Tag Archives: environment

When Nature Bites the Hand that Tills It

Today’s guest blogger is Brian DeVore, author of the new book Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.

Tyler Carlson farms near “Gopher Prairie,” the fictional setting for Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel, Main Street. In the book, Lewis, who grew up in the real Gopher Prairie, otherwise known as Sauk Centre, used biting satire to poke fun at small town life. On this summer day, Carlson is finding the havoc burrowing rodents are raising in his part of central Minnesota less than amusing.

“Some of the vision of this farm is really trying to make agriculture work alongside wildlife and wild ecosystems,” he says to me while examining a three-foot-tall white pine tree that’s listing to one side in a pasture, its roots gnawed off by gophers. “But wildlife are pests in certain instances.”

That’s a harsh reality for someone who studied restoration ecology in college before moving onto this 200-acre farm in 2012 to launch an operation that includes practices like “silvopasturing” — a system combining tree production with rotational grazing of livestock. Carlson saw silvopasturing as an economically viable way to re-build soil, combat climate change, contribute to cleaner water, and support wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Six years later, the 32-year-old farmer is still committed to producing ecosystem services, but reality checks like root-chomping rodents have tamped down his enthusiasm a bit, prompting him to readjust how he reaches his environmental goals while staying economically viable. Carlson, pictured below, has accepted the fact that farming with nature utilizing the principals of diversity, biology, and interdependence—rather than attempting to bring it to heel with iron, oil, and chemistry—means exposing oneself to a world that can be pretty unforgiving. This is the reality of being an “ecological agrarian,” someone who is unwilling to separate a working farm from a working ecosystem.

As I show in my new book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, ecological agrarians are using everything from managed rotational grazing and cocktail mixes of cover crops to the integration of native perennials and annual row crops to blend the wild and the domesticated on agricultural landscapes.

Ideally, these wildly successful farms strike a balance that provides practical benefits to the farmer while countering the negative repercussions of industrialized agriculture: dirty water, eroded soil, loss of wildlife habitat, and greenhouse gas emissions. A healthy soil ecosystem, for example, not only sequesters carbon but allows farmers to better manage precipitation while providing free fertility for crops.

Ecological agrarians trust that a healthy ecosystem will eventually produce a healthy working farm. Some may argue that by placing their trust in the ways of the wild, farmers are abdicating control over their own destiny in a way that’s no better (or is worse) than allowing human-centered technology to call the shots. But during my thirty years as an agricultural journalist who has interviewed a wide range of farmers, I have observed that ecological agrarians are continuously on the lookout for a better way—the opposite of being passive recipients of whatever life tosses their way. When a corn and soybean operation is reliant on petroleum-based inputs and technology developed in a biotech firm’s laboratories, events far from the land determine that farmer’s destiny. War in the Middle East can disrupt the flow of oil; yet one more consolidation in the biotechnology sector can limit the availability of affordable seed. But building a healthy, functional ecosystem starts and ends with a farm’s local terra-firma, literally from beneath the ground up.

Tyler Carlson and his partner Kate Droske have modified their silvopasturing system and made it, if not exactly ecologically pristine, at least a benefit to the environment. And the forage being produced by building their soil health between the rows of surviving trees is good enough to consistently produce quality beef, which is important economically.

And on a farm where the borders between the wild and the tame are porous, opportunities for making mid-course adjustments abound. If injecting a little bit of woodland into a domesticated pasture doesn’t pan out, why not reverse polarity?

At one point, Carlson leads me over a fence to an existing stand of bur oak, ash, ironwood, elm and aspen on a hill that slopes down to a pond. Invasive buckthorn has been set back considerably with the help of a chain-saw (Carlson has also thinned out bigger trees to let in more sunlight). In glade-like spots between trees, red clover and orchard grass Carlson had seeded are making use of the solar energy. For the past few years, this woodland has been a part of his rotational grazing system. Grazing among the trees isn’t as productive as running cattle through open pastures, but it is a low-impact way of attaining ecological goals in a financially viable manner. The cattle have a cool place to graze during hot weather while they help control buckthorn. Opening up the woodland hasn’t just benefited forages—recently Carlson noticed oak seedlings sprouting; in 2012, there were few oaks under 75-years-old here.

