“Secret Knowledge–Cedar Bog Lake” (essay)

“All creatures exist for a purpose. Even an ant knows what that purpose is–not with its brain, but somehow it knows. Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They don’t use their brains and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams.’

–Lame Deer

Mary Spivey and Caiti Langer from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve are walking with me through the woods leading to Cedar Bog Lake, pointing out the mature oaks and lush understory. As Caiti pauses to look at plants, Mary is telling me about how, in 1938, Martha Crone and her husband built a cabin on the knoll. They purchased forty acres for $375 with $10 down, and carried building supplies through the swamp to the dry land on the rise. Martha and her husband eventually worked out an arrangement to cede the land to the university, and this area came to be known as Crone Island.

We make our way on the boardwalk through the marsh. Given the recent rain the water is flooded over in places and my attention narrows to feet on slick boards. I glance at Marsh Marigolds with their waxy leaves and pure yellow faces, and water stained brown from tannins. The coppery smell, the dark coolness, and the trunks of trees submerged in water reveal the ancient soul of the marsh.

When we reach the dock my gaze adjusts to open water ringed by woody Decodon stems, Tamaracks, and White Cedars. Further out are oaks and pines. Cedar Bog Lake is a pleasing oval that can be taken in with one visual sweep. It looks like an eye gazing up at the sky, the messy Decodon like brown lashes.

We stand and talk, and then sit on the wood dock on this first sunny windless day after a very long Minnesota winter. Silence. Clouds move along in their own pageantry. I close my eyes and the lyric surfaces, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” What appears to be nothing happening is the much slower tempo of bog time. In 1941 Raymond Lindeman wrote, “The character of this bog was first recognized in 1931 by Dr. W.S. Cooper, during an aerial survey….Terrestrial explorations corroborated his surmise that the bog represented an advanced successional stage of what had once been a much larger lake, formed in an ice–block depression of pitted outwash.”

Pondering glaciation is akin to slipping my mind a natural hallucinogen. Time elongates and the landscape becomes fluid–trees and plants become living pipettes of sun, soil, and water. A single block of ice settled here, melted, and, in concert with time, created these woods, this marsh and bog. Lindeman wrote, “The topography immediately surrounding the Cedar Creek Bog indicates that the central part of the basin east of Second Island and Crone Island [Crone’s Knoll] is almost certainly due to the melting of a single large block of ice. When this block melted it formed a ‘drainage’ lake more than 12 meters in depth, representing the earliest stage of what is now called Cedar Bog Lake.”

The eye of the bog lake seems to have the power to turn off chronos time. We give in and lie down on the dock as we talk. At this vantage point I am level with the Decodon. Lindeman’s article reveals a mythic seasonal battle between Typha (cattails) and Decodon (swamp loosestrife), depending on water levels, with Decodon prevailing overall. Mary says, “It is a species of special concern that grows where there’s not a lot of disturbance. The Decodon plant is a visual clue that where you are is how it’s been for a long, long time.” Lindeman wrote that the proliferation of Decodon and other bog matter, “had encroached on the lake…practically 1 meter in 5 years. At this tremendous rate the lake will have become a bog swale within 250 years.”

In time future, the eye of the bog will close. At the U. of M. I teach a seminar on water, and my students research local and global water resource issues. Sitting on this dock I imagine the world’s freshwater sources as so many eyes in different phases of closing. Like lights blinking out on the dark horizon-our planet blind from lack of water. The bog lake absorbs this thought and reflects it back to me as if to say, That is one way of looking at things.

For fifteen years I’ve lived along the wild and scenic Rum River, and most days when I walk through the hayfields and meadows to stand on her banks, I am in my head. As a writer, teacher, and mother, my thoughts veer from who’s going to pick up the girls to mentally feeling my way along a Gordian knot of an idea. Music is often playing in my brain; lately, Adele, as she is who my daughters have on high volume. When I first stand by the Rum I might as well be at a bus stop. I glance down and don’t register the dogs rolling in fresh otter scat; I stare at the water and as Kabir put it, “The mind rushes on, a drunk elephant.” Eventually the river’s current draws my attention and I am pulled into the spell of light on water, the river’s passage producing a zen leveling of experience as it carries my thoughts and feelings downstream. I turn to the woods more present, and if the river doesn’t get me out of my head, a brush with stinging nettle or tripping over a tree root works.

