Excerpted from the essay “The Blue Mountains of Minnesota” from the book The Necessity of Empty Places by Paul Gruchow, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
My young son calls them the Blue Mountains. They aren’t blue, actually; they are red and brown. They aren’t mountains either, not even hills. We adults, stunted of imagination, call them the Blue Mounds. A red cliff, not scarlet, but Indian red, an earthen color trending toward purple, rises abruptly out of the prairie, like a row of teeth, and above it a tongue of brown prairie recedes into the west.
Let them be mountains. A mountain is a perception as much as anything. Here, thirty miles west of my gray house, of my brown chair, the west begins to gather, the earth begins to collect for the climb toward the clouds. Go another three hundred miles and there will be sandstone buttes, another four hundred miles and there will be snow-covered granite peaks. But these cliffs, the footstool of the plains, will also do. Let them be mountains. And let them be blue. From a distance, and early in the morning and in the long shadows of the twilight, I suppose they are blue enough.
I can’t explain the royally plural name. The Blue Mounds are singular, in both senses of the word. The mounds are a mesa, a table. Ice carved the table out of the Sioux quartzite bedrock. Its edge is a two-mile-long line of sheer cliffs a hundred feet high, split in many places by the ravages of weather, pulled apart by the muscular forces of roots, rent by deep, narrow canyons. It is a vast ruin, all tumbles of talus and crumbling chimney spires.
In the shadow of the cliff and along its upper edge a bur oak savanna prospers and fruits flourish: wild plums, chokecherries, mulberries, raspberries, gooseberries, grapes. Woodland flowers bloom there: violets, false spikenard, trillium, bloodroot, false Solomon’s seal.
While the Dutchman’s breeches blossom in the outer crevices of the cliff in the springtime, the dark, chill interior crevices still embrace drifts of snow. Bathed in the perpetual quarter-light of shadow, they give rise in late spring to enormous ferns, giant flowered trilliums, and other plants unaccustomed to life in southwestern Minnesota. Climbing down into one of them is like falling in a dream into a dark northern forest.
A few buffalo still roam the Blue Mounds, a remnant of the great prehistoric herds, ghosts of the lost world of the prairies. You can drive to the buffalo enclosure, mount a wooden platform, and view them at pasture. But you approach them first from the opposite end of the park, so that your first glimpse of them is at a distance that obliterates the fences. If you are lucky, it will be a hot summer’s day, the clouds will billow above you, a stray breeze will pass like a damp cloth across your brow, and the buffalo will be standing in profile on the ridge of the pasture against the blue sky, all head and chest, like a pride of lions.
But I have forgotten to mention the oceans of purple phlox in the springtime, and the blazing yellow blossoms of the pear cactuses in July, and the acres of amber goldenrods in the fall.
And I have neglected the grasses: the big bluestem, taller than a man and the color of wine in September; the needlegrasses with their twisted seedpods sharp as pins that corkscrew themselves into the earth; the bearded plumes of the Canada wild rye; the feathery spires of the Indian grass; the tufts of blue grama grass, their flowers shaped like Asian eyebrows.
And what about the sedge meadows below the rim of the cliffs, a treachery of mucks and hillocks? Red-winged blackbirds warble there all summer long, and spiders in a dozen brilliant colors weave their complicated webs from reed to reed, and in the fall the gentians radiate the deepest and purest, the most ravishing color of blue in all the world.
Have I uttered a word about the snakes: the garter snakes, the fox snakes, the bull snakes, the grass snakes? Have I said how many times I have wondered at the magic of a snake, seen it glide before my eyes into a clump of grass, reached down for it, and found that it had altogether vanished?
Where are the meadowlarks in April? The bobolinks sounding like plucked metal strings in July? The nighthawks buzzing overhead on an August night? The pigeons cooing in the crevices of the old quarry in January? The great horned owls on the nest in February? The red-tailed hawks cruising the cliff line at sunset?
And I have slighted the rocks themselves, a billion and a half years old, smothered in green and orange lichens, rubbed smooth on the corners by the itching rumps of centuries of buffalo, etched with the tracings of glaciers. They are pink, or maroon, sometimes almost black, cool in the summer, warm in winter, a relief of hardness, an intrusion of angles into the rounded softness of the prairies.
From the top of the Blue Mounds, I look out across the countryside of southwestern Minnesota and see a landscape that has been reduced to its simplest terms. On a clear day I can see for fifteen miles or more in any direction. I see the contrails of jets in the sky, and I hear the roar of truck traffic on Interstate 90. Below me I see the city of Luverne, and beyond it the elevators of Magnolia, and then the water tower that sits on the knoll at Adrian. In between I see hundreds of square miles of corn, interrupted here and there by the windbreaks of trees around the farmsteads. By now we are pretty much down to corn and soybeans and pigs.
The Blue Mounds carry a precious melody from the regions of forever to the present, the song of diversity. It is an odd irony that the places we call empty should retain some memory of the diversity of life, while the places we have filled up grow emptier and emptier.
Sincere thanks to St. Martin’s Press, to Lou Martinelli of the Paul Gruchow Foundation for his continuing support of this series, and to outstanding contributing photographers John Duren and Dawn Armfield. Seek out Paul Gruchow’s books at your local bookstore or library!