, which captured the imagination of no less a naturalist than Charles Darwin. After Darwin finished his revolutionary work on evolution, he took up the subject of carnivorous plants, publishing a still-standard volume on them, paying particular attention to the sundews which he was the first to recognize as carnivores.
His fascination with Drosera, the scientific name for sundews, ran in the family. Darwin’s grandfather wrote a famous (and somewhat erotic) poem about them, and his son conducted experiments that established beyond doubt that sundews are insect-eaters.
“I care more about the Drosera,” Darwin wrote, “than the origin of all the species in the world.”
The species of sundew that grows at Black Lake bog, D. rotundifolia, is one Darwin knew; it occurs around the globe in the northern hemisphere. It is a plant of modest proportions, a rosette of tiny, round leaves, each on a slender stalk, hiding within the sphagnum.
The leaves are covered with purple hairs, longer at the edges than at the center. Each of these hairs bears a clear droplet that sparkles in the sun. The fancy of the common name, which is at least as old as the first medieval illustrations of the plant, was that these droplets were bits of dew, caught charmingly by a pretty little plant. Darwin’s grandfather, in his poem, saw the plant as a slender-waisted little queen garbed in royal silk.
In fact the droplets are bits of glue, stickier than honey. An unfortunate insect lights on one of the leaves, finds itself caught by a leg or two, thrashes about to break free, and with every motion brushes up against another hair, getting itself all the more firmly stuck. These struggles, perhaps by setting off electrical impulses within the plant, prompt it to curl up the leaf in which the hapless insect is soon entombed. Then the plant exudes enzymes that digest the prey and allow it to be absorbed. When the sundew has consumed its victim, the leaf opens, the empty shell of the insect wafts away in a breeze, new droplets of glue are exuded through the ends of the hairs, and the sparkling table is set again for the next meal.
Sundews have tuberous roots and are capable of photosynthesis, but they do not prosper when they are deprived of their insect diet. We do not credit plants with ingenuity, or even with behavior, which is why it angered some critics of Darwin, ahead of his time as usual, that he should attribute carnivorousness to mere vegetation. But it can be said with impunity that nature is ingenious, and that the sundews are one instance of this, a splendid adaptation to life in a place where the soil is poor, minerals are scarce, and insects are bountiful.
The Drosera, it might even be said with a certain amount of humility, have found a way to thrive in an environment too extreme to support human life. No wonder Darwin, who made adaptation into a theory of life, admired them above all other plants.
Bob Djupstrom has since retired from his position as SNA supervisor and Tim Marion now works for the DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. For up-to-date information on public use guidelines at Black Lake Bog, please see the Scientific and Natural Areas webpage.
This essay was published in Paul Gruchow’s book Worlds within a World, © 1999, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Reprinted with permission. Find a wealth of archived stories, including more by Paul Gruchow, at Minnesota Conservation Volunteer .
Thank you to contributing photographers Dan Wovcha, Rick Haug and Jim Gindorff.