Poems from Residencies

By Kathleen Heideman

Read three of Kathleen Heideman's poems, inspired during residencies at Badlands National Park and Saint-Croix National Scenic River.

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
Walt Whitman

Coast Guard Station: Beach Patrol Reenactment

Interpretation is not Information (tho it contains information). Interpretation is not Education, but Provocation.
—Freeman Tilden

The interpreter said keep your ears tuned to the song of water, men, your feet along the waterline, your eyes alert for any signs to indicate a vessel in distress. Walking the darkening coast, reenacting

beach patrol, we first found the torn sail, as if an old ship was billowing in the surf. We stepped over it, carefully,

considering. We didn't know what to do. It was vital

to practice so you knew intuitively what to do. In a storm, walking shoreline, it would have been impossible to see, but maybe you'd hear a cry for help, the ricochet of waves pounding some impediment you never heard out there before. Was there a ship on Sleeping Bear Point,

grounded, foundering? A half-mile further on, we found a life vest, kapok-stuffed, half buried in sand. I fell to my knees to see it. Children whispered, concerned. A woman walking ahead of me muttered sweet lord, what's the next indicator of shipwreck, a corpse?

A few were still snickering about this, quietly, even as we came upon the body of the sailor in a yellow slicker, lying at the waterline. Time to attempt resuscitation,

said our leader. Light your flares, men, let any survivors know they've been spotted and help is on the way now. We looked at each other. Emerson said that in order to truly read, we must practice empathy, we must become Greeks, Romans, Turks, priest, king, martyr, and executioner; we must fasten these images to some reality in our secret experience.

That's got to be a dummy, said a soft worried voice in the near dark, that's got to be a dummy, but a lantern swung light over his face. We saw cold sand on white teeth, a stubbled chin in water.

The dark, closed lashes.

Why I Want To Be A Park Ranger When I Grow Up

Not just the perfect starched-&-dented ranger hats tho there's that of course, and no matter the weather those dress shirts crisp as maple leaves — those leaves, how many dry years were they pressed between pages in our old Rand McNally? Someone traced the outline of our cross-country road trip to the Rockies in ballpoint blue.

Interstate mostly, even then I sensed it was an artificial route through the world: we never ran into park rangers eating cheeseburgers at Burger King or thumbing Leaves of Grass on a Naugahyde sofa under plastic ferns in a Best Western lobby — they must be like our parish priest who lived in private rooms with a private door to the altar, Nature.

I knew the rangers boiled morning coffee pot over campfires, spent summer days asking through-hikers how their feet were doing, how supplies were holding out, climbing fire-towers, scanning foothills, telling stories at twilight amphitheaters where wide-eyed kids like me came down from campgrounds to sit at their bonfire's flickering and hear their homilies of dinosaur bones, sluicing for gold, bear, how Mount Rushmore's hairline was carved, or a cavern “discovered” by settlers but previously sacred to tribes who knew it was there — O woody incense of ranger-stories!

Of course I loved the oak-leaf embossed belts, that aura of khaki authority mixed with the patience of my poor kindergarten teacher facing the endless questions and “where you folks from?” a million times a day. The Rangers? THEY were from THERE — each assigned to work the park where they were born, like a native species with inborn answers ready for my question marks: how big, how deep, how come, how far, how old — those ranger badges held special powers I suspected, then learned for certain decades later, when my poetry reading on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was just about to start, without a crowd. No one.

Two rangers donned their magic hats and walked along Main Street for about five minutes spotting tourists with cameras, visitors heading for a canvas tent marked FIRE DEPARTMENT PANCAKE BREAKFAST — Good morning folks! The poetry reading is just about to start, yes, right down here at the scenic overlook, just follow me…. and then, because the Park Ranger with a shiny-badge said so, they followed her down to hear our poems.

O Give Me Land — Lots of Land

Badlands National Park
N 43°50'32'' W 102°19'32''

Cole Porter never grub-staked, never rode to the ridge
nor drove a herd, but every cowboy from Coeur d'Alene to Pierre
knows his lyrics — Don't Fence Me In. Can't look at hobbles,
can't stand fences — didn't we claim that refrain as our own?

Still. Good fences make good neighbors
so we rolled out barbed wire from Badlands to Big Bend —
a dangerous welcome mat, a metal porcupine telling Nature
"Howdy stranger - now git out."
Now all we have to do is teach the mud
how to obey the rules, and the bison how to read.

The illiterate porcupine passes under the wire
but every porcupine quill has a barbed-wire tip
which makes it painful to extract. Ogallala women
flattened quills by passing them between their teeth,
teething pain into beauty, adorning daily moccasins
and ceremonial bags for Sacred Pipes.

Seriously, how did the Great Father acquire all this land?
In the backcountry wilderness of Sage Creek,
hikers still find broken treaties, strands of barbed wire grown deep
in the flesh of cottonwoods, raising rusty quills
from creek-bank sediments, century-buried fencing
resurrected by spring thaw. Across the night sky, a Great Fence

— what we used to call the Milky Way.
In closing, your honor: I wanted to ride to the ridge
where the West commences but there's a fence, a senseless thing
where even Saskatchewan Screamers are ‘sposed to show passports.
Do thunderheads pause uncertain at cattle gates posted "No Trespassing"?
I ask you, do fences apprehend that brilliant fugitive, Lightning?

Even in National Grasslands, ribbons of bounding pronghorns
must kneel to circumvent our Boundary Lines — I have seen
them prostrate themselves, indignant, sliding under barbs
already festooned with clumps of their own hair.
Remind me, partner, where’d we put all the Indians?
I try to sing joyfully but sometimes I can't remember the next verse.

Artist's Statement


  • Why I Want To Be A Park Ranger When I Grow Up
  • Coast Guard Station: Beach Patrol Reenactment
  • O Give Me Land — Lots Of Land

These poems resulted from residencies at:

  • Badlands National Park (2010)
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (2008)
  • St. Croix Watershed Research Station, on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (2008).

I am currently at work on a new collection of poetry, Department of the Interiors, based on residencies at Badlands NP, Isle Royale NP, Voyageurs NP, Sleeping Bear Dunes NL, Apostle Islands NL, Devils Tower NM, Necedah NWR, San Juan BLM, scientific research stations in Willamette NF and St. Croix NSR, and elsewhere.

The poems I've submitted touch on diverse aspects of the Parks: the mythic figure of the Ranger, historic reenactments, and a meditation on the Badlands South Unit, co-managed with the Lakota of Pine Ridge Reservation.

My aim is to praise and probe, integrating map and meaning, enticing visitors to linger for subtleties as well as scenic overlooks. I recently began embedding GPS coordinates in my work, creating location-based poems and - ultimately, a self-guided park tour through the eyes of a poet.

As Freeman Tilden advised, “Not with the names of things, but by exposing the soul of things - those truths that lie behind what you are showing your visitor.”

Last updated: February 3, 2015