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Essay

First Snow

By November 28, 2014 No Comments
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First Snow (upper case) is supposed to fall from heavenly clouds that spill feathers. It’s supposed to descend as if Mother Nature, somewhere up above, opened her shapely hands to the world and layered it gently in alabaster.

Supposed to. Two weeks ago our first snow came in sideways, riding a northwest wind angry enough to rip off your face with its disgraceful cold. I tried unsuccessfully to head it off at the pass by heading up Edmonton, but three inches of snow fell before I arrived, and I couldn’t stifle its reach. All week long, those evil winds blew down from Alberta as if the plains were playground slide. It was weeks before Thanksgiving, and we were already besieged by January.

Last weekend was no better. On Saturday, it took me at least an hour longer than it should to get to the Twin Cities, even though I took the high road, the interstate, hoping for open pavement. Wasn’t to be. Get behind a truck or plow, and you lose all semblance of human choice. You’re nothing more than four frozen tires in a dense cloud.  

Sunday, on the way back, I couldn’t help but wonder how the old settlers from Traverse des Sioux were doing along that county road north of St. Peter. You can’t help but feel a little sorry for those old folks in all that cold, buried beneath the first snow.

Besides, there are a few old missionaries there–and their families, and I’ve got some sympathy for them, had just talked about another bunch in an adult Sunday School. Old 19th century missionaries are generally despised these days, simply cast as the front wave of America’s own colonialism and the death of Native cultures from Massachusetts to Marin County. In the 1860s, the Dakota in southern Minnesota couldn’t help seeing them as the white man’s black-robed Special Forces sneaking into the territory under cover of the Gospel, even though the missionaries never thought of themselves that way. They were committed abolitionists out to bring some justice and grace and love to victims of hate. 

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In 1835, this man, Rev. Thomas Williamson, was the first ordained Presbyterian pastor to come to Minnesota territory. He put down a pulpit in western Minnesota, where he ministered to the Dakotas for years and years. After 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, after the Dakota War of 1862, Williamson pleaded with President Lincoln–and finally got–the release of hundreds of others who’d been kept, very much against their will, in a number of places that were, to say the least, anything but pleasant.

But there are others out there too, lots of old settlers, all of them well-acquainted with Minnesota cold. They likely kid each other about it now that winter’s  once again settling in. After all, they were here when the only heat was wood fires, when the only homes were made of sod or rough-cut timber, when half the winter was spent twisting prairie grass into fuel.  I’m sure First Snow wasn’t as joyless to them as it was to me, in the Honda Pilot, heated seats too. 

Here’s a man killed in the Dakota War–Amos W. Huggins, slain on August 19, 1862

His gravestone stands alongside his brother’s, who was gravely wounded at what the stone calls “The Battle of New Ulm,” August 23, just four days after brother Amos had been killed. What happened to Alex and Lydia Huggins, the parents, I don’t know; but a chapter of their story will be told in these two stones until the stones themselves crumble. Rufus A, just 16 years old, was mortally wounded in August, but didn’t die of those wounds, the stone says, until December 16. I wonder if Alex and Lydia ever got over their losses.

I don’t think any of the residents were all that thrilled to have a visitor set footprints in the first snow Sunday afternoon, but then they’re not particularly concerned about who might set foot up on the hill, first snow or not. After all, they’ve been residents here for a long, long time.

Who knows? Maybe they chatted about it later–“Anybody know that heavy-set stranger in the black stocking cap? Iowa licence on that Honda, too yet.”  

It was frigid out there, single digits, I’m sure.  And quiet, the long winter shadows of all those skeletal hardwoods on a forest floor of first snow turning the whole place into a cathedral. 

“For what is life,” the scripture etched on Rufus W’s stone asks, a line that doesn’t end with a question mark because that first sentence isn’t really a question at all but an introductory clause to what follows:  “It is even a vapor that appeareth for but a little time and then vanisheth away.” 

Which is why, I guess, a half-hour visit in the company of those old missionaries, even in old-fashioned Minnesota-cold, was more than enough to warm the soul.  

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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