Essay: Ymir’s Blood

This year marks the 25 anniversary of the Red River flood that inundated Grand Forks, North Dakota and surrounding communities. It is a painful memory for many who lived through it. The recent rains and snow have made these memories a bit more painful as they have once again pushed the Red River over its banks. While the current flood is a mild one and no risk to Grand Forks, the river’s eddying flow across the floodplain is a reminder that the primordial Lake Agassiz lingers. 

It is an interesting coincidence that Sarah Beck’s essay “Ymir’s Blood” will appear in NDQ 89.1/2. Her work weaves together family, history, geology, and the experience of the 2009 Fargo flood to open a window onto how family and community coped with the relentless power of nature.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of the new issue of Hotel Amerika which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by publishing an anthology of some its most creative, provocative, and stimulating work. Grab a copy here.  

Ymir’s Blood

Settling
March 23, 2009

For almost fifty years, our house has been settling into the Red River clay, as if its old bones can’t quite find a comfortable arrangement in the foundation. We have lived here six months, learning its sounds, its voice. The house seems to make the most fuss in the wintertime, sometimes with a soft groan behind the rumblings of our heated baseboards. Sometimes it gives a sudden, angry snap on a thirty-below day.

This spring the house has been quiet, but in the middle of the night Steve gets out of bed, restless. Every night for the last five days he shuffles past the rooms of our two sleeping children and downstairs to the basement to check the hairline cracks in the foundation. They have been seeping water, little trails of moisture dribbling down the cement wall because the water table is full and the downspouts can’t keep up with the sudden melt of snow.

Less than a half-mile away a tarped wall of sandbags keeps our neighborhood from being swallowed up by the river. Under the harsh light of industrial lamps, homeowners next to the wall sit in camping chairs throughout the night, monitoring the wall for leaks as sump pump hoses gurgle out seepage back into the river.

In the morning, the rest of the country will turn on their televisions to see if we’ve made it through the night.

The Rains Came Down
March 24, 2009

The ground-pounding rains came August, September, October, November. Four inches one month. Five the next. Water working its way down into the pores of the sediment, saturating the soil. Then December came and the rain in the water table froze, locking that moisture into the ground. The winter blizzards brought almost fifty-five inches of snow, blanketing the forgotten, moisture-laden soil.

The rains came again in March as the winter drew to an end, wearing the grey snowpack down to the brown prairie grass. Unable to seep into the cold, hard ground, the water now runs across the surface of the soil, a constant rush of water into the gutters, into our streets, feeding the bloated Red River now spilling over its banks. The flood came quietly, patiently. Waiting for this moment.

“The grass is disappearing again,” I say despondently to Steve as we watch thick snowflakes fall quietly again over the naked spring earth as another storm system moves through Fargo. “The forecast predicted one to three inches, now they’re saying we’ll get four to eight.”

The new storm brings a terrible sense of desperation. We had one week to build a wall of sandbags up to forty-three feet against the anticipated forty-one-foot crest. The city struggled for days to package the valley’s clay and sand into hundreds of thousands of polypropylene sacks, hoping to push back against the rising water. If the crest reaches forty-three feet with this new precipitation, we won’t be able to build any higher, and 100,000 people in the city of Fargo could be displaced.

Our basement is empty now, stripped down to the way it looked before we moved in. All that remains in that long, narrow space is a spongy, blue-grey utility rug and walls of cheap, honey-colored paneling. Our tempers flare in response to our anxiety as Steve and I bump our elbows against the walls, balancing the washing machine between us and the stairwell until we manage to set it next to the dryer in the living room. Steve returns downstairs to plug the basement floor drains with rubber stoppers the size of coffee cups. He removes the toilet in the downstairs bathroom and plugs the drain with a slightly bigger rubber stopper. The city officials tell us that the plugs will stop sewage from creeping up the pipes.

As I watch my four-year-old and six-year-old chase each other around the washer and dryer and towers of storage boxes, I can only hope the officials are right.

