From the Desk of Connie Wanek: Hartley Field

WanekConnie Wanek is the author of three books of poetry—BonfireHartley Field, and On Speaking Terms—and the coeditor of the award-winning anthology To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-territorial Days to the Present. She has been a Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress and was named George Morrison Artist of the Year, an honor given to a northern Minnesotan for contributions to the arts over many years. She has lived for decades in Duluth, Minnesota. Her most recent book is Rival Gardens (Nebraska, 2016). This summer, Hartley Nature Center established the “Connie Wanek Wildflower Trail” in honor of her work in poetry. 

Hartley Field

I agree that money is important. I’ve been known to pinch a penny so hard that afterwards it looked as though it had gone through one of those machines that turns coins into souvenirs. Perhaps a bas relief wolf, if you’re at the zoo, or a hummingbird, if you went to Tucson one winter and visited the Desert Museum. I’m not sure what you do with such a coin afterwards, but it’s amusing to see the transformation from currency intolet’s call it art.

Is it art? That’s not the question. The real question is what good is money in the grand scheme of things? Is there any relationship at all between money and actual value? My dad used to say he wanted to line his coffin with dollar bills, but he left everything to his wife and family, in the end, trusting we would not waste his money on frivolities, like art.

Back in the antiquated days of 1980, when my daughter was just a year old, we lived in Duluth, Minnesota, on Winona Street in the Woodland neighborhood (Winona is an Anglicized form of the Lakota word for “first born daughter”). The neighborhood was, of course, developed on land where once Native people hunted, fished, and gathered wild raspberries. It wasn’t a particularly easy lifethe winters are very serious that far north.

Every afternoon I would bundle my daughter into the baby backpack and walk into Hartley Field, a wild park a few blocks away from where we rented the upper rooms of duplex. Duluth is full of places where the natural world never quite lost its footholdor perhaps it did, but when humans turned their backs for a year or two, the popple trees and tansy reclaimed lost acreage. Hartley Field itself was once part of a great forest where centuries-old white pines were cut and sent downriver to “build St. Louis.” After that it was a farm.

Now in those days my little girl and I explored these third or fourth growth woods, about 700 acresjust over a square mileof hills and swamp, tamarack, maple, spruce and pine, a trout stream dammed into a pond, a tall rock knob we called Hartley Baldy where, once you made the climb, you could rest on lichen-scabbed rock and stare at Lake Superior, Kitchi-gami, shining in the distance. Occasionally, as we wandered, we saw evidence of the past lives of the land. For instance, in the middle of a stand of jack pines, some orphaned concrete steps led to a huge old root cellar, a doorless, musty cave suitable for truckloads of potatoes or a dozen hibernating bears.

One section of Hartley was all red pine in straight rows, like a crop, planted by the Boy Scouts in the 1940s. The handsome trees had grown very tall, and close enough together that nothing thrived beneath them, in the thick pine needles and accumulated gloom. This stand of pines wasn’t natural, just as cathedrals are not natural, but it had a grand silence, except when the north wind began to blow, and a distant cello fell out of tune and back in again.

Once we met an old woman on the trails who knew where there grew a mysterious apple tree. She had picked a sack of small blushing fruit, yellow and pink, and she gave me one “for the baby.” The apple had a fragrance more than a flavor. I am forever haunted by that encounter, and I have tried many times in vain to find that tree.

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In London when people dig to build, they run into Roman coins and stonework. The outlines of the past are visible through features of the present, and this is called a palimpsest.  I’ve always liked that word. I think of it when I look in the mirror, because somehow behind my current face is the round little girl’s I once had, and also the happy young mother’s. What we look like depends on when… as Whitman said, we contain multitudes.

History is so interesting, now that I’ve accumulated a good deal of my own. In 1890 a man named Guilford Graham Hartley bought eighty acres near Duluth (he would expand his holdings to almost 800 acres), and he cleared the land, sold the timber, and started a farm. For about thirty years, where the woods are now, he ran a successful dairy operation, and he also grew lettuce and other produce for the fresh market. Then in 1922, farmer Hartley died. The next year, 1923, a change in zoning meant that the taxes went up by twenty percent. By 1931, the farm had become so unprofitable that the Hartley estate failed to pay their property taxes, and the homestead was abandoned. The value of the land at that time did not justify even a modest annual outlay of cash. Imagine!

People look at the forest and see money. We pick up rocks and scrutinize them for valuable ore. If you’ve never seen them, you should google Sebastiao Salgado’s photographs of Brazilian gold miners, Those images taught me all I needed to know about what men will endure for a chance to get rich. What is the dollar value of a human life? The insurance industry has a set of calculations to answer that question, but I don’t.

My personal relationship, then, with Hartley Field began in 1980. We had no idea, but the path where we entered Hartley in those days actually crossed private property. It was certainly never posted. But since that time many houses, big fancy ones, have been built on those peripheral parcels, and they are marketed with the very desirable feature of “immediate proximity to parkland.” That’s kind of priceless, really. Back when my daughter and I walked there, the grasses were tall, and my pants would be damp to the waist if rain had come that morning. If I walked in exactly the same place today, I’d be crossing someone’s living room carpet in wet boots.

I always said I could never move away from Duluth, because I had to be near Hartley Field. I have left, but I still say the same words because, as I feel unmoored these days, I retain the hope of drifting back to my natural place in the world, returning to paths where I could never be lost. I know every trail. If I were dropped like a struggling hare from the grip of an owl, I could find my way through the leaf litter to my burrow.