Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mary Burns-Klinger - A Life Shaped by Flowing Water: Memories and Ancestral Connections

Mary Burns-Klinger, who is the Executive Assistant at the Minnesota Humanities Center, is living multiple lives. She grew up on a farm but now loves living in the city, as long as she has regular forays into nature. Mary has a B.F.A. in theater arts from the University of South Dakota and spent several years as an actress in New York before returning to the Midwest to raise her family. Mary very much enjoys her work at the Humanities Center — including time spent with the Communications Team working on various writing projects — and is especially proud of the fact that all of the programs/projects created here are based in the humanities.

With my wings resolutely spread, Missis Burnside, And my old inhibitions shed, Missis Burnside….” It was a warm June day and there I sat, on a large grey, platform-like rock situated in the middle of a rushing stream near the Black Hills Playhouse campus, rehearsing the song I would use to audition for a part in the summer musical, Mame. I not only found comfort in the coolness and in the sight and scents of the beautiful pine forest with rugged, wooded hills rising around me, but in the sounds and the light mist of the rushing stream, as well as my awareness that many others — including the native Lakota people who first traversed the Black Hills — had experienced this stream and the Hills before me. Although this actually happened to me over 35 years ago, while spending one of three summers at the Black Hills Playhouse, the memory of that place and time has stayed with me. I may not remember all of the details clearly, but I’ll always remember the feelings that surfaced while sitting on that rock in the middle of the rushing water.

Having grown up on an Iowa farm, where lakes were mostly absent, my opportunities to interact with natural water sources were limited. Our farmland, however, did include a small, shallow crick running through it, and, since our gravel road crossed over it, a large concrete tunnel was built to funnel the crick to the other side of the road, where it could cascade down what — in my memory — seemed to be a very steep spillway, but was probably only a 3-4 foot sloping drop. My younger sister, our dogs, and I spent many happy summer days splashing in the water and playing in the conduit. In the winter, we pretended to skate in our winter boots and sometimes helped our dad chop out chunks of ice to fill our old hand-cranked ice cream maker.

As time passed, my water horizons expanded with visits to lakes in Iowa and beyond, to major rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi, and finally to oceans, with trips to all three water-defined coasts. I experienced the wonders of many versions of nature’s water, but found the waters that flowed or moved in some way had the greatest effect on me. In Minneapolis, even with our beautiful lakes and the Mississippi River running through the city, my favorite place to be is near Minnehaha Creek, and its jewel, Minnehaha Falls. The Creek is a place that most resembles my Black Hills’ haunt and my childhood crick.

One of the primary things I’ve learned through my work with the Humanities Center is that “place” is a very important part of our personal and collective history. The mystery and magic of flowing water constitutes a huge piece of my “place,” although I’ve only recently figured that out. Not long ago I looked closer at the origins of my family name – Burns – and found that it is not at all what I thought it to be. Instead I found reference to the fact that, in its Scottish origins the name “Burns” refers to someone who lived by a stream.  I now wonder if perhaps my preference for flowing water — always moving from one place to another, touching many shores and lives on its journey — is really a major piece of who I am, and always will be.


  1. evocatiove and flowing--many living connections made--thank you Mary

  2. "Feelings surfaced," "pretended to skate," "horizons expanded," "figured that out"--surface, pretend, expand, figure out--verbs that capture the mystery of the theater and the magic of the humanities. And it's all summed up in "I now wonder if perhaps ..."--the point to which the humanities repeatedly bring us.

  3. I also grew up in the Midwest, in a small town with a "crick." I love the sight, sound, smell, touch and taste of flowing water, and appreciate your beautiful and evocatively written piece.