Cedar Bog Lake is a different entity than the river. Calm and tranquil, it receives thoughts and holds them. The bog lake dials back the brain and in a sense creates an unlearning necessary to revive what I understand Lame Deer as referring to as our “secret knowledge.” The university is an altar to acquired learning, but one that has built or secured few places for kneeling and simply being. Cedar Bog Lake is one.

I ask Caiti and Mary what the bog lake makes them think about. “It’s where everything started,” Caiti says. “It’s a very peaceful place to come. When I was living up here I’d come to the bog to sit. It’s different from all the other sectors of the reserve. My favorite is in the fall when the tamaracks yellow and the deciduous trees are all different colors.” Mary adds, “The bog is an analogy to Lindeman’s work. I see he and his wife on the water in their little boat. They were one of the first to research how energy flows through an ecosystem. They studied the chemistry, physics, flora and fauna of Cedar Bog Lake. His work is the cornerstone of ecology and it began here.”

Our gaze returns to the bog lake. I think about the kinds of exchanges that occur along bodies of water. In the late ‘80s when I lived in Oregon in the southern Cascades, I swam in the Jenny Creek, the main tributary for the Greensprings mountain. I hiked in the old growth forests–150 years and older Douglas firs, incense cedars, and sugar pines with girths four of us could wrap our arms around. The forests and rivers helped me recover my secret knowledge, to waken my senses and awareness of my connection to other living beings. When I directed a watershed group and saw forests that I had come to know get clearcut, and the damage cows caused grazing along and watering in Jenny Creek, I realized then that the land and water required something from me in order for it to continue to thrive.

A similar exchange occurs on the Mississippi. When I take my water seminar students to the river and set them free to shoot photographs and explore, I stand on the pedestrian bridge and absorb the urban skyline, the lock and dam, and the other bridges. Time past, present, and future merge while I gaze out at the dark moving water. I hear poet Langston Hughes reading, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I see the Dakota containment camp on Pike Island at the rivers’ confluence, the teepees buffeted with snow as many of the Dakotas froze and starved that long winter; and I return to the moment on the #16 bus when my Hmong student glances out at the Mississippi and tells me she lost her aunt and cousin in the I-35 bridge collapse, her eyes brimming. Dams, locks, diversions, concrete, metal: the river is a shackled entity, with one of the fastest sinking Deltas in the world. The Mississippi requires something of me, of us.

Cedar Bog Lake doesn’t, thanks to glaciation and the vision and determination of Crone, Cooper, Lindeman and others. Sitting by the bog lake is an opportunity for us to be present to what poet T. S. Eliot described as the “Still point of the turning world.” It is a portal to the secret knowledge of what it means for us to be in this world. Cedar Bog Lake wants nothing of me, expects nothing of us, and needs us only to let it succeed.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
     Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the
                                            dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
                                   from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

(T. S. Eliot, excerpt from “Burnt Norton”, Four Quartets)


All Rights Reserved 2011 Linda Buturian

A link to the essay (and photo gallery) on the Cedar Creek LTER website can be found here.


Photos by Linda Buturian except otherwise noted.

Lame Deer. Erdoes, Richard, John (Fire) Lame Deer. Lame Deer Seeker of Visions: The Life of a Sioux Medicine Man. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Raymond L. Lindeman. “The Developmental History of Cedar Creek Bog, Minnesota.” American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2420845

Photo of Martha Crone http://www.friendsofeloisebutler.org/pages/history/mcronecabincedar.html

David Byrne singing “Heaven” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zNdMc6wGtU

Adele singing “Hometown Glory” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXG0YMv5Fvk&feature=relmfu

U of M Water Seminar Website PsTL 1906W with Students Digital Stories http://www.cehd.umn.edu/PSTL/Water/

Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15722

Photo of Dakota containment camp, 1862. http://ookaboo.com/o/pictures/topic/1768773/Pike_Island

Mississippi River Delta. http://www.delta\alliance.org/wings/mississippi\river\wing

T. S. Eliot reading Four Quartets 1943. http://janolofbengtsson.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/t\s\eliot\reads\burnt\norton\ and\east\coker\from\four\quartets/

Online version of Four Quartets http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets/norton.html