Learning to Belong to the Land

A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, Heid Erdrich has authored four poetry collections, and is also a celebrated playwright, editor, and visual arts curator.

BIg Birch Lake Association
Initiative Foundation

Big Birch Lake Association

Healthy Lakes and Rivers Partnership Participant

Minnesota’s sparkling lakes and rivers are our state’s calling card, the crown jewels of our natural resources, and a driving force of our economy. People who make their homes and businesses on Minnesota’s shores have the most direct influences on the water. That’s why the Initiative Foundation’s Healthy Lakes and Rivers Partnerships (HLRP) works with lake and river associations to develop citizen-driven plans for water management and preservation. Taking note of murky lake water, the Big Birch Lake Association enlisted the help of HLRP to take action. Volunteers surveyed the lake and discovered that harmful nutrients flowed from a tributary bordering a family farm.

Association president Gene Waldorf approached the farmer and together they negotiated an agreement; the lake association would pay to plant a natural buffer along the edge of the corn field and compensate the farmer for his lost revenue. The farmer complied, leading to incredible results. As native grasses and vegetation slowly replaced the crops, they formed a natural buffer to filter the harmful nutrients. Within two years, water clarity on Big Birch improved by nearly three feet. HLRP’s unique approach and success has led to additional project support from The McKnight Foundation; extending the program’s reach beyond central Minnesota. Working alongside the other five Minnesota Initiative Foundations, lake and river associations in every part of the state are able to participate in some form of the program. HLRP is a shining example of how Minnesotans are taking a vested interest in responsible stewardship for one of our
state’s greatest resources.

photographer | Gregory Harp

Minnesota, in my mind’s eye, has the figure of a woman. She is leaning down while also reaching out. Her hair rains in lakes, she has thrown a scarf of pine and birch about her neck, her shawl sweeps with long fringes of prairie grass, patterned with cropland and ribbons of rivers, her skirts flare to the south, flowing from the indent of her waist, belted with shining cities. She throws her shawl north, too, along the Superior shore where her strength shows in the stacked black rock of her bones, her rich red core of iron, and in the southwest, the peace of her blood — the sacred pipestone.

She has always been a mother, a lady bountiful, our place of origin and the ground to which we return. We treat her as such in our care of her wild places, our concerns for sustaining the gifts she offers, our joining together in an understanding that we must keep our land as she has kept us: deliberately, with vision, in community.

Look, she says, everything that you need is right here.


That this Minnesota earth is my home and my place of origin deeply forms my sense of self. My Ojibwe ancestors lived here from earliest times and my German-American father was born and raised on the Minnesota prairie, just at the edge of the white pine forests. A huge part of my understanding that I belong to this earth came through unlikely and certainly not indigenous sources: the small farms I explored as a child during visits to my grandmother. There I saw plenty of chickens. Scratching at the ground hour after hour, chickens always seemed to me to cultivate the earth, to guard the garden, digging pests from the furrows — to do a little of our work for us. Chickens seemed to me creatures of the earth — friends to dust and mud.

Nearly four decades ago, every little Minnesota town seemed ringed with old farmsteads whose yards were  bright with white hens scratching up earth, moving freely in the yards, gardens, barns. Free-range would have seemed an odd concept to many folks then, I think, because it was the unnamed norm. My grandmother’s chickens were healthy from her marigolds and Minnesota’s summer bugs. I could taste the earth in her birds and it was sweet, deep, powerful, sustaining. So too the vegetables she grew, the mushrooms she gathered, the milk from the dairy nearby. In those days we knew we were, literally, part of the earth at our feet. Many of us had on our minds that we would return to the earth as well. There was nothing abstract about it, no distance, no other way to think. We belonged to the earth and it to us, we were related.

We lost a sense of mutuality with the earth when we gave up the presence of our living food in our daily lives. People want that relationship back. Consider the trend toward local foods, home gardening, raising small animals (hens, rabbits, even goats), and community-created farmers markets. These movements must be part of a collective memory of the farmyards and gathering grounds of our past. In all these things the earth calls us back and tells us: look around, we have everything we need right here.


Lake ice breaking up is as beautiful and as big a draw to the waters as a dive in summer or the first fish on the line. The season is not the matter; we love our local waters as our neighbors and kin. Once you live in Minnesota, you will be called to some body of water and it will claim your spirit as relative. You will want to play in that water, marry by its shores, baptize in it, and have your ashes scattered in its calm.

Look around, we have everything we need right here.

Whether we are aware of it or not, often we drink the water we love and we become it. Water creates us. I am the Mississippi I’ve been drinking for nearly 20 years. Whether you are able to live on a lake in Minnesota or not, most of us feel close to the waters, protective of them. Yet sometimes we’re unaware of how our daily actions can cloud a stream’s clarity, can send sewage into that priceless view from our own lake homes, can invite invasive aquatic species, and create problems it will take a whole community to solve. Problems a community can solve with simplicity and a sense of how our banks and shores belong to us all.


