Superior Reads


water and what we know

In Water and What We Know, author Karen Babine examines an ethic of place, the personal stories grounded in specific places. How much of who we are can be attributed to where we came from? “The essays here work through a complicated relationship of water and soil, of fire and water, of people and place, because it is never as simple as black or white – most of the time it is both,” she writes. From Lake Superior to the Itasca headwaters to the Red River Valley, Babine follows the flow of water through her life and the way it has shaped her and those who came before her.

In a real-life version of rock, paper, scissors, Babine shows us, over and over, that water is a force that cannot be stopped.

In April of 1997, Babine was eighteen years old and the Red River Valley was flooding. Her high school loaded two buses full of students to sandbag in Fargo-Moorhead. It was a futile effort. Back home, her muscles still aching, she watched on television as the dike failed. Only moments before the water spilled over the top of the dike, people were still sandbagging. The next day, Grand Forks caught fire, but the fire trucks couldn’t get to the hydrants and eleven buildings burned to the ground in four-foot-deep floodwaters.

Babine’s grandfather served in the Coast Guard, an unlikely choice for a landlocked kid raised on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, and one that his family disparaged – the land being solid, and the water less so. Perhaps that is his legacy: a legacy of water. Babine’s emotional home is her grandparents’ cabin on Third Crow Wing Lake, where she spent time each summer. She grew up in Northern Minnesota, three blocks from Lake Belle Taine, learning to swim in the frigid June waters. She spent every last day of elementary school at the Headwaters of the Mississippi, skillfully climbing over slippery rocks. She took school trips to Duluth, where she learned about the power of the lake to take down ships. She marvels at the weight of a bucket of water – forty pounds – so heavy for something so clear.

“Stone is not the eternal act of strength I like to think it is. Water is much more powerful. Since stone is not uniform, but rather a composite of mineral crystals, water can find its way into those tiny spaces – and when the water freezes and thaws, expanding and retreating, the water can force the rock to break. Look at the Grand Canyon if you want an extreme example of the battle between water and stone,” she writes.

For Karen Babine and for many Minnesotans, water found its way in.

Join me on February 5 and February 21 at 6:30 pm at the Grand Marais Art Colony to discuss Water and What we Know by Karen Babine. As artists, our work is often informed by our landscapes. We’ll discuss water, place, home, and how it informs our work. Register online at


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