Tag Archives: agriculture

The Driftless Reader: a literature of place

Today, we publish THE DRIFTLESS READER, a remarkable anthology of writings about the ancient and unique unglaciated region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. More than eighty excerpts from Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, novelists, and poets, augmented by paintings, photographs, maps, and pictographs, comprise the anthology. In this post Keefe Keeley, coeditor of the volume, writes about the challenges and rewards of creating the Reader.

It never ceases to amaze me that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea. When I see the exposed bluff faces and roadside cuts stratified in layers like haphazard stacks of books, I almost can’t believe that sandstone and limestone is formed of ancient beaches and shells of sea creatures. Lower layers, older oceans, hundreds of millions of years old . . .

Assembling The Driftless Reader didn’t take hundreds of millions of years, but it took a few.  And geology was just the first chapter. Co-editor Curt Meine and I had our stacks of books and papers about Driftless plants and animals, waterways, early humans who hunted mastodons here, the mounds built by their descendants some ten thousand years later, and the sweep of history from fur trading to organic farming, all the way to a fly fisherman musing about the future of the Driftless area.

The publisher told us we had to fit it all in a hundred thousand words.  So we axed Steinbeck.  We abridged Leopold.  We groaned over Twain.  We scoured our bluffs of books, and we gave thanks for poets as we struck gold in the rich thrift of Driftless verse.

Giving fair representation across the roughly 10,000 square miles of the region was another important, if quixotic, goal. In seeking material for the volume, Curt and I crisscrossed the region to meet with friends and colleagues from Winona to Dubuque, Decorah to Baraboo, and a host of points therein. This was one of the most enjoyable phases of the book: broadening our familiarity with the region and making connections with authors, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in vital expression of our shared landscape and interwoven communities.  I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these places, and new ones, on our tour of events, as we bookend the project by sharing it with others interested in giving voice to our emerging bioregional identity.

Black Hawk. Painting by George Catlin.

Although we searched far and wide, perhaps it is no surprise that Crawford County, Wisconsin, where I grew up, gave rise to some of the most personally meaningful voices of the volume. Chief Black Hawk recounts old men and little children perishing of hunger as his band was pursued through this “rugged country,” the rest of them marching on to what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre. Pearl Swiggum shared her love for living a whole life on Stump Ridge. Ben Logan grew up on a farm, went on to travel the world, returned via remembrances, and eventually came home. Laura Sherry wrote of her memories in Old Prairie du Chien, a book of poetry published in Paris in 1931. Clifford Simak left for a life elsewhere, but his award-winning stories depict alien travelers from other worlds navigating the place he first called home.  And John Muir (although technically the letter we include in the Reader is one he wrote to a friend in Crawford County) described exploring bluffs just across the Mississippi River in Clayton County, Iowa, where my mother grew up.

I wasn’t always so enamored with this place. In my teenage years I thought of the Driftless largely in terms of escape. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I would say . . . I liked it. But I felt the hillsides hemmed in my ambitions, and sometimes I perceived a shadow of stigma for being a child of long-haired back-to-the-land transplants in Crawford County. As soon as I came of age, I took every opportunity to study and travel afar. In the Reader, others echo my meditations on escape from the confining coulees and isolated ridgetops of the Driftless: Hamlin Garland, Rick Harsch, Bob Wolf.

Eventually, I traveled just about as far away as possible. In rural India, a farmer lent me his copy of Kentuckian Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America. The situation in his country, this farmer told me, was the same as in the United States: many young people leaving rural areas, family farms becoming scarce, and small-town economies crumbling. Soon after, I moved back near my family, resolved to buck the trend, put down roots, and become a hometown hero.  I lasted about four months, then I was back to traveling.

Before the Heat of the Day. Painting by Kathie Wheeler of Hmong farmers in the Driftless region.

Over the next few years, I bounced between working on farms near home and shoestring trips abroad.  I’d like to say my fresh eyes returning each time helped me realize how remarkable the Driftless is, but who knows?  Maybe I would more truly appreciate the place if I had continued to put down roots throughout the seasons.

I’ve lived in Madison for a spell now, just outside the Driftless. It can be disorienting, to be in an urban environment, pursuing advanced degrees and other accolades of our era, while society seems to teeter, ever more polarized, along the lines of Berry’s Unsettling warning-cum-prophecy. Sometimes I feel like a moth entranced by the charm of the city lights. I am more at home without streetlamps, navigating my way among the fireflies and stars, open roads, and impromptu conversations with gas station acquaintances. Part of me fears that those open roads and rural conviviality will disappear as too many people from “the city” find the Driftless charming and proceed to blanket the land, as the glaciers never could, with floodlit backyard patios.

