broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the month “August, 2019”

My Path to Revolutionary Socialism

My Path to Revolutionary Socialism

My Path to Revolutionary Socialism

H. Bradford

08/20/19


Every socialist I have met has a story about how they became one.  Perhaps they saw someone lose their farm or job.  Perhaps they met some socialists in college and started learning more about it.  For some, maybe it was an interest in history combined with involvement in a union.   It could have been a book.  It could have been a way to be a rebel.  It would be interesting to collect these stories and find the themes.  While I can’t speak to the stories of others, I want to share my own story of how I became a revolutionary socialist, since well, this isn’t an obvious path in life.  I also want to share this story since I am Socialist Action’s Vice Presidential candidate and it seems fitting that I provide a little context about myself so that folks can better understand what we’re about.  With that said, this is my path to revolutionary socialism.


My path to socialism started in college.  When I graduated high school, I was rather lost in life and ended up attending the college my mother had for no other reason than its familiarity and that they accepted me on short notice.  My major was International Studies, and through my courses, I learned many things about the nature of the world.   For instance, I took a class about the history of the third world and really had to struggle to memorize the various leaders that the United States orchestrated to overthrow.   I was astounded that so many countries had such similar histories.  As I poured over notes and flashcards, I realized that the United States was not a benign defender of democracy, but on many occasions destroyed democracy in the interest of profits and power.  The problem was not limited to the United States, as I learned that international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO enforced brutal austerity, monoculture, export driven economics, and loan dependency that maintained colonial relationships of dependency and under development.  I began to realize that there was a reason why there was such a divide between Haves and Have Nots in the world.  I connected these patterns in history and global policies which to capitalism.  It was through this observation that I became interested in socialism as a solution to global problems such as preventable disease, low wages, hunger, and war. Of course, I didn’t know that socialists existed in the United States outside of a few isolated, Marxist professors.  I thought that socialism, as a movement, was something that died off in the United States during the 1920s or perhaps 1940s.  While I increasingly sympathized with socialism, I kept this quiet as it was somewhat stigmatized.  I didn’t “come out” as a socialist until I was studying abroad in Ireland, since it seemed that socialism was not as unusual there.    


 

The Question of Violence:


At first,  my understanding of socialism was amorphous.  I had studied enough history to know that there were different kinds of socialists and that all modern socialists were to some degree rooted in the thinking of Karl Marx.  There were many things about Marxism that made sense.  The thing that made the most sense was how Marx positioned capitalism as just another system in history.  Before capitalism, there had been systems such as feudalism, slave based societies, hunter gatherer societies, etc.  Each of these societies had different property and class relationships as well as struggles and contradictions which eventually gave rise to new societies.  In this long view of history, it seemed unlikely that capitalism could last forever, as it also had contradictions and class antagonisms.  Indeed, how could a system that creates so many poor, such horrific wars, environmental destruction, and chaotic economic downturns last forever?  So, what then? The answer was that workers should organize and realize their own power by creating a new system that benefits everyone, where poverty and war is ended, and where wealth is redistributed for the social good.  After all, all wealth is from the surplus value of labor.   Where else would profit come from but the workers themselves?  Even early capitalist thinkers posited that labor imbued value into objects, creations, and things in nature.  Workers organizing to take back the profits stolen from their labor couldn’t possibly be utopian.  The incomplete democracy of capitalism, which ended the power of monarchs and rights by inheritance would have seemed impossible under feudalism.  The idea of waged, free laborers would seem absurd to those who only had known a slavery.  Marxism offered the promise that things could be different, as things were already different from how they had been.  Of course, my limited understanding of the time figured that worker revolution was the inevitable outcome of capitalism, when in actuality, capitalism could very well devolve into greater chaos and destruction.  


Marx foretold the possibility of revolution, but beyond that I had little idea how this would occur.   I generally knew that some countries had socialist parties and that some countries had been communist.  Yet, the distinctions between socialists and communists were hazy.  I had read some Karl Marx and other writers, but made no distinction between various sorts of revolutionary socialists such as Maoists or Stalinists.  I knew that some socialists were reformists and some were revolutionary.  I leaned more towards the reformist camp.  After all, I became a socialist because I wanted the world to be a better place.  I had no desire for bloodshed or chaos that occurs in revolution as this seemed to contradict the very reasons I had been attracted to socialism.  Furthermore, communist countries were never very democratic, so it seemed reasonable to me that revolution does not lend itself to democracy.


