Out at the edges of cities and between cities abandoned things beckon, as collectibles or as new metaphors for harvest by those who who link images, lyrics and sounds with commonplace memory. On a frozen Sunday morning far down Minnesota Point, one of the nose-to-nose barrier islands that surround the outlet of the St. Louis River into Lake Superior, two of us heard what others might have related to a haunting. We had walked the beach on the Duluth, Minnesota side as far as a washed-up spruce iced up against a birch, with icicles like a row of tusks helping bond them together. A surf rolled from the lake, with the sand undercut in a kind of terrace just about where these trees lay crosswise to the breaking waves. I said, 'Do you hear somebody shouting?' and we both did, exactly like a man's voice calling one word, yet always in the same tone from way out on the water; it never varied. It sounded like 'Help!' but, in the tones of an instructor rather than a desperate victim, admonitory rather than fear-filled. We might have been ignoring what we were supposed to be paying attention to. A little leaning over and listening proved the voice to be a suction sound every time a wave ebbed back from a scooped-out area beneath the lowermost tree trunk, from a little more than an arm's length away like the sound a heavy glass door on a public building makes sometimes as it opens and closes to the outside. When we returned and passed the same spot the sand had been re-contoured and the trees, my friend thought, moved a bit from where they were, and the sound had gone quiet though the waves were the same or bigger.
There used to be more people-activity, other than hikers and
beach-goers, at the end of the point and the leavings are there in
buildings I'd not examined so closely when I was last there. No car
access anymore, unless you could count the fenced-in runway for small planes, extends all the way down there; but
boats used to come and go from piers, including those of a long-gone village and trading post, and there is a deserted boat garage made all of concrete, even the roof, with early 1900s-style stair-step blocks going up to
a peak in a false front at each end. All the doors and windows gape
open without a trace of glass, wood or framework left, and graffiti
artists have been busy on the inside. Campfires have been enjoyed on the
pure sand where a floor might or might not have once joined the walls.
Over the door are some very faded block letters that can't all be read
for sure but look something like this: U.S......DEPOT.
A stroll away into the pines you come across a two-hole privy with
no door in the doorway, no glass in the window, but still a shabby
wooden seat and the stump of a lid propped up on one of the holes, so
it's usable. I'm
advised that the concrete walls and roof are an old form of construction meant to protect against
fires, so welding and other hot repair work must have gone on there, with
boats being launched in and out to the Superior, Wisconsin shipping channel which
the doorway is facing.
Way down at the sandy fingertip of this 7-mile-long isle are logs and entanglements of driftwood, some of it placed into the frame for a tepee. A camper's tarp has likely clothed it before. One horizontal log bears a phantom word in magic marker: Help!
A short ways back toward Duluth is a brick silo, all fenced around
for some reason to keep people out, though people do have full access to
the boat garage and toilet. The bottom is open like a fireplace; the
top is broken away and open to the skies. This was a lighthouse dating to 1855, though at an original fifty feet in height it must have surpassed the trees which may have enclosed it when it was active. In the same vicinity are white pines, elsewhere on the island and everywhere on the mainland seen as trees in the towering, single-masted sense of the word, grown to the height of a two-story house but in shrub form, with many trunks, for no reason we can guess except for a wish to diverge and find new forms or express an adaptation.
In the leafy seasons of the year much of Minnesota Point beyond the city park is matted and ragged with poison ivy, courtesy no doubt of extensive public works that brought dredged-out fill into the Twin Ports and their shipping lanes from other places where poison ivy is native. Along the spine of the point in winter, poison ivy stalks bristle with pale berries serving as forbidding markers to anyone with a dread of the plant. This place has its parallels with the central Indiana of my childhood, a poison-ivy-ridden zone of intermittent farming, especially with the tract of land to our south where the then-owner, rumored to own a junkyard, had left an Airstream office trailer that a fire had gutted, a Ford station wagon and the frame of a tractor to rust into crumbs and attract children free of any responsibility. Each article is something to poke at and sing songs about, and a garden or lab fruitful in analogies.
Dumped-upon, scrambled and revegetated places develop faces and their human histories leave the sense of a mood in the absence of other people. Much as the smack and swirl of surf against a rip-rap
breakwater partway back along the Point conjures an upset stomach coping with a load of food, karst limestone forming slots in the ground down in southern Minnesota made me think of a face stiffened by sorrow, and an early return to a certain sense of well-being.
The poem I'd written and used on the greeting card: 'Your face a crust that dried like that...blown grit lacing your crevices
of loss--but yet again, at last, you're circulating back into the
pillowlands of crumpling, regenerating hills and sense that pock or
fracture's coming loose--your mouth--cracking the sands that edge it,
and it expands counter to its late laws, not quite a smile, a
fountainhead...' is the face of a landscape and of a person, any person, switching to enjoyment from a state of grief.