This woodlot has been abused and neglected for over a century. But through the introduction of innovative farming practices that involve disturbance and rest, it is being revived as a key ecological component of a working landscape. Transplanting a little nature into tame pastures has been surprisingly difficult, but reversing things and introducing domesticated beasts into an unruly corner of the farm is paying off. When the wild bites back, it doesn’t always hold a grudge.

“It shows that if you let it, nature can be pretty forgiving,” says the farmer as he makes his way among the trees in the dappled sunlight.

 

Brian DeVore is a contributor to farm and conservation magazines and an editor with the Land Stewardship Project in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho, Africa.

A River Runs Through It

 

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of the new book Lava Falls, a collection of twelve stories.

A deep canyon divides this continent, our country. I’m not talking about the political divide, but rather an actual geographical feature. The Grand Canyon, however, can also be seen as a massive metaphor.

The National Parks are as American as baseball and apple pie, and Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most iconic of them all. It’s no surprise this gash is at the center of so many American conflicts.

The current administration in Washington is enthusiastically embracing lobbyists aiming to roll back the environmental protections on our nation’s 640 million acres of public land, including that surrounding the Grand Canyon. Uranium miners are particularly eager to get their hands on new ground and have already succeeded in grabbing parts of Bears Ears and Escalante National Monuments. Environmentalists and Native Americans, such as the Havasupai who live in the region, are fighting back.

But environmental threats are not the only trauma rocking Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River corridor has been at the heart of a sexual harassment disaster ripping through the National Park Service, with a years long history of female guides and rangers being physically attacked, propositioned for sex, and retaliated against after reporting incidents. The isolated environment of the Colorado River corridor, where small groups of travelers are dependent upon one another for literal survival, makes an unfortunately perfect habitat for predation. National Park Service managers knew for years about the sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon and failed to take action. The scandal resulted in the resignation of park superintendent Dave Uberuaga, and also reportedly left the river corridor unpatrolled for at least two summers.

It is in the context of these stories of abuse—of the land itself and of the women who love it—that I wrote my novella, “Lava Falls.” As a way of reclaiming the majestic red walls of the Grand Canyon, and the sparkling emerald river running through it, I sent a group of six women on a rafting trip, each with her own story for why she’s making the journey.

As the trip progresses, the women discover secrets in the canyon and encounter the sources of the contemporary conflicts gushing through it, all while trying to survive the desert and monster rapids, including the famous Lava Falls rapid.

I wrote “Lava Falls” because I’m interested in the layers of earth’s history revealed by the Grand Canyon, the way they mirror the layers of human history. People have been living along and inside the Colorado River and Grand Canyon for thousands of years. There still exists a rickety bridge across a gap in the canyon wall built centuries ago by the Anasazi people. Compare this to the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams bracketing the canyon today, not so rickety, and yet sure to eventually crumble and wash away.

Our country is deeply divided, by our political views and by a gorgeous canyon. I hope that one day soon the national parks, especially the stunning landscape of the Grand Canyon, will return to its role as the crown jewel of America, a source of spiritual renewal and nourishing water, a reminder of our short and precious history on this planet.

 

 

Lucy Jane Bledsoe is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels A Thin Bright Line and The Big Bang Symphony and the adventure essay collection The Ice Cave. She has traveled the length of the Grand Canyon, skied through Yellowstone National Park, kayaked and hiked in Alaska, and voyaged several times to Antarctica. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Six Great Things to Know about Your Favorite Lake

Our guest blogger for the day is Ted J. Rulseh, author of the new book A Lakeside Companion, an accessible guide that helps readers understand the magic of inland lakes—the life in, on, above, and around the water.

