A Place of His Own

Penderyn, a fine Welch whiskey, awaited. Outside on a frosty afternoon a hint of wind ruffled the few blades of prairie grasses poking through the snow dunes. Painting the pane of plate-glass just below a beautiful, antique stained glass motif was the frozen wetland known here as Olson Lake. We were in the warmed environs of author Brent Olson’s new writer’s shack.

And warmed it was, though “glistening” might be a stretch. This small shack was hidden from the circular driveway and yard just a few meters up the rise, and will remain unsuspecting come the warming of summer thanks to a roof of prairie sod and grasses. The Penderyn, a gift from Mrs. Olson, was poured and congratulatory toasts were about to be served. Olson’s writer’s shack would soon be christened.

Dutifully impressed, as this will likely be the only writer’s shack in Big Stone County. For the brief time when we didn’t have chickens in the coop here at Listening Stones Farm, there were moments, and brief moments at that, when there was a consideration of transitioning my cool little red building into my writer’s shack. There on the edge of the woodland, and a short walk from the house and already wired for electricity, it was indeed inviting. 

A thorough cleaning would have been necessary from all angles and levels, from floor to ceiling and in every nook and cranny. Plus there were “minor” issues with vermin from all those years of feeding the hens, roosters and the one wood duck that somehow lost its identity and could never quite figure out how he alone could actually fly but not stab at the scatterings of food scraps as gleefully as his coopmates. Other than the vermin, there was also the challenge of internet access which conveniently graces my studio and house.

The beautiful antique stained glass window give Olson added cheer when he looks up from the marble slab to gaze at the wetland his family has saved through three generations.

Like I said, the thoughts came only in moments. Meaning, those were put aside nearly as quickly as they arose.

These zany memories came to mind this past summer when Olson (https://brentolson.substack.com/) walked me out to a flattened space in a dip along the shore of the wetland his immigrant great-grandfather (and ensuing generations, himself included) decided not to ditch and drain to add another several dozens of acres of corn. “This,” said Olson, “is where I will build it” of his writing shack. His very own space.

Not long after that initial conversation I came across a book by author Michael Pollan called “A Place of My Own,” a book detailing his efforts of building his writer’s shack on a piece of Connecticut hillside a short drive  from New York City. It’s a book an Amazon critic claimed “doesn’t overwhelm you exactly; it beats you down until you nearly give up.” Every angle, wall, window and desk seemed a particular puzzle. Placement was a major issue for Pollan and seemed to capture the first third of the book and involved a huge remnant glacial rock found on the property. Plus he had this desire to align views of the finished mini-castle from both his garden and the picture window of the nearby home just down the rise. 

No, the tree doesn’t extrude from the roof his writer’s shack, although come summer the roof will be of prairie sod and grasses.

Pollan worked with an architect and a neighboring handyman, who of course were at odds with one another, and he consulted research from many odd stalwarts including Frank Lloyd Wright and Michelangelo. Pollan, if you’ve read any of his works, is an excessive and exhaustive researcher, and it was nearly comical to see where he went with it for the construction of a shack about the size of Olson’s here on the Minnesota prairie.

Olson? He merely wished some privacy and a view of his valued wetland that once encouraged his dear wife, Robyn, to gift him with a sailboat to play with in his heritage prairie waters. This for a man who prided himself for all those many years of raising pigs and corn, a man who became immersed in local politics, boards and community affairs, and even ran the Inadvertent Cafe in his hometown of Clinton. That experience led him to pen a wonderful book of essays bearing the same title. Last summer, though, his little place of his own was rather deep in his mental planning stages. His didn’t consult with an architect and there was only one handyman, one Olson could see in his morning mirror. 

It did involve a Bobcat and a concrete mixer, among other assorted and necessary tools, along with some help from a nearby sawmill operator who seemed to operate on an unpredictable schedule. And a wide array of materials collected and stored over time. The ceiling joists, for example, were crafted at the sawmill from a batch of discarded power poles he’d rescued. His anchoring beautiful stone wall, built into the wall-like bank of the wetland, was constructed with huge glacial rocks Olson had saved from the foundation of the barn his great-grandfather had built back in the late 1800s. Centering the wall is the corner stone of that barn, proudly dated with by his great-grandfather’s chisel. His featured window facing the lake was captured from a house scheduled for demolition and was saved at the last minute by his brother-in-law. A slab of marble will serve as his writing desk.

Moments before the informal “christening” of his writer’s shack, Olson holds the thimble glasses and the Welch whiskey, Penderyn, as gifted by his wife, Robyn.

Olson would be the first to tell you that those ceiling joists and the final look hadn’t come by inspirations from Michelangelo. Nope, for his goal was simply to have the necessary strength to safely hold his roof covering of prairie sod. And the closest he came to Wright’s “Falling Waters” that seemed to capture Pollan’s interest is that adjacent picturesque wetland sometimes populated by Canada and Snow Geese and Blue Wing Teal along with a muskrat or two. 

Olson is almost there. His computer used to create his weekly published column, Independently Speaking, remains in the house for now as does an his easy chair. He’s a stovepipe connection away from the end, although he has installed floor heat in the slab that keeps his shack around 50 degrees. Fortunately he was close enough to being done to pull out some thimble glasses and that bottle of Penderyn. An informal prairie-like congratulatory toast was made, and in tune with his half-heritage of proud Norwegian stock, none of our glasses crashed against that incredible rock wall! 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “A Place of His Own

  1. That is so cool! A place of his own will be the place where more wonderful stories are written—I’m sure of it! Thank you, John, I love your word picture of this beautiful gift.


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