Have you ever heard of the Lost Forty, and wondered what in the world it is? Or where it is? Or if it was lost, how do we know where it is?
Phyllis Root has written a book for children and curious adults answering all these questions and more. It’s illustrated with Betsy Bowen’s expressive, sometimes sly, images that evoke the mysteries of nature while helping to tell the story.
If Minnesota were a face, the Lost Forty would be smack dab in the middle of its forehead. It’s an old growth forest, one of a handful left in Minnesota, and it’s actually 114 acres, but because we tend to buy and sell land in forty-acre parcels, it’s called a forty.
Root’s writing is straightforward, but as she unfolds a more nuanced version of a story we’ve heard before—the story of immigrant settlement of the continent—she invites the reader’s mind to wander off in all directions:
Native people had lived and hunted, harvested and fished on the land for thousands of years. The land took care of them and they took care of the land. But the government of the United States wanted their land, wanted that land to own and sell… Forests and prairies, swamps, lakes, and ponds, rivers and springs, caves and quarries, veins of ore and coal—everything had to be measured and mapped before it could be sold.
This makes me think of the Lost Forty as one of capitalism’s mistakes, like not accounting for the value of wilderness or failing to provide for people who fall through the cracks. The new arrivals wanted to make money off the land, so it had to be divided up and sold. But because of a surveying error, this forest was mistakenly mapped as a lake. It escaped interest from timber cutters, who believed it to be worthless. So it was not sold, and it stands today as a miniscule relic of the tall pine forest that once covered northern Minnesota, a place where:
…the wind blew through the same branches it had blown through three hundred years before.
Root helps us understand how surveyors using a compass, a chain, and tally pins could easily have made the mistake:
If you have ever walked through the woods you know the land doesn’t care about straight lines. Ridges rise up, streams meander, swamps sink underfoot. If you were trying to turn this rollicking land into straight lines on paper, you might make a mistake. Josiah King did.
In 1882, Josiah King and his three-man survey crew, slogging through the woods on a cold November day, drew Coddington Lake about a half mile farther north than it really was:
…no lumber company wanted to buy land that the map showed as a lake. There was no profit in lake water, so that forest stayed lost and those tall trees kept growing.
I can’t help wondering what Minnesota would be like today if there had been no profit in timber either. An interesting thought experiment. And the lake was considered worthless then, but in an era of global water scarcity, what might happen to our neighbor waters that are now suddenly more valuable?
But that’s just this adult’s mental meandering. The book has enough fox pups, woodpeckers, bears, and moose to satisfy any young reader. And it explains a lot of things, including why we call Seirus aurocapilla “ovenbird” and how much bald eagles’ nests weigh.
It also explains something many of us adults find confusing—how our land is divided into townships, sections, quarter sections and acres—with help from Betsy Bowen’s whimsical illustrations.
And it lists a half-dozen places where we can visit old growth forests, including one in my home town of Duluth, the Minnesota Point Pine Forest Scientific and Natural Area. Root captures the experience of being in the midst of such grand trees:
…you can go today and walk under trees so tall you have to crane your neck to see their tops. You can try to wrap your arms around a white pine tree that is 350 years old. You can walk through time and see the woods as it used to be and still is in the Lost (and found) Forest.
If you ever had a desire to visit an old growth forest, this book will whet your appetite. If you never succeed in visiting one, it will comfort you with a story, pictures, and information that will enrich and delight you. And if you have a young person in your life to share the story with, so much the better!
Available at University of Minnesota Press, or at a local bookstore near you.