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Minnesota Writer Searches For Meaning In ‘A Northern Life’

Babine Explores Her Place In Minnesota In A New Book Of Essays

Karen Babine/University of Minnesota Press

I’m not sure where I first ran across the Irish word dinnseanchas. It means place-lore, though it’s also often literally translated as “topography” in English.

No matter, the idea captivated me and perhaps made me a natural target for Karen Babine’s new book of essays, “Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life, from the University of Minnesota Press.

Babine, an assistant professor of English at Moorhead’s Concordia College, is a Minnesota native with a deep personal connection to the state. Her story and the landscape of Minnesota are intimately connected into what she calls an “ethic of place” — Babine’s dinnseanchas.

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“Location is a spot on a map. Place is context, everything you bring to a location,” she writes. “An ethic of place seeks to understand the complexities that humans bring to a landscape” (Introduction xiii, xii).

It’s those complexities that make Babine’s work particularly interesting. She cites her family’s long history in Minnesota — back to the 1860s — while also acknowledging that they settled, in her words, on “stolen land.” The thought makes her uncomfortable. Yet. she returns to that feeling again and again, looking for both the visible and hidden histories and stories embedded in place, from the bedrock of Minnesota to the exposed core of Washington state. She asks more questions than provides answers but she had me thinking and reevaluating my surroundings with every chapter. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s a beautiful writer with an evocative and sometimes funny prose style (her mention of “fluting” with another student in school band made me laugh).

In a chapter intriguingly called “Roald Amundsen’s Teeth,” Babine considers the mystique and mythology of the north. This caught my eye with all the talk in recent months of Minnesota breaking away from the Midwest to become “North” (and here and here). There’s a lot to chew on here but it might be writer Sigurd Olson, quoted by Babine, who sums up the north best (and have you saying Amen as you read — I dare you to try not to), particularly at this time of year:

“To anyone who has spent a winter in the north and known the depths to which the snow can reach, known the weeks when the mercury stays below zero, the first hint of spring is a major event. You must live in the north to understand it. You cannot just come up for it as you might go to Florida for the sunshine and the surf. To appreciate it, you must go through considerable enduring.”