www.mpr.orgMinnesota Monthly magazine

The Last Ice Age
David Mataya
September 2001

Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Monthly magazine.

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QUARRY HILL WAS AN UNREMARKABLE RISE in the landscape on the northeast side of Rochester, where limestone formations from an ancient seabed poked through the surface. The southeastern corner of Minnesota stood in defiance of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, and the glaciers bypassed it, failing to grind down the rolling hills and bluffs under the pulverizing force of moving ice.

If you crossed a stone bridge and walked far enough you'd come across a crumbling foundation, a slaughterhouse once, long ago. It's said the young Charlie Mayo practiced eye surgery there on the heads of slaughtered sheep. Since the rocky landscape was useless for farming, old-timers used the caves for storing ice and livestock in the hot summer months. That made it useful for boys.

My personal band of hunter-gatherers roamed the quarries, caves, and woods through the summer months. Quarry Hill was our habitat. During the time of year that the local board of education attempted to civilize us, we toured Quarry Hill on formal field trips with school or church. We listened as our guide held a stone aloft and explained the sedimentary process, or reminded us of the psalmist who wrote of the stone rejected by the builders that proved to be the keystone.

Occasionally we encountered wandering bands of hominids from other neighborhoods. Such meetings could be tense, but usually slingshots and crabapples were tucked back into pockets, gestures of non-aggression exchanged, and both sides went on their way. Sometimes these encounters resulted in a pact, trade was established, and culture flourished. I once bartered my slingshot to a rival band member for a rusty Boy Scout knife.

Anything was prey. The sight of a garter snake, its slalom ribbon of pale yellow racing stripes sliding through the reeds along the creek, triggered pursuit. We splashed through water and scrambled over loose rocks along the bank, waiting for the snake to hesitate long enough for one skinny, tanned arm to shoot out and pin it. If successful, the triumphant predator let the captive slide, first over one hand and then the other, on a continuous treadmill that soon tired the snake and eventually tired its captor. The pursuit was the thing, and the prize was released quickly.

Once, my older siblings and I showed visiting cousins our hunting grounds—the slaughterhouse, stone bridge, caves—and told stories of holed-up horse thieves and mad escapees from the state mental institution who haunted the caves by night in their ghostly white gowns. We ended our rounds at our regular water hole, an IGA on Eleventh Avenue, where we pooled our money and bought an ice cold orange pop for each. These were the days of the returnable glass bottles with art nouveau spiral fluting, whitened at the extremities by frequent rubbing against other bottles in transit, a phenomenon not unlike the slow scouring of glacial ice against stone that results in the milky-white detritus known as glacial flour. There was nothing to use to open the bottles. I was the youngest and knew that if I could come through in this crisis, I would dramatically improve my status within the pack. I fumbled around in my pockets and produced the Boy Scout knife. Sure enough, it contained a bottle opener. I was proclaimed "all right" by an older cousin. Another said, "Good thing we had you along."

The sunlight bathing these memories is so intense that it eats away at the edges of things. I can only make out forms and colors and rely on imagination and others to fill in the details. We were on the vanguard of the Divorce Age in the 1970s. That ice age didn't bypass us, it hit us squarely: My parents divorced when I was nearly 12. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, it ground me under its pulverizing power. When it receded, the landscape was flat.

Memories from the years following take on somber colors. I am always indoors and someone is blocking the light.

My recollections don't regain vivid color until I move away from Rochester. Eventually we Quarry Hill diaspora tried our hands at raising families of our own. We never think about teaching our young to catch garter snakes. Why would they need this skill? Who taught us? We haven't seen a garter snake in years. Perhaps they retreated beneath the stones, ahead of the encroaching shadows. Perhaps they're waiting for the climate to warm enough to re-emerge.

But in the Quarry Hill of my mind, the sun is always shining, the caves are deliciously cool, and the survival of the band seems assured. MM

David Mataya is an art director living in Hudson, Wis.

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