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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lorine Niedecker and Wintergreen Ridge

In one of her greatest poems, "Wintergreen Ridge," Lorine Niedecker recounts a trip she made with her husband from her Fort Atkinson home in southern Wisconsin to the Door County peninsula, which juts out into Lake Michigan in the north eastern section of the state. They visited The Ridges Sanctuary, a nonprofit nature preserve. Strangely, the so-called ridges are only about three feet high. What happens is the lake pushes soil and debris up onto the bank, then ends up retreating. This has gone on for thousands of years, creating a series of bowed ridges that move inland from the lake. The following link shows how the ridges appear from the air:  click. 

Here are a few lines from the poem, found on page 247 of her Collected Works (U of CA Press):
               club mosses

     stayed alive
          after dinosaurs

          laurel in muskeg
               linnaeus' twinflower

          Cisandra of the bog

The poem concerns itself with what Niedecker observed as she 'climbed' Wintergreen Ridge, the third one in from the lake. Importantly, on that ridge, she found an orchid whose name is 'Grass of Parnassus.' Since Parnassus is, in Greek mythology, the home of the muses, Niedecker makes a radical claim in this poem: a small, older woman can climb a three-foot ridge in a humble nature sanctuary in Wisconsin, and still be in touch with the muses. She claims that inspiration is anywhere and everywhere, and available for everybody. 

While this claim was not especially new by the time this poem was written in the late 1960's, it was unusual for an older woman from Wisconsin to make it. She takes poetry away from the urban, the male, the spectacular, and gives it to herself: the rural, the female, the humble. It is quite a move.

She goes even further by giving us three different words for 'wintergreen' in quick succession: wintergreen, pipsissewa, and grass of paranassus. What's especially interesting is the second word, which is a corruption of an Algonquin word. Niedecker displaces Western culture, starting from the Greeks with their Parnassus, from the center so that it rests equally with the Algonquins and other cultures.

As a way of grounding the poem in the here and now, it seems, Niedecker names a number of flowers and orchids in its ten pages. She makes a home of the small beauties of the sanctuary. While it would be necessary to be an advanced and learned observer of nature, as Niedecker was, to inhabit this poem with some comfort, it does help to have at least an idea about the appearance of the flowers she mentions. The purpose of this post is to offer links to pictures of thos flowers. 

To do so, I cross referenced pictures of the flowers on the web, (making much use of the University of Stevens Point website, among others), with the book 101 Wildflowers of the Ridges Sanctuary by Frances M. Burton and Arelia M. Stampp. They are below:

Bishop's Cup (sic.) This may be a misspelling. There is a Bishop's Cap flower in the Sanctuary, but not a Bishop's Cup.
Lady's Slipper - a number of types appear in these photos
Sundew - She mentions "Drosera / of the sundews." Sundews are a large family of carnivorous plants. The type found in the Sanctuary is the drosera rotundifolia. See above.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the picture of those ridges. You've told me this story before, but I've never seen the three-foot ridges themselves until now.