Knowing My Place

Aerial photograph of Little Canada in 1957

We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.

—Scott Russell Sanders from “Buckeye” in Writing From the Center (1995)

I have been put in my place.  Although I have lived in my community of Little Canada, Minnesota, for over twenty years, I am only now beginning to understand what it means to dwell there with a full heart.  Author Scott Russell Sanders writes that getting to such a point requires knowing where we are.  And whenever I want to know where I am, I begin by getting my bearings.

One thing I know about where I am is that I live at forty-five degrees North Latitude, which puts my town exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.  I also know that my part of Minnesota was glaciated a number of times, and the soils and terrain here now still show the influences of those glaciers and the subsequent outwash of rivers and streams that formed as the ice melted.

Another way I get my bearings is to look at maps or aerial photographs.  I recently came upon an aerial photo taken of Little Canada in 1957.  What I see in that picture is very different from what I know of my town now.  In the photo I notice how little urban development existed in 1957; there were relatively few houses, fewer roads, much open space and many agricultural fields.  I know there were also environmental problems then too.  I recently read that the low point, environmentally speaking, of the Mississippi River was during the early 1900s.  Raw sewage and other pollutants were dumped then directly into the river, sometimes causing mats of refuse to accumulate on the surface downstream from the Twin Cities.  A public outcry in response to this problem led to the establishment of the first sewage treatment plant in St. Paul in 1938.

As I reenter the Little Canada of 1957 depicted in that aerial photo, I imagine things that existed then that would trouble me now—dust from dirt roads and agricultural fields, pollution of lakes and streams from poorly-designed or malfunctioning septic systems, soil erosion due to tillage and other disturbances on the landscape, smoke and soot from coal- and wood-fired furnaces and refuse burning.  But I also imagine positive things—fewer houses along the shores of area lakes, more natural wetlands that had not yet been drained for development, and little traffic noise from the major freeways because most of those had not yet been built.  And if I stood beside St. Johns Church in 1957 and looked to the west, I would have seen an intact thirty-acre lake—Savage Lake.

******

Nor do I apologize for trying to speak at once about the geography of land and the geography of spirit.  They are one terrain.

—Scott Russell Sanders from the Preface to Staying Put (1993)

Several years ago, while at the University of Minnesota, I took my students on field trips into agricultural areas of the region.  I challenged them to ask questions of the farmers with whom we met—questions that could give the students insight into how these people viewed their farms and their agricultural practices.  One question has especially stayed with me over the years: “Where is your farm within its watershed?”  Some farmers could answer this question immediately and describe in detail how water flowed over their farms and where it went after it left them.  A few, however, had little to offer in response to the question, and I must admit that I too would have had difficulty answering it then with respect to the location of my house within its watershed.

Now I know my house is near the upper end of the Lake Gervais Subwatershed portion of the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.  About a half-mile north (and uphill) from my house is Savage Lake.  During my time of living in Little Canada, I’ve had little connection to that lake, although I pass it almost every day.  But this lake has become for me a symbol of the ecological struggles faced by my watershed and community—by my place.  A little history is in order here.

The people who lived on Savage Lake before the French-Canadian fur traders first arrived were from the Kaposia band of the Dakota Sioux tribe.  Their main village was located along the Mississippi River, but for many years before settlement, these people regularly traveled up the watershed in their canoes and camped along the shore of Savage Lake while hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants.  During the 1830s, according to an account of one early settler, the fur traders occasionally met these Indian people to transact business at their encampment on the lake.  The traders chose to call this lake “Lac du Sauvages,” which translates “Lake of the Savages.”  The account states that this name was considered even then to be a derogatory reference to the indigenous people who lived there.

I’ve looked up the French word “sauvage” in a 19th Century dictionary, and the only translation I find that might be considered charitable is “timid.”  All others are disparaging—wild, untamed, uncivilized, fierce, barbarous.  There’s not much doubt in my mind that the traders’ choice of the word “sauvage” to name this lake was intended to be disrespectful.

