“Ook-see-kook-see-koo-la-ma-vee!” Dad is yelling at our irreverent laughter, as we bounce along in his old truck, heading north into the pine lands above the prairie of my childhood. On our way to the Hiawatha Festival, the long, even Minnesota plains highway has buckled into sudden hills, the truck jaunting up and down, and my sister and I are throwing our tiny hands up – the family truck has become a roller coaster.
“Ook-see-kook-see-koo-la-ma-vee! The grasshoppers are gone, it’s Saint Urho’s day!” The legend of Saint Urho, as bellowed happily by Dad, involved an embattled plague of locusts pursued by a giant exemplar, armed with a pitchfork and some irresistibly humorous gibberish. Long ago, Urho drove the insect horde out of Finland because they threatened the grape harvest, and the Finns were so rapturously thankful for the salvation of their wine-making crops, they beatified the brute…or so the story is told by Dad. In other, more esoteric versions, Saint Urho was known to drink large quantities of pungent fish stew, which in turn gave him a supernatural vocal quality. Full of piscine broth and thunderous of voice , the great Saint yelled nonsense and rhymes, shattering the ears of the grasshoppers. They were sent swarming away, holding their heads, toward more quiet and hospitable crops. Still, other versions indicate Saint Urho was simply someone’s joke, a figment conjured from imaginations of some area drinking buddies, more out of jealousy for the Irish Saint Patrick than out of pious observance.
Quixotic, retired exterminator Saint Urho stands at the Gateway to the Pines in caryatid relief, gazing down the quiet highway towards those who approach Menahga. The blueberry town at some point adopted Urho as its patron and protector, and the story was passed down by the jealous Finns who may have dreamed him up. I think of him as a benevolent presence between the birch and pine woods surrounding these fading central Minnesota towns. In Menahga the veracity of the Saint’s tale doesn’t matter, only that his legendary protection is important, even though most everybody there is Lutheran.