At the same time, I also knew that there were revolutionary struggles against colonization.  These struggles were often violent, so violence could not be entirely off the table, as sometimes it was necessary to throw off oppression.  It seemed obscene to tell people who are colonized, enslaved, or impoverished not to shed blood in the interest of their liberation.  Finally, there was a contradictory nature of reformist socialists. Avoiding revolution does not mean that violence does not occur.  Violence continues under the watch of democratic socialists as they engage in war (as they did in World War I). War is often normalized so long as it is multilateral or through the UN.  But, war is war, whether or not it is the United States, the UN, or a coalition of progressive countries.  Finally, reformism itself seemed to lead away from internationalism, since reform begins at home within an individual nation station.  Building democratic socialism in Norway or Sweden is great for the people of Norway or Sweden, but it does very little for the people of Malawi, Malaysia, or any other “developing” country.  The deep global problems of poverty and disease seemed to warrant something more than democratic socialism in one country.   I wrestled with these questions, but felt that I was pitting the systems built in China and the Soviet Union against the democratic socialism of Sweden or Finland.  I was not aware of alternatives. 


 

  Finding Trotskyism:       


After I returned from a semester in Ireland, I became involved in the local anti-war movement.  This involved protesting the Iraq war at weekly pickets held at the entrance of my college.  I met a few people at the pickets, but I was unaware that they were socialists.   Unrelated to the pickets, it happened that I google searched for opportunities to play soccer locally and found an NPR article about a “commie soccer” league.  The participants in the commie soccer league were some of the contacts that had been coming to my college to protest the war. It also happened that Adam from the group was hosting an intro to socialism class at UWS.  I attended this class and later attended the same class again when it was hosted at my college.  This was how I became connected with Socialist Action.  Of course, I was overzealous at the time and elated to join fellow socialists.  They were not quite as elated to have me join, since it is unusual to find an excited, unaffiliated socialist who happened to be searching for other socialists. Eventually, I had enough political education and demonstrated that I wasn’t disruptively abnormal and was invited into the group.


Through Socialist Action, I learned about Trotskyism.  For me, that helped to create an alternative to the failures of the Soviet Union and China, but also the more slow paced, nationally oriented, and war supporting democratic socialists.  Trotsky put the outcomes of the Russian revolution into the historical context.  The Soviet Union was a product of attempting to build socialism on a foundation destroyed by war and civil war in an isolating and hostile world that made every effort to see the project fail.  The revolution in Russia survived these impossible odds, but at great cost.  This affirmed the need for internationalism to successfully make socialism work.   We also had continued conversations about the nature of violence.  Our movement did not idealize violence and tactically, in the cases of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, workers can become disengaged and isolated from such tactics.  Revolution did not mean embracing violence, as success would stem from winning over large swaths of society and not by the force of weapons.  The state tends to react violently to movements which threaten their power, hence the need to be prepared to fight back.


Learning about Trotskyism also helped me to balance questions such as reform versus revolution, since the Transitional Program put forth by Leon Trotsky sought to bridge demands for reform with building revolution.  Revolutionary socialists can certainly make demands that reform capitalism, but in doing so, should always try to push the envelope by questioning how capitalism functions and how various oppression will never be resolved under capitalism.  These transitional demands can pose an immediate challenge to the power and profits of the ruling class but also look towards overthrowing the built in mechanisms of this power within capitalism.  Another aspect of Trotskyism that I supported was its focus on addressing the needs of and building movements of oppressed groups and forming united fronts with these movements and like minded parties.  National liberation, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of other oppressed groups are essential to building revolution. These movements are important in their own right as they educate, organize, and empower these groups as they put forth demands that challenge the functioning of capitalism.


 

