BEMIDJI -- Orville Anderson, a retired machinist, treasures his Sami heritage; an ability to connect closely with the land. This relationship is borne out by his cane, once a gnarled muddy old root he found in the cellar of the Pioneer House in Hines.
Anderson walks with his root-cane, abundantly decorated with smaller semi-precious stones, through the streets of Bemidji telling his stories to anyone who will listen to a treasure trove of memories and accomplishments.
Anderson and his wife, Ellen, a retired elementary school teacher from Deer Lake and later Solway schools, live on four acres of land in an A-frame home that overlooks Long Lake in Liberty Township. The house is the fulfillment of a promise made by a young soldier to a German couple who lived in an A-frame in the Alps, a couple who rescued him during a snowstorm back in 1957. A walk about reveals a cabin, bought in a nearly dilapidated condition some years ago and relocated by Anderson to this property.
"We are only 10 percent of what we could be and I know that now. If I can get my head around it, I can do it," says Anderson as he proudly ushers visitors inside the cabin. "I did this myself."
The cabin is lovingly restored using native woods to resemble a pioneer family home, including a loft with stairs built from native tamarack and with cedar railings. The furniture is handmade from cedar and some redwood brought from California. Most of the redwood furniture is now gone, given away as gifts to commemorate special occasions like weddings. It is now the family summer retreat. A bookcase, built under the stairs is chock full of books owned by a prolific reader and a generous soul.
The Andersons' sense of humor is apparent by the carefully decorated and/or dressed plastic skeletons standing about in the yard, offering refreshments, making lewd comments or just generally chattering their teeth. The atmosphere is reminiscent of creative folk whose minds are in a constant state of "what if." An old orange Adirondack chair is built onto a platform so it is easier to get out of but still has that comfortable seating.
Some of the scene is playful, the kind of fun one would expect from a retired first-grade teacher. There are real and artificial flowers everywhere, planted or just placed into various containers to show them off to their best advantage. An old buckboard with a "child" on the seat is festooned with giant sunflowers.
Anderson's workshop outside is full of tools to make, remake or reveal what is within nature's bounty. Some of his table tops are painted with scenes by local artist Maureen O'Brien, and those Anderson sells from time to time. There are many pieces of wood put aside waiting to be completed; a table entirely made of maple burl stands upright on the wall. Anderson found a table that he made for a local bar some years ago, sitting in a pile of junk at an antique store. The proprietor was gracious and gave him back his piece, worn thin and scarred by nature and careless people -- another piece waiting for the hands of a master.
A step onto the porch of the main house is only a promise of the surprises within. Anderson has made furniture for years, and his expertise in creating functional, imaginative and fanciful pieces is nothing short of astounding. Yes, astounding, for not only are the pieces utilitarian -- tables, chairs, bed frames, couches, lamps -- they show the humor of the man who made them.
A chair whose back has a scene of Orville and his brother (in a red jacket) hunting in Jurassic Park while a curious dinosaur looks on; a picture burnt into the wood by Anderson. Or on a different piece, one can spy a hunting scene of a sylvan glen with a loin-clothed native hunter, bow and arrow at the ready.
As of late, Anderson has turned his inquisitive mind toward recognizing the fecundity of Mother Earth, welcoming her offspring and discovering the faces hidden within. For as long as there has been human habitation, man has used the earth's off-spring (rocks, stones, sand and clay) for shelter, survival and art. But Anderson has taken the art of stone carving to a whole new level at his home in Liberty Township. It's a bit of a drive, but worth the effort, to reach the enclave created by Anderson: a garden of rocks artfully arranged and skillfully carved.
His sculpture garden is primarily made up of rocks from the area: gneiss (pronounced "nice"), a metamorphic rock that has a layered appearance caused by exposure to heat and direct pressure. It is also a foliated rock, which means it has a banded appearance and is made up of granular mineral grains of quartz or feldspar. Some of what Anderson knows about rock formations comes from his daughter Heather, who is a geologist for the State of Minnesota. But the knowledge of the chemical composition of a rock differs from being able to hear what that particular fragment is trying to communicate.
On some level, Anderson, can clearly hear the voices within, and he works to bring them to the fore. The voices have been silenced for millions of years, for what we now see as large stones are actually the gneissic mountain cores, the erosional remnants of ancient mountain ranges that began between two and three billion years ago. Stones are the fragments of huge rock bodies like mountains that have been worn down by the elements: wind, rain, water and ice. And exposure to oxygen somewhere along the way causes the various colors. Stones eventually break down into grains of sand that contain bits of all the semi-precious minerals we see and wear.
"I have only started working with these stones," said Anderson, "but I know that I can help the faces get out. The deeper you go, the more colors come out, the clearer the person."
A fire pit platform, built on a ledge, is surrounded by trees. Flickers from flames catch the facial expressions of his stone effigies -- crying, smiling, frowning, daring -- joining the conversations. Here is a place to sit and discuss the important things in life with family -- love and heritage.
"Mother Nature has done all the work," said Anderson, "and I get the credit! I am creating my own Stonehenge in upper Minnesota."
BOB MELCHOIR, Bemidji State University professor emeritus of geology, provided help in correctly pronouncing "gneiss" and explaining why this area is rich in gneissic mountain cores.