So what else might the lake have been called?  What if our predecessors had chosen a historic name like “New Canada Lake” after the original township in which the lake and community were situated?  Or maybe a name like “Lambert Lake” could have been selected, which would have honored one of the early families who settled the area.  There once was, in fact, a lake in the area named after the Lambert family but it was drained early for development.  Or what if our predecessors had chosen “Encampment Lake” to acknowledge this lake’s earlier use by the indigenous people?  Or knowing that these Indian people regarded the lake as sacred and even buried their dead along its shore, perhaps our forerunners might have named it “Spirit Lake”?  I don’t know whether such possibilities were ever considered by the early settlers of the area, but the name Savage had clearly become identified with the lake by the 1860s—and we have chosen to call it by that name ever since.

******

In case of an atomic attack on our cities, the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defense forces and maintenance of every essential economic function…the Interstate System must be given top priority in construction planning.  —Dwight D. Eisenhower from letter to Congress (1955)

It was the height of the Cold War.  President Eisenhower intended to build an extensive Interstate Highway System throughout the United States.  Congress passed legislation authorizing this system in 1956 and Minnesota soon began constructing its Interstate roadways.  There is little doubt that the most devastating event in the history of Savage Lake was the decision by highway planners to bisect the lake with Interstate-35E.  No, bisect is too kind a word; the lake was run over by the highway, and it has never recovered.  No other lake along the entire route of I-35 through Minnesota was treated in this way, although there was at least one other close call.  The original plans for the Interstate through Dakota County south of St. Paul called for it to run through the middle of Blackhawk Lake in the City of Eagan, much as had been done with Savage Lake.  Even as late as 1979, the official Minnesota Department of Transportation map still showed I-35E slated to pass directly through Blackhawk Lake.   But strong public resistance to this idea in the 1980s caused planners to have to change its route and bypass that lake.  To this day, Blackhawk Lake remains viable and offers fishing for residents.

Aerial view of I-35E where it by-passes Blackhawk Lake in Eagan, MN

On the other hand, Savage Lake has markedly declined since the highway was constructed through it.  Little Canada resident, Virginia Smith, has lived along the lake for 75 years.  She remembers its condition before the highway was built and recalls that the lake once was known for its clarity.  Her grandfather, for example, backed a wagon up to the lake and drew water out to take home for doing the family’s washing.  It’s hard to imagine someone doing such a thing now with the lake in its current condition.

Although there are no records describing the lake when Virginia’s grandfather was drawing water from the lake, it probably was ten feet deep in places then.  She recalls that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) used to stock the lake with fish in those earlier times.  Now, according to another resident, “abuse…has turned the lake into a lily infested deadzone.”  And the most significant abuse of Savage Lake over time has been the construction of I-35E through the lake.  Today the two parts of the lake are connected by only a thirty-inch pipe under the highway (no bridge was built) causing a number of continuing negative effects on the depth and quality.

The intact Savage Lake, before the highway came along, held much more water than it does now.  Apart from considerations of it having been deeper then, I’ve estimated that the 200 to 400 feet-wide Interstate roadbed through the lake displaced as much as 20 percent of the lake’s original volume!  Recent Watershed District charts show that the current lake is also much shallower than it formerly was with a maximum depth now of less than six feet.  This depth is prescribed and regulated by the DNR, and the shallow water is an important factor contributing to the lake having become overgrown with aquatic plants in recent years.  More recently, and likely in response to the lake’s shallow depth, the Department of Natural Resources and the Watershed District have begun to regard Savage Lake as merely a 27-acre wetland rather than a true lake.  This does not bode well for the lake’s future restoration to a condition more like it was at the time of the early settlement of Little Canada.  Even the Minnesota Department of Transportation seems to have given up on Savage Lake.  It’s significant that the lake no longer appears on official state highway maps even though other lakes in the area of comparable size are shown.