The Vanguard Party


Joining Socialist Action changed my life in many ways.  For one, it provided me with a political education that even my various college experiences have not provided.  I certainly have some brilliant and dedicated comrades.  Their political knowledge and education will always surpass my own, but, in connecting with them through the party I am always learning, thinking, and growing.  It also connected me with comrades.  It is great to know that there are like minded people all over the country, who generally share the same beliefs and similar experiences.  Locally, I have a core of comrades with whom I collaborate on various local activist projects.  We often strategize and discuss how to build our party, local movements, or local events.  This is the experience of trying to build a vanguard party.   A vanguard party sounds like an intimidating and undemocratic organization.  But, there is strategic practicality in it all.  The idea behind it is that for a revolution to be successful, revolutionaries must be well organized. Workers may self-organize or may rise up on their own, but the odds of successfully making a revolution are increased if some of the workers possess a template of historical lessons, political discipline, and a vision that pushes for the dismantling of the system.  A vanguard party seeks to create the structure and program necessary for making revolution.  In my own party, this is modeled through discipline (democratic centralism) and education.  There are many revolutionary socialist groups and hopefully a future vanguard party is an amalgam of some of these revolutionaries and new elements that emerge in struggle, but in the meantime, we attempt to model what this could look like by maintaining party lines and norms and developing party lines that can speak to workers, are historically tested, push for advanced demands, and provide sharp analysis of the current conditions of capitalism.  Being a part of a revolutionary socialist party is serious business. If we are serious about making revolution, then each member has to put some time into building the party, engaging in the labor movement, building social movements.  I attend between 100-150 political events a year, and I would consider myself a slacker comrade since I don’t put enough time into party building such as writing for the newspaper or engagement in national discussions. Of course, not everyone has to be this engaged, but to some degree belief in the need for revolution necessitates a higher level of engagement.


 

Continued Lessons:


That is my basic path for becoming a socialist.  I was drawn to socialism through internationalism, opposition to war, and a desire for a better world.  I had the fortune of a college education that helped me view history and capitalism with a critical eye.  It was also fortunate that there was a local and active socialist party in Duluth, which I was able to join.  This furthered my education and connected me to Trotskyism. Since then, I have been engaged in various social struggles in my community.  I am always learning new things and seeing socialism differently.   For instance, I didn’t come to socialism because of my own experiences of oppression, but because of the conditions of the world outside of the United States.  However, my income was under the poverty line until about five years ago, I lacked health insurance for over a decade, did not visit the doctor for many years, often work multiple jobs, have massive student loan debt, experienced significant mental health issues in my 20s, and other adverse experiences.   Growing up, my father was seriously injured at his job at least twice and worked very hard.  My mother was a teenager when she had me and money was stressful for my family.  Yet, the oppressed, to me, were always “the other.”  The poorest of the poor, the hardest worker of all the workers, the sickest, the hungriest, etc. are the most oppressed.  I think one area of growth is seeing myself as oppressed as well.  In this way, oppression is normalized.  If we always look to those who have it worse, we never really see the systems of oppression all around us.  Of course, I am privileged compared to many on account of my education, travel, freedom, ability, whiteness, etc.  But, I am a worker, will always be limited, and the horizons of my humanity are narrowed by capitalism.  I am privileged, but I am also oppressed.  I want the liberation of the most oppressed, but also the least oppressed, because I want to end all oppression under capitalism.


With that said, Socialist Action does not have a monopoly on socialism.  There are many socialist groups. For me, a core concern that started me on this path was internationalism and war.  That is why I am often critical of democratic socialists, as I feel that their particular analysis does not seek to end war or U.S. power.  Because it is centered on reform, it orients towards working with the U.S. government.  But, the United States is a brutal destroyer of democracy built upon genocide and slavery.  These were my earliest conclusions as a socialist. U.S. power is grotesque. There should be no U.S., or at least not a U.S. as we have known it. There should be no country on the planet with trillions of dollars in military spending, 1,000 military bases, or nearly seven million people in prisons, probation, and parole.  Yes, of course we must seek reforms, but the goal is not kinder imperialism, it is an end all of this.  An end to borders.  An end to the fossil fuel industry.  An end to the military spending.  An end to making the world unsafe for democracy and the charade of democracy at home.  This end will only be made through socialist revolution.  We need more people building our capacity for socialist revolution.  I have shared my path.  I hope you find yours.


 

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Winnipeg With My Mother

Road Trip to Winnipeg (With My Mother)

Winnipeg Road Trip (With My Mother)


H. Bradford

8/18/19


In June, I visited Winnipeg with my mother.  I thought I would write up a summary of what we did, so other travelers to Winnipeg might have an idea of fun things to do, especially if they are traveling with a family member.  Winnipeg is about seven hours away from Duluth, MN and I wanted to visit during the centennial commemoration of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike.   You can read more about tourist attractions related to the general strike here: Winnipeg General Strike Travel Ideas.  My mother traveled to Winnipeg as a child with her own parents, so she was interested in traveling there for the sake of nostalgia.   Despite our different interests, there were several things that we enjoyed in common.  Here are some of the top attractions that we saw:


Oseredok, Ukrainian Museum:


