We don’t get to choose the landscapes that shape us. We can’t control where on the planet we’re born or the environments the we grow up in. But we do get to choose how we respond to them.
Of course, the words “landscape” and “environment” can also mean the emotional places we inhabit within our families and communities. But I think that this sense of place also applies to the actual, physical landmarks we see every day — lakes, rivers, mountains, forests, desert dunes and ocean waves.
“I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives with you,” says writer Arundhati Roy. “I don’t think it’s true of people who’ve grown up in cities so much; you may love a building, but I don’t think that you can love it in the way that you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth; it’s a different kind of love.”
So what were the landscapes that changed you? My long term relationship has been with a river. It’s run through my whole life.
I was born along the banks of the Red River of the North, at a small hospital on the North Dakota side, my home state of Minnesota visible just across the water that serves as a meandering border between the two states. The Red begins about an hour south of this spot and flows steadily north — which is novel, but hardly unusual. It meets the Assiniboine River in what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba (but served as a trading and meeting place for more than 6,000 years), before emptying emptying into Lake Winnipeg further north in the province.
As far as rivers go, the Red River is an under-appreciated one, slow moving and mellow, and much maligned for its cloudy, mud brown water colored by nutrient-rich clay deposited by melting glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. This soil is what makes the Red River Valley — which is hardly a valley at all, but an ancient glacial lake bed and one of the flattest plains on the planet — such fertile farm country.
I’ve seen this river from dozens of vantage points in both the United States and Canada and never knew it was a major trade route for fur traders and ferry boats until I started writing historical nonfiction and approached it with a professional’s focus and a travel writer’s curiosity. It’s easy to overlook the places closest to you, to take familiar sights for granted.
From the room where I was born, you can see the wide open stretch of the riverbank trails I like to ride, gathering speed and pushing the limits of my legs and the rusty mountain bike I’ve used and abused since junior high. You can crisscross the river on a series of bridges between Fargo and Moorhead, popping back and forth between states without ever slowing down.
I grew up in the one of the tiny towns that dot the neat farm fields, with the Red River in the west and one of its many tributaries, the Wild Rice, curving around my grandparents’ farmstead before carving wide oxbows in the east. I had never seen a map of Wild Rice before I started writing these words, so I looked it up to be sure.
When you see a river on a map, it looks like a random squiggle of blue, a child’s crayon scrawl. It’s strangely surprisingly to realize that you recognize those twists and bends. I walked those rivers’ banks and used their bridges as navigational landmarks and meeting points. I tried my first beer, an old and flat can of Red White and Blue my buddy had swiped from his grandpa’s stash, as we stared out at the water.
I jogged across these bridges, training for and maintaining a 7 minute mile in the sticky summer heat. I biked across them hundreds, maybe thousands of times, alone, with friends, with my family. My mom’s overprotective screech — “Caaaaaaaaar!!!” — is the stuff of family legend, both for its volume and the fact that it was always completely redundant. When you live in one of the flattest places on earth you can see everything coming miles away.
When winter came, I’d hop on a snowmobile and try to keep up with my dad as he whizzed across the frozen water. My sister and I made up ghost stories as we trudged through the snow along the river banks. We both screamed when our boots plunged through a tangle of branches, trapping us at the knees. You know your storytelling has hit the next level when you’re capable of scaring yourself.
I went away for college, eager for new places and the rhythm of the city. But when my financial aid dried up, I found myself back again, drawn by the magic of in-state tuition and cheaper rent. I got engaged overlooking the Red River on the Minnesota side at the same spot Derrick took me on our first date. Our son learned to fish there this summer. He didn’t catch anything. But that’s never really been the point.
I cross the Red River several times a week now, skipping back and forth between North Dakota and Minnesota just as easily as I used to on my bike. My community spans several cities and two states and we wouldn’t think about the border at all if it weren’t for taxes and political ads.
The river is a constant presence, tranquil and consistent, moving ever northward whether we notice or not. The waters of the Red keep to themselves. Until they don’t.
Paddling the still waters in Grand Forks on a bright day in June has a vaguely narcotic effect. The water sparkles. Cyclists and joggers fly along the riverside trails. Trees in the parks shelter picnickers and Sunday nappers. Curious children toddle around on the wide open green spaces on chubby legs, while their parents and their equally curious dogs amble along beside them.
You could almost miss the marker towering above you on the bridge footing, the one that marks how high the water rose in 1997, when the worst flood since 1826 spilled over the 52-foot levees and prompted what was then the largest civilian evacuation since the Civil War. As the last residents scrambled to find an escape route that was still above water, fire gutted the downtown district, the flames rising into the clear blue sky even as flood waters four feet high lapped against the deserted buildings.
The green spaces I saw from my canoe are partially for recreation and partially for flood control. A popular campground now exists because a neighborhood doesn’t.
The water came for me and my neighbors that year too. A brutal, eight blizzard winter blanketed the region in snow and the spring thaw knocked over the first domino. The ice-jammed Red River sent water pouring into its tributaries, out into the pancake-flat fields and spilling over into cities.
The flooding started at the river’s source in the sister cities of Wahpeton and Breckenridge and worked its way north. Fargo and Moorhead’s levees held, but all that water had to go somewhere. By the time it reached Grand Forks, the water was rising as quickly as an inch per minute. Our church friends in Ada were evacuated, our schoolmates’ grandparents pulled from their homes and taken away in boats.
A state of emergency was declared. From the air, my tiny town and the ones around it looked like islands. We saw it on the evening news. People who worked in Fargo-Moorhead went to stay with friends and family or in hotels so they wouldn’t lose their jobs, taking my classmates with them when they could. My grandparents’ house became a staging point for the National Guard.
School was canceled for weeks. We rehearsed our one-act play in my friend’s living room when we could get out, but we never made those days of school up. Instead of going to class, those of us who hadn’t evacuated reported for sandbagging duty, where every able-bodied citizen lined up to shovel sand into rough bags and assemble them into levees. Those that couldn’t lift or shovel supervised, made sandwiches and coffee and watched the little ones.
I was lucky. My community stayed mostly dry. I’ve sandbagged a half dozen times since 1997. The term “100-year flood” lost its meaning the second I was told I’d just lived through a second one.
Even the most placid rivers can wear us down, reminding us that we are just one part of a vast ecosystem. The natural places that define us can also defy us. But despite the risks, we are still drawn to them.
Last summer I walked along the river’s edge after a birthday picnic in the park. The water was still in that golden hour before sunset and the anglers were patiently watching their lines bob in the water. A little boy rested his head on his dad’s arm. A woman in a headscarf caught my eye and waved. I smiled and waved back. Then we all turned our eyes to the water, alone yet together.
What about you?
What are the landscapes that define you?
How do you interact with the natural world around you?
Has nature ever turned on you? What happened?
What do you remember about the Flood of 1997?
What river has made a big impression on you and why?
What rivers are on your must-see lists?
What’s your favorite way to explore a river?
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