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Interview with Karen Babine

Karen Babine—author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, and finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award—is working on her second essay collection, All the Wild Hungers, forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018.

Proximity’s blog editor, Dina Relles, spoke with Karen via email about the role of place in her writing, her history of camping out with family and then on her own, and the shifting relationship between people and the land.

Your writing is heavily grounded in place, and your book Water and What We Know, is rooted in your home state of Minnesota. What is it that leads you to write about where you come from? How does your sense of home shape your stories?

KB: I have long believed that you cannot know who you are unless you know the place where you stand. I grew up in northern Minnesota, which is sandy soil and never floods, and my childhood was deeply influenced by my maternal grandparents who were conservationists at heart. When they built the cabin, everyone around them was cutting down all the trees between the houses and the lake for the view, but my grandparents didn’t, fearing erosion of that sand down into the lake. Every few years, we’d lose a tree on the ice berm as it fell over—when they leaned out over the water, they became pirate ships for my sisters and me. My grandfather’s philosophy was that for every tree that fell or had to be cut down, he planted another. He kept a sharp eye out for baby white pines and put wooden stakes next to them, so he could transplant them when they got big enough (the family came to call them Kermit Trees)—and I still have scars on my shins from running into those stakes as a kid.

I went to college in Fargo/Moorhead four months after the worst flood of the Red River to be recorded to that point (1997). The people of the Red River Valley were still dealing with that, both emotionally and practically. In the spring of that year, before my high school graduation, we loaded up two buses of students to help sandbag in Fargo—it really made an impression, and it was the first time I learned that clay doesn’t drain the same way my hometown sand does, and that geological history (the Red River is one of the youngest rivers in the world and doesn’t have a flood plain yet) makes a difference in how we live in a place. On one level, it really boils down to why are things the way they are?

You do travel writing as well as writing about your roots—for example, you’ve written a manuscript set in Galway, Ireland. What is the difference between writing one’s homeland and one’s visiting-land? As our guest quarterly editor, Brad Modlin, mused: “Perhaps a travel writer is always ‘camping out’/living temporarily/on the edge of being somewhere else.” What do you think?

KB: I think of nature-place-travel writing as three sides of a prism. What you write depends on which direction you’re looking, the angle of the sunlight. The way I’m approaching the Galway book (which I’m actually having trouble with) is as place writing: what matters, on the page, is the place itself, not the movement of the narrator to get there. Galway is an incredibly interesting place, one that has a gravitational pull for me, and the root of the book is to find out how that has come to be. It’s the only major Irish city not founded by the Vikings, for one. And it was recently named the 2020 European City of Culture, which is really terrific.

My true travel writing (at least lately) is in my deep love for camping. My family camped in a 1972 Starcraft pop-up when I was a kid and it was the best way to grow up, learning how to level a camper, how to build a fire, learning how to do things that we never would have otherwise. On one level, camping was the easiest and cheapest way to get us from Minnesota to California to visit my dad’s family, but we spent time in the national parks, monuments, historic sites, mountains, deserts—and not only was that good for our family, but it became the basis for a lot of the stories we still tell today.

For myself, though, I realized that if I didn’t travel solo, I’d never go anywhere, so I took my first solo trip to Ireland in 2005 and have been back several times by myself. I bought my 13 ft. Scamp camper in 2008 and I tow it (solo) with my Jeep. Everything with the Scamp is solo: I hitch it by myself (without needing anyone to help line me up), I back it in, I can tow it through a thunderstorm in Montreal with road construction signs in French by myself. (That last one is the stuff of nightmares…) I like traveling by myself, I love the fiberglass of the camper (which means I don’t have to deal with wet canvas, the bane of my father’s camping existence), I love all the modifications we’ve made to it (Dad still doesn’t trust me with his power tools)—and it is the most perfect thing in the world. I was out there the other day after we had a hail storm come through, checking to make sure it was okay, and even after all these years, the Scamp is still a magical thing for me.

In 2014, though, I packed up the Scamp (and the cats) and headed from Minnesota to Nova Scotia to research my dad’s family. We were among the first Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia in the 17th century and we were expelled with the rest of the Acadians in 1755, though we somehow made it back. I have this theory that my dad’s family’s story is written in movement, in miles, and I wanted to physically be in the place where that happened. It was a great trip, a little terrifying, but I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back there since leaving. That is the basis of the piece that Brad chose for Proximity, “Beautiful Sun, in a Minor Key.” My grandfather passed away last week and so the stories I’m looking for will have to come from elsewhere.