This is a free attraction and the first place we stopped while waiting for check in time for our hotel.   Oseredok means “center” in Ukrainian.  It isn’t a place to spend hours, but it did have a floor that featured WWI era photos from Ukraine, which is the current exhibit.  I was tired from working night shifts and recovering from a stomach bug, so I will admit that my brain did not digest a lot of World War I Ukrainian history.  It doesn’t help that Ukraine really didn’t exist as a nation during World War I, as it was divided between the Russian Empire and Austro Hungarian Empire.   Thus, Ukrainians fought each other during World War I on behalf of the respective empires they were a part of.  The photo exhibit constituted a floor of the building and was the only public area open at the time of my visit.   There is also a nice gift shop in the museum with Ukrainian crafts and imports.  Winnipeg had Canada’s largest urban population of Ukrainians until the 1970s, as Ukrainian immigrants came to the area in the early 1900s to work in such areas as mining, railroads, factories, lumber, and so on.   Oseredok is located near the Manitoba Museum.


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Osoredok Website:

https://oseredok.ca/

184 Alexander Ave, Winnipeg, MB R3B 0L6, Canada

More Info on Ukrainians in Winnipeg:

http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CW%5CI%5CWinnipeg.htm

 


 

  Manitoba Museum:


Near Oserodok is the expansive Manitoba Museum.  The museum is a lot to take in, and as I mentioned, my brain and stomach were not really up to the task of taking much in.  I wrote a blog post about the museum’s exhibit on the Winnipeg General Strike, but there was so much more!  A person could devote a whole day to exploring the museum.   The many things in the museum include dinosaurs, geology, natural history of Manitoba, indigenous history, Hudson Bay Company history,  and an exhibit on The Franklin Expedition.  The museum also features Animals Inside Out, an exhibition of plasticized animal bodies and organs.  Animals Inside Out is bizarre and beautiful, as there is something elegant about the skinless forms of familiar animals.  At the same time, I found it a little disturbing.  I guess I am a bit sensitive, as I felt anxious around the naked, dead, plastic, dissected animals.  That unusual state of display draws attention to their lifelessness and literally disembodies the whole of their being.   Kids seemed just fine running around and gawking at the sinewy nakedness of a plasticized giraffe, so I guess I am probably one of the few sensitive ones.  The museum is a bit spendy, but there is a lot to see.  I visited the Museum Galleries and Animals Inside Out, which is the most basic admission at $19.50.  There is also a Science Gallery and Planetarium which can be visited at additional cost.   The museum is located at: 190 Rupert Ave, Winnipeg, MB R3B 0N2, Canada


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Mantiboa Museum:

https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/visit/


 

  Assiniboine Park Zoo:

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Seeing dead, plastic coated animals at the Manitoba Museum made me feel a bit uneasy.  I prefer to see living animals, even if they are in captivity.  On our second day in Winnipeg, we visited the Assiniboine Park Zoo.  The zoo was established in 1904, and was one of the attractions that my mother had visited as a child in the 1970s.   Zoos are controversial, in that they do important work in conservation and education, but also normalize the use of animals for entertainment and the imprisonment of animals.   Despite the debates around them, I do enjoy going to zoos, as I like learning about animals and seeing them.   There are several things that stand out about the zoo.  One, there is a nice bird exhibit called Toucan Ridge, in which birds such as spoonbills and ibises roam semi-freely in a tropical plant filled dome.  There was a butterfly garden, but it was devoid of butterflies because it was a cool day and perhaps they were inactive.  There were also pretty neat Boreal Forest and Great Plains exhibits.  But, by far the best attraction at the zoo as the large polar bear exhibit which is part of the zoo’s Journey to Churchill area.  The polar bear exhibit features a cafe wherein patrons can eat their lunches while watching polar bears outside of the large windows.  There are also a few viewing areas of the grassy slopes where the polar bears are kept.  An educational center features interactive displays and acts as a small museum to the biology and conservation of polar bears.   The grand finale of it all is a glass tube, where visitors can watch polar bears swimming and playing above their heads.  Other Arctic animals are also featured in this exhibit, which really makes a person wish they could travel to Churchill.  Unfortunately, those trips are often over $7000 and zoo admission is $20.50 for an adult.  I suggest visiting Journey to Churchill last, as we did, since it really is a fabulous exhibit and worth saving until the end.


