Letter From Leech Lake — From the November 2014 issue

Off the Land

What subsistence really looks like

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“Welcome to my office!” Bob Matthews shouts with a smile part friendly and part crazy. We are near Rabideau Lake just off the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. It’s late August, the pinecones coming in, and Bobby has taken me out for white spruce cones. We each carry a five-gallon bucket, a shallow white Tupperware tray, leather gloves with the fingers cut off, and a tube of Goop. The Goop is so the cones won’t stick to our fingers and slow us down. Bobby’s about to say something else when we hear a pickup rumbling over the washboard road. “Get in the woods,” he calls, before diving into the trees.

12:20 p.m., crossing a meadow to a small lake to set leech traps. Illustrations from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation by Stan Fellows

12:20 p.m., crossing a meadow to a small lake to set leech traps. Illustrations from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation by Stan Fellows

These northern Minnesota woods, once virgin white pine with an understory of spruce and birch, have been logged many times since the timber boom of the late nineteenth century. In place of the sterile majesty of old growth is a wild patchwork of birch, jack pine, Norway pine, poplar, and spruce in the uplands and ash, basswood, elm, ironwood, sugar maple, and tag alder in the lowlands. The whole region is scrubby, dense, in places impassable, united by vast swamps and slow-draining creeks, rivers, and lakes. The land — desolate in winter, indescribably uncomfortable in summer — is easy enough to love in the abstract. Up close there is a roughness to it. The spruce grow close together and block out the sun. The forest floor is dun, and the varicose roots stick out of the soil.

Bobby finds crescent-shaped cones about an inch and a half long. He drops to his knees to pick them off the ground, putting them into his tray with astonishing speed. The cones rattle in his tray until it’s full, and they rattle again as he empties the tray into his bucket. To me it sounds pleasant. To Bobby it sound like money.

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’s fourth novel, Prudence, will be published in February by Riverhead Books.

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