Apr 202013
 
boat_houses

Photo © Mary Farrell

Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle, we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to. . .. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water, and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts.

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain

 

IT IS DUSK ON THIS WILD STRETCH of the Mississippi between the high bluffs of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin; the air is hot and thick with the smell of the river and the hum of insects. Along the edge of Latsch Island, where the green darkness of the woods meets the reflected light, little boathouses squat in the water, pressed against the island like roosting ducklings.

In one of those boathouses, a naked six-year-old boy named Moses dances to a children’s song coming from a battery-powered CD player, his feet falling in a haphazard rhythm on the wood floor. His father, Solomon Simon, a 33-year-old carpenter and self-taught river ecologist, sips lemonade on a small deck that looks out over the river toward the bluffs of the Wisconsin side, while Gunther, a three-legged golden retriever, lies at his feet.

The river is busy: A great blue heron manages the miracle of getting its awkward form airborne, calling out in a guttural voice as it skims over the water. A family of ducks paddles by within a couple of yards of the boathouse, followed a little later by a muskrat that leaves v-shaped ripples in its wake. The sun’s pale orange afterglow fades as the first stars make their appearance in the night sky, reflected in the glassy swells of the water.

“I really love the river,” says Simon. “Life is an adventure here. If Huck Finn were alive, this is where he would live, right here.”

“Yup,” echoes Moses, looking like a miniature of the storybook hero, with his big brown eyes and tousled hair. “This is where he would live.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

WHILE THERE ARE ABOUT a hundred boathouses here, only a couple dozen hardy souls call Minnesota’s Latsch Island home, and theirs is the last year-round boathouse community on the upper Mississippi.

The mile-long island is part of the mess of wooded islands, backwater channels, and sloughs created by the meanderings of the river as it piles up sediment in one place and cuts new paths in another.

Although the island hosts a marina and is located just a few hundred yards from the Winona waterfront, the boathouse community exists in its own little world, a place that manages to combine elements reminiscent of Twain, Thoreau, and Peter Pan.

There is no highway sign noting Latsch as a point of interest to motorists crossing the Mississippi on the interstate, not even an exit sign marking the ramp that curves down from the bridge. At the bottom of the ramp is an asphalt road that tums to dirt and then terminates in a crude parking lot at the edge of a woods, forcing a visitor to continue on foot.

A little way into the woods, the faint paths among the trees converge at the edge of the channel that divides the island. A footbridge made of boards laid across floating steel barrels links the two halves; it is narrow and precarious. On the other side of the bridge, in a tangle of tree branches and vines, is a hand-carved signboard:

Welcome

Wolf Spider Island

The boathouse community gave this name to lower Latsch Island, hoping the reference to the large, hairy spiders would make the island seem less appealing to outsiders.

Aside from the sign, they’ve given the place an almost playful atmosphere. Bells, wooden chimes, and a plank swing hang from branches along the paths leading to the boathouses, which look like kids’ treehouses. Most are made of secondhand materials. They come in one size – small – but take on numerous shapes, from almost suburban to geodesic dome.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

LESLIE EATON’S BOATHOUSE, which she describes as barnlike, was given to her for free because of its dilapidated condition. Wasps and carpenter ants had riddled the wood, the skylight leaked, and the pontoons were rusted out, a fact she was made aware of when the whole house suddenly sank during a repair job. Since her arrival on Latsch Island four years ago, she’s worked on six “fixer-uppers.”

Before coming to the island, Eaton was a wanderer, living in chicken coops and cars, a hippie who never found her way into mainstream society.

“I’d had ideas about trying to move onto some land someday and trying to grow gardens and stuff, but once I got out to the river, I just sort of forgot about all that,” she says, making a stirfry dish on her propane stove. She looks very much at home, barefoot and wearing a batiked ankle-length dress.

“People just happen to live here, and our lifestyle is what binds us together. I’ve been very happy here. I’ve got a lot of friends, and I feel like there’s finally someplace where I fit in – you know, all the neighbors are as offbeat as I am,” continues Eaton. “If you’re kind of a restless person, you can relax here because the house is always moving.”

Actually, her boathouse is tethered to several sturdy trees. A floating walkway, called a stand-off, keeps it from crashing into shore, and 50-gallon barrels, serving as pontoons, keep it afloat. However, her home moves every time a large boat goes by. The rocking chair starts rocking, and everything hanging from the rafters – a collection of straw fans and hats, coffee cups, river bird feathers, and baskets of potatoes – starts swinging.