I sometimes wonder what might have been if Little Canada’s segment of I-35E had been built ten to twenty years later than it was?  I expect that residents and environmental advocates might then have resisted the highway department’s plan to run over the lake and a way might have been found to route the Interstate around it, as was done for Blackhawk Lake in Dakota County.  This does seem to be a case where the early bird got the worm, but that worm turned out to be a bitter one.  The bird might have been much better off going hungry a little longer.

******

We live in a house that God built but that the former tenants remodeled—blew up, it looks like—before we arrived.

—Terry and Renny Russell from On the Loose (1967)

Earlier efforts have been made to raise awareness of the plight of Savage Lake.  A Lillie Newspaper article in 2009 highlighted its degraded condition and quoted former Little Canada City Council member (and current State Representative), Bev Scalze, as she reflected upon the condition of the lake before the Interstate was built:

“There was a lake, and it was a complete lake.  It didn’t have ten lanes of asphalt running through it.”

When I was in my early twenties, I developed a heightened awareness of the environment.  This was aided by a book I was given then, written by Terry and Renny Russell, who spent much of their spare time in the 1960s exploring wilderness areas of the Western United States.  One of the observations in their book still resonates for me as I consider the overall condition of my watershed and of Savage Lake—of my place.  The former tenants have indeed remodeled my place, and from an ecological perspective, it also appears they may have blown it up.  Few, if any, of the watershed’s lakes and streams today are as they once were when it functioned as a natural ecosystem.

Ironically, the best place to see Savage Lake is from the Interstate highway as it crosses through the lake, but considering how busy that highway is today, one had better not dally to take in the view.  With the poor condition of the current lake, the thousands of people who cross it each day readily see it degraded state.  I suppose some who travel that highway have no idea they are crossing a lake at all.  For instance, one friend of mine recently told me that she and her daughter assumed the portion of the lake east of the highway was an artificial pond that had been built to reflect the bell tower of St. John’s Church.

******

I dwell in Possibility.

—Emily Dickenson

The Interstate is not going away, and whatever approach is selected to improve the health of Savage Lake and the Gervais Lake Subwatershed will be a difficult one.  But what are our options?  To maintain the present course of inaction assures that Savage Lake will continue to get shallower and become even more overgrown with aquatic plants.  Stopgap measures, such as applying herbicides to control such vegetation, may offer a respite, but they are treating the symptoms rather than the disease.  Considering this lake’s historical and physical centrality within the community of Little Canada—and its visibility from the Interstate highway—maintaining the status quo is not a good option.  I choose to dwell in another possibility.

I believe the path towards ecological recovery of Savage Lake, as well as other parts of the Gervais Lake Subwatershed, begins with our choosing to rename the lake.  A panel of citizens could be appointed by the Watershed District and the City to undertake the task of identifying a new name for this lake—a name that, while honoring the lake’s historical significance, also represents a positive and hopeful prospect for its future.  Out of this process, I believe it’s possible that the City and Watershed District—and the citizens—can find common ground from which to rally around revitalization of this lake as symbolic of and a catalyst for renewed commitment to improving the watershed and community as a whole.

I personally favor adopting the same name for the lake that the indigenous people had for it (or its translation), if that name can be determined.  If not, I would like to see it named “Thunder Lake.”  Little Canada has a sister city relationship with the town of Thunder Bay in Canada, and choosing to name the lake in a similar way would symbolically acknowledge that connection.  There is at least one other lake in Minnesota named “Thunder Lake,” so a precedent has been set.

We are near the 50th anniversary of the date when the construction of the Interstate highway was completed through Savage Lake.  I dwell in a possibility that we, as a watershed and a community, might choose to mark this dubious milestone by dedicating new signs along adjacent roads that bear a new, more hopeful name for this lake.  This action could also symbolically represent a new resolve to do whatever is possible to improve the wellbeing of the entire watershed.  It would be a proud day for my place.

