Got skills? Niskanen’s latest book challenges you to do something new

Chris Niskanen
Chris Niskanen

This isn’t a call for secession or anything, but let it just be known that Minnesotans have more skills than people in other states. So says Chris Niskanen, communications director at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and author of “The Minnesota Book of Skills” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), a compendium of useful or just entertaining skills that are uniquely Minnesotan. He says the reason for this is threefold.

First, we live in a state with diverse and abundant natural resources, and this proximity to nature encourages us to learn the skills needed to live off the land, or just have fun on it in all seasons.

“We have all these things that really draw us close to nature and we’re really interested in nature here. You can’t really say that in a lot of other states,” Niskanen said in a recent interview. “We’ve been able to hold onto our hunting and fishing population here a lot better than other states. We seek out experiences year-round in nature. The fact that we voted for the Legacy Amendment to create more nature-based heritage shows that we value clean water, our arts and our natural resources.”

Minnesotans also hail from a wide variety of immigrant traditions. From the Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Germans we developed a number of agricultural, culinary and practical life skills; more recent Somali, Hmong and Cambodian immigrants have expanded or rekindled this skill set.

And then there’s the Fair.

‘An unbelievable display of Minnesota skills’

“I drew a lot of inspiration from the State Fair. When you go into those buildings and see food or produce or crafts or carpentry, what you are really looking at is an unbelievable display of Minnesota skills. Get past the rides and the food and you’ll see what we really take pride in in this state,” he said. “We are a state that prides itself on being able to do things with our hands. There’s a sense of do-it-yourself here, self-reliance and independence.”

Niskanen came to the DNR after 17 years as an outdoors writer and editor with the Pioneer Press, and during those years he encountered some of Minnesota’s most uniquely skilled individuals, including hunters, anglers, gatherers, craftspeople and others who live close to the land. His 2010 book, “Prairie Lake Forest,” took him on further adventures across the state.

Then one year he encountered a family who decided to make their entire Thanksgiving dinner from ingredients they raised or grew or hunted themselves. Niskanen was not just impressed, he was inspired. He began keeping a mental inventory of Minnesota skills, and eventually rounded the list out to 75.

Some of these skills could save your life. Take tick identification and extraction, judging ice thickness, campfire building or wilderness orienteering. Others are just plan handy, such as sauna etiquette, how to back up a trailer at a boat launch or can your own produce. But most of these skills — essential though they once were or still could be — are just fun. Making crop art, hanging a rope swing, building a snow fort, even home canning are skills that make life a little richer and more entertaining, especially if you do them with someone else.

Unique things to do with kids

“There’s a real humanity in learning how to do things together, whether that’s canoeing in the BWCA with your significant other or canning with your grandmother,” Niskanen says. “This is a great sourcebook for parents who are looking for unique things to do with their kids. Is hanging a rope swing a skill? Yeah. It requires a little know-how. But pushing your kid on the swing? There’s nothing better than sharing that experience and connection with something you made yourself.”

Niskanen thinks that some of these skills will be lost if younger people don’t pick them up. Three years ago he started home canning, and became a little obsessed. He sees that with a lot of canners. But he doesn’t see many people going out to collect wild rice, which is free for the taking on hundreds of Minnesota lakes. And only a few people practice whitefish netting, a tasty endeavor that is dying out for lack of know-how. When fewer people practice certain skills, those skills don’t get passed down.

“You can learn to do anything on the Internet. But how satisfying is that? Not very satisfying. I think people should find someone who can mentor them, someone from another generation or another culture. If you want to lean about hunting, for example, there are Hmong families that live in St. Paul that are incredibly skilled hunters. That interaction with someone else in the learning experience is so important. That’s what makes these skills last. And that’s what makes them so much fun.”

Events

  • Saturday, Nov. 17. Nature Writing Workshop, Warner Nature Center, Marine on St. Croix, 9:30 a.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 24. Reading and signing, Reading Frenzy Bookshop, Zimmerman, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 1. Reading and signing, Valley Bookseller, Stillwater, 12 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 1. Reading and signing, St. Olaf College Bookstore, Northfield, 5:30-7 p.m.
  •  Sunday, Dec. 9. Reading and signing, Minnesota History Center, St. Paul, 2-3 p.m.

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