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Assiniboine Park Zoo: https://assiniboinepark.ca/zoo


Assiniboine Gardens and Leo Mol Sculpture Garden:


Once we had finished visiting the zoo, we went to the nearby Assiniboine Gardens and Leon Mol Sculpture Garden.  Both are free to visit.  Although there are several gardens in the park, we primarily visited the English Garden.  The entrance of the garden is marked by a statue called The Boy With a Boot, which dates back to 1897 when it was part of a fountain commemorating the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria.  Apparently the statue was unpopular, as a boy with a leaky boot didn’t seem like an appropriate statue to honor the 60th anniversary of the queen’s ascension to the throne.  This is why the statue found its way from City Hall to the park.  An impoverished child seems like a good way to celebrate the senseless excess of monarchy to me!  The surrounding garden was full of roses, peonies, lilacs, mock orange bushes, and poppies during our visit.  There is a small cottage within the garden, which I have seen referred to as Grandma’s Cottage, though I am not sure what the story is regarding the building.  It mostly served as a quaint prop for photographs.

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Adjacent to the English Garden is the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.  Leo Mol, or Leonid Molodoshanin, was a Ukrainian sculptor who emigrated to Canada in 1948, eventually settling in Winnipeg.   The sculpture garden features 300 pieces of art donated by Leo Mol, which can be found in the art gallery, studio, or gardens.  The sculpture garden was established in 1992.  Many of the sculptures depict wildlife, such as deer, bear, and a boar, while there is also a large assembly of lithe, nude women.  Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet, artist, writer, and independence/national identity figure also makes several appearances.  My favorite sculpture was The Blind Bandurist, since I had already seen a version of it Oseredok and the bandura is associated with Ukrainian identity, which was one of the themes of the city’s history.  My mother’s favorite sculpture was Moses, who is located by a pergola and iris enveloped pond.

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Living Prairie Museum:


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This is another free attraction, which is located within 10 minutes drive from the zoo.  Prairies are an endangered ecosystem that have almost all but disappeared.  In Manitoba, less than 1% remains of the original tall grass prairie that pre-dated European colonization.  The Living Prairie Museum is a patch of restored prairie, where visitors can walk along an interpretive trail to learn more about prairie plants and animals.  To be fair, it is not an expansive attraction or even one what will wow visitors with its pristine natural beauty.   It appears as a large field located by a school and apartment building.  But, if a person takes their time to enjoy the trail, one can appreciate the effort to restore this pocket of prairie with native grasses and wildflowers.   The preserve, located in a residential area, was set aside in 1968 after it was discovered to be a vestige of an original prairie and now features over 160 species of grasses and wildflowers (some of which are prairie plants from Illinois as prairie plant seeds were not widely available at the time).  Some highlights of the trail included yellow lady slippers, wild prairie roses,  prairie sage, prairie smoke, wild licorice, and countless wildflowers which I couldn’t identify.   The visitor center regularly hosts educational events, but was closed during our visit.  It may not seem like much, but our visit was relaxing and educational.  It is probably the best urban prairie that a person can visit!


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Grand Beach Provincial Park:


Grand Beach is located about an hour and a half north of Winnipeg on Lake Winnipeg.  It was once a bustling tourist attraction which drew tourists from Winnipeg on the multiple train connections a day.  But, over the years, the beach declined in popularity, its dance pavilion burned, and the train service was discontinued with the advent of car travel.  It has been a provincial park since 1961 and is a breeding area for the endangered piping plover.  While the beach is not as popular as it was in its heydey, it is worth the drive to visit the white sand beaches and to see Lake Winnipeg, the third largest lake within Canada’s borders.  I mostly spent the afternoon stalking the nearby forests and trails for birds, as the area is great for birdwatching- even if June isn’t peak bird watching season.   The lagoon near the beach is a hotspot for birds, though I didn’t see anything unique during my visit.  My mother spent some time on the shore and in the water, which she found to be full of algae (so better for looking at than swimming).  There is a boardwalk and a few shops.   Despite the jackpine forests around it, it is easy to imagine that the beach is located on the ocean or some tropical location.  A beach makes for a good family destination, as those who like to play in the water can enjoy that, others can hike, or a person can choose to read or relax on the sand.

