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The ghosts of Minneopa — where bison may soon graze again

Photo by Nicole Helget
Park workers tend a controlled burn at Minneopa State Park.

My daughter Violette and I just walked the Minneopa prairie. Later this summer, bison, the heaviest of North American land mammals, may once again graze these grasses, cultivate the soil with their hooves, and scrub their winter hides against boulders. The Department of Natural Resources is currently reviewing a proposal to introduce 40 bison into Minneopa State Park, 5 miles west of Mankato, where they once thrived and thundered wild in great numbers before white settlement.

Snowy owls, Violette says, are her favorite animal. “But bison and horses are next.” She’s 8, and her mind is open even as she enters the age of reason. Soon she will quietly be taught to deliver right or wrong answers for every query. But today her imaginary possibilities are cosmic. Here, in the tall grasses and shrubbery, potential for original ideas can grow. Her interests have yet to be limited. At 8, it is acceptable to be a naturalist, a historian, a musician and a poet all at the same time. She’s not yet been restrained by American specialization. At her age, she is free to discover the connectivity of all the earth’s disciplines and life’s lessons. 

We walk toward a large rock, maybe 5 feet in diameter and covered in dried green and yellow moss. The rock is split in two. “How do you think it broke?” I ask her.

“That’s easy,” she says. “Water did it. When it froze.” She peers inside the crack and touches the inside. “This big rock,” I tell her, “was left behind by retreating glaciers.” But she already knows that, too.

Photo by Nicole Helget
“How do you think it broke?”

Wild places sustain and restore the human spirit, inspire and alert our highest intelligence. Who can argue the point when the girl solemnly climbs on top an erratic to have “some thinking time” or when she bends to observe a cluster of deer scat and breaks it open, bare-handed, to discover what the animal had eaten?  Every child ought to have a place where he or she can go and envision the origins of all. Of the wilderness, Pulitzer-Prize winner Wallace Stegner wrote, “It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives.”

Children’s lives are and always have been insane. Violette is one of six of my children, spanning ages 18 to 4. Separate households. Different schools. Athletics. Lessons. Parents who work all day, but who still come home with work. Duties pulling people in every direction. Chaos that we euphemize as “busy” and “productive.” Like Violette, I’m studying the park’s meadow and breathing deeply, putting aside matters that claim to be pressing. Not one of them as interesting or serious as the fire out here. Park workers tend a controlled burn. Romantic gray smoke makes the sky drowsy and slightly hallucinogenic. It’s prime air for imagining specters.

helget
Photo by Jason Miller, Franchise Graphics and Photography
Nicole Helget

The Minneopa pasture stretches out north of Hwy. 68 to the Minnesota River. This area of the park is separated from the more popular double falls area by a road, a cemetery and train tracks. Bringing bison to this area of the park has been toyed with for decades, at least as far back as the mid-1960s, when a flood forced the few animals kept at Sibley Park in Mankato to be moved to Blue Mound State Park in southwestern Minnesota. What’s left of Minnesota’s bison herds (many of them cross-bred with cattle genes) now remain in zoos, farms or park sanctuaries, a fate not unlike the people who once depended upon them for their survival.

“Isn’t it nice,” I ask Violette, “to think that the buffalo might be here again?”

She scans the prairie. Maybe she wonders where they’d gone in the first place. I know I did at her age. Out here, in southern Minnesota, where round hay bales sit in fields, I used to squint and imagine them. I missed them and mourned them though I had no natural memory of them being here. I’d dream the dancing calves. I’d dream the knowing fathers and mothers drooping their heads as if in expectation of slaughter. I’d dream the old, condemning eyes piercing me right in the heart.

Residual guilt: Some children are born with it. I’d seen the old photos of bones and skulls stacked high, smatterings of skinned bison carcasses lying alongside train tracks, representations of our forefathers’ attempts to starve out the Native American tribes, to clear the prairies for settlements of white families, farms and towns. I understood, very early, that my own livelihood came at the expense of people and animals preceding me by generations.

I’m a writer and a teacher by trade, but I’m also a bird watcher, music lover, leaf hunter, insect observer, and amateur history enthusiast. All interests were born outside. Most play for my sisters and me occurred in the woods or fields. Away from adults and televisions, we entertained ourselves in the grove, at the river, and along the field roads. Everywhere I turned, I saw ghosts of days past.