We used to see them in the distance, old windmills with wooden blades on rusted towers. We used to see them in tall grass, foxtails, wildflowers, grown-over farmyards left to the wind in the 1970s. They made us thirsty for sweet well water. They made us think of cisterns and cattle lifting their dripping heads and the Wizard of Oz. They made us hear the squeak of the pump and the hawk’s cry, and think of farms we could ride our bikes to along gravel roads that danced with dust devils from the constant prairie wind.

There are fewer gravel roads now, fewer farmyards, but more windmills. Turbines to be correct: great plane wings swiping through skies. Sandhill cranes. These new, huge wind generators remind me of cranes’ brilliant white wings, their dominating height. Yet, they are alien, too. Blind, but somehow watchful, towering silently, suddenly everywhere. What would our ancestors think?

Look around, we have everything we need right here.

The wind, more than any other element, seems free. Making money from it, owning it in any way doesn’t come as first thought to our natures. Wind tells us everything; in some parts of the state its constancy defines the way we walk, keep our hair, speak outdoors, even how we open doors. Wind carves tunnels of ice and snow on our roads, creates the blowing otherworld of purple shadows in January and dries the floods in May. It seems endlessly and forever a part of our lives even as it slips through and refuses to be kept.

Everyone was bowled over by the frantic rush to capture the wind, the interest from outside energy companies, the suddenness of structures dominating the landscape before we could agree what was wise and right or even what we liked. Now, communities are joining together to take part in wind energy creation, to make it happen on their own terms and with their input, investment, stewardship, out of their own concern for the landscape to which they belong.


We humans have shaped this earth for a long, long time. We burned the prairies and underbrush in forests to clear areas for planting, to keep bugs down near our homes, and because we understood that burning engendered seeds that could not germinate without the heat and nutrients fire provides. What lightning did not bring, humans did. Imagine the trust, the effort to control what so easily leaps and takes trees we never meant to harm. Imagine what care the first people of Minnesota took to live in close stewardship of the land, to look at it so long it was understood what the land needed in order to give humans all we need to belong here, to survive. How many generations did it take to understand what was witnessed in the new growth after a forest fire? How long did it take to notice the rich new plants, the return of animals whose food had been overgrown until the flames turned it all over in a cycle of use and restoration? How can we see what cycles are at work now? How will we join together to keep those cycles moving within our communities?

Today we burn what the land offers: corn as fuel, the great promise. Young people, wary for the world they love and want to steward, wonder at all the water it takes to grow all that corn. They burn with the pursuit of new knowledge and technology, as they seek ways to reduce, reclaim, and maintain resources we now see as borrowed, not ours to use up. We are learning to belong to the land, to listen to what it has been saying to its people for millennia:

Look around, we have everything we need right here.

Espenson Family Wind Energy Farm
Southwest Initiative Foundation

Espenson Family Wind Energy Farm.

Community-Owned Wind Energy Developer

The whooshing sound of wind turbine blades is a subtle reminder that Minnesota’s land has great value for many reasons. Throughout portions of southwest Minnesota, wind turbines dot the prairie, standing almost like forests of ingenuity and innovation. For a region rich with agricultural history, wind energy marks a different kind of crop for landowners. Farmers Marty and Patty Espenson of rural Bingham Lake began exploring options for wind energy development in 2002. Working with community wind expert Dan Juhl of Woodstock, the Espensons determined feasibility and pulled together a group of local investors to start their own project, which was completed in 2006.

Bingham Lake Wind Farm is a 15-megawatt community wind farm that sells the energy generated from 12 wind turbines to a power company. In just over one year, the Espensons recouped their initial investment. While providing leadership, education, and resources to support community wind development, Southwest Initiative Foundation looked to the Espensons as an existing example of wind development’s positive impact on families, businesses, and communities across the region. Most recently, through the Rural Energy Development Initiative (REDI), a program Southwest Initiative Foundation administered statewide, nearly 2,000 Minnesotans received education about wind energy development. In addition, 13 REDI loans were approved throughout the state, encompassing an estimated 1,088 megawatts of community wind and an estimated total development cost of $2.5 billion, marking major investments in the state’s “new” crop.

photographer | Nate Howard

Rural Enterprise Center
Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation

Rural Enterprise Center

Grant Recipient

Jose Javier Peralta Rosas is a “rural agripreneur,” which means he’s a new kind of family farmer — one who has received unique training and support for small-scale sustainable farming through Northfield’s Rural Enterprise Center, a program of the Main Street Project. The Rural Enterprise Center has created an innovative, scalable approach to farming, focused on creating economic opportunities for rural Latino families. The training builds on strengths of culture and experience, and addresses challenges such as lack of access and working capital, marketing and business support infrastructure, and focused training. The center has received $60,000 in grant awards from Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation along with business trainings and technical assistance.

“Our lives have changed greatly, thanks to the experiences and knowledge that we have acquired through this program and training,” Javier explains. “We have learned about business — how to keep production records, manage supplies — but the most important thing we have learned is how to produce healthy foods naturally or organically, without harming our natural environment.” Javier first heard about the program at an area church, but his initial exposure to agripreneur training occurred when he participated in a Spanish-language CORE Four® business training class. Today he’s helping to raise free-range poultry, one of the core products of the agripreneur training program focused on supporting aspiring Latino farmers.

photographer | Nate Howard