DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — My Favorite Cemetery

Accompanied by Dorette’s son-in-law, Paul Kuhns, I’m heading to Paris next week to attend the International Hemingway Conference. I also expect to visit again the most famous graveyard in the world, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, established by Napoleon in 1804.

The cemetery is huge ― 110 acres ― with more than 1 million individuals buried there. Most were ordinary folks. But people from around the world come to see the final resting places of an unusual number of famous artists, writers, musicians and other public figures.

No, Hemingway is not there (look for his grave in Ketchum, Idaho). But Marcel Proust, the author of “In Search of Lost Time,” is. Dorette took this picture in 2005 of me paying respects at his grave.

I’ve long been fascinated with both of them. Hemingway goes back further in my reading history.

As for Proust, I took John Updike’s advice that it’s best to read him in your 40s because it takes that long to accumulate experiences that will make the novel most relevant to your own inner life.

And it was, in fact, at about that age I became obsessed with all 1,267,069 words of the “Search,” all of which I still compulsively read once a year in English translation.

There are many interesting graves in the cemetery. American authors Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright are there, as well as U.S. rock star Jim Morrison, who receives more public attention.

Nearby is Irish writer Oscar Wilde.

Among others are Sarah Bernhart, Frederic Chopin, Georges Bizet, Isadora Duncan, Eugene Delacroix, Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by his stage name Moliere), Sidonie Colette, Amedeo Modigliani, Yves Montand, Nadar, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Simone Signoret.

Tourists receive a free map. I like its closing comment, presented in seven languages:

“And now, let the pages of history turn to the rhythm of your footsteps, and the baroque monuments still you with their gentle poetry, leading you into a quietness propitious to meditation.”

CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — Who Killed Meriwether Lewis?

When I heard a few weeks ago that a new biography of Meriwether Lewis has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, I immediately ordered it. It’s called “Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis,” and the author is a woman named Patricia Stroud, whom I had never heard of until now.

In a sense, the title gives it away, the life and “death” of Meriwether Lewis. A biography of Churchill does not call itself the life and death of Winston Churchill, any more than a biography of Abigail Adams calls itself the life and death of the second first lady.

Everyone who knows anything about Meriwether Lewis beyond that he was one half of the famous exploring duo knows that he died a violent death at the age of 35, just three years after the completion of the most successful exploration mission in American history. His death — by a gunshot wound to the head and another to the abdomen — is a mystery. Most serious historians have long since concluded that Lewis committed suicide on the Natchez Trace 72 miles from Nashville, Tenn., at a grungy frontier version of an Airbnb; but some — and they are tenacious — believe that Lewis was murdered.

You cannot pick up this new biography by Stroud without realizing from the title alone that she is going to spend a good deal of her attention trying to sort out this fascinating but perhaps ultimately unanswerable mystery.

Here’s what every student of the life of Lewis wants to know. If he committed suicide Oct. 11, 1809, why did he kill himself? I know this will sound odd, maybe even perverse, but I have spent a fairly significant proportion of my adult life trying to answer that question. I wrote a whole book — my big book — about it, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness.” If Lewis was murdered — as the passionate murderists insist with a kind of violence of temper that is frankly a little weird — the question then becomes, who murdered him and why?

I’ll attend to that part of Stroud’s book, but let me first say a few words about her biography in general. Whenever I read a book about something I know a lot about, I start by turning to passages that deal with things I know as well as my own birthday or the color of the sky. How the author handles those subjects will usually tell me something about his or her larger credibility.

So I read Stroud’s account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the great journey from St. Charles, Miss., to the Pacific Coast and back again, May 14, 1804 to Sept. 23, 1806. I know that story pretty well. Her account of the adventure is competent. It is clear, however, that the journey interests her less than Lewis’s life before and after the expedition. Which of course begs a question: How did it come to pass that the great journey — one of the most fascinating, gripping, and monumental stories in the history of America — is now the ho hum part of studies of Lewis & Clark (including my own, I’m a little ashamed to say).

