As Minnesotans, our appreciation for wetlands as an important wildlife habitat has come nearly full circle. To Indians and the first white settlers, the adjoining slough and lake that once sprawled across the northeast corner of southern Minnesota’s Freeborn County were an important source of natural resources, teeming with waterfowl, fish and game, wood and medicinal plants.
But the farming communities that sprang up in the area around Albert Lea came to regard marshes and swamps as stagnant wastelands that needed to be “reclaimed” or “improved” — that is, turning the fertile soil underneath into farmland.
In “The Big Marsh,” Cheri Register tells the story of how this once wild, watery area — “bubbling, croaking, lapping, quacking, whistling, rustling,” as she lyrically describes it — became corn and soybean fields. She recounts how parts of the area were gradually drained for small family farms — and then not so gradually, when powerful outside developers and investors dug a massive ditch and drained 18,000 acres at public expense, thwarting legal challenges from local residents.
Register’s interest in the story was sparked when she discovered that her great-grandfather, an early conservationist, had written a fiery newspaper article railing against those “who with wanton malice laid the hand of greed and avarice with dire devastation on the beautiful scene.” Her book is partly personal, following her own ancestors’ generation-by-generation experiences in the area, starting before the Civil War.
Register’s history is meticulous and exhaustive — too exhaustive, perhaps, for many casual readers. She lengthily quotes newspaper accounts, letters and diaries and provides names and often back stories even for figures mentioned only fleetingly. All the dates and characters can become overwhelming and hard to follow.
I would have preferred, for example, that she had briefly quoted or paraphrased local newspapers rather than transcribe long passages, sometimes with multiple accounts of the same events. And subplots, such as tales of the developers’ lawyer’s parents’ disapproval of his courtships, add some color but don’t contribute much to the central narrative.
Maybe Register was so enthusiastically caught up in her research that she couldn’t resist sharing all these findings. But the book could have benefited had she given more space to exploring the bigger picture, with the fate of the Big Marsh — a microcosm, after all — placed into a larger context of what was lost in subjecting Minnesota’s (and the country’s) landscape to shortsighted notions of progress. Occasionally, she does offer bits of analysis.
“I am sorry, heartsick even, that this vast wetland was drained and its natural beauty and utility destroyed,” Register writes. But, she adds, she doesn’t begrudge farmers their fruitful years on the drained land, acknowledging, “We all partake in this quiet history of tremendous, mind-boggling, earth-shifting change.”
Katy Read is a Star Tribune staff writer.
The Big Marsh
By: Cheri Register.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 271 pages, $17.95.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. May 12, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; talk and reading, 7 p.m. May 24, Subtext Bookstore, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul.