TL;DR? And this is l-o-n-g … I am on vacation.
Lake Vermilion. One ‘l’ not two. Vermilion, not Vermillion. Lake Vermilion, Minnesota is not a place, not a zip code. It is a lake. One of the five largest lakes in Minnesota, where I’m convinced they count ponds as lakes to get to a total of 10,000.
But then Vermilion confuses this belief.
On the west half of Lake Vermilion the bays separated by rock and island geologic formations seem large enough to warrant being their own lake – Lake Wakemup, Lake Norwegian, Lake Black, Lake Niles, Lake Frasier, Lake Head of Lakes — but instead they are bays. Wakemup Bay, Norwegian Bay, Black Bay, Niles Bay, Frasier Bay, and Head of Lakes Bay. What defines a lake versus a bay? And when is a lake just a pond? For that matter what defines a lake when a river runs through it? And I’m looking at you Lake Pepin. The Mississippi River runs through it. Why isn’t Lake Pepin just a feature called the widening of the Mississippi River at Pepin? (Note to self: investigate.)
Maybe Minnesota would have more lakes if the Lake called Vermilion was split up into more lakes. Bays become lakes.
Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet. Lake Vermilion could be promoted to a waterway with contiguous lakes. The Vermilion Chain of Lakes. Expand the galaxy of Minnesota’s lakes by reclassifying bays.
Frood and I take a boat ride with Mr. Viva on Lake Vermilion, a lake so big it has one island for every day of the year and one of those islands is so big it has its own lake.
Skipping across the lake at boat speed taking it all in — wildness, wilderness in chaos, an endless shoreline outcropping of rock; and a better writer would describe the shoreline differently because it is not an outcropping of rock, there is nothing ‘out’ about it. ‘Outcropping’ implies a sticking out, a formation out of the ordinary. The formation on the shoreline is without end. A continuous installation of rock. Normal.
So, I’ll state it again, the entire shoreline is an outcropping of rock. The edge of rough grade sandpaper that has roughed up and raised not just wood but living woods — scrubby and dense with the occasional patches of bare rock still cold and hard, still fresh with the memory of the glacier scrape of millions of years ago. This sandpaper gives no quarter, these rocks have not cracked or broken to give shelter to the roots of a tree.
They’re warming up to moss though. It’s a start.
And the island on the lake big enough to have its own lake? I wonder if anyone lives on the island. And do they face outward toward the big lake or do they introvert to the little lake? Is the property taxed for lake frontage in and out? Coming or going? A lake with an island on a lake sounds so romantic. The island is a moat.
There is not much conversation on the boat. I miss when Frood points to a white spot on the water. From the motor end of the boat, Mr. Viva tells me, “A dead fish.” I pass the information along to Frood. “Fish.” And I point. She already knows.
We circle in to get a better look. A muskie, 45-46″ long. According to Mr. Muskie-hunter-Viva who would know, the magnificent white belly up is the result of improper catch-and-release. White belly to the sky, laid out, motionless but for the waves. In its former life, this was a predator, a killer, a big fish in a big lake.
Near Merry-Go-Round Reef at the mouth of Norwegian Bay is ‘Square Rock Island,’ a small island with a cubic rock pointing up. Someone in glacier-scrape-sandpaper quality control left before shift end and so this cube sticks out like a die stuck en pointe. A singular true outcropping. And again with the names. ‘Square’ implies two-dimensions. ‘Cubic Rock Island’ would be more apt. ‘Dice Island’ more poetic. (‘Die Island’ more exacting but who would want to go there?) Note to self: have a word with the Minnesota Department of naming things.
The rock on Square Rock Island is very Claes Oldenburg-esque and it was here long before and will be here long after us or Claes. Nature demonstrates. If it was a Rubik’s Cube, the colors have faded to gray. Or maybe it is the dots on a die that have worn away — no more craps games and we never made the second die for a set of dice anyway. Or maybe the glacier scraper had something more practical in mind, we’ll never know. This odd rock on an island on a lake that has an island with a lake. Art. Nature validates even though we puzzle as to why and what for.
I would like to see something like a ‘Dice Island’ sculpture on a Wisconsin Avenue street corner as a Sculpture Milwaukee installation. The sounds of wind and water and motorboat would be replaced with street sounds but that could only add to the puzzlement and wonder. A glacier scraper installation on Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI.
I’m here for it.
One of the Sculpture Milwaukee sculptures last year was not the sculpture but the instructions for construction. This seems like a writerly way to create art. Describe, specify, handoff to manufacturing and see what this way comes. Handoff to many manufacturers resulting in a family of sculptures with a shared DNA but each one unique.
I am reminded of the scene in This is Spinal Tap where the artist played by Angelica Huston hands a commissioned replica of Stone Henge to the band’s manager. When the manager inquires as to the delivery of the full-size stage prop, she pulls out the paper napkin spec and points to 11″ — eleven inches. This is it. I’ve finished. The difference a tic makes — 11″ – inches when it should be feet — 11′.