Minneopa is haunted with such inherited memories.

In January 2012, my friend and writing group member stole out here to Minneopa and shot himself in the cold and snow. I believe he selected the park for many reasons, though I can’t know. He left no note. But, with more than a year’s perspective, I can understand now that the selection of place was a gentle decision from a gentle man. I assume he didn’t want anyone to clean a devastating mess. He would have thought of that. But there was also his deep love of the wilderness.

It makes sense that he would have wanted to be somewhere as close to primitive as possible. I believe I, too, would like to go out on a moment that conjures, as closely as it can, the origins of first breath and first nourishment. We aren’t born under the stars anymore, but I can understand the desire to lie back and see them as a last spark, to allay what must have been an oppressive loneliness and hopelessness by covering himself with a blanket of galactic delights on a bed of earth on a frozen night, reminiscent of the urge, the gasp, and the cold shock of birth. Where he went out, I hope someday soon a bison calf is born in an urgent rush.

Bison herds will never again run truly wild. Once, between 20 and 30 million bison lived on the American plains. By 1900, fewer than 1,000 remained. Somehow, buffalo, with their stern countenances, elicit sorrow. Maybe our attempts to bring them back are an appeal for atonement. Forgive us. And we’ll move forward with more care. Will never again allow bison to roam freely. It’s a nice image, but fears of them spreading the brucellosis infection (probably irrational) and depleting grasslands and colliding with cars won’t allow it. Bison herds will from this point be tended and managed in parks and farms and sanctuaries where the animals seem to function best with as few intervention as possible. Following the example established at Yellowstone National Park, the bison at Minneopa will not be fed by park rangers. Other than the construction of a fence and the digging of a well for a water source, the land is ready to sustain the herd, and the herd will fend for itself.

Nights out here are beautiful. Stars glint abundant. If there’s an argument for ghosts, it’s put best by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who says that every evening the stars, some of them gone dark long ago, still shine. We see their sparkle, though the star itself no longer exists.  The glaciers are gone. The wild herds of yore, too. A friend. Minneopa Park is the holder of memories, natural and human. It’s a place of remorse and penance.

Nicole Helget is a writer, teacher and mother from North Mankato. “Ghosts of Minneopa” is the first in a collection of essays, accompanied by a soundtrack, about the state’s parks. Her latest novel is “Stillwater.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Joel Fischer on 05/12/2014 - 10:42 am.

    Thanks, Nicole

    From a fellow SESM grad, thanks for this article. I love your writing style and have enjoyed your novels.

    This paragraph struck me the hardest:

    “I’m a writer and a teacher by trade, but I’m also a bird watcher, music lover, leaf hunter, insect observer, and amateur history enthusiast. All interests were born outside. Most play for my sisters and me occurred in the woods or fields. Away from adults and televisions, we entertained ourselves in the grove, at the river, and along the field roads. Everywhere I turned, I saw ghosts of days past.”

    I imagine the story is similar for most of us who grew up in the rural areas of that part of the state – the countless hours spent in the woods along the Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood, or the spring-fed creek running through my parents’ property, or the Minnesota River.

    I wonder if you’ve read or are familiar with Richard Luov’s book ‘Last Child in the Woods’? He writes about the importance of nature in the lives of children. It’s a great read and speaks to the very things you’ve written about here.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/12/2014 - 11:56 am.

    Minneopa

    I’ve spent many days at Minneopa Park, hiking the trails, watching the water flow endlessly across the falls, and checking out the mill ruins nearby. It’s been more than a few years since I was last at the park, so perhaps it’s time once again to make a trek to Mankato to check out the old stomping grounds.

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 05/13/2014 - 03:16 pm.

    All children are born scientists

    “She’s not yet been restrained by American specialization. At her age, she is free to discover the connectivity of all the earth’s disciplines and life’s lessons. ”

    As Carl Sagan once said, and Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reiterated: “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

    Too bad we beat it out of them. Your description of Violette’s approach to the park took me right back to my own youth, wandering the fields & woods of my home town, exploring, learning, and imagining. The world and its possibilities seemed limitless then. How diminished it seems now. How is it I took the narrowing road?

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