Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life by Karen Babine is a collection of essays that look at life, water, geology, and community in an unique perspective. Babine earned her BA from Concordia College, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Concordia College.
Babine begins her collection of essays from her grandparents cabin in the Minnesota wilderness looking out the window at a summer scene with a mug of tea reflecting on where she is and the nature around her. The cabin is too far out to get cable internet and in order to get dish internet it would mean cutting down a tree, and that is too high a cost. Her focus drifts in the book, but the drifting is with purpose and everything comes full circle. There are several levels to the author’s thinking. She loves nature. She protects saplings and ponders on why people build summerhouses to get away from everything, but bring everything with them… and then complain about supporting the community they are now part of. It is like people who camp out in the wilderness and coexist with nature and others come in Winnebagos and call it camping. Babine’s connection goes deeper than the stereotypical “tree hugger.” She understands geology, hydrology, and can read the history of the land. The ripples in the farmland and giant boulders in open fields. There are stories to be told about how they got there and why they are there.
North is more than a cardinal direction for Babine. It is an attitude and a life for those who dare. She quotes Nietzsche, more than once on “true climate” the exact geographical location that corresponds to the climate of the thinker. The culture of the north as experienced a person with roots and a family history Northern Minnesota. The north can be harsh with air temperatures dropping to sixty below zero. The harshness creates tight-knit communities that even though you could tell a farmers religion from the color of his tractor, people all pulled together when needed. She compares the landscape and people to other places she has been. She tries but cannot adopt to the prairie. The people there also lack that northern community feeling. She discovers the power of nature in Eastern Washington. Forces and quantities that are almost too great to imagine. She compares the 1980 Mount St. Helen’s eruption and the devastation it left to other much larger eruptions across the world.
Babine also includes some history of her family. There is a humorous and for many typical story of the relationship with her grandmother over the best type of apples, the proper way of making a pie, “That’s not how I taught you to do that.”, to being saved by having a good apple peeler. Babine has a special connection with the natural world around her and it’s community. Her writing displays a mingling of Thoreau’s views on nature and the folksiness of Paul Harvey. A delightful book to read.