Farmed Frame. Machinery parts sculpture by David Wells, photography by Katrin Talbot.

My hope is that The Driftless Reader will serve as a sort of antidote to the poisonous polarity fed by fears like these, prompting us instead to fall in love with whatever place we’re in, and to make those shared affections a basis for conviviality and community with others there. In the closing selection of the book, Kevin Koch likens such an antidote to a vow of stability taken by the monks of New Melleray Abbey outside Dubuque. Rather than, as the monks vow, staying forever in the same locale, Kevin suggests for the rest of us, “a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long. Our dirty hands, wet faces and backs, and sore feet are testimony to our contact and connectedness to the earth that birthed us and will receive us back again.”

Creating this book has allowed me to cultivate connectedness with and within the Driftless, to establish some stability amid the whiplash of modern mobility. Seeing the place through others’ eyes, things quotidian and odd have become more remarkable, personal, and even beloved. Thoreau celebrated redwing blackbirds prevailing on the Mississippi. Robin Kimmerer puzzled out the patterns of mosses on Kickapoo River cliffs. Amish neighbors, normally aloof from politics, rallied via public letter the outcry against proposed low-level military training flights. Truman Lowe, sculpting aluminum lattice into a thunderbird form, linked his Ho-Chunk clan with the mounds that grace the region.  Kathe Davis, who I’m sad to say passed away recently, wrote in the closing line of her poem Things I Love about Where I Am, “All the long-haired men.”  When I was a teenager, my dad’s long hair was a source of untold embarrassment; now, I see things differently.

I hope the rich array of voices in this book can likewise give others a chance to see the Driftless, and any all-too-familiar or otherwise disregarded place, in a new light. For starters, consider that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea.

Keefe Keeley

Keefe Keeley, a native of the Kickapoo Valley, is co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, working with farmers to diversify and perennialize agriculture in the Upper Midwest. He is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Finalist, National Book Awards! (Philippines)

The National Book Development Council of the Philippines and the Manila Critics Circle have just announced finalists for the National Book Awards of the Philippines.

Among the finalists in the History category is Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945 by Daniel F. Doeppers, emeritus professor of Geography and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Daniel Doeppers

The University of Wisconsin Press published the book in 2016 in the series New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies, which UWP publishes in collaboration with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UW-Madison. The book focuses on how Manila has historically dealt with the formidable challenge of getting food, water, and services to millions of residents, a problem that is increasingly pressing for policy makers, agencies, and businesses who manage food, water, and services for the world’s megacities.

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet of the Australian National University has called Doepper’s work “outstanding, wide-ranging scholarship that shines in every chapter. He crafts a thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis of provisioning Manila and comparable cities. This is a sterling example of how to investigate and analyze such questions, not only for other parts of the Philippines but elsewhere in Southeast Asia and beyond.”

UWP licensed a Philippine edition for the book to Ateneo de Manila University Press, which submitted Doepper’s book for the award competition. Winners will be announced in the coming months.

The Land Remembers: Refreshing the Memory

This summer, the University of Wisconsin Press released the Ninth Edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir, THE LAND REMEMBERS: The Story of a Farm and Its People, with a new introduction by Curt Meine. In this post, Meine reveals a different side of author Ben Logan.

When the University of Wisconsin Press invited me to write an introduction for a new edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir The Land Remembers, I thought immediately of the several opportunities I had to meet, talk, and share a podium with Ben. Ben died in 2014 at the age of 94. I did not know Ben well. On those occasions when we did meet I was struck by his easygoing demeanor, understated humor, and quiet intelligence. He seemed a man quite at p  eace with himself.

Although we had only those few direct personal interactions, Ben and I shared a connection through the work and legacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold. Ben had studied with Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s, an experience that would prove to have a durable impact on Logan’s life and writing. I had written a biography of Leopold, and over the years had met and interviewed many of Leopold’s former students. Ben stood out by pursuing a career as a writer, not in conservation. Although Ben never mentions Leopold in the body of The Land Remembers, he briefly alluded to Leopold’s influence in an afterword to a 2006 (eighth!) edition:

“[H]umans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of what Aldo Leopold called THE LAND—all things on, over, and in the earth. When I first heard him say that in a University of Wisconsin classroom, it was a moment of great discovery. His definition of land included me, made a place for me in the immense mosaic of life.”

Humans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of THE LAND Click To Tweet

Ben Logan

Ben was only twenty years old at the time. His sensitivity to the land, and to the human and natural relationships inherent in land, has many sources in his life, education, and career. But that “great discovery” on campus in Madison would lend a unity to the narrative of Ben’s life and to the story he would ultimately commit to the pages of The Land Remembers. It would also give the book a universality that allowed it to appeal to readers far removed from the Kickapoo Valley ridgetop farm in southwestern Wisconsin where it is set. In remembering his own childhood on the land, Ben tapped into the widely shared human need to re-member ourselves.

