Saturday, February 27, 2016

Building A Name

Part of our love for our place in the woods and wetlands is a desire to share it. I already do this with writing and photography in this journal, but we are working towards doing more, particularly with artists, possibly writers and researchers over the coming two years by forming a non-profit residency program that offers time and space in the woods. This complex undertaking begins with what appears to be the simplest of things -a name.

It has made the most sense to run with Prairiewood because I have been blogging under the domain for years and because it describes our environment in the simplest terms. Betsy and I like it and easily imagined our wooden sign out front. However, in this age one needs both a name and a domain, and sadly, is parked in some profiteer's portfolio. Although Prairiewood feels right, feels like home, the unavailable domain is just one reason to look elsewhere. There are three for-profit or non-profit Prairiewoods in Kansas, Iowa, and right here in Minnesota. To be expected -its an easy name where prairie meets the woods. The Kansan place is a retreat center, the Iowan a Franciscan spirituality center, and the Minnesotan an environmental learning center. So, prairie wood or woods is out.

Naming an organization can be a challenge, especially a young non-profit whose mission may shift or identity change as it gains its legs. The name needs to reflect place and be open to the mission of the organization; it needs to be able to capture its potential audience and be capable of absorbing shifts in identity.

Our place is 60 percent wetlands and 40 percent sloping woodlands, both of glacial origins, in the far western edge of the North American Eastern Forest known as the Big Woods in Minnesota. Our woodlands are a combination of different communities that encompass lowland cottonwoods, red maple-ash swamp, maple-basswood slopes, and oak uplands. Our wetlands are combination emergent marsh, willow-dogwood swamp, and wet meadow.

Just to our southeast is the Minnetonka Lakes region of our county, although Minnesota has more than ten thousand of those. No more than half mile to our east is Painter Creek (or Painters, depending on where you look) that drains into the Minnetonka Lake system. It is not, however, part of our watershed. We are the headwaters for a string of wetlands that drain into Dutch Lake which then drains into the Minnetonka Lake system. This watershed is all part of the greater Minnehaha Creek watershed.

To our south, again not more than a half mile or so, is Little Long Lake. It is not part of the Minnetonka Lake system, nor the Minnehaha watershed. Technically it is part of the Pioneer-Sarah Creek watershed that drains to the Crow River which makes its way to the Mississippi well north of Minneapolis. Little Long is an isolated glacial lake, with an esker to its western edge and a glacial lobe to its east. I don't believe it has any drainage and is maintained by groundwater and runoff from its own limited watershed. Little Long is the metropolitan region's only grade A lake, meaning it has high water clarity, low eutrophication due to nutrient loads, and lower than typical chemical contamination. It is not a motorboat lake and has few residences on its shoreline. Wild rice grows there. You can swim in it (take a pass on the Minnetonka system). Finally, the esker land making up its western flank has recently been bought by the park system to preserve its natural state in perpetuity.

From these features we can extract names that, if not identifying our exact place, exemplify the region's best qualities. PainterCreek, LittleLong, EskerWoods (the glacial feature), Dogwood (Red Osier), Waterleaf (Virginia Waterleaf), CattailWoods, WoodsMarsh, MapleMarsh (is marsh a positive?), GlacierWood (sounds cold), EphemeralWood, EphemeraWood, VioletWoods, WetlandWoods, possibly anything 'Wood.' I'm usually fairly clever in this wordy arena, but outside of Prairiewood, not much has expressed the essence of our place. Maybe I'm coming at it from the wrong direction? Maybe the cultural aspect is more important?

Our idea is simple and grew out of our experiences at artist residency programs, which for me came most acutely from my month at Weir Farm National Historic Site in the Southwest Hills region of Connecticut. We believe that time away from ordinary distractions can open us up to the creative process, can be regenerative, can free the path toward insight. This doesn't have to be time in wilderness, in fact it can be anywhere that is away from the everyday.

Closest to my heart is the time to explore, to reflect, time to think without disruption in the midst of nature. I imagine a landscape of woods and wetland clearings, gardened to enhance the native understory but with an understanding of the altered ecology, the mixture of humanity with nature. Ecological preservation is a goal of the non-profit because it will enhance the experience of our residents in a region that is rapidly converting its remaining woodlands into housing developments and being over-run by a monocultures of buckthorn, garlic mustard, and reed canary grass. The resident can navigate the woods-wetland edges on trails laid out by Betsy's father, Rex, in his fifteen years here. Building on his work, our goal will be to construct wetland boardwalk trails that bring one out of the woods and into the sunshine. 

The core benefit of our non-profit is to the program residents -artists, possibly writers and researchers who've shown through the quality of their work that they've earned some time to be inspired in a beautiful setting, away from daily responsibilities and distractions. We also strive to cultivate an interest in the arts in our community by introducing our program artists to audiences locally and in Minneapolis via artist talks and possibly even school groups who visit our site to explore the trails and meet the artist in their studio. Of course, we have a lot of work to do before we get there. A studio will need to be built, as well as relationships with partner organizations. And most importantly, we need a name.

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