When you look out on your favorite lake, what do you see? Beautiful blue water? A place for a refreshing dip on a summer day? A surface on which to paddle a canoe or kayak? Favored spots to catch fish for sport or dinner?

Your lake is all this, but also much more. A lake is a fascinating living system, full of mysteries and things to discover, if you look closely. Here are six things you may not know about the world beneath the waves.

It all starts with the sun. That’s right, the walleye you fry up for supper owes its existence, first and foremost, to the sun. It’s sunlight that enables plants and algae in the lake to manufacture food through photosynthesis. The food these primary producers make forms the base of the lake’s food chain.

Your lake’s water is a thin soup. The water is the broth; the meat and vegetables consist of tiny organisms called plankton. The vegetables are the cells of algae that float freely in the water; they’re called phytoplankton. The meat is made up of small creatures, called zooplankton, that swim through the water, feeding as they go. They feed on the algae and in turn become food for fish in the very early stages of their lives.

Your lake has layers. The water is not a pool with a uniform temperature, at least not in the warm months of the year. As spring turns to summer, the lake separates into layers. Cold water lies at the bottom. Warmer water, being less dense, floats on top. The zone where warm water meets cold is called the thermocline. You can experience the thermocline by swimming out into fairly deep water, then doing a feet-first surface dive. When your feet reach a depth of about 12 to 15 feet, you will feel a sudden change from warm to cool. You’ve penetrated the thermocline. Click here to watch a video where you can learn more about lake stratification.

The waters are all connected. There are lakes, rivers, and the vast resource known as groundwater. These are not really separate entities. They are all part of the same system. The top of the groundwater is called the water table. In an important sense, a lake is a depression in the land that intersects and exposes the water table.

Your lake has a “skin.” You’ve seen the rounded shape of water droplets on a lakeside leaf. What gives that droplet its shape is something called surface tension—it’s as if the water had a very thin, invisible skin. That’s why the insects called water striders can skim across your lake’s surface on their long, spindly legs: The surface tension keeps them from sinking.

Making ice is hard work. Your lake can take a long time to freeze, even with a number of cold and wintry days and nights. Because of a property of water called the heat of fusion, it is eighty times harder to freeze a given volume of water than to lower its temperature by one Celsius degree. Put another way, a drop of water has to give as much energy to freeze as it would give up to lower its temperature by 80 Celsius degrees.

The closer you look at your lake, the more you’ll discover, and the more you will treasure and want to protect that natural wonder.

 

Ted J. Rulseh writes the newspaper column “The Lake Where You Live.” An advocate for lake improvement and protection, he lives in the lake-rich region of northern Wisconsin.

The Making of Farming and Famine

This week’s post is written by Naomi Crummey, professor of writing and literature at Blackburn College. She is the daughter of the late Donald E. Crummey, whose book Farming and Famine will be published August 31st.

A true scholar to the end, my father spent his last months and weeks reviewing drafts, organizing source material, and making plans for Farming and Famine to be completed and published. Some chapters did not meet his usual standards and he was frustrated that the central argument was incomplete. He wrote to Bahru Zwede to ask for his help; Dr. Zwede and Dr. Tom Spear of the University of Wisconsin Press were kind enough to put my mother and me in touch with Dr. James McCann, to whom we owe our greatest debt of gratitude for his time and conscientious attention to my father’s work. We are also grateful to Tom Bassett for putting us in touch with Dr. Spear and to Gwen Walker and Anna Muenchrath for their patience and coordination at the Press.

I believe that my father wanted this book to re-examine the relationship of the farmers to the land in the context of famine and environmental change in Ethiopia. Particularly troubling to him in existing arguments was the implication that farmers and farming practices were somehow to blame, and he hoped to center their stories and practices in the book and the historical record. Throughout his career, but more so in the work represented here, my father’s deep respect and admiration for his sources drove him and his work.