Planting Roots
June 2008

When I was sixteen, my dad decided to move our family from Edmonton, Alberta, to the American Midwest. It was the mid-nineties, and although Alberta’s economy was thriving, my dad was restless and felt he could expand his work opportunities and gain more experience in the United States. I was devastated. I didn’t understand why we had to leave. We weren’t like the migrants I had seen on television and read about in the news. We didn’t need humanitarian protection; we weren’t trying to reunite with family members—my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in Canada. My dad wasn’t desperate for a job. He already had one. But suddenly it happened. I found myself in the United States. I had become an immigrant.

I graduated from a Nebraska high school and bounced around in Utah, Illinois, and Kansas, never spending more than four years in one state. I graduated from an American university, married an American, and had two American babies. But after all those years, I never found a place I could feel settled, a place that felt like home. I still ached for the province of bright buttermilk canola fields, lush river valleys, scarlet badland sunsets, and Rocky Mountain vistas. I ached for the unremarkable places. The Petro Canada gas station near my house where my parents collected their gold etched ’88 Olympic glasses after every fill-up. The convenience store across the street where my family rented a VCR and VHS tapes a few times a month, and where we occasionally picked out ice cream bars together. The neighborhood rinks where I spent hours each winter skating with friends. The spot at the North Saskatchewan River where my dad taught me how to skip rocks. Leaving a place is more complicated than packing things into a box.

Now that Steve has finished graduate school and found a job at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota, it’s time for our little family to plant roots. I assure myself as we drive through Fargo neighborhoods, looking for our first house together, that it will finally happen here. That this place will finally feel like home.

We choose an older home in a quiet neighborhood not far from the river, surrounded by mature landscaping planted by former homeowners decades ago. A tall lilac tree extends over the fence alongside of the house, a crab apple tree next to the garage. Hostas grow thick and lush under the bay window, and the peonies and dogwood flourish under the seasoned birch tree. Their roots extend deep in the ground. Roots I haven’t been able to plant for myself.

The Great Flood
March 25, 2009

I don’t have any experience with floods. My knowledge of floods is limited to what I learned as a child in a Sunday School classroom while squirming in my lacy dress and thick white tights, the heels of my patent leather Mary Janes bouncing off a metal folding chair. I learned that God punished humankind because they had broken their promises to him. God tried to be reasonable by sending Noah the prophet, a frail, skinny, tired-looking bearded man, to help turn them around. But the people didn’t listen. Noah climbed into a boat while God wiped the slate clean.

In Fargo, there are no boats to save us. Only sandbags.

The Red River seems benign at first glance, young and only a few hundred feet wide, sitting on top of the ancient glacial lakebed of Lake Agassi as it moves through North Dakota. It hasn’t matured enough to muscle a gorge and create a real valley. The water travels slowly north across the border into Canada until it joins forces with the Assiniboine River and continues on to Lake Winnipeg, Hudson Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The people here have always sparred with the Red River. Early Norwegian and Scandinavian settlers contended with the Red River in 1897 when they saw their recently settled homes and farmlands devastated as the river crest at an alarming 39.10 feet, nearly twenty-one feet above flood stage. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Army Corps of Engineers built dams on the two watershed rivers of the Red River, the Bois de Sioux and the Otter Tail River, a little less than an hour south of Fargo, hoping to hold spring runoff from overwhelming the Red River and spilling across the prairie. Over the years, cities and towns along the Red River Valley have shored up the banks with earthen dikes and levees that haven’t guaranteed adequate protection either. Somehow, the Red River still seems to defy this community’s efforts. In 1997, the Red River threatened another historic one-hundred-year flood, and Fargo barely survived.

Every morning, I watch the city’s daily flood briefings on television. Fargo’s Mayor Dennis Walaker leans forward into his microphone as he and the other city councilmen sit around him. He’s a tired-looking Noah, but he still seems to exude confidence. After all, the broad-shouldered man with the Van Dyke beard was Fargo’s operation manager during the 1997 flood, leading the city to victory against the Red River. He has spent years watching the river, driving up and down the watershed, gauging the snow levels, learning the different stages and transformations the river makes every spring.

Walaker is resolute but exhausted, his voice a calm rumble as he reviews the status of sandbag dikes up and down the neighborhoods of Fargo. He is surrounded by the city manager, the vice mayor, a few representatives from the Red Cross, FEMA, and the National Guard. Reporters from all over the United States are here to televise the status of our flood fight. America is watching.