Along one wall dangle strings of beads in every color, and next to those are racks and racks of handmade jewelry. Eaton’s craft is her principal source of income, and she spends hours working on her beadwork while watching the river pass by her picture window.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

LIFE ON THE RIVER is not easy, however, as Eaton’s neighbor, John Rupkey, points out again and again. A former college administrator and member of a religious order, he moved to Wolf Spider Island 17 years ago in search of a simpler lifestyle. It hasn’t come without effort.

Boathouse owners must regularly haul in large drums of fuel, fresh water, food, and other supplies, and haul out waste by boat or, in the winter, by sled. Electricity comes from car batteries or, for a few folks, solar panels.

There is no air-conditioning in the summer, and in the winter it’s not unheard of for floors to ice over. Moreover, the constant battering by the river and the weather make maintenance a never-ending chore.

Rupkey takes a philosophical view of the privations. “I don’t have any of the conveniences of modern life – all the time-saving devices are gone – but I have lots of time.”

For the boathouse community, Minnesota winters can be hazardous, but spring is by far the most dangerous season. That’s when winter ice can break the silence with sharp explosions as it cracks up, sometimes sending floes the size of trucks crashing into the boathouses.

As the ice melts, the river floods, inundating most of the island. Then, to get to and from home, islanders must boat through swift currents. Those boathouses that are “iced in” – frozen to the river bottom – won’t rise with the river and are quickly filled with water.

“And just when you think you’ve seen all the Mississippi’s tricks, it’ll pull a new one on you,” Eaton says. During the big flood of ’93, she was living in a large boathouse called the Mud Rat that broke its lines and ended up on top of some submerged trees.

“When the water came down, the boathouse was hung up, and boy, it was hard to get that sucker down!” Eaton recalled. “It took lots of people chopping tree limbs.”

All who live on the island have had their own brushes with disaster, and they tell such stories with a certain amount of relish. The stories are what distinguish the boathouse people from those who live in town. They testify to the teller’s ability to survive on the river, to ride its natural rhythm.

Simon tells one story that has become part of island lore: “There was a boathouse that had caught fire farther up the river.” he says. “It was made of cedar shakes, so it was very flammable. The fire had burned through its ropes, and it started floating downriver. We woke up about two in the morning to this towering inferno descending on our house, heading straight for us.”

Boathouse residents came out in their bedclothes, long poles in hand to push the floating bonfire away. The fire eventually burned itself out downriver. Although it is a strong individualistic streak that brings most people to the boathouses, such crises have helped form a sort of loose community in which neighbors rely on each other for a helping hand.

“Everybody down here knows each other and there’s a certain friendship,” says Simon. “Even if there’s animosity over an issue, you know you have to work it out because you’re going to need each other’s help in the future, whether it’s for something to do with the floods or preserving the community from hostile outside authorities.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

IT IS THOSE “HOSTILE OUTSIDE AUTHORITIES” that are the greatest threat to the survival of the boathouse community. Local and state governments have been trying for years to get rid of boathouses, and they’ve been successful on most of the river. Now the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is attempting to enforce the rules designed to phase boathouses out.

“Generally speaking, structures, especially for human habitation, aren’t allowed on protected waters like the Mississippi,” explains Bill Huber, a state hydrologist. “The surface of the water is being usurped for private residential use rather than being used for the public. A residential subdivision just wasn’t something that was envisioned for surface water.”

The state says boathouse owners won’t be allowed to expand the houses or to repair more than 50 percent of their value, a policy designed to ensure that the boathouses will deteriorate one by one. The owners don’t have much regard for these regulations, though; they openly undertake illegal expansion and remodeling projects. Several boathouse owners have been threatened with court action.

But no one is leaving.

“There’s something about government that doesn’t like things that don’t fit in,” Rupkey says. “People out here aren’t living in the mainstream. We’re literally and figuratively living in the back channel, and happy to be there.”

Right or wrong, it’s that sort of stubbornness that sees the boathouse people through one Mississippi adventure after another, a reminder of the river spirit Twain celebrated a century ago. Perhaps it will see the boathouse people into the next century as well.


This article first appeared in the December 1995 issue of Islands magazine.

 April 20, 2013  No Responses »
Apr 072013
 

call-to-covenantSaint Mary’s Press, 2005 | 95 pages

Answering God’s Call to Covenant helps older adolescents consider where they want to go in life before they encounter the crossroads of young adulthood. Students address seven key questions and write their own covenant statements, which will help guide them through life’s many challenges. The student text also helps seniors reflect, pray, and discern on their own after graduation.

