Monique Verdin is a multidisciplinary artist who has been working with the complex interconnectedness of environment, economics, culture, climate, and change along the Gulf South for decades. She is one of two artists comprising the The Big River Continuum, an initiative that turns the Mississippi River in its entirety into a platform for creative collaboration.
The Ojibwe were given a prophecy, inspiring migration from the Atlantic coast of North America to “a land where food grows on water,” hundreds of years before the colonizers hit the shores of Turtle Island. A series of signs let them know they were on the right track, until they found their way to where the highest concentration of wild rice grows in the world. Unfortunately, my Houma ancestors at the end of the Mississippi River were not given a prophecy, or maybe they were but decided not to heed to the warnings of change.
I left south Louisiana—during the height of hurricane season, feeling like I was evacuating to high ground—with my car packed full of materials from the Delta and with intentions to weave them together with whatever natural materials I might find at the Headwaters. I traveled north with palmettos harvested from the bottomland hardwood forest that grows in my backyard; the stems and seeds of corn’s ancestor, gamma grass, dropped by the fur of bison during their migrations to the trembling prairies of the Gulf Coast; some river cane; an old piece of a shrimpers net; medicine seeds.
The ancient Mississippi River weaves through the heart of the United States, a superhighway of the past that has remained a crucial artery of the nation. The river is really why Louisiana Purchase deal maker, President Thomas Jefferson, desired the territory, in addition to the temptations of manifest destiny. On my first full day at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Field Station, I took a walk with state park naturalist Connie Cox and learned about the Palms to Pines highway, also known as the Jefferson Highway, built in the 1910s, connecting Bulbancha (New Orleans) to Winnipeg, Canada, skirting the headwaters on its journey north and south. The experience of seeing the old roadway made me think of the seen and unseen connections, the remembered, the forgotten, and the misinterpretations that get lost in time and translation. Remnants of the Palms to Pines Highway still exist. I’ve driven the Jefferson Highway many times in Louisiana, but I never really knew where it went beyond the Louis Armstrong Airport, and never questioned where it started or ended or when it was built. I followed parts of the old highway on my voyage north through America’s breadbasket: the same breadbasket that contributes to the agricultural runoff of fertilizers which directly contributes to the algae blooms creating a dead-zone just south of my home, at the mouth of the Mississippi where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico.
I arrived during Minnesota’s wild ricing season and had the opportunity to go out one morning with artist and “Hand Harvest Foods Dude,” Simon Zornes, from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, to experience harvest season just before it closed. As Simon push poled us through Two Inlets Lake in a flat bottom canoe called the Bayou, I used two sticks to knock the rice off the reeds into our boat, and felt oddly at home doing something I had never done before in a place I had never been to before with a stranger who reminded me of an old friend.
Lake Itasca and the North Country in full fall color—transitioning from green to yellow and orange and red as it prepared to go to sleep in a blanket of white—made me think about the witnesses of change: the forest, the river, the watershed, the people. The opportunity to connect with so many incredibly generous human beings who shared their stories, knowledge, skills, ceremony and laughter with me has been a transformative experience that feels like both an affirmation of my life work and has left an impression I will forever cherish.
When dendrologist/geographer Kurt Kipfmueller handed me a piece of a red pine stump, I realized I was holding a record of the memory of time embedded within the hundreds of rings, going back to the 1700s. Conversations with Kurt helped my eyes understand how to read a forest. Lesley Knoll, biologist at the Itasca Biological Station, shared research about the cultural side effects of ice loss on lakes and rivers due to climate change, water quality, and clarity, and took me for a boat ride to the other side of the lake to get closer to the glowing yellow Tamarac tree line as the branches began to drop their needles. Biological field station director Jonathan Schilling, a fungi specialist focused on biodeterioration and biodegradation, broke down the science of why tung oil, a wood varnish I’ve been using in my work for the past few years, is so effective in the preservation of natural materials. Jonathan also made me think deeply about how the health of the forest and the unseen mycelium in the soils are crucial for the health of the lake.
Ojibwe women Michelle Harper, Nancy Kingbird, sisters Sharon and Shirley Nordrum, Betsy May, and Karen Goulet exposed me to natural materials and techniques the Anishinaabe have used for thousands of years, old ways, and intricate, infinite love, woven and sown into animate and inanimate objects that have sustained the spirits of generations. I am so grateful to be paired with Karen, my Big River Continuum collaborator and new friend. It was an honor to be guided through her homelands and introduced me to her community, territory and to the history of her people. Although I do not know where our work together might take us, I recognize that a watershed connects us and I am excited to discover what will come of our creative journey together, during these uncertain and unprecedented times of planetary change.
I am still processing so much from my experience, but the gift of friendship has been the most beautiful and inspiring part of the Big River Continuum exchange. I left the headwaters with my car packed with pieces of Minnesota, birch bark, bass wood, porcupine quills, bullrush, handmade blankets, lots of wild rice, and maple syrup, just as a winter storm was moving in. I left a piece of myself in the North Country where the Mississippi River begins and hope I will be able to return again sometime soon in the future.
As Ojibwe elder and artist, Betsy May, was schooling me on porcupine quill work and beading on birch bark she commented that the work wasn’t art as much as it was her life. My time at the headwaters reminded me that life is rooted in cycles and relationships and that traditional ecological knowledge is the science of survival.
Big thanks to Jonathan Schilling for instigating the Big River Continuum, to the Weisman Art Museum and A Studio in the Woods for supporting this collaboration, and to curator Rebecca Dallinger for making these intentional connections. Special thanks to Bamewawagezhikaquay “Woman the Sound that the stars make rushing through the sky” Jane Johnson Schoolcraft, Mary Gibbs, the Mississippi River, and Omashkoozoo-zaaga’igan (Elk Lake, AKA Lake Itasca).