I think of the pyramid of tarped sandbags, the river lurking behind the other side of the wall, searching for structural weaknesses to spill through. Can the people on my television screen and a wall of sand and clay really hold back a river?

The Early Morning Shift
March 26, 2009

This morning, a CBS reporter interviews Mayor Walaker as streetlights reflect off the dark, quiet river just yards away. The mayor rubs his eyes and his beard as the reporter questions him about refusing to evacuate. He explains to her that everyone needs to shelter in place to monitor their sump pumps and watch for leaks in the dike. He shakes his head when she asks what the city will do if the sandbags fail. “If we fail, we’re going to go down swinging,” he says.

Steve returns from his night shift filling sandbags before the sunrise. The kids wake up and crawl into bed with him as I head out for my turn to volunteer. The bus rides to the Fargodome, a place to gather for Elton John concerts and Bison football games, are crowded and packed tight like the New York subway. Young kids—mostly college students in dirty jeans and hoodies—hold on to safety bars or sit in each other’s laps. The bus driver tells jokes to keep the mood light, despite being at the tail end of his twelve-hour shift, and our collective bodies radiate heat and fog up the windows. We’re breaking capacity laws, but no one cares. The cops are busy escorting semis with trailer beds of sandbags to the frontlines.

A man sits across from me, probably in his late sixties, maybe early seventies. I look at his hands with blue veins and tawny age spots. They’re slightly curled, his shoulders slightly slouched. I wonder how he will work a shovel for the next four hours, filling sandbag after sandbag while bulldozers refill the giant mounds of sand next to him. This is backbreaking work.

But his old bones have settled into this valley, like my house and the landscaping around it. I can see it by the way he holds his concern in the lines of his face.

The Norwegians who settled this place in the 1880s have their story of how the world was flooded long ago. According to Norse mythology, the great primeval frost and ice giant Ymir was killed by the god brothers Oden, Vili, and Ve. When Ymir died, great torrents of icy water—his cold grey blood—poured all over the earth, drowning everything. His blood became our rivers and oceans. What was left of his body became land.

There were only two survivors in Ymir’s flood—the giant Bergelmir and his wife. That’s the thing about these epic flood stories. Usually only a handful of people survive.

Code Red
March 27, 2009

I’ve packed up all our pictures representing seven years of marriage and two kids in two boxes. Some are in frames, like the family picture we took at a photo studio in Kansas before we moved here. Some are still in the photo envelopes. We’ve lived in four different states in the last eight years, so we haven’t really accumulated anything worth saving other than the pictures. I’ve packed our passports, birth certificates, and house title in a backpack, along with some water bottles, tampons, and granola bars. We don’t have much room for anything else in our Camry. There are moving boxes from the basement still sitting in our living room next to the washer and dryer waiting to be unpacked from our move six months ago. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to them.

Just as Steve, the kids, and I are ready to sit down for dinner, the phone rings and an electronic voice informs us that there is a breach a half-block away from our house. They need volunteers immediately to head to the site and place more sandbags on the dike.

Steve grabs his boots and leaves before we can discuss anything. I chew my food slowly as my stomach churns with anxiety, and I assure my four-year-old: “Nothing’s wrong. Dad just needs to help more people again.” I decide to delay the toothbrushing and bedtime stories—just in case we need to evacuate.

I look at the brown and gold wheat-patterned wallpaper in my kitchen that wraps around the hallway and up to our bedrooms. I had plans to take down that wallpaper once we were more settled.

I barely get to cleaning up the dishes when Steve comes home. He’s tired, his clothes stained with sand and clay. Within thirty minutes, community volunteers were able to fix the leak and fortify the dike. We’re safe again, he assures me, for now.

Waiting
March 28, 2009

There is sand in my sheets. It rubs against my scalp as I toss and turn, trying to find that place in the mattress where my body doesn’t ache from filling sandbags, moving sandbags. I run my tongue in my teeth and find it there too. As I curl up next to Steve, I feel the sand in his hair against my forehead. Even in our bed we can’t escape the flood. Steve stumbles out of bed again to check the basement for water. I lay next to the phone on the dresser and hold my breath for another code red call.