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Birds Hill Provincial Park:


Part of our trip involved camping at Birds Hill Provincial Park.  The park is located about a half an hour north from downtown Winnipeg and is a sprawling forest full of trails and campgrounds.  The park hosts an annual folk festival.  While visiting, we camped and hiked.  One of the trails that we hiked along was the Pine Ridge trail, which visitors can walk along while reading the interpretive brochure.   The trail travels along what was once Pine Ridge, a community of mostly Polish and Ukrainian farmers.  Most of the structures are gone, but the brochure offers the history of the store, school, farmsteads that were one there.  One farm along the mile and a half trail remains in tact for viewing.   I also wandered along the Lake View Trail, which takes visitors to a beach.  A highlight of the camping experience was the dozens of Franklin’s ground squirrels that darted around the campground.  Although these grey squirrel sized ground squirrels are found in Minnesota, they prefer prairie habitats so they are not often found in my area.   The park features a variety of ecosystems, such as prairie, burr oak and aspen forests, and spruce and tamarack dominated wetlands.  Yellow salsify, yellow ladyslipper, coralroot orchids, and oval leaf milkweed were among the wildflowers that I spotted on the trails.   Among the bird species seen in the park, there were a variety of sparrows, including clay colored and lark sparrows, as well as ravens, catbirds, red eyed vireos, common yellow throats, etc.  A day pass to visit the park is only $5 CAN and also works at other provincial parks, such as Grand Beach.


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Lower Fort Garry:


When we visited, it was free to visit the grounds of Lower Fort Gary, which is located about 15-20 minutes away from Birds Hill Provincial Park.   Visitors can also opt to take a guided tour, which costs about $7 and allows access to the interior of buildings.  We ambled around the complex on our own, as a map and signage helped us interpret the fort and buildings.  The fort was built in 1830 and served the Hudson’s Bay Company for fur trading and as a supply depot.  The fort is known for its historic stone buildings and limestone walls, but I found the psychiatric hospital to be the most interesting.  It was offhandedly mentioned on a plaque that one of the buildings served as a mental health hospital (the first in what became Manitoba)which seemed like a pretty brief and sanitized version of history.  A warehouse at the fort was converted into a penitentiary and mental health hospital in 1871, under the administration of Dr. David Young.  Prisoners and those with mental illness were housed together.  A few years later, a separate facility was built for mental health patients in Selkirk.   While the signs say very little about this history, it can be inferred that that part of Canada was in the early stages of institutionalizing psychology and that mental health was lumped together with criminality (as it still is today in varying ways).  Aside from the early mental health facility (which seems more likely a prison), another point of interest was the York boat display.  York boats were used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to transport goods and were known for their sturdy construction and ability to transport tons of cargo.   Otherwise, the fort was a nice place to stroll around and enjoy the flocks of American pelicans flying along the Red River.


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For more information: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/mb/fortgarry/visit


This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything we did during our visit to Winnipeg.  We also visited The Forks and stopped by the Hudson’s Bay Company Department Store, which my mother visited when she was a child.  As a child, she remembered it as a robust fantasy land of retail goods.  Today, it was a ghost town of vacant shelves, like most remaining department stores.  Our journey was met with a few mishaps, such as getting a little lost while looking for a Chinese Garden and learning the hard way that the U.S. border station near Tolstoi, MB closes before 8 pm.  We also learned the important lesson that gas stations are few and far between while traveling to one border station to another and along the Manitoba and North Dakota border.  Despite this hiccup in our border crossing, we had a good time and packed a lot of adventure into the four days that we visited.  Hopefully this gives readers some ideas of fun things to visit in Winnipeg and the region around it or things that could be enjoyed between an adult child and their parent (yes, I am an adult child…since I certainly acted like a child when the border was closed!).

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Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

Three MInnesota State PArks

Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

08/12/19


One of my goals is to visit all of the state parks in Minnesota.  There are 67 of them and my New Year’s Resolution was to see three new ones in 2019.  My total since I started this challenge is about 24.  Suffice to stay, with a minimum of three a year, it will take me some time to see all of them.  This goal has helped me to appreciate the diversity of Minnesota’s landscapes, but also how large the state feels once I’ve hit the nearby parks.  This summer, I visited Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, Father Hennepin State Park, and Schoolcraft State Park.  Here is a review of each:


Forestville Mystery Cave State Park:

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I was most excited to see the Forestville Mystery Cave State Park.   The park is located about four hours drive south of Duluth near the Iowa border, so going there is a commitment in itself.  But, the park promised the longest cave in Minnesota, as well as a restored town from the 1800s.   The idea of exploring the longest cave in the state lured me to the driftless area of Minnesota, which is a bluff region which only experienced two of the last four glaciations on the last million years.  I had really built up the cave in my head and this park has spent a long time on my bucket list.  But, as the journey wore on, further and further into sparsely populated and agricultural area…I began to wonder if it was worth the visit (Dan accompanied me and I also worried that he might not have fun).  The cave itself is located a few miles away from the main park office at a separate location.  The cave has its own park office, so visitors can go directly to the cave rather than stopping at the park (as we did).  Once there, visitors can enjoy the artifacts and informational displays at the visitor center and sign up for one of several types of tours offered by the park.  The tours include a basic scenic tour, lantern tour, geology tour, photography tour, and wild caving tour.  I went on the basic scenic tour (and had thought about going on a second tour such as the lantern tour, but never did).