In this piece at The Geographical Turn, you are mentioned as engaging with Tim Robinson’s work to suggest “the idea that the harder one tries to claim a piece of land the more elusive that ownership becomes.”

Can you expand on the duality between the rootedness in your writing—how place shapes those who live there and the stories they tell across time—contrasted with the evolution of landscapes, the elusiveness of ownership when it comes to land?

KB: I didn’t know that piece existed—thank you! I love Robinson. Everybody should read Robinson. (Everybody should read Paul Gruchow, which is a related belief.)

The thing about Robinson is that he’s English, not Irish. He’s a mathematician by training, a painter—and also a writer. He came to the Aran Islands in the 1970s with his wife and after a while the postmistress suggested he draw a map of Inishmore (the largest of the islands). He thought it was a worthwhile project, but quickly learned that it was not as easy as he thought it would be. The process of drawing that map turned into two immense volumes of work: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth. In the process of drawing this map, he learned that placenames were not only linguistically significant, but historically significant, and often told the story of what happened in that place. In addition, because of the complicated geology of the islands, a cliff that was there one day may be gone the next. Location is a spot on a map; place is context, everything you bring to a location. As a result, his work combines all the elements that makes place writing what it is: it’s history, geography, geology, culture, language, and more. And, that man can write a sentence, which is enough reason to read him by itself.

To know a place—and to know yourself—you need to know the place itself. That means understanding that you’re a speck in a timeline, that the place had a history before you got there and it will continue to have a story after you’re gone. This is what I think is important about environmental work in general: we won’t kill the planet. We can’t. It’s gone through mass extinctions before. What we can do is make it uninhabitable for humans (which has also happened before)—and so not only is it important to know what shifts in climate do to places we call home, it’s important to know what it has done in the past. When I lived in Spokane, an area called the Channeled Scablands, it’s the most interesting landscape—it looks so weird. When you dig into it, you realize the story of the Missoula Floods, which were ice age floods that happened as a result of the ice dams backing up Glacial Lake Missoula breaking. Glacial Lake Missoula was the size of Lakes Erie and Ontario combined. That much water tore up the landscape. When you drive west from Spokane on Highway 2, you notice that the landscape has become a lot of weirdly uniform hills—in the 1920s, a couple of geologists speculated that these were created as the result of water, but were basically laughed at, because where would that much water have come from? Well, when we got satellite imagery, the ripple marks were visible from space. It had been water. The lack of topsoil affects those who live in eastern Washington and it affects those in southern Washington and northern Oregon, who reaped the benefits of all that topsoil being deposited there. Just because humans were not involved in the story of the Channeled Scablands does not mean the story does not exist.

As a teenager, you had a job doing turnover in the cabins at one of the local resorts in the Lakes Country area of northern Minnesota, where you grew up. Can you tell us about this gig? What stands out? In fact, you and your friend were “bed-making crew, so we were first into the cabins, to strip the beds and make them up.” What residue would remain from the cabins’ transient guests? What was your sense of why they came, what role the resort served, what they left behind?

KB: This is something about growing up in Tourist Country. Most of the population is transient and even those who own lake properties and come up on the weekends shift the character of the place. Northern Minnesota pretty much shuts down during the winter, except for those catering to ice fishing and snowmobiling. The resort culture grew up out of the 1950s when people had enough disposable income to travel and so there are dozens of resorts in my home county. Getting a job cleaning cabins was a pretty consistent entry level job for teenagers in a place where jobs are fairly scarce. You wait tables and you clean cabins. The resort I worked at had incredible standards for cleanliness—once something was cleaned, you did not touch it, you did not go in. If you did, it had to be wiped down again. The checklist for each cabin was pages long, not just washing the inside of the windows every week, but the outsides. Sweeping down spiderwebs with a broom on the outside of cabins each week. Furniture was polished and vacuumed every week. Refrigerators and freezers were cleaned every week. The attention to detail required was unique, I think, among some of the other resorts I worked for. I still have a fairly strong memory marker in Windex and Pinesol.