In describing the Lake Vermilion shoreline for hand-off to manufacturing, I would overuse ‘outcrop’ and ‘outcropping.’ The glacier scraper would read “outline the shore with rock outcroppings like glitter only use rock, lots of rock, so much outcrop rock, outcroppings of rock under the water, outcroppings over the water, big outcroppings of rock as islands” and then in protest of all this misuse of ‘outcrop’ and its tiresome variations and to make a very bold, very Claes statement, manufacturing would drop a “Square Rock Island” into the final product. Screw you. Screw your instructions. We know it’s a cube, but this, this is an outcropping rock. Bah with your shoreline “glitter” of 11″. We know it is 11′. We make mistakes made to scale.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth is a sweeping saga of a novel. Oh, glorious redundancy! “Sweeping saga of a novel.” He writes deliciously, delicately, boldly and delivers paragraphs that span pages. A paragraph so long it contains sentences with embedded paragraphs — no twitchy returns or hesitations; a paragraph that spans years of military service and pages followed by another paragraph a few pages later that a lesser writer demanding less of a reader would mercifully call a complete chapter.¹ Gloriously tamped down, packed, and fully formed novels within sentences within paragraphs within a novel.
And in keeping with pastoral, there is not much dialog, but when there is, it is exact. Innocuous. Simple. But loaded.
“Fish.” Dead fish. I wonder at the life of the muskie. Territorial, predatory, making its way through years of unchecked behavior becoming of a master of a pond or a large lake or Lake Norwegian Bay. Caught up by the lure, the appeal of a Lindy line, hook, and sinker. Caught. Photographed in shame by a proud fisherman — he had to have been, a muskie this huge. The muskie was stunned by too much fresh air, thrown back without enough catch-and-release care to reacclimate, belly to the sun, dead to the end. No more the big fish.
Pastoral. The definition:
- used for or related to the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle.
- (in the Christian church) concerning or appropriate to the giving of spiritual guidance.
Early in the saga of Swede, the protagonist, the narrator claims he was completely wrong, completely wrong about his understanding of the Swede. Wrong about the Swede. Pastoral, both definitions apply. But wrong. The writer, the narrator’s brain. Roth nails it. Meet someone once and nail their character, their personality, their imagined experience to a wall. Crucify them on your storyboard with a glance. And then Roth nails us. Pins himself up for examination and scrutiny.
“I was wrong.”
And me too! I always am.
Dig under the veneer, lift-up the corners, look at the underbelly. “If you knew your neighbor’s problems, you’d keep your own.” – anonymous
That’s where the story starts and as the tale is told, I shift my scrutiny of Swede and his story to the narrator as look through his prose, his descriptions, his glass, darkly. The real story is the subtext of what’s onstage.
There is a breeze on the lake and by breeze, I mean a cool sometimes stiff wind. We’re in a small boat, there is a healthy chop. And then a speedboat towing a floaty ring with a couple of kids on it zips by and they must be freezing. The water may be 60°F. Small human ice cubes in the making.
But then kids burn hot.
Back in the early ‘70’s of flowers and large bell-bottoms, my Aunt made us – we were kids — swim, get in that water on that Lake Vermilion public beach. The ambient temperature hadn’t risen to above 70°F until after the 4th of July and the ice may have broken just the week before, but you are going in that water. Looking back, we were an offering, her sign to the universe that this was summer; in this land of 10,000 lakes and some ponds and a lake with an island with its own lake, it is warm enough to call it summer, hot enough to order a sacrifice of small warm human bodies into a cold lake.
Shepherd the children into the lake to show the universe what you’re willing to sacrifice and maybe summer will follow. Kids burn hot. I only remember the fun of the beach.
I’m currently taken with the time-lapse function on my camera. Pointed at the seemingly unmoving landscape of trees, water, sky, the camera picks up the micro movements in the macro frame.
My bleacher seat today is on the deck of a porch looking at a lake with an island that is big enough to have a lake.
From the porch across the road, I must look like a woman intent on a notebook, enjoying too much coffee, glancing away occasionally. Or I am just a woman in a pink sweatshirt feeling the breeze. Whatever. Their frame doesn’t show what is written, doesn’t show micro movement. They don’t know that I’m writing that their beach towels and lawn chairs are thrown about and it looks like a mess of a vacation.
When I’m plugged into the news, into the micromovements of macroas*holery, I realize the frame I’m looking at isn’t large enough. In the sweeping glacial movement of time, daily news is a scratch.
Here’s a picture of coffee.
In Ankle Biting Black Fly Cove I kill a couple getting drunk on the sweet elixir I call my precious lifeblood. A check of the Lake Vermilion map doesn’t show a bay named Ankle Biting Black Fly Cove but it should. I must have a word with the namers of places. People should be warned.
Pastoral. While reading American Pastoral on a Lake Vermilion beach, I wonder if there is a word to describe in one fell swoop inland waterways and large swaths of freshwater lake and rock and scrub. A single word that could stand in and replace hundreds of words in this post, but the words I trip across seem salt-water based. Maritime. Aquatic. Seafaring. Oceanic. So far removed from here.
Either there is an obscure word that is not coming to mind (mine), or there is an opportunity to create a new word. ‘Lakquatic’ as a mash-up but it doesn’t contain the hardness, the coldness, the glacial scrape of life in the north woods. I need a word that encompasses the blue-red vermilion water, the scrubby trees, the rock underlying and overlaying, the mosquitos that sound like small helicopters, the loons that mate for life, the expensive rod and reel sunk to the bottom, the large predator floating belly up, the all of it.
This is Vermilion Pastoral.
-Viva E., Lake Vermilion
¹ Epic paragraphs in American Pastoral by Philip Roth are on pages 211-213 and 220-224 if you’re still reading along, Ann.