As we all wait, restless in our beds, the river quietly starts to retreat a little after midnight. It has reached its crest at 40.84 feet against our forty-three-foot sandbag dike, and inch by inch it slowly starts to descend back into its banks. But the war is not over yet. It will be more than a week before the water fully retreats. All we can do as a city—as a community—is wait and pray that our sandbags will be able to hold all that water back for the next eight days.

Forced migration
1861–1884

Communities have been forced to leave the Red River valley before, not by the river, but by human infliction and abuse of power. The Sioux, Lakota and Dakota, and other tribes such as the Assiniboine, Cheyenne, and Mandan, were all forced off their lands and relocated by the US government and European settlers. Their Indigenous names and words became part of the geography of the state as towns and landmarks, but Indigenous people never lived on the land in the same way again.

Maybe it’s our turn to be forced out of the valley. Maybe the river is fed up with us and nature is going to have the ultimate say in the matter. After all, the valley was never really ours to begin it. As much as I want to settle in this house—save this house—the bed of clay in which it sits doesn’t belong to me. The valley cannot be really owned by anyone.

The Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes in North Dakota have their flood stories too. A Mandan story tells of the tortoise shell earth and a people who live on its back. As the people dug into the earth shell with knives searching for badgers, they dug too deep and cut through the shell of the tortoise. Water rose through the wound until it spilled over the entire earth, killing the people in its wake.

Humble Victory
April 7, 2009

The media circus has left, and the river surrenders back into its banks again. Even though the Red River never breeched the city, the battle still left its mark. A mess of sand and clay is littered across the streets, the occasional stray sandbag broken and spilled at the side of the road, a reminder of the chaos from a few weeks ago. Remnants of the now-bulldozed clay dikes are lodged in our Camry’s tire treads and the elementary school soccer fields are still ravaged and scarred by bulldozer harvests for clay.

As life returns to normal, neighbors repair their yards and prepare the earth for petunias and impatiens. The peony shoots by our birch tree appear suddenly one morning, rhubarb-red as they first push out of the ground. I pull out spring jackets for the kids and watch the crab apple branches swell with blossoms as I walk them to school. In the sudden stirrings of spring I feel overwhelmed thinking about this community’s determination to save their homes. The determination I felt to save my own.

Settling
Spring 2020

Little by little our house continues to sink deeper into the Red River clay. I’ve learned to recognize its voice in the floorboards around the house: the threshold to the master bathroom, the third step downstairs to the basement. I’m no longer startled by a quiet groan as the weather turns crisp in the fall. It still gives the occasional snap on a thirty-below day.

The wallpaper in the house is gone, and we’ve painted the kitchen and hallway sterling grey. We’ve pulled out the overgrown bushes and replaced them with vegetable beds. The lilac and crab apple stretch their branches and roots out a little more each year. The peonies and dogwood still thrive under the birch tree.
As my children grow, their lives have become connected with this house, this neighborhood, intertwined with the Red River valley. My children have learned to ride their bikes on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, skated on the outdoor rinks next to their school, gone sledding on the permanent earthen dikes in the city. They have graduated from elementary and middle school. Next year my son will graduate high school, and my daughter will do the same thing the year after that.

While we have been settling in Fargo, I have learned to always keep an eye on the river. I know that no matter how connected you feel to a place, there is never a guarantee you’ll be able to stay. Each of us will experience an uprooting in one way or another. That is the history of humankind. We have always been migrants. We will always be migrants. We have never been promised or been entitled to the spaces we inhabit.

I know that under the right circumstances, the Red River can become an ancient water god again. We filled up sandbags and shored up our dikes to meet a 38.81-foot crest in 2011. We did it again in 2013 to meet a 33.31-foot crest. As the start and end of seasons shift with our warming planet, this seems to become a fight in which we engage more frequently with the river. Fargo city officials discuss where to build permanent flood protections while the farmers and families of those 1880 European immigrants voice their concerns about losing generations worth of land to the diversion site. After twelve years, the community that united and sacrificed in such an incredible way still argues on how to bridle the river. There is no right answer, no perfect solution. No matter what we do, someone will be uprooted.

~

Sarah Beck received her BA in English at Brigham Young University and her MFA in Creative Writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She has published poetry in the literary journal Red Weather (2013) as well as a nonfiction essay in Chaleur Magazine (2019).

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