In the last thirty years, though, resorts have declined dramatically—partially it’s people having enough disposable income to buy their own property. The resort I cleaned for sold off its cabins individually many years ago now—it was one of the first in the area to do so—and so it no longer operates as a resort. There’s a resort next to my grandparents’ cabin and it still operates as a resort, which I think is great. A few years ago, I cleaned there on Saturday mornings since I was up there for the summer—and it was good nostalgia. People don’t leave much behind, except for trash and most people are courteous enough to leave it in the bins. You’d expect people to leave more of an imprint, but they don’t. The place is what stays the same, what remains foundational—people come and go without leaving much of themselves. They came to relax, to fish, to swim, to do something so far removed from their own lives. Resorts were a way for people to retain a bit of roots in a way that a hotel could not offer. It was a small weekly community that completely reinvented itself every Saturday afternoon.

Did you do a lot of camping out as a child? As an adult? Can you speak to the transitory nature of travel or camping or the outdoors versus the deeper connections it can give you to the land on a larger scale?

KB: Oh, yes. We borrowed a friend’s pop up for two years (1987-1988) to see if that was something we wanted to do (the first trip was MN state parks; the second was up to Winnipeg, where the camper popped off the Blazer’s hitch, something that still traumatizes me as I pull my own camper)—and we bought the 1972 Starcraft in 1988. It was the greatest. Its kitchen was on a hinge, so it could swing out. We only cooked inside when it was awful weather. I have two younger sisters, so I have memories of being in the backseat of the Blazer with our tape players, our books, playing the license plate game (if we got all 50 states, we got Dairy Queen)—and I don’t think there was a year we didn’t get all 50 states, between the parking lots at the national parks and the military bases where we sometimes stayed. The book I’m working on right now, the one about Nova Scotia, is as much about camping as a kid with my family as it is about my solo trip.

We were not really amusement park people—we were national park people. We did go to Disneyland once when we came up through San Diego, but whether it was the way we were raised or something about the way our kid brains worked, we were more attracted to Dinosaur National Monument, when one of my sisters loudly declared that she wanted to be an alientologist when she grew up. Our parents had ways of making the most everyday things seems special, like our daily picnic lunches at the rest stops along the way, where we had a choice of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or meat and cheese. Dad would haul out his Buck knife to slice cheese on the cooler and declare to anyone in earshot that he wasn’t sure if he cleaned the knife after deer season. This happened nearly every day, but it still grossed us out, which is why Dad did it. But we also had Pringles on these lunches, which was nothing we ever had at home—and that small thing made a simple lunch special. We didn’t really get souvenirs, but my parents gave us as much film as we wanted to take whatever pictures we wanted—and until I gave my niece the small digital Scamp Camera (it doesn’t belong to her, it belongs to the Scamp) and let her take as many pictures as she wanted, I never realized how much of a gift that film was.

It’s interesting now, with my own camper, how much I want to retrace some of those trips we took all those years ago, to balance those old memories with what I see now. Landscape changes, forest fires happen, rock slides happen, and that’s terrific. Whether it’s this summer or next summer, I want to go west, go out through Montana to Washington and revisit some of the places I’ve missed since I left Spokane, down through the Columbia River Gorge, through Yosemite and Fort Bragg, back through Yellowstone and Deadwood. I want to write new stories on old memories. I want to pay specific attention to things I didn’t notice as a child, the way we turned walking around the campground after dinner into a tradition shared by others in the campground, the specific ways that campgrounds wake up in the morning. I usually try to stay at least two nights in a place, unless I’m trying to get somewhere like I was in 2014, but there’s something satisfying about setting up camp in the afternoon and breaking it down before the sun crosses the trees. What I like about the Scamp is that it’s both permanent (and I get to sleep in my own bed every night) and allows complete freedom of movement. My parents, with their 33-ft. fifth wheel, are prevented from many places because their rig is so large— but my Scamp is so small that once, when I showed up to a very full KOA, they asked if I could fit in a tent site and I said no problem. And it wasn’t.

If you haven’t seen Proximity‘s latest issue, themed CAMP, begin with Brad Aaron Modlin’s Letter from the Editor and work your way through a complex collection of true stories, including a stunning essay by Karen Babine, Beautiful Sun, In a Minor Key.


Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Her second essay collection, All the Wild Hungers, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared in such journals as Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, and more. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.

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