 April 7, 2013  No Responses »
Apr 072013
 

primary-source-readingsSaint Mary’s Press, 2007 | 232 pages

God calls each one of us to work for justice in the world. It is a daunting task that we do not face alone. Primary Source Readings in Catholic Social Justice presents the living words of the Catholic Church. Each chapter contains an excerpt from relevant Church documents, the writings of a person striving to live the Catholic social justice mission and a sidebar highlighting the actions of a person or organization working to make the world a better place.

 April 7, 2013  No Responses »
Apr 052013
 

The crab apple tree was in full bloom, glowing white in the moonlight. Cathy stood underneath it, her small mouth slightly agape as she looked up into a galaxy of blossoms. She was dressed in a pink flannel nightgown and she could feel the dew from the grass soaking through her slippers.

apple_tree“Bruce!” she called in a loud whisper, peering intently into the tree. “Bruce!”

She could hear him approach through the side yard. The beam from his flashlight made her  broad shadow dance around the base of the tree. Bruce, a jug of a man in a white t-shirt and shorts, pulled up alongside her.

“What?”

He followed her gaze up into the tree and shone the flashlight there. A face stared back at them through the profusion of blossoms, leaves and gnarled branches; it was as pale and astonished as the circle of moon that hung above the tree.

“Mom! What are you doing up there?” Cathy called out, her hands on her hips. She could see that the old woman’s watery blue eyes were wide and vacant.

“Your mother is stuck up a tree,” Bruce said, grunting in a way that indicated it didn’t surprise him.

He walked directly under the spreading boughs, trying to get a better vantage point. The old woman was standing, awkwardly, in a sort of saddle where the trunk branched into two limbs, which her arms splayed out to grasp for support. “How the heck did you find her up here?” he asked, tipping the flashlight this way and that to examine the situation. “She’s stuck pretty good, hon. I’m not even going to try the ladder, ’cause it’s too straight to get through all these branches. We’ll have to get the fire department out here.”

Cathy snapped her attention down from the tree. “No!” she hissed. “It’s two in the morning! I don’t want to wake the whole block up.” She had a vision of fire trucks pulling up in the driveway, sirens blaring and lights flashing, the hook-and-ladder tearing up the lawn, chainsaws cutting through the branches to make room for the ladder.

“Honey, I don’t think she’s coming down by herself.” Bruce returned to where Cathy was standing and shone the flashlight back into the tree. “Look how scared she is.”

“She got herself up there all right. She could get down pretty easily if she would just crouch down,” Cathy said hopefully. “Then she could reach down to that next branch with her feet, and you and I could get the step-ladder and lift her down from there.”

Bruce shook his head. “She’s like a treed cat. She’s not coming down by herself.”

“Come on down, mom,” Cathy encouraged. “Come on!” There was a rustling of leaves; the old woman crouched down, and Cathy nervously plucked at Bruce’s t-shirt, leading him and his flashlight closer to the tree. They waited. A dog barked, and a car passed in the street. She had stopped, and when they found her with the light again, she was calmly looking around at nothing in particular. She looks like a monkey at the zoo, Cathy thought.

“Why did she have to go tree-climbing at two in the morning?” Bruce asked, yawning. “She had all day yesterday. She just sat around, then.”

Why? Cathy had asked that so many times it had become an unconscious, whispered refrain to everyday life with her mother. God only knew. She marked the beginning of it from a night nearly two years ago, shortly after her father died. Cathy’s childhood memories were set against all the nights she fell asleep to the low murmurring of her mother and father saying the rosary together in the next room, and after his death, she had become her mother’s prayer partner. It was innocent, really; as they were praying, her mother’s mind had wandered, so that by the third decade she was responding to every prayer with the last half of the “Hail Mary.”

“Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Cathy would say, and her mother would respond: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.”

Cathy had attributed it to grief over her father’s death, but it was not grief; it was the slow rotting from the inside out of her mother. And as the rhythm of the rosary broke, so did everything else. She got lost in her own house, she forgot the names of old friends, and she stopped cooking, humming, and going to the bathroom by herself. The dissipation of her mind could be cruelly comic, like the day Cathy found her wandering the lawn in confusion, the garden hose in hand. “I can’t find the faucet,” her mother had said with a trace of annoyance. When Cathy pointed out it was connected to the end of the hose, they both had a good laugh. “I was wondering who didn’t put it back where it belonged,” her mother said. Cathy turned on the water for her, then went inside and cried.