My family and I are tremendously happy that this day has arrived and know that my father would be too.

Donald E. Crummey (1941–2013) was regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Ethiopian history. His many books include Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia and Land, Literacy, and the State in the History of Sudanic Africa. James C. McCann, the author of numerous books including Deposing the Malevolent Spirit and People of the Plow, edited Crummey’s drafts to bring this book to completion.

Telling the Real Story of Nam Theun 2

Dead in the Water, a new book co-edited by today’s guest blogger Bruce Shoemaker, is published this week as part of the series New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies.

When I tell people I went to my first meeting on the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower project in Laos way back in 1991, I sometimes don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud. At times it seems it has become an unhealthy obsession. But in reality this involvement has been sporadic and my renewed interest in the project over the last few years represents a return to NT2 after years during which I paid it little attention.

For a time, when I was living in Laos in the mid-1990s, the NT2 controversy was the biggest thing happening—dominating discussions and debate among NGOs, those in the diplomatic and bilateral aid community and discussions with Lao government officials and other local colleagues. As several international NGOs agreed to either endorse or accept paid contracts from the project developers, NT2 created large rifts and the controversy quickly spread beyond Laos and into the international media.

NT2 had a large impact on me personally. Witnessing the extent to which large corporate, government and international financial institutions would go to manipulate public debate and promote a misleading narrative in order to justify their favored project left me with a much more critical eye and what has become a life-long orientation towards questioning the agendas and initiatives of self-interested institutions claiming they are acting in the public good.

In 2001, as momentum built to proceed with NT2, I participated in a “river-based livelihoods” study of the Xe Bang Fai, the river slated to be dramatically affected. Our study, which documented the existing livelihood links local communities had to their river, never mentioned the dam. But it was very much in the background and its publication sent Bank planners scrambling to play catch-up in devoting more (albeit still inadequate) attention to potential downstream impacts.

NT2’s approval by the World Bank in 2005 was the source of not a small amount of disillusionment and cynicism–there seemed to be so many solid arguments against it, so many good reasons why it was the wrong project at the wrong time in the wrong country. But many governments and institutions had bought into the Bank’s rebranding of NT2 as a socially and environmentally responsible “model project.”

While I continued to visit the country for other work, for a long period I didn’t even have anything to do with NT2. While I stayed engaged in the region, I just tried to put it out of my mind and focus on other things.

This continued well past the time that the project was completed and became operational in 2010. My re-engagement dates from 2011 when the World Bank published its own book on NT2, Doing a Dam Better. I saw it as a self-congratulatory and premature puff-piece written before NT2’s many promises could even begin to be realized. In retrospect, its publication sparked my first interest in trying to eventually set the record straight.

By 2012 multiple reports were coming out suggesting that, in contrast to the public pronouncements of NT2’s supporters, not all was well. The reports of the project’s Panel of Experts, people I had previously unfairly dismissed as uncritical project cheerleaders, were becoming critical, even scathing at times, as implementation failures revealed the hollowness of the project’s social and environmental promises.

This first led to a renewed interest in examining what had happened on the Xe Bang Fai, through participation in a return study to the river in early 2014. A peer reviewer for our subsequent journal article, who apparently had a very positive view of NT2, ended up accepting our critical assessment of NT2 impacts on the river–but insisted that we should balance that by “focusing on all of the other positive aspects of NT2.”

This book, a collaboration with my longtime friend and colleague William Robichaud, as well as many other contributors with long histories with the project, is I guess a response to that challenge and to Doing a Dam Better. And as we approached publication in early 2018 the World Bank declared success and announced the closure of its NT2 social and environmental project. Our book tells a different story and suggests that the World Bank’s decision is both premature and unwarranted.

 

Bruce Shoemaker is an independent consultant on development and natural resources who has conducted extensive research on the impacts of the Nam Theun 2 dam. His books include The People and Their River: River-based Livelihoods in the Xe Bang Fai Basin in Laos.