It soon became clear to me that Stroud has never spent time on the Lewis and Clark Trail. It is possible she has never been to the state of Montana because once Lewis and Clark leave Fort Mandan (here in North Dakota, approximately 35 miles from the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn), both her geography and her timeline become muddled. She has it snowing at the Great Falls around the Fourth of July (I’m sorry to say that can happen, but didn’t in this case), and the whole region between the Great Falls and the source of the Missouri River west of Dillon, Mont., is garbled in her account. That would seem to me unforgivable.

Particularly galling to me was Stroud’s account of Lewis’s discovery of what he took to be the source of “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Stroud projects her own bland attitude onto our hero. She writes, “they came across a spring that Lewis thought was the source of the Missouri River.” That’s it. This is like saying Columbus bumped into a continent that turned out to have some importance in history or that Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto a minor satellite of his home planet. Stroud plays down one of the handful of supreme moments in the history of exploration, one of the supreme moments of Meriwether Lewis’s life, as if he were stopping by a water fountain in a country court house.

“It was quite a historic day,” Stroud writes. “On the other side of the mountain he found a creek of cold running water and announced to his journal, ‘here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.’ Not quite,” she writes. “It was actually Horseshoe Creek, whose waters flowing into the Lemhi, the Salmon and the Snake Rivers do eventually reach the Columbia.”

But she entirely misses Lewis’s point. He did not think he had found the Columbia per se. He immediately and rightly knew that he had crossed the continental divide and was now drinking from waters of some minor capillary creek that would eventually discharge its waters into the great Pacific Ocean. In other words, on Aug. 12, 1805, Lewis was able to walk in just a few steps from the Atlantic to the Pacific watershed. I’ve stood on Continental Divides many times. Anyone with an intact sense of wonder automatically thrills to such a moment.

Exasperated though I am, let me move on to the untimely death of Meriwether Lewis, as Patricia Stroud sees it. Here’s her argument in a nutshell:

  • One: Lewis was less depressed and deranged at the end of his life than most historians have argued. He was, for example, writing perfectly lucid letters, including one to President James Madison, just days before his death.
  • Two: Lewis could not have had a drinking problem because his enemy, the lieutenant governor of the Louisiana Territory, would surely have gossiped about that and included it in his long list of Lewis’s perceived faults if that were true. Actually, that’s quite a good argument.
  • Three: Lewis was a superb gunman. If he had wanted to blow out his brains that night he could not possibly have missed. By the way, this is an argument you hear over and over and over again in the murderist literature. I’m actually uncertain about this. I’ve been in countless airport men’s rooms and I can tell you that men, even great men, routinely miss the urinal that is less than a foot in front of them. If Lewis was drunk, or deranged, or ill with malaria, trying to position a pistol much longer than the kind we think about today, scared, deeply sad, confused, sitting in the dark in a place he had never been before, hovering between what Freud called the Eros and the Thanatos principle, between life-affirmation and life-denial, he might well have missed with the first shot.
  • Fourth: those who wrote about Lewis’s tragic death in the months and years after 1809 spent much of their time backfilling their historical memories with suicide predictors of the 20-20 hindsight sort, either to try to make sense of his suicide or to create a tidy narrative that would put some plausible closure on what to them was a bewildering mystery. There is probably considerable truth in this argument. We are all susceptible to the “we saw it coming” propensity in human narrative.

So who, then, killed Meriwether Lewis in Stroud’s final analysis?

She decides, without any significant evidence, that it was Gen. James Wilkinson or his agents. Wilkinson was a schnook, no doubt about that, a traitor and a double agent, corrupt right up to his eyebrows. We now know beyond doubt that he was a paid spy of the Spanish colonial empire all of his life, while at the same time he was the highest-ranking officer of the U.S. Army in the West. We know that Wilkinson encouraged the Spanish colonial authorities to send out what turned out to be four military intercept parties to arrest, or at least turn back, the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it traveled to the Pacific Ocean. So he is an easy mark.

