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New book explores Minnesota's environmental history

"Nature's Crossroads" delves into the ways Minnesota's culture and politics have played out with respect to our natural landscapes.

Blue-gloved hand holding hardcover book against background of icy, snowy lake surface. Book is titled "Nature's Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota."
"Nature's Crossroads" examines the relationship between Minnesota's people and the state's natural landscapes.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — George Vrtis and Christopher W. Wells are the editors of a new book about the environmental history of Minnesota. If you don't run out and buy a copy, they understand.

tent in Voyageurs National Park
A tent nestled in pines and balsams at a Rainy Lake campsite in Voyageurs National Park in 2020.
John Myers / File / Duluth News Tribune

"This book, really, in many ways is written for our peers and our students," said Vrtis. "It's an academic book. The essays are very academic in style."

"Nature's Crossroads" (University of Pittsburgh Press) may not be the book you pack for Northland campsite reading this summer, but it's full of insights about our changing relationship to the land you'll be camping on.

"There's a cultural matrix, there's a political matrix, that comes together that creates our relationships with the natural world," said Vrtis, "and northern Minnesota has been part of this process."

The authors are environmental historians; Vrtis is on the faculty at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, while Wells is at Macalester College in St. Paul. Seventeen other scholars contributed to the book, which examines a wide range of ways the relationship between nature and human society has played out over the course of our state's history.


An easy way of thinking about this is that the Twin Cities market said, 'We want lumber,' and the north forest got cut down and shipped off to market.
Christopher W. Wells

"One of the things we wanted to explore," said Wells, "was what happens if we think about the Twin Cities in relationship with Greater Minnesota? How can we understand Greater Minnesota and its environmental transformations because of their relationships with the Twin Cities?"

Some residents of Greater Minnesota may prefer to think as little as possible about Minneapolis and St. Paul, but there's no denying the fact that our region has evolved in relationship with the major cities to our south.

"An easy way of thinking about this," said Wells by way of example, "is that the Twin Cities market said, 'We want lumber,' and the north forest got cut down and shipped off to market."

Val Merz, from left, of Grand Marais, and Kathy Eckmann and Dave Eckmann, of St. Paul, pause to take in the fall colors while hiking at Oberg Mountain in the Superior National Forest near Lutsen, Minn., in 2019.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Looking at the lush northern Minnesota forests today, it's easy to forget that between 1880 and 1915, about three-quarters of all standing timber in the state was cut down.

"That was a very real and wide-ranging transformation," said Wells. The stump-filled landscape even had its own name: It was referred to as "the cutover."

"For a while there, people thought they could turn it into farmland, and it turned out that was an enormously difficult thing to do," Wells continued. "It wasn't really until the 1920s and 1930s, as the forest began to regenerate, that people began to see the possibility of a future in tourism."

Aaron Shapiro contributed a chapter about the development of today's Northland tourist industry. "Like earlier lumbermen, they also saw profit in nature," Shapiro writes about the Minnesotans who built camps, cabins and parks in the interwar years.

"But unlike lumbermen who cut and ran after felling the forest," Shapiro continues, "they relied on nature's regenerative forces to provide a new cash crop, a forested and lake-dotted countryside offering outdoor recreation for the masses."


Loggers weren't the only ones who preferred a more direct harvest of cash crops. Jeffrey T. Manuel contributed a chapter on the longstanding Iron Range tension between environmentalists and mining advocates.

"We can understand a lot about the politics of the state Capitol by thinking about the Iron Range and the complicated historical relationships between DFLers in the Iron Range and DFLers in the rest of the state," said Wells.

Vintage picture postcard shows gaping open pit mine with train running along its bottom. A greener landscape is visible in the background.
A vintage postcard illustrates the pride that many Iron Range residents have taken in their colossal mining operations. This card appears in "Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth," by Tony Dierckins.
Contributed / Zenith City Press

"Iron Range residents," Manuel writes, "feared that the mining landscape, which many saw as direct evidence of generations of hard work in a hostile environment, would be replaced with a sanitized landscape of North Woods tourism, cleaned and packaged for consumption by weekend visitors from urban regions to the south."

Those urban regions are a major focus of "Nature's Crossroads." The book tackles topics including the Twin Cities' relationship with their Mississippi River waterfronts; the rise of the American Indian Movement; and the extensive bicycle path network that crisscrossed the metro area before the rise of the automobile.

The book doesn't devote much attention to Duluth, but its approach could be fruitfully applied here. Vrtis said it would be interesting to examine the city's environmental politics.

"I would think that Duluth," said Vrtis, "with extractive industry, with the tourist industry, with access to rich hunting and fishing landscapes in the far north of Minnesota, is potentially going to have a different environmental politics than you see coming out of a place like St. Paul."

Wells noted that Minneapolis owes a substantial amount of its "Mill City" shine to the port of Duluth.

"One of the things that merchants in the Twin Cities were trying to do was to escape Chicago as the dominant wheat market in the United States," said Wells. "The way they did that was to build railroad lines that connected them with Duluth and the Great Lakes, and from there out to the markets of Liverpool."


As several chapters detail, the history of Minnesota's industrial growth has also been a history of Indigenous dispossession. "There's a long, tragic and fraught history that is part of this landscape," said Vrtis. "One of the first things we'd like people to begin to see is that history."

082920.N.BP.RIVERROAD - LEAD Web.jpg
Ancient pines line Lake Itasca at the Mississippi Headwaters, as seen in 2020. Mississippi River Basin lakes including Lake Winnibigoshish and Leech Lake rose substantially after dams were built on those bodies of water in the late 19th century.
Annalise Braught / File / Bemidji Pioneer

That's true, added Wells, "whether you're talking about that initial period of dispossession, when fur treaty debts are leveraged to get land, or whether you're looking at the creation of the (Mississippi River) headwaters dams. Almost immediately after creating the reservations, (federal officials) took the land and built the dams and flooded it."

The editors said they hope "Nature's Crossroads" inspires people to examine their relationship with nature, wherever they live. "Nature is everywhere," said Wells, "including in urban landscapes that we don't think of as having much nature. It's impossible to disentangle that from the people who live in it, and the values and the activities and the everyday lives that they live."

"Our relationships with nature reflect our values," said Vrtis. "In the way in which we relate to the natural world as commodity, as recreation, as beauty, as inspiration, in all of these different ways, our values are there."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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