******

We grieve only what we know.

—Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac (1948)

While teaching at the university, I knew a colleague who had a saying: “We see what we know.”  By this he meant that we are able to truly see and appreciate something only when we have a deeper understanding of it.  With this in mind, I think I am more able now to know my place because I regard it with an enhanced understanding.  And in knowing my place, in the words of Scott Russell Sanders, I also aspire to “dwell there with a full heart.”

Long before my colleague came up with his saying about the relationship between seeing and knowing, writer Aldo Leopold offered another idea linking the grieving of something with our truly knowing it.  With this in mind, I think I am more able to know my place because I do grieve it.  I grieve the ecological death spiral of our lake—the one we have thus far chosen to call Savage—and I grieve its outdated and disrespectful name.   I grieve the continuing ecological struggles of other lakes and streams within my watershed as well.  And as long I am grieving, I will not be able to dwell in my place with a full heart.  But there is another possibility in which I dwell.  There is hope.

Savage Lake and Interstate 35E – 2010

This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2010.  All rights reserved.

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8 Responses to Knowing My Place

  1. Pamela Enz says:

    Thank you for putting this history of the lake together. I have passed it many thousands of times and never pondered why it’s on both sides of the interstate, nor what it was like before the interstate existed. The next time I drive “over it” I will certainly reflect on this message and ponder how easily it could have been different.

    Pam

    • steverobert says:

      That is one of my reasons for writing this essay, Pam. We all have things in our “environment” that we take for granted or have never noticed. This essay was a kind of awakening for me too. I’ve lived 1/2 mile from that Lake for 20+ years and have hardly noticed it before doing this piece.

  2. Kelly Hersom says:

    Great write up on the ‘unknown’ lake in Little Canada. I grew up there and never knew that those two ‘ponds’ were at one time, a lake! I knew people that lived on that lake and I wonder if they ever knew!
    There is lots to learn about the history of LC and I would love to see someone dig deeper into that history…especially, while so many of the residents that have all of this knowledge will no longer be with us!
    Thanks again….
    Kelly Hersom

    ps. I am Pam Enz’ sister

  3. steverobert says:

    Thanks for responding to the “Knowing My Place” essay, Kelly. It’s a good question regarding how many of the local residents today know about history of the lake. Some certainly do, such as the woman whom I interviewed as background for the essay who can still remember when the freeway was constructed through the lake. She has stories to tell about that process to curl your hair! I don’t think there were any dead bodies dumped to form the foundation for the highway, but just about anything else was used. One thing hurting the lake today is that it has so little public access or use. Other than the homeowners on the lake itself, few people have a sense of ownership or responsibility for it. If more did, I expect that the lake would have been treated with more care by the community over its history. Thanks again for your interest in my essay.

  4. Linda Lance says:

    Steve,
    My mother’s family homesteaded in eastern Vigo County in 1831. In the 1970’s, part of the land was lost to the construction of I-70. While I’m sure there was more ecological damage than I know, the most painful part for me is the loss of the original home that was fronted by several 100 year old pine trees. Those trees had been planted from seeds brought home in tobacco tins by sons who had served with Sherman in Georgia. They may not have been significant but a piece of history was lost.
    Linda

    • steverobert says:

      I appreciate you sharing this bit of your personal history, Linda, in relation to the “Knowing My Place” essay. One of my goals in writing is that readers will see their own ‘story’ in my stories, and that certainly seems to have been the case for you.

  5. dan ryan says:

    change the name to Savaged Lake. Dan Ryan,Little Canada

    • steverobert says:

      Considering the additional damage that has been done to our lake by the recent expansion of I-35E, I think you are right on the mark, Dan. And the addition of the sound barriers, which effectively remove it from view for everyone except the homeowners on the lake is symbolic that this has become a lake “non grata”.

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