Stroud’s argument is that Lewis was going to denounce Gen. Wilkinson when he got to Monticello and Washington, D.C., to bring the notorious traitor and larcenist down, and that perhaps he had papers in his trunks that proved Wilkinson’s guilt, including in the notorious Burr conspiracy.

That all might be true, though I doubt it. By 1809, everyone knew that Wilkinson was a bad man and a traitor, even former President Jefferson, so it is unlikely that Wilkinson would have regarded Lewis as a special threat. If Lewis had denounced Wilkinson in official circles in Washington, D.C., it would not have been the first or the last time, and Wilkinson was one of the great “survivors” in the history of American chicanery.

But it is possible that Wilkinson wanted Lewis dead. Fingering Wilkinson is a bit like blaming Barack Obama for everything that went wrong in the world between 2008 and 2016, or blaming all the ills of the Soviet Union on Joseph Stalin. Easy, vague, and not very convincing.

That’s the problem, my friends. It’s easier to try to poke holes in the suicide theory — after all there were no witnesses and Lewis was a superb marksman — than to create even a minimally plausible case for murder, or to identify possible murderers. Nominees have included highway robbers; the owner of the inn, Robert Grinder; Lewis’s free black servant, Pernia; his traveling companion, James Neely; even secret agents working on behalf of Thomas Jefferson himself.

My friend John Guice of Mississippi — one of the leading murderists —once wrote a long essay (of 32 pages) outlining the 40 specific problems with the suicide theory. His essay, which was entitled “Why Not Homicide?” summarized all the usual arguments (though he never mentions Gen. James Wilkinson), plus some gems such as: the phase of the moon and the local weather on that fatal night, and the chinking of the cabin in which Lewis slumped after the shooting. Only on the last page of his essay does Guice turn from his heroic attempt to undermine the suicide story to his own theory of who, then, murdered Meriwether Lewis. And this is what he concludes: I don’t know, someone, maybe a highway robber. OK, well that settles it!

I do not wish to conclude that Patricia Stroud’s “Bitterroot” is a bad book. There are many things to admire in it, particularly her account of the year before Lewis undertook his great journey and the year after he completed it. I made pages of notes and wrote voluminously, often furiously, in the margins.

But she has not solved the mystery and truly not even advanced our understanding of the last days of this great, though flawed, American hero. And in the course of her 371 pages, she gives our friend Jefferson a good deal of thumping — which, as you know, is one of the easiest and laziest habits of the historiography of our time.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Book Sale

Difficult as it may be to believe, Red Oak House is holding a book sale June 2, starting at 9 a.m.

A couple of winters back, I cataloged our collection and culled about 200 books, mostly duplicates as well as books we’ve read that don’t fit in the scope of our permanent collection. For a while, I toyed with the idea of selling these online, but I don’t want to have to deal with issues like sales tax and such, not to mention that I have much better things to do with my time, like writing the book we are working on!

Our friends Ken Rogers and Kevin Carvell are going to add some of their books to the sale, so there should be some real treasures — that is, if we don’t buy all of these from each other before we open for business. (Could happen!)

So please stop by, under the spreading branches of the champion Red Oak Tree next Saturday at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck. Linger to admire the flower beds if you wish. Sip on a cup of cold lemonade.

Help your fellow bookworms make room on our shelves for new books. You’ll be doing a good deed.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Freud And Murder

There has been another mass murder school shooting, this time Friday in Santa Fe, Texas.

Not long ago,m I wrote down some thoughts and an extract from the 92-page book “Civilization and Its Discontents” by the Austrian neurologist and writer Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

It was completed during the rise of Adolf Hitler, and among other insights the book anticipated the horrors of World War II. I first read the book in the 1960s as a college student. I happened upon a copy the other day and was struck again by Freud’s realistic view of human behavior.

Here’s the extract:

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked: They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowment is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.”

In my opinion, Freud was correct and little has changed.

The state-sponsored mass destruction of humans continues around the world.