Land Economics Journal Welcomes New Editor

Daniel J. Phaneuf

When Daniel W. Bromley assumed the editorship of Land Economics in 1974, the journal had just celebrated fifty years of continuous publication. Bromley is the Anderson-Bascom Professor (Emeritus) of Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and recipient of the 2011 Reimar Lüst Prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Under Bromley’s leadership, the journal has flourished as a forum for scholarship on the economic aspects of natural and environmental resources. Now, forty-four years later, as Land Economics approaches its centennial, Bromley will pass the baton to Daniel J. Phaneuf.

Phaneuf is the Henry C. Taylor Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He boasts an impressive editorial resume, having served as the inaugural editor in chief of the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (JAERE) and the managing editor of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. He is the president-elect of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.

In his first “From the Editor” feature, which will appear in Land Economics volume 94 number 3 this July, Phaneuf expresses the ambition “to maintain the journal’s emphasis on empirical and pol­icy-relevant research in the field, while con­tinuing to expand its readership and author community to include broader swaths of re­searchers in the profession.” He continues, “My early emphasis will be on increasing the journal’s visibility, circulation, and overall impact—tasks for which I will call on current authors, readers, and reviewers for assistance and sug­gestions.” Phaneuf notes that he does not anticipate making any changes in the journal’s scholarly focus or the way it is managed.

Land Economics was established in 1925 by Richard T. Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, at the University of Wisconsin. (For more on Ely’s legacy, including the story of how he was tried as a socialist and anarchist in 1894, leading the UW Board of Regents to issue a groundbreaking defense of academic freedom, see this article.) Today, the articles in Land Economics contribute crucial knowledge to discussions of scholarly and public policy topics. The journal publishes research related to environmental quality, natural resources, housing, urban and rural land use, transportation, and other areas in both developed and developing country contexts.

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.

Hunter’s Best Friend

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish today a paperback edition of A GROUSE HUNTER’S ALMANAC. In this post, author Mark Parman reminisces about his faithful hunting dogs and their importance beyond mere scenting.

I wrote most of the essays in A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac eight to ten years ago.  That’s a long time in dog years, nearly a lifetime. Gunnar and Ox, the dogs at the center of the book, have been gone almost as long. We live with two different English setters now—Fergus and Jenkins—and on occasion I call one or the other Ox or Gunnar.  Recently a friend called, an English setter fanatic, asking about Ox’s lines and his breeder, and after our conversation, I dreamed of Ox several nights running. Although no longer here in the flesh, these dogs are still very much with me, something I realized even more keenly as I paged through A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac, making a few corrections for this new paperback edition.

Ox pointing a woodcock

In the essay “Dogless,” however, Ox and Gunnar are literally absent from the pages. When rereading it, I was surprised that I didn’t mention them by name, referring to them obliquely as “my dogs.” The essay describes what it was like for me to hunt without a dog one early October day in northern Wisconsin. I hadn’t hunted grouse or woodcock without a dog for several years. Walking by myself through the bright woods and falling leaves, it took just a few minutes for me to realize I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two.
I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two. Click To Tweet
I could get into a rational explanation to justify why a dog improves your hunting chances and ability to bag birds, but for me it all comes down to the fact I have no desire to upland hunt without a dog.

Gunnar with a Sawyer County grouse

I drove home after this fruitless hunt and jumped out of my truck as Gunnar and Ox, released from the house, charged out to greet me. They had seen me leave in the morning with a gun case, and they hadn’t forgotten this slight. They sniffed me all over, trying to fathom where I’d been and why they’d been left behind. It was a new experience for them as well, and they appeared to be at least as unhappy with it as I was. After this, I never hunted without one or the other until they both finally passed on.

