The Drumlin Beat
By Susan M. Barbieri
January 1, 1999

Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Monthly magazine.

Minnesota Monthly Magazine, June 1998


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Maybe it's the way the way the word rolls off the tongue like a stick on a deerskin snare, like the Little Drummer Boy's pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. Drumlin. Or maybe it's because it sounds like "gremlin," conjuring images of tiny, mysterious, magical beings that only small children can see. And the gremlins lived in the drumlins forever after. Now go to sleep, little one.

Either way, I can't pass the United States Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis without being drawn to the drumlin park in front. I have watched the drumlins - tear-shaped mounds planted with native jack pines - change from soft green to glacial white. They captivate no matter what their hue. The landscape architect who designed the park wanted the space to resemble the mounds of sediment left by receding glaciers early in Minnesota's - and the continent's - history.

I'm convinced that the information we learn and discard over the years piles up like so much silt and sediment in our brains; pushed into drumlins or moraines on our vast interior landscapes. Accumulated in one square of the mind's topographic map are lyrics from the worst songs ever played on hit radio and the themes from dumb TV shows of the '60s. Piled elsewhere are the remnants of college courses we once loved but whose lessons we never needed. For me, one of these courses was Geology 101.

There is something alluring and poetic about the terms for geologic features left by ice and meltwater. An "alluvial fan" could just as well be a prop for a coquette from Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a river silt deposit. An "oxbow" might be part of a yoke rather than a lake formed from a mature, pinched-off river bend. And a drumlin could be part of a holiday turkey.

Such fanciful names for so much cold, surgical carving; so much reorganizing of earth and stone.

Scraping, gouging, melting ice: Its legacy is everywhere. The glaciers bequeathed us this place, welcoming of seed but cruelly naked to the westerly wind. We cherish the romance of life on the prairie, but when forced to travel south and west, we bemoan its flat, are-we-there-yet monotony. It is easier to love this gift when we imagine it as the tallgrass prairie we've never seen. It is easier to love it in theory than in practice.

But our landscape has given us both beauty and prosperity. Minnesota's mineral wealth lies in the ore-rich red and gray rocks of the Mesabi and Vermilion iron ranges, born 2.7 billion years ago, give or
take - deposited like a tycoon's money sack at the bank teller's window, then exposed by the action of the fickle glaciers that came and went.

The headwaters of the Mississippi, which began its journey into folklore and industrial history at Lake Itasca, bids farewell to the lake as a small stream and travels cross-country to the Gulf of Mexico. A smart river, it heads south for the winter. But it owes its existence to a depression carved in the land, as if the glacier made a thumbprint there just for that lake.

Give me the lyricism of a roiling river and the once-upon-a-time tale of its birthplace in the woods. And give me curious words like "esker" - crisp and snappy-sounding, like a cat's whisker. Winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel, eskers are rocky deposits left where subglacial streams once flowed. Chase Point Esker at Itasca State Park has a profoundly peaceful hiking trail under the Norway pines that shelter its narrow, 60- to 70-foot-high crest. This part of Minnesota is glacial lake-and-moraine country. The evidence is there in the Alexandria moraines and in the Wadena drumlin fields. Who knows what gremlins lurk in the drumlin field?

Closer to home, I seek out the geology of the city. I want a bird's perspective and the earth's sense of time. I stand at Fort Snelling and watch the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, which, more than any other geologic features, have defined our landscape. Twin rivers, two cities, one story.

The concept of geologic time can provide us some perspective in this double-click, hyperlink, nanosecond age. In a hurry to get to the office, I'm stuck at a red light tantalizingly close to downtown Minneapolis. The horizon spins, the sky fast-forwards from sun to moon to sun, over and over, faster and faster. I grow gray behind the wheel. I turn to dust. Surrounding buildings are razed; new, futuristic ones go up in a second. Two and a half million years have passed, it seems, and the light is still red.

Geologic forces are nothing if not patient. Like a dance that moves too slowly to be seen, there is beauty in the glacial - and our landscape is filled with evidence of the long-ago dance. Sometimes all it takes is a thoughtfully-designed urban space to remind us that there is poetry in our rivers, watercolor in our trees, magic in our drumlins. MM

Susan M. Barbieri is managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.

© Copyright 1998, Minnesota Public Radio.