Closer to home, active shooter mass killings are regular occurrences in the U.S. And nearly every day, most of us hear of horrific individual murders in our own cities big and small.

Of course, Freud was generalizing. The world then and now is occupied by mostly good and humane people.

And yet one can’t deny that humanity has an evil side that constantly manifests itself. Today’s psychologists disagree with some of Freud’s theories, but agree that he got the evil part right.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Little Crow

One of my favorite places is the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Dorette and I are frequent visitors. She’s out of town, so I drove to the MIA on Saturday and wandered around for a couple of hours.

It’s truly a world class institution.

Photography is allowed, not the case in many museums.

Among the works of art I’m most drawn to is this one of Little Crow, painted in 1863 by Henry H. Cross, 1837-1918. Little Crow was the leader of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

I was reminded of the fairly recent series about the war by Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown. It was titled “In the footsteps of Little Crow 150 years after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.”

Powerful stuff that ends with the chief’s remains being returned from South Dakota to Minnesota many decades after the conflict.

As the procession began, one of the Elders pointed upward and a murmur rose from the mostly Native American crowd. A huge flock of birds was circling overhead, then headed east. Many of those present believed they were accompanying Little Crow’s spirit home.

I searched Amazon today, but a print version of Brown’s history is unavailable. It is on Kindle, however, now on my “to-buy” list after I upgrade my device .

Amazon did display a few pages from the book, including one with this photograph of Little Crow.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — On Reading

Reading has been important to me since I was a first-grader at Fram Township School No. 3 in Wellsburg, N.D. My teacher, Sylpha Hovland, inspired me. I still have my “report card” from that year long ago — the marks were great for reading, not so hot for “deportment.”

Here are the first lines of 10 of my favorite novels. The answers are at the end of this blog. Add your favorite book or books in a comment if you wish. (Don’t worry: this post is not like one of those Facebook “quizzes” that allowed Cambridge Analytical to influence the presidential election).

(1) “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

(2) “Laura was washing the dishes one morning when old Jack, lying in the sunshine on the doorstep, growled to tell her that someone was coming.”

(3) “For a long time, I went to bed early.”

(4) “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

(5) “Call me Ishmael.”

(6) “I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”

(7) “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

(8) “In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph’s wearing scapulars and holding missals.”

(9) “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon.”

(10) “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father give me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

(1) Ernest Hemingway.
(2) Laura Ingalls Wilder.
(3) Marcel Proust.
(4) J.D. Salinger.
(5) Herman Melville.
(6) Robert Louis Stevenson.
(7) Thornton Wilder.
(8) Louise Erdrich.
(9) O.E. Rolvaag.
(10) F. Scott Fitzgerald.

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Sinking Of The Indianapolis

I can’t resist a used bookstore. On Saturday, I picked up a volume that tells the story of the cruiser U.S.S. Indiana, sunk by the Japanese in World War II after delivering the atomic bomb that would end the conflict.

The book, “In Harm’s Way,” reminded me of the description of the disaster that the character “Quint” (Robert Shaw) provided in the 1975 movie “Jaws,” still one of the most popular films ever made.

Here, slightly edited, is how Quint described what happened.

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. Our ship was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.

“Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer.

“You know how you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.

“Very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups.

“You know it’s kinda like ol’ squares in battle like you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

“Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.

“Y’know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour.

“On Thursday mornin’ I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top.

“Up ended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper in a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low. He’s a young pilot, and anyway he saw us and come in low.

“And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

“So, 1,100 men went in the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — A War Story

Friends know I enjoy used bookstores. There are many within easy driving distance of our place in Bloomington, Minn.

I recently purchased the above book for $1.50 at a Salvation Army resale outlet near the place that sells me Starbucks Italian Bold coffee.

“What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?” was self-published by Gordon C. Krantz, who like Dorette and me is (or was) a resident of Bloomington, Minn. It is subtitled “The Reminiscences of an Ordinary Draftee in World War II.”

