I have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.
My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)
On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.
Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.
If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.
Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).
In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:
She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).
The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.
The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.
Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.
Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:
Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.
This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.
As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:
Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.
This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.
In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:
There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.
(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)
I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.
Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.