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A Bowl for Garrison Keillor

August 20, 2011

Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio program gets its name in part from the Prairie Home Cemetery in Moorhead, MN, across the street fromConcordia College.  In the fall of 1992 the cemetery board removed a number of diseased elm trees and mature box elders from the cemetery and I harvested several of the prime logs for a special collection of wooden bowls. 

 One reason I enjoyed it was because my wife Merrie Sue’s great grandparents, the Kolbergs, were buried in the cemetery.  It’s a great old-fashioned cemetery, and Merrie Sue often did writing exercises in the cemetery in which students imagined from the old headstones something of the life of those who were buried there.

 In March of 1993, I was commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio to make one of those bowls for Garrison himself to be presented at the close of a live broadcast of the Prairie Home Companion. 

 I had turned his bowl from the part of the tree I knew would be the most colorful and highly figured, the crotch or “Y” of the tree.

  • I knew enough not to tell him it was from the crotch of the tree, though it was. 
  • I knew enough not to tell him it was spalted, that is, rotten, though it was.
  • But I did tell him the bowl from an elm that died from Dutch Elm Disease. 

 I should have guessed what a comedian might do. He immediately put it on his head and said, “Just what I always wanted, a diseased bowl.” 

 A few weeks later, he sent me a letter, basically to apologize for what he had said and to explain how uncomfortable he was in receiving awards.  Then he closed the letter as follows:

 “The roots of the elm reached down into the earth, gathered nutrition from our ancestors, transferred their earthly remains into wood, and now, the tree itself having fallen victim to disease, this bowl is left to tell the story, and to gather good things and hold them in a graceful way, as a symbol of those who kept the faith. 

 Please be assured that I will keep this bowl prominently in view and in my mind, will keep only what is most important in it, and will think of the cemetery and you whenever I look in it to find treasures.

With many thanks, Garrison Keillor


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