It seemed they were passing each other in opposite directions: Cathy felt she was hurtling forward into old age as she took on more and more responsibility for her mother, who, meanwhile, seemed to be falling backward into childhood. She remembered lines from Yeats: “Things fall apart/the center cannot hold.”

One day recently Cathy had looked into her mother’s eyes and it was as if someone had thrown a switch, as if with a click her mother’s very soul had been turned off. “My God, what is happening to her?” she wept late one night in bed. “Where has her soul gone?” Bruce did not know, nor did he know what to say. It was awful. It would be one thing if she were dead, Cathy thought, because there would be the comfort of heaven. But she was not dead, and not in heaven; she was only caught halfway between heaven and earth, and where was that?

The moon was rising quickly, ascending to the top of the sky like a lost balloon. Bruce didn’t know what to say now, either. “Do you think she heard us talking?” he ventured. “Maybe she knows tomorrow – ”

“She hasn’t understood anything for a long time,” Cathy replied quickly. “How would she know?” Still, the thought made her shiver. Wouldn’t a small child sense if its mother were preparing to abandon it? Notice averted eyes, the tightened mouth, heavier words? Much less that everything was packed away?

“Come down from there,” Cathy called, and then she added: “Or I’ll have to come up and get you.”

It was deja vu. This had happened before, except then she had been ten, and she was the one in the tree. She had fled there in a fit of anger, climbing higher and higher with the vague notion that if only she could climb out to where the branches scraped the blue sky, she would have left the meanness of the world far enough behind.

“Catherine, come down from there, young lady,” her mother had called from the ground far below. Cathy noticed that objects on the ground seemed much smaller from so far up. She had climbed higher than the telephone wire, which she was forbidden to do, and if the frown on her mother’s miniaturized face was two parts anger, it was also at least one part concern.

“Come down from there before I come up and get you.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Cathy had shouted back.

It was a surreal world, up there in the tree, where children became giants. To Cathy, her two little brothers, and half the neighborhood children, the tree was alternately a fortress or a place to play house. In the spring when the tree was heavy with white blossoms, Cathy and her friends would hang off the lower branches, shaking them to make blizzards. Later in the summer it supplied hard little crab apples that were too sour to eat and hurt your bare feet and, according to Cathy’s father, ruined the lawn. But they made good ammunition for the wars the boys had. Their mother kept a sharp eye on all of this, and she sensibly put a quick end to both the crab apple wars (because someone was liable to get hurt) and the apple blossom blizzards (because they ruined the tree for looking at).

Mostly, though, Cathy would climb into the tree on hot summer afternoons to sit in a crook in one of the sturdier boughs, her bare feet dangling in the air. She would bring a book along and read or just sit thinking in the cool green light that filtered through the leaves. Once a pair of quarrelings sparrows had dived into the tree, chasing each other from branch to branch. Cathy had kept very still, and one landed on her arm, balancing there lightly for a handful of sparrow heartbeats before realizing with a shock that her arm was not part of the tree and diving away  again, the other nipping at its tail feathers.

Bruce wished he were back in bed; Cathy could tell from the way he sighed. “Oh, hon, I don’t think you should try that,” he said. “Let’s do this, so we can get a decent night’s sleep, okay? Tomorrow is going to be hard enough on everyone without us spending the whole night tree-climbing.”

“Do what?”

“Call professionals who can deal with this – ”

“No, no, no.”

” – who can deal with this without having someone get killed. Not to mention before the sun comes up.” Cathy glared at him. “I’ll tell them to be real quiet,” he added.

“I’ll just climb up and get her,” she said.

“Are you crazy?”

“It’s not that hard,” Cathy said, wiggling her toes in her slippers and rolling up her pink flannel sleeves. “I used to climb this tree all the time when I was younger.”

“Yes, when you were younger, and when your mother had two feet safely on the ground.”

But she was already grabbing the lowest limb and tentatively placing a foot against the trunk where a depression would provide a foothold. The yellow bark was smooth and slippery, and her foot was much larger than it had been when she was a child; also, she hadn’t been wearing slippers. She kicked those off and strained to pull herself up, once, then again – and then, miraculously, she found herself straddling the limb, which shook under her weight, creating a flurry of petals. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and looked around. Her mother was watching her passively, except for spots of moonlight that moved over her face and white nightgown. Cathy thought that if she stood up and reached out with her hand, she could touch her mother’s foot.

