With the autumn equinox behind us and cooler weather on everyone’s minds as we try to enjoy the remaining days in the sun, families, couples and adventure-seekers alike are looking for one last outdoor hurrah before hibernating for the winter.
In the midst of changing leaves, a drive down Highway 61, a turn onto Grindstone Lake Road and a slow cruise past the lake are worthy of outings. While you’re down the road, you’ll come to a curious-looking sign reading, “MN Goose Garden.” Wrapped around its poles is a snake adorned with horns and human-looking head. Behind the sign is a gate and above the gate, you read “Nature’s Superstore,” a scintillating and befitting title for what lays beyond the gate.
Susan Swerda Foss, or “Sue” as she introduced herself, is the vision-caster behind the Goose Garden. It’s a dream planted inside her in 1989, inspired by the work of Frances Densmore, a Minnesota-born ethnologist with the Smithsonian, who studied Native American music and culture. While Densmore focused on the music of Native groups — she is sometimes described as an ethnomusicologist — Sue delved into her own niche: botany and art.
In 1989, Sue, who owns the Foss Family Farm with her husband, Rodney, asked for creative license over a five-acre hayfield across the road from their home. Sue wanted to create a special garden there, one that would take time to consider Ojibwe culture in particular and the way in which they used the plants around them to live. Flora that occupied the daily lives of historic Native Americans would grow in this garden.
The husband-wife team got to work — Rodney cleared the hayfield, and with a background in engineering, he helped Sue plan and nail down the specific parameters for crafting a garden that in maturity would be a three-dimensional goose, gosling and nest and hauled rocks to the site. Sue planned and researched and planned and researched some more.
Sue described the mission like this, “I’m trying to put things back … (to) make a place where people can realize how ingenious they (Native peoples) really were.”
Weeds, Sue said, were not a concept in Native culture. “Everything has a use, it has a purpose.” All of it went toward food, medicine, utility and ceremony — in short, it created nature’s own superstore.
Studying Native American culture has practically been a lifelong interest for Sue. “I’ve always been interested in Native American culture.” In fifth grade, she shared, she wrote a paper on the Cheyenne people. Since that time, she’s “admired the way Native Americans used nature. They were not wasteful.”
Others have played roles in cultivating her interest in horticulture and botany. Sue talked of Margaret Cross being an inspiration. They knew each other through the Master Gardeners program, and Margaret “knew how to identify anything,” Sue said. They would walk along together anywhere, and Margaret would be able to pick up and talk about plants that looked like mere weeds. Margaret’s knowledge inspired Sue. She remembers thinking, “I have to know more about this.”
The Goose Garden was the perfect way to blend Sue’s interest in botany and Native American culture. After two years (and ongoing) research into the role of plants in Ojibwe living, Sue started planting in 1991. When you visit the garden today, the fruit of her labors are everywhere. “I planted everything in here,” Sue said.
It’s more than just the plants visitors will see. She also crafted each sculpture, 33 in cement, throughout the garden. The sculptures depict various animals representative of the totems within the Ojibwe clan system. Others are of humans.
The first sculpture, draped across the sign for the Goose Garden, is Missikanabec, which means “water snake,” in the form of a merman. He was a shapeshifter, cunning and powerful. Other statues include a moose, crane, bear, eagle, wolf, and a goldfinch. Before setting off on the winding trails, visitors can pick up a sheet listing each of the statues at the kiosk and make a scavenger hunt out of it — a challenge fun for both adults and kids.
Along with the plenteous flora brimming from the earth blended with the cement sculptures, signs accompany each part. The signs help the visitor understand the significance of the plants and sculptures. Sue has carefully recorded the historic use of the plants, whether it was for ceremony, medicine, recreation, food or a combination of the those, visitors start to learn about the vast characteristics that make up Ojibwe legacy.
Cement is always Sue’s medium of choice. “I want them to last,” she explained. Sue comes up with the concept for a sculpture, Rodney helps to weld the stick-figure frame and Sue wraps the frame with wire mesh and then applies the cement, handful by handful.
The latest addition to the botanical sculpture garden is across the street from the Goose Garden in the parking lot. It depicts a scene from a whimsical but true story of Keewaydinoquay Peschel, or “Kee,” as a young girl getting into some harmless mischief with some otters.
After spending day after day with a family of otters one summer and coming home muddy, Kee asked her mother for a tea party; her mother was thrilled to have a day without her daughter coming home in a mess. Thinking the otters were part of Kee’s imaginary games, her mother found no issue in the strange requests for a tea party. Fish accompanied the tea, sugar and cream.
What a shock Kee’s mother had, Sue said, the day of the tea party. To see a family of otters coming up the driveway to their home!
Sue’s sculptures capture Kee’s delight playing with the otters. She sits atop a mudslide, two otter friends below, ready to giggle with her when she slips down. The table of tea stands to the side of the slide, set with the flower centerpiece and fishy snack.
Kee’s story can be found in her book, Keewaydinoquay, Stories from My Youth. When Sue read it, she possesses a “huge library,” she knew she “had to make a sculpture — it just sounded like fun. … I wanted to share that story with other people.” Kee became a “tremendous healer,” Sue said. “She was a smart and well-respected woman.”
Recently added near the tea party with otters is a place for groups who visit to sit down and have their own tea party — or lunch, whichever their fancy.
The Goose Garden is open through October and though many of the plants are preparing for winter, there is still time to delight in the changing and falling leaves, which add a new layer of whimsy through the trails that form the goose, gosling and nest.
It’s a project that has been 28 years in the making, a process that is slow but “feels absolutely great” to see come around. It’s a process that isn’t done, either. Sue has more plans to add to the garden. Pen hasn’t been put to page yet, but her brain is hard at work, planning and dreaming. Sue is grateful to be a recipient of a 2017 Artist Initiatives grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment to make the Kee and otter sculpture. She also has had support from the East Central Regional Arts Council and the Mille Lacs Band.
Really, though, her work extends beyond the logistics.
“It isn’t about money. It’s just a drive. It’s inside. This is my place.”
For more information about the Goose Garden, visit http://firstname.lastname@example.org or call 320-390-2323.