Tag Archives: nature writing

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.

 

A Fable for Our Time

You, Beast by poet Nick Lantz is a new collection published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press. Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and published in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, You Beast includes poems ranging from found text to villanelles and from short plays to fables. In this guest blog post, Lantz offers us a fable for our time.

Let me begin with a fable:

The old rabbit was a learned animal who prided himself on being very fair, and the other animals looked to him for guidance. One day, a mouse came to see him.
“I was almost eaten by a wolf,” said the mouse. “I am very small and no one will listen to me, but if you tell the other animals that the wolf is dangerous, they will band together and drive that monster from the forest.”
“Oh, but I can’t take sides,” said the rabbit. “The wolf is also a citizen of the forest, and to be fair I must treat all citizens with respect, and it is disrespectful to call the wolf a monster. Do you see?” The disappointed mouse nodded and went on his way, and that night, the wolf ate him. The next morning, a badger came to see the rabbit.

“The Frogs Who Desired a King” Illustrated by Milo Winter

“I saw that vile wolf eat the mouse,” said the badger. “You must tell the other animals that he is a villain.”
“It won’t do,” said the rabbit, “to go around calling people names. I can’t take sides. It is only fair that I remain impartial.” The badger was angry but went away, and that night, the wolf ate him.
The next day, the rabbit was walking through the forest when the wolf jumped from the brambles and fell upon him. As the wolf caught him by the neck, the rabbit cried out