“For cryin’ out loud, Cath, be careful,” Bruce suggested, sounding genuinely concerned.

She thought of several wry come-backs, but said nothing because she was afraid doing so might throw her off balance. She grasped the trunk and slowly, shakily, adjusted to a standing position.

“Well mom,” Cathy said, as slow and careful as her movements, “you did say you’d come up after me, only, I’d like to point out, you’re about forty years late.”

“What?” Bruce asked.

“I can touch her foot now.” And she reached out and touched her mother’s bare foot, brushing off the bits of bark that were pressed into the cracked, leathery sole.

“You’re not going to pull her out by her feet, are you?”

“Ha ha.”

She grasped the next branch up. It was just a little higher than her waist, yet she couldn’t remember how she had managed it as a kid. She was leaning slightly back as it was, holding onto the branch for balance. To wind up sitting on it, she would have to use her arms to push up off of it so that she could lean over and swing her legs up. This would involve pulling her feet off the limb they were standing on; she would be suspended in the air for a moment. Once she started, there was no going back. She tried to think of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and determined that if she fell the five or six feet, she would probably break an ankle.

“How did you do this?” she asked her mother. As Cathy grew older, more and more of her mother’s accomplishments awed her. Now she could add climbing trees to the list.  “Heck, for that matter, how did I ever do this?”

When she was younger she hadn’t considered the possibility of falling. A few days of reckless practice with little regard to gravity made her into an apple-tree angel, able to gracefully rise into the sky, lifted upward by the wind sifting through the leaves. The boughs of the tree had seemed to embrace her as her hands pulled against its strong wood.

Cathy closed her eyes and tried to remember being that light. She pushed everything else out of her mind – the fact that the physics of the situation had changed, in favor of the ground; the possibility of extreme pain; the impending events of the next day. And then she pushed with her arms, which trembled like rubber bands pulled taut. Her feet floated up, and she slowly leaned over the bough.

She rolled around so she could sit up and catch her breath. Cathy found she was just about level with her mother, whose blank gaze followed her progress but did not recognize her. The scent of apple blossoms was so strong it felt as if it were soaking into her skin; for a moment she felt slightly dizzy. Things tumbled and clicked in her head, and she was reminded, quite vividly, how her mother had gotten her down out of the tree more than forty years ago.

“Come down right now – or I’ll get your father,” she had said.

That had an effect. Like the little monkey her mother was always accusing her of being, Cathy scrambled down from branch to branch, sure-footed and nimble. Her toes strained downward, searching for the next branch, and she lowered her body a little more to reach it. And then, much to her astonishment, she was pulled away from the tree, until the back of her legs caught a branch, flipping her upside down; her lungs pushed out a scream, and her head smashed into the ground.

Fine time to be thinking about that, Cathy thought as she looked down. She couldn’t see the ground for the glare of the flashlight.

“Okay, now how are you going to get her down?” Bruce called.

Cathy reached out to take hold of her mother’s arm, and saw that it trembled; in fact, the old woman was trembling all over. A breeze stirred through the boughs, and it made her mother’s thin gown billow, as if she might lift away; and milky apple blossom petals fell into their hair and all around them – even on Bruce, Cathy thought, standing there amid the lace strewn at the base of the tree.

“Come on, mom, it’s okay,” she said, reaching toward her. Abruptly the old woman’s hands pushed away from the branches, and she leaned forward to touch her daughter, beginning to fall; and Cathy saw that in her mother’s eyes there was no fear, there was nothing; everything had been stripped away, leaving only nakedness, and those eyes looked straight through her. Cathy gasped, losing her balance; she was tipping into the void, and she cried out.

A strong hand grasped her arm, and she fell against her mother’s small body, circling her arms around it, holding on as tightly as the bloody, screaming child who had found herself cradled in her mother’s arms after falling from the sky. Suspended there in the crab apple tree, halfway between heaven and earth, they pressed close, balancing against each other. The old woman closed her eyes and clutched fistfuls of Cathy’s nightgown in her hands.

“Hey – are you coming down?”

Cathy breathed again, and listened to the sound of the leaves in the wind. “Did I say anything about coming down?”

“Then I can call the fire department?”

“Yes,” she said, “you can call the fire department.”

And the white circle of moon rose high above them.


This story first appeared in the August 1996 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine under the title, “Apple Tree Angels.”

 

 April 5, 2013  No Responses »