Northwoods Journals by Kurt Simonson

Issue 32

I must have been ten or eleven years old when I first ran across the peculiar, haunted envelope that bore my grandmother’s shaky handwriting: “not to be opened until my death.” Tucked in her top dresser drawer amidst other valuables, its striking phrase burned into my memory at a young age. I don’t know exactly when, and I don’t know how often, but I know I visited the envelope numerous times, pondering what could be inside. What could be so important (or tragic) that it must be kept secret in this way? Still, by that age, I had learned there are many things that should not be spoken about.

When I was sixteen, the daughters gathered in our house to read the contents. I stood at my bedroom door, listening in vain to try to hear the conversation. I could not shake the hold that this piece of paper had over me, but of course, it wasn’t right to ask. I must have been in my mid-twenties when I encountered it next— accidentally, upon digging through family documents. In an unexpected and anti-climactic moment, I read the contents… and was left with a profound sadness that such things couldn’t be said among the living. At age thirty-two, I photographed it, still trying to break its spell, but the patterns run deep, and so many stories are still in the grave.


Although I grew up as a city kid in a suburb of Minneapolis, my family roots go deep into the folklore of the Midwestern United States. I left Minnesota after high school for a new life in California, but certain things would never leave my imagination—particularly the imagery of the woods. It is a place where my grandfather was a lumberjack, and a place where cars go to die; it is where kids have playtime adventures, and where secrets go to be buried. With each visit to my family, I am drawn to photograph a merger of myth and memory that grows more complex as time passes. There is a growing disconnect within me: while my life becomes more urban and displaced, my brother’s life has become more rural and rooted. His children are living deep within this mythic narrative of a Midwestern family, something that is increasingly foreign and yet beautiful the more I observe it.

Kurt Simonson is a Long Beach, CA based artist and educator.
To see more of Kurt's work, please visit his website.