In the introduction for the new University of Wisconsin Press edition I sought to fill in some of the details of the story behind the story. Late in life Ben became more open about his painful World War II experience. In particular he was traumatized by the loss in December 1943 of nineteen of his Navy shipmates when their craft hit a floating mine near Naples, Italy. Ben was spared only because he was in a nearby military hospital at the time. The Land Remembers was fundamentally a consequence, decades later, of that tragedy and his resolve to “live both for myself and for those who died.” To pull together a life dislocated by war, Ben returned to the land in his memory, publishing The Land Remembers in 1975—and then returned in his person in 1986 when he and his wife Jacqueline purchased back the family farm.

Preparing the introduction for this new edition thus refreshed my own memory. What I had recalled as Ben’s steadiness and composure gained an edge that I had not appreciated before. Beneath his outer calm I now saw a core of courage: a determination to come to terms with one’s life experience through the power of story.

Curt D. Meine is director for conservation biology and history with the Center for Humans and Nature, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work  and coeditor of The Essential Aldo Leopold, both also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.  With Keefe Keeley, he has coedited The Driftless Reader, which UWP will publish in late September 2018.

New Books in March 2016

We are excited to announce six books forthcoming this month!Whitaker-The-Blue-Hour-c

THE BLUE HOUR
Jennifer Whitaker

Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

Fairy tales both familiar and obscure create a threshold, and the The Blue Hour pulls us over it. With precise language and rich detail, these poems unflinchingly create an eerie world marked by abuse, asking readers not just to bear witness but to try to understand how we make meaning in the face of the meaningless violence.

 

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THE BOOK OF HULGA
Rita Mae Reese

Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

The Book of Hulga speculates—with humor, tenderness, and a brutal precision—on a character that Flannery O’Connor envisioned but did not live long enough to write: “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.” These striking poems look to the same sources that O’Connor sought out, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Edgar Allan Poe to Simone Weil. Original illustrations by Julie Franki further illuminate Reese’s imaginative verse biography of a modern-day hillbilly saint.

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REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE
On Late Critical Theory
Martin Jay

Martin Jay tackles a question as old as Plato and still pressing today: what is reason, and what roles does and should it have in human endeavor? Applying the tools of intellectual history, Reason after Its Eclipse examines the overlapping, but not fully compatible, meanings that have accrued to the term “reason” over two millennia, homing in on moments of crisis, critique, and defense of reason.

 

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FEEDING MANILA IN PEACE AND WAR, 1850–1945
Daniel F. Doeppers

Policymakers and scholars have come to realize that getting food, water, and services to the millions who live in the world’s few dozen megacities is one of the twenty-first century’s most formidable challenges. As these populations continue to grow, apocalyptic scenarios—sprawling slums plagued by hunger, disease, and social disarray—become increasingly plausible. In Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945, Daniel F. Doeppers traces nearly a century in the life of Manila, one of the world’s largest cities, to show how it grew and what sustained it.

 

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SEVEN YEARS OF GRACE
The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague
Sara Rath

Distributed for the Vermont Historical Society

Seven Years of Grace is a dramatized account of the life of Achsa Sprague (1827–1862), who in the decade preceding the American Civil War lectured to audiences of thousands on Spiritualism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform. She presented herself as a medium, lecturing and singing hymns in a state of trance. Alone on stage, she drew acclaim and admiration but also jeers, ridicule, and condemnation. A skeptic in Oswego, New York, asked, “Why is it that all the world should run nightly mad to hear her in a pretended trance?” A Milwaukee newspaper proclaimed her words “profound twaddle from beginning to end.” Yet Achsa’s crowds continued to grow in size and enthusiasm. Grounded in the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague’s papers at the Vermont Historical Society, Seven Years of Grace is both a fascinating tale and a revealing window into the past.

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DEATH STALKS DOOR COUNTY
Patricia Skalka

The first book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series, now in paperback

Six deaths. A grief-stricken investigator. Betrayal. Why?

“Can a big-city cop solve a series of murders whose only witnesses may be the hemlocks? An atmospheric debut.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Murder seems unseemly in Door County, a peninsula covered in forests, lined by beaches, and filled with summer cabins and tourist resorts. That’s the hook for murder-thriller Death Stalks Door County, the first in a series involving ranger Dave Cubiak, a former Chicago homicide detective.”—Milwaukee Shepherd Express

Read more here.