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The basic scenic tour attracted a crowd of several families.  It lasts about an hour and costs $15.  The tour provides a basic overview of the geological formations and history of the cave.  The finale is the Turquoise Lake, which was smaller than I imagined, but still pretty.   Another point of interest in the cave were fossils, one of which was a nautiloid affixed to the ceiling.   Other fossils found in the cave or cave environs include trilobites, tube worms, sponges, bryozoa (a phylum of small filter feeders that I am not really familiar with), snails, etc.  The fossils attest the cave’s early history as a sea bed 450 million years ago.   Ocean debris and mud slowly built up and compressed to form the sandstone and limestone of the cave (which itself was carved/dissolved by water over time).  Another unique feature of the cave are iron oxide cored speleothems (a fancy word for cave formations), which are very rare.  I probably should have taken notes, or perhaps gone on the more in depth geology theme tour.  Instead, I scurried along at the end of the group taking photos.  As a whole, the tour seemed short, and after four hours in a car, my attention was disrupted by road weariness.  I would recommend a more in depth or adventurous tour than the basic scenic tour, which I found a little too easy.  I would also recommend time to unwind if traveling across the state.  I honestly felt a little disappointed by the tour, as in my head I had built the cave up to be something more fantastic.  It was not the most interesting cave I had ever visited, but perhaps an additional tour would have added some more depth to the experience.

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Forestville Mystery Cave State Park also features a recreated 1800s village of Forestville, complete with costumed reenactors.  By the time the cave tour was over, the day was already getting late.   The town was closing for the day by the time we arrived.   The town of Forestville floundered after it was bypassed by railways in 1868.  Today it is restored and operated as a living museum by the Minnesota Historical Society.   After wandering around the buildings and peeking inside a few, the remainder of the evening was spent hiking in the park.  It was June and the gnats were terrible.  I ended up with many welts on my shoulder and neck from gnat bites.  This put a damper on enjoyable hiking, but under better conditions it seems like there is diverse nature to explore as the park is situated between prairie and deciduous biomes.  As for camping, we stayed at the nearby Maple Springs campground.   The campground is conveniently located outside of the park’s main entrance (so even though the state park campground was full, it was a nearby alternative.).  A campsite without water and electricity is $25 per night, so comparable to the state park’s prices.

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Overall, I think I built up the park a bit too much in my imagination.  It was certainly interesting and offered a variety of activities (cave tours, historical town, hiking, etc.) but the gnats soured my mood and ability to experience the park.  Later that week, I learned that the gnats were at their worst over that particular weekend, as many had just hatched and there was a larger population this year due to heavier rains (they like moving water).  Thus, the menacing gnat clouds that seemed intent on getting stuck in my hair may have been worse than other times.  The park is definitely worth the visit, but the cave, while unique to Minnesota and full of unique characteristics in its own right, it not the biggest or most interesting that I’ve been to.  So, perhaps with more modest or realistic expectations it would not disappoint.  To be fair, I did not really explore the cave or the park to the fullest.

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Father Hennepin State Park:

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Father Hennepin State Park is a small state park located by Isle, MN on Mille Lacs Lake.  I visited this park on a solo day trip.  Even though I didn’t spend the night, I felt that my day trip was an adequate amount of time to explore the park.   The park entrance was near an osprey nest, which I briefly observed before heading to the main parking lot.  The lot is located near a beach, which was active with families enjoying the summery weather.  My interest was exploring the trails, so I set off exploring.  Unfortunately, the park does not have an extensive trail network.  In all, it has under five miles of trails, which form a loop around the park (with two long ends).  The trails are easy to stroll along and feature a view of Mille Lacs Lake and an observation point for watching Common terns.  Common terns nest on two small islands on Mille Lacs Lake, which are one of only four breeding colonies in Minnesota.  I didn’t see any common terns as the islands were beyond the reach of my binoculars, so bringing a spotting scope would be a good idea for a visitor who has one.  The observation point is only about .5 miles from the parking lot.

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In addition to missing out on the terns, I didn’t see any of the park’s albino deer.   However, I did see a woodchuck climb a tree and saw/heard several species of flycatchers.  There is also a nice collection of interpretive signs along the trails and at the beach.  The park is named after Father Hennepin, who was a French priest and explorer who visited the region in 1680.   At the time, the area was home to Mdewakanton Dakota.  His exploratory accounts are believed to be exaggerated (for instance, one account spoke of being captured by Native Americans and traversing thousands of miles by canoe in just a month) and did not portray Native Americans favorably.   It would be great if the park’s name was changed to something else, perhaps something that recognizes Native American history instead.  I am not aware of any effort to change the park’s name, but did learn that the Ojibwe word for Mille Lacs Lake is Misi-zaaga’igan.  It is a small, but pleasant and pretty park that is easy to explore.  It is only 20 minutes away from Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which is a much larger park with more trails.  The two could easily be combined if a person wanted to camp by the lake (at Father Hennepin) then spend some more time hiking (at Mille Lacs Kathio).

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Schoolcraft State Park:

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The third park that I visited this summer was Schoolcraft State Park, which is located about two hours west of Duluth near Grand Rapids, MN at the confluence of the Mississippi and Vermilion rivers.  Like Father Hennepin State Park, the visit was a solo day trip rather than an overnight camping excursion.   Of all the state parks that I have visited thus far, this one was the smallest and emptiest!  The park did not have visible staff or a park office.  Instead, there was a self-serve kiosk for purchasing firewood, camping fees, or a park pass.  The park did not even have a large sign, like most parks often have.  On the plus side, I had the park almost entirely to myself.  So, in that sense, it felt pretty remote!  The main objective of the visit was to see a 300 year old white pine and to do some hiking.  The hiking was not an extensive adventure because the park only has two miles of trails!  The park is probably a better destination for people who wish to canoe or fish.  I followed the Hiking Club Trail, which looped around the park.  I even backtracked and detoured a bit to hit various segments of trail that cut across the loop.  I didn’t see many birds, but I did see quite a few butterflies during the hike.  In all, it is very easy to explore the whole park within a few hours.

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The main attraction of the park is the 300 year old white pine.  The pine was spared by loggers because it was too crooked.  Thus, it stands along the Mississippi river; its arboreal cohort is long gone.   The tree doesn’t have a sign or, to my knowledge, a name.  But, it is distinctive enough to identify as the old one, since it is large, forked into three, and located right in front of the main parking lot along the river.  I took photos of the tree, then set off walking.   Along the short loop of a trail are some interpretive signs- which in the absence of a larger park or extensive trail network, offer a visitor something to do or find.  The signs discuss the nature and history of the park.  Like Father Hennepin state park, Schoolcraft State Park is named after a white explorer.  In this case, Henry Schoolcraft was part of an 1832 US expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and later became a Superintendent of Indian Affairs (through which he obtained millions of acres of land for the U.S. government through treaties and sought to acculturate Native Americans into a farming).  He married an Ojibwe and Scottish writer named Jane Johnston, who taught him about Ojibwe language and culture.  She is believed to be the first female Native American writer and poet, though I don’t recall information about her on the interpretive signs.  Perhaps the park should be named after her.  After she passed away, Schoolcraft married a pro-slavery writer named Mary Howard.  It would be great to rename this park as well.  PFather Hennepin State Park, Schoolcraft State Park, and especially Sibley State Park (Sibley fought against the Dakota Uprising in 1862, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in US history when 38 Dakota prisoners were executed) could all use a name change.  Changing the name does not undo U.S. history of genocide or even promise better treatment of Native Americans today, but at least it doesn’t celebrate or honor colonization.

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I enjoy visiting state parks and would certainly recommend all three.  Schoolcraft State Park is small enough that I probably wouldn’t suggest spending a long time there (multiple days) or a recommend long distance travel that only entails that park (perhaps it could be visited along with another state park in the area).  Father Hennepin State Park is another small park, but the location is pretty enough that staying longer might be worthwhile for the opportunity to relax and enjoy the lake.  Finally, Forestville Mystery Cave State Park is large enough that it could be visited over multiple days as it has many things to do and see.  It is a bit more remote than the other two, but also much more popular.  In the case of the two smaller parks that I visited, it prompted me to think a bit more about the ways in which state parks commemorate colonial history.  This is a topic that I should spend some time looking into a bit more.  It is great to enjoy fossils and 300 year old trees, but these spaces are largely white and middle class and some of the names signal who belongs and matters and who does not.


						
					

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