Krantz was a member of the 537th engineering company, involved in combat during 1944 and 1945 after shipping to Europe aboard the passenger liner “Queen Elizabeth.”

The book describes his wartime experiences (as well as a tour of the battlefields he took with his wife many years after the war).

Here’s a brief excerpt, apparently from his diary:

“I don’t expect to come back. In a war you get killed. The ways things are going in Europe, we are in for a grim time. We know how to kill the other guy and he knows how to kill us. I may be alone in this expectation of getting killed, but I don’t think so. We have a song, a parody of the WWI song “over there.” It ends with ‘We’ll be over, we’re going over, and we’re all coming back in wooden underwear.’ Wooden underwear is a pine box.”

The 16.1 million veterans of World War II are rapidly disappearing. Only about 3.4 percent of those who served are still alive.

The book has a warning notice on its title page: “This version is a private publication for family use only — Not for sale.”

If my calculation is correct, Krantz would be 93 years old. Not impossible, of course.

But given the fact his request that the book not be sold was ultimately ignored (recall that I bought it used at the resale store), Krantz may have crossed to the other side.

Dead or alive, I salute you.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — ‘Operation Snowbound’

“Operation Snowbound: Life Behind the Blizzards of 1949,” by David W. Mills. North Dakota State University Press, c2018 (260 pages, photos)

How’s this for timing? I finished this interesting new book, one of the many excellent books being produced by North Dakota State University Press, just as the biggest winter storm of the season is upon us.

This is the story, as described in the subtitle, of the 1949 blizzards that nearly paralyzed a portion of the United States, specifically the northern Plains and the intermountain west, including North Dakota.

The writer and historian, David W. Mills, tells this vivid tale using a rich array of source material, dotting the story with vignettes of individuals who had to cope with the effects of these storms, and the many heroes who played their role in the response. The accompanying photographs enrich the text.

“By the end of January, the devastation was staggering. The western United States had suffered through one of the worst winters on record with at least another month to go. Roads blocked with mountains of snow prevented travel throughout Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Snow isolated farms, ranches or entire communities for weeks at a time. Livestock losses were staggering, but the extent of the catastrophe remained uncertain until the snows melted and the carnage lay bare.” (pg. 211)

I learned a great deal about a chapter in North Dakota history about which I’d known almost nothing, and I’m eager to share this book with my mother, who would have lived through this ordeal in Slope County, and to hear her personal stories. That is the magic of books and history, well told. This book falls into that niche and I tip my hat to the author and the folks at the NDSU Press.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — I Wish For A Friend

The mailman brought me a small package this week, book-sized, postmarked and with a return address from the town in which I grew up, Hettinger, N.D.

Well, it was obviously a book, and I love it when people send me books, so I opened it immediately. It was indeed a book, a very special book, with a letter tucked neatly into its pages, which said:

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in high school the same time you were. … We moved back to Hettinger about three years ago and have been getting the Bismarck Tribune. A few weeks ago, I read the article about the Red Oak Tree in your yard. … I had just finished the children’s book “The Wishing Tree” for my grandchildren. It’s about a red oak tree. I’m sending it to you because I thought you might like it for your grandchildren, and maybe your tree is a wishing tree, too.”

Isn’t that wonderful, and just truly amazing?

Her name in high school was Valerie Lindquist, and I think she was a year ahead of me in school. Her brother, Ron, and I used to play sandlot baseball. He was a year younger than me, I think. We all moved away from Hettinger after high school, and our paths have not crossed since, more than 50 years.

The book is titled “wishtree,” one word, small letters and written by the noted children’s author Katherine Applegate, who’s had a number of children’s books on the New York Times best-seller list. This is a good one. And it’s beautifully illustrated by children’s book illustrator Charles Santoso. You’ll like the art, too.

It’s a delightful story about Red, the talking Red Oak tree. Actually, it’s a story BY Red, the talking Red Oak tree, a story of Red’s history, told by Red himself, a wise 200-year-old resident tree in a small town somewhere in America.

