Water and What We Know

Water and What We Know

Following the Roots of a Northern Life

Karen Babine

Personal essays exploring the link between natural history and memory, landscape and identity, place and meaning

240 Pages, 5 x 8 in

  • Paperback
  • 9780816696789
  • Published: February 15, 2015
  • eBook
  • 9781452944470
  • Published: February 15, 2015


Water and What We Know

Following the Roots of a Northern Life

Karen Babine

ISBN: 9780816696789

Publication date: February 15th, 2015

240 Pages

8 x 5

"What is the effect of place on character? Of our birth landscape on how we see the world? This wonderful, meditative book asks all the right questions."—Will Weaver

"Babine’s focus is on the call of the west and the mountain and rivers that carved its shape.  Eloquently, passionately, she strips back the mythology of this land, seeks out the truth lying beneath our American stories, and embraces the complications we must all accept in calling anyplace home."—Booklist

"Babine’s critical contribution is that we need to learn to think of the natural and the cultural as inseparable in order to expand our ecological consciousness and knowledge to face our futures."—Annals of Iowa

"The value of essays in this tradition of Thoreau and Olson is to share the insights of others, to measure by our own sentiments and ultimately to examine better how we meet and see the world."—Lake Superior Magazine

"Whether you’re a kindred spirit to the north woods or the most confirmed city dweller, she reminds us that the only way we can be grounded in this world is to know our place in it."—Split Rock Review

"Writing with the eloquence of [Barry] Lopez and the compassion of Terry Tempest Williams, Babine is also reaching toward a new generation, ensuring the continuity and the legacy of what she has learned."—Los Angeles Review of Books

"The stories in Water and What We Know bleed together the places of Babine’s childhood--lake, forest, and sky--until, as in the Minnesota she so loves, land and water become one."—Mid-American Review

"Babine takes us on a multifaceted odyssey through this collection and recollection of her family history and lore. She uses every tool at her disposal to find the way our world is shaped through family and cultural heritage, weather, water and how we shape ourselves."—The Corresponder

2016 Minnesota Book Award Winner for Memoir & Creative Nonfiction

Consider your place, the place where you feel the most at home: a tree-lined lake, a bean field planted on stolen land, a rig drilling the golden prairie, city streets alive with energy. Written in the language of the northern landscape of experience, Karen Babine explores the meaning of being in your place on a particular day.

In essays that travel from the wildness of Lake Superior to the order of an apple orchard, Babine traces an ethic of place, a way to understand the essence of inhabiting a place deeply rooted in personal stories. She takes us from moments of reflection, through the pages of her Minnesota family’s history, to the drama of the land and the shaping of the earth. From the Mississippi’s Headwaters in Itasca State Park—its name from veritas caput, or “true head”—she explores the desire that drives the idea of the North. The bite of a Honeycrisp apple grown in Ohio returns her to her origin in Minnesota and to pie-making lessons in her Gram’s kitchen. In the Deadwood, South Dakota, of her great-great-grandfather, briefly police chief; in the translation of her ancestors from Swedish to Minnesotan; on the outer edge of the New Madrid Fault in Nebraska; through the flatlands along I-90; at the foot of Mount St. Helens: Babine pursues what the Irish call dinnseanchas, place-lore. How, she asks, does land determine what kind of people grow in that soil? And through it all runs water, carrying a birch bark canoe with a bullet hole and a bloodstain, roaring over the Edmund Fitzgerald, flooding the Red River Valley, carving the glaciated land along with historical memory.

As she searches out the stories that water has written upon human consciousness, Babine reveals again and again what their poignancy tells us about our place and what it means to be here.

Karen Babine is assistant professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in River Teeth, Sycamore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Ascent, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.


Introduction: In This Place, on This Day
Roald Amundsen’s Teeth
The Inheritance of Apples
Water and What It Knows
The River—1997
The Canoe
Recorded History
Grain Elevator Skyline
Ballerina in a Snowsuit
The Weight of Water