Matt Parman (the author’s brother) with Ox

Since then, I’ve kept this wordless pact with Fergus and Jenkins.  On occasion, I hunt them together, but mostly they take turns—one goes out, one stays at home.  As I back out of the driveway, I have a hard time not glancing over at the picture window where the dog left behind stands pressing his nose against the glass, looking as sad as a dog can. Some days, it’s enough to make me roll back down the drive, unlock the door and release whoever was marked to stay home that day. The perfect joy, the happy dance in the driveway, their lust for life cuts me to the heart.

How can anyone live without this?

Fergus and Jenkins with an early season grouse

Mark Parman is a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters. He has written for Sports AfieldPointing Dog Journal, and other outdoor magazines. In the late spring of 2018, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish a new collection of his hunting essays, Among the Aspen. He has retired from teaching English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Marathon County and now lives near Hayward, Wisconsin.

For more of Mark’s writing, visit setterboys.com.

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.

A Living Addendum to a Force of Nature

Arthur Melville Pearson plans to visit 50 nature preserves in 2017.  He is the author of Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement, published last week by the University of Wisconsin Press. Here he presents one of a series of blog posts, to be continued on his own website, paying tribute to the conservation efforts of George Fell and the extraordinary natural areas we can still enjoy because of those efforts.

Among the joys of writing the biography of George Fell has been the opportunity to see some of my favorite nature preserves with entirely new eyes. Prior to writing the book, I had no clue—as I hiked and birded and paddled throughout Illinois and beyond—that so many wild and wonderful places would not exist save for a man who went out of his way to deflect any credit for their preservation.

Take the Cache River wetlands, for instance. Many times have I enjoyed a quiet kayak trip through its slow-moving, black water sloughs, navigating among massive cypress trees that make me feel as if I had been magically transported from the southern tip of Illinois to the bayous of Louisiana. At the time, I had no idea that it was George (after working on his biography for so many years, I think it’s appropriate for us to be on a first name basis now) who acquired the first 65 acres of Heron Pond, which today anchors the state’s largest Illinois Nature Preserve, which in turn anchors a 60,000-acre protected corridor along a 50-mile stretch of the Cache River.

Cache River

At the opposite end of the state, at Illinois Beach State Park, lies the largest expanse of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline within the borders of Illinois. Its diverse complex of lakeshore, foredune, sand prairie, sand savanna, fen, panne, sedge meadow, marsh, and pond habitat makes it one of my favorite birding spots. In fact, it is the one of the best in all the Midwest for viewing the semi-annual migration of raptors. It was news to me that it was George who kept the southern end of the state park from being developed as a golf course, marina, and swimming pool by dedicating it as the very first Nature Preserve in Illinois.

As far back as the 1920s, there had been calls to protect the lush woodlands and picturesque limestone outcroppings in an area along the Rock River, named for an iconic geologic feature: Castle Rock. I was fascinated to learn that it was George who singlehandedly negotiated the acquisition of the first one thousand acres to establish Castle Rock State Park. Today, the park has grown to nearly twice that size and—this was news to me, too—it harbors the largest dedicated Nature Preserve in northern Illinois, aptly named for George B. Fell.

Castle Rock State Park

Currently, thanks to George’s tireless efforts to pass the landmark Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, there are 400 dedicated Nature Preserves in Illinois. Thanks to George, who was the driving force in transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy, there are countless TNC preserves scattered throughout the country and across the world. Obviously, I could touch upon only a fraction of these preserves in the book.

However, to celebrate the release of my book Force of Nature, I have pledged to visit 50 Nature Preserves in 2017 and blog about each one at http://arthurmelvillepearson.com/. At this pace, it will take me eight years to visit all of the dedicated Nature Preserves in Illinois, and more years still to visit as many TNC sites as I can. For those who enjoy the book, my blog will serve as a living addendum, celebrating the wild places protected by a true force of nature, George Fell.

Arthur Melville Pearson is the director of the Chicago Program at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which helps protect and restore natural lands in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His writing has appeared frequently in the magazines Chicago Wilderness and Outdoor Illinois and in the blogs A Midewin Almanac and City Creatures.