Paradigm Worker

Crossing Edges, Shifting Centers

Water maps of belonging

March 22, 2020

By: Jonee Kulman Brigham


One summer Saturday, my son and I were driving on Highway 36 from the Twin Cities going east. We passed the sign that said “Thanks for visiting Minnesota,” and I told him we were about to cross into Wisconsin. As we drove onto the bridge over the St. Croix River which divides the two states, my son said, “Now we are nowhere. We don’t exist. We are not in Minnesota or Wisconsin.” I told him that the boundary is usually a line in the middle of the river, -- half the river is included in Minnesota, and half in Wisconsin. And sure enough, as we got near the middle of the bridge, the navigator’s voice from my phone app said, “Welcome to Wisconsin.” 

But the boundary is an illusion. The land on the Eastern shore of Minnesota, where it meets the St. Croix does not stop. When the waves move, you can see it slipping below them. It continues down under the river. Down below the rushing stream, the land is relatively still, even as portions of it get lifted and moved downstream. And other upstream lands lay portions of themselves onto this river bed. The underwater land continues eastward, rising up to rippling shafts of light until it breaks the surface and appears as the Wisconsin shore. The river is a wet line, drawn across two halves of one earthen body, concealing its continuity. 

Borders and Bodies

This reminded me of being on the other western “coast” of Minnesota when I was working as an artist in residence with an environmental education center on Big Stone Lake. Big Stone Lake is a long, narrow lake along the southern side of the “bump” on the western edge of Minnesota. (I wonder if South Dakotans see it as a “dent” in their state instead of a bump in Minnesota.) Big Stone Lake is the boundary between Minnesota and South Dakota at that latitude, and like the St. Croix boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the state borderline is also in the middle of the lake. 

More than a border, Big Stone Lake is its own place. If one sits in a boat on the lake, you can’t see the boundary line. The lake is a whole place. The waters are mixed. The fish pass freely across the border. And the lands on either side of the lake belong to it. The lake is also a center line, not just an edge. It is the lowest point that collects water from the land along its shores--its watershed. 

In an argument over a child, King Solomon is said to have ordered the child to be cut in half, so as to evenly divide him. If the boy were the lake, a line would be drawn down the middle of his forehead, neck, chest, and torso, indicating which half belonged to which parent. How absurd for a boy. How absurd for a lake. 

Big Stone Lake is also the headwaters of the Minnesota River, and is essentially a part of the river, slowed down to make a lake. It was formed when Glacial Lake Agassiz burst through its southern land barrier forming the glacial River Warren – five miles wide, which carved the valley on both sides of the lake, and formed the Minnesota River Valley, flowing toward the south and east.  During my time there, I wrote a poem about the multiple spatial identities of Big Stone Lake and read it to the campers when we stopped the pontoon boat at the middle of the lake, on the border between states.

Maps in Motion

Water challenges our land-centered mapping that divides water bodies down the middle. But it also challenges the frozen time-frames of our maps.  The water shown on a satellite map of Big Stone Lake is no longer there by the time you see it. It has travelled down the Minnesota River, to the Mississippi and has probably arrived at the Gulf of Mexico. It won’t stay still. Even smaller watershed maps that show the relationship of land and water bodies into which they flow, can’t hold their water before it flows into the next watershed map. Over time, water even changes the shape of rivers and the land that borders them. 

Water’s movement can guide us across map scales from the planetary to the personal. The same water that defines the Eastern edge of the United States as it is washed by Atlantic waves and tides, has very possibly traveled the hydrologic cycle to arrive in my home. For a moment, in my bathroom, when this same water passed from the faucet over my soapy hands, and then down the drain, it defined another border: between clean and dirty – between potable water and sewage. Washing my hands with our common water both connects and divides. It is the centerline of my attention to cleaning, but it is the borderline of water’s cleanliness. Because of water, I am mapped midstream of a larger flow.

The flow is like a breath, inhaling and exhaling soap, skin, salt, and sand. The world is breathing matter - into and out of our water, like a fish breathes a river.  Water dissolves our dry, paper maps. The fibers, like sediment, move landforms from one place to another. Water breathes the land. Water breathes our bodies. 

Now we are everywhere. We have always existed. We are Minnesota and Wisconsin. We are divided and centered. Water dances a moving cartography—a better map to understand our living, dynamic world, to which we belong.

©Jonee Kulman Brigham