Paul Gruchow May 23, 1947 – February 22, 2004

The wild geese fly over in the hundreds twice a year in western Minnesota and add to the strange haunting beauty of the prairie. I spent my first two years as a public school teacher in Milan, Minnesota, a railroad stop on the westward expansion. I remember those crisp fall mornings driving down the long driveway watching row after row of geese take off with the sound of my six cylinder Chevy Nova wagon. I half expected the power of their wings to lift me into the air with them.

Milan is twenty miles from the birthplace of Paul Gruchow, who passed away Sunday in his Duluth home. Friends of the prairie, wilderness, land use and land stewardship lost a great voice with Paul’s passing. He and his family spent a brief time in Northfield. I remember when they moved to town, because the moving truck driver stopped at my house to ask directions and I took him to the soon to be Gruchow home across the street and down the block. I worked with his daughter Laura in a couple of plays. I was sad to see them leave town, their wit and intelligent discourse was a wonderful asset that meant so much to me.

Paul had a wonderful way of blending the curiosity of the writer and the awe of the naturalist to inspire and interest young people to describe what they see and feel. We often had brief conversations while he walked his black dogs past my house. He and Nancy talked openly about his struggle with depression and his struggle to hold on. There is something about his love of his environment, an appreciation for what is all around us and what it points to — a glowing transcendance that is present and yet which lies beyond what we see.

Startribune: ‘Empty Places’ author Paul Gruchow dead at 56

Paul was a thoughtful, caring person, in fact his friend, photographer Jim Brandenburg described him as an “intense man who cared very deeply about his art and the environment. I think he felt too much, knew too much and tried to express it too much. . . It was eating him alive. I could see it. He was trying to make sense of the world.”

Here are some of Gruchow’s observations:

“The same people in the Congress who are busy kicking holes in the social safety net are also those who would sell off the nation’s forests for a song, give away its national parks, and trash its wilderness preserves; there is a connection between the two impulses.”
(Boundary Waters)

“To spend resources to produce food which you then threw out merely because you could not make a profit on it, that to him was waste, a kind of blasphemy.” (Grass Roots).

“Maybe 50 percent of farmers, some people tell me, will go out of business this time around. And it’s inconceivable to argue that those are farmers who just are not very good at what they do. This is a group of farmers who really are – who’ve survived. The average age of farmers is pretty old. They’re people who have survived all the previous crises, they’re pretty good, and they know what they’re doing. ” PAUL GRUCHOW

In an article titled ‘Son of the Soil,’ Kris Davis and Alexander M. Jacobs quote him saying:

“We still think that if you own the land you can do whatever you want with it. . . If we don’t treat the land with ethical restraint, we won’t survive in the long run.” His concern is not just pragmatic. Gruchow believed there is a God-given relationship between humans and the land that we need to recover, rediscover.

He said his father and farmers like him never abused the soil. That’s partly because farming techniques were far less sophisticated, he admits. But far more important, “They also understood that soil is where we come from. They never knew anything but a sacred respect for the land.”

In contrast, Gruchow said modern agriculture mistreats the soil. “It’s one thing, despite our cleverness, that we can’t make,” he points out. “Nobody has ever made an inch of fertile topsoil. We come from the land. It’s who we are. To have healthy land is to be well.”

from, “A Minnesota voice, depression’s din” bySarah T. Williams And Jon Tevlin, Star Tribune:

“Paul was a genius, one of America’s best essayists,” said St. Paul writer Carol Bly. “The rest of the country just hadn’t realized it yet. Had he lived long enough, they would have. . . A lot of people settle for a sense of place, but Paul always wanted people to feel more deeply than they were feeling.”

I will miss Paul’s voice as one that gave me hope for the future that could embrace a timelessness beyond the beauty of the past.

Corn is Not Eternal
Paul Gruchow
Excerpted from Grass Roots.

Snails Have Faces
Paul Gruchow
Excerpted from Grass Roots.

The Summit
Paul Gruchow
Excerpted from The Necessity of Empty Places.

Heron rookeries are raucous places.
By Paul Gruchow

What the Prairie Teaches Us
Paul Gruchow
Excerpted from Grass Roots.

In memoriam: A memorial reading with Carol Bly, Bill Holm, Jan Zita Grover and Emilie Buchwald, 7 p.m. Friday at Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Minneapolis.

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