But Red is not just a tree, he tells us. He’s a home, a community. At any given time, his branches, leaves, roots and hollows are home to all manner of wild critters, all friends — crows, salt-and-pepper chickadees, raccoons, foxes, opossums, mice, skunks, porcupines, woodpeckers …

The book tells the story of Red’s newest friend, a little girl named Samar, whose Muslim family has moved into the neighborhood, and is shunned by the other residents.

Late at night, Samar would come to visit Red, to snuggle up against his sturdy roots, and soon all the residents of Red’s leaves, branches, hollows, and roots came to know her as a friend.

Let Red describe her for you:

Samar has the look of someone who has seen too much. Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.

She moved with her parents into one of the houses I shade, a tiny blue house with a sagging porch and a tidy garden. She is perhaps ten years old or so, with wary eyes and a shy smile.

Samar’s New Friends.
Samar’s New Friends.

Samar would venture out in her pajamas and robe and sit beneath me on an old blanket, spattered with moonlight. Her silence was so complete, her gentleness so apparent, that the residents would crawl from their nests of thistledown and dandelion fluff to join her. They seemed to accept her as one of their own.  

If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you there was something magical about Samar. That she cast a spell on the animals, perhaps. Animals don’t just leave their nests and burrows willingly. They are afraid of people, with good reason.

But this isn’t a fairy tale, and there was no spell.

And then we learn that Red is a Wishtree.

Wishtrees have a long and honorable history, going back centuries. There are many in Ireland, where they are usually hawthorns or the occasional ash tree. But you can find wishtrees all over the world.

For the most part, people are kind when they visit me. They seem to understand that a tight knot might keep me from growing the way I need to grow. They are gentle with my new leaves, careful with my exposed roots.

After people write their hope on a rag or piece of paper, they tie it onto one of my branches. Usually they whisper the wish aloud.

It’s traditional to wish on the first of May, but people stop by throughout the year.

My, oh my, the things I have heard:

I wish for a flying skateboard.

I wish for a world without war.

I wish for a week without clouds.

I wish for the world’s biggest candy bar

I wish for an A on my geography test.

I wish Ms. Gentonini weren’t so grumpy in the morning.

I wish my gerbil could talk.

I wish my dad could get better.                             

I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes.

I wish I weren’t so lonely.

I wish I knew what to wish for.

So many wishes. Grand and goofy, selfish and sweet.

It’s an honor, all the hopes bestowed upon my tired old limbs.

Although by the end of May Day, I look like someone dumped a huge basket of trash on top of me.

And then Red tells us the story of Samar.

One night, not long ago, Samar came out to visit. It was two in the morning. Late, even for her.

She had been crying. Her cheeks were damp. She leaned against me, and her tears were like hot rain.

In her hand was a small piece of cloth. Pink, with little dots. Something was written on it.

A wish. The first wish I’d seen in months.

I wasn’t surprised she knew about the wishtree tradition. I’m kind of a local celebrity.

Samar reached up, gently pulled down my lowest branch, and tied the fabric in a loose knot.

“I wish,” she whispered, “for a friend.”

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, other than it is timely. I want you to read it yourself. And then read it to your children and grandchildren.

It’s a magical story, and it was the magic of my having grown up in a small North Dakota town, where these kind of things happen, that brought me this story, from an old acquaintance who read a story about our big, state champion Red Oak tree, and thought I would like this book.

Well, she was right. I wish that she will come and visit us, and our tree, on May Day, or any other day. I want to get reacquainted with this thoughtful person who was kind enough to send this book.

And as for our North Dakota State Champion Red Oak tree, well, I suppose it needs a name, and I suppose Red is as good as any. Actually, the book’s Red tells us that all Red Oak trees are named Red. So that’s it, I guess. If you don’t know about our tree, you can read about it here.

If I thought it was a Wishing Tree, I, too, would probably wish for a new friend. Actually, that wish has already been granted. Thank you, Valerie Lindquist Braun.