Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl

Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl

by Sue Leaf


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Catbirds and pocket gophers, bur oaks and bull snakes, bluestem grass and leopard frogs have populated the gently rolling prairies around Sue Leaf's midwestern farming community for centuries. A hundred years ago her town, located forty-five miles from the nearest city, shipped thousands of tons of potato starch across the country, stiffening the collars of working men. Today it has become one of America's fast-growing suburbs. As naturalist and biologist Sue Leaf watched her rural surroundings become a magnet for developers, she became curious about the history of the land. Before the freeway and the housing developments, before the farmers cultivated the fertile soil, what plants and animals called this place home? To her delight, Leaf discovered the oak savanna, a park-like ecosystem that supports abundant wildlife and soothes the human psyche with its quiet, open spaces. As she looked more closely, she found remnants of the savanna in her own yard, in the trees lining her quiet street, and in nearby preserved patches of prairie. In lyrical essays, Leaf traces the natural history of her community, offering rich details about the people who built this area, about its once prosperous farms, and about the oak trees and wildflowers and prairie animals native to this part of the country. By examining remnants of the past still visible in a place deeply affected by sprawl, Leaf reveals how to slow down, look carefully, and untangle the jumble of unnoticed clues that can enrich our daily lives."Leaf advises us all to discover our own communities' natural treasures before, through ignorance, we lose them."—Boston Sunday Globe"Leaf writes about the pace of sprawl, the loss of farmland and a way of life that seems like a dream or a place buried somewhere in our collective memory."—Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780873515078
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Publication date: 08/02/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sue Leaf has a Ph.D. in zoology and has taught biology and environmental science at Cambridge Community College in Minnesota. A resident of the Anoka Sand Plain for twenty years, she is currently president of the Wild River chapter of the Audubon Society. She was awarded a McKnight Individual Artist Grant in 1998, and her writing has been published in Utne Reader, Minnesota Monthly, Architecture Minnesota, River Magazine, Minnesota Volunteer, and Boundary Waters Journal.

Read an Excerpt

"On walks about town, I'd pause at the point where the road rose gently toward the tracks. Tilting my head, I would see if I could make the savanna appear. I'd lift up my chin until the paved surface of Oak Street dropped from view and squint my eyes to blur the house behind the trees. Then, every time, the savanna would spring before my eyes: the silhouette of the oaks, the golden gawkiness of the bluestem. I could see how it must have been, before the town, before the railroad. For a moment, the savanna would be right there, and I would travel back in time to when the bur oaks—these same bur oaks that tower over Oak Street now—grew amidst miles and miles of grass."From Potato City by Sue Leaf

Table of Contents

Into the Garden5
Potato City11
Reconstructing the Past21
Pete Swanson's Potatoes33
The End of an Era45
Oak Hill Cemetery57
Oak Savanna69
Bur Oak81
Bull Snake!89
Pocket Gophers93
For the Birds99
A Legacy of Water107
Earth Day Lessons115
Righting the Right of Way123
The King of North Branch153
Growing Houses167
Flooding, Forgetting, and Remembering177
The Sunrise River185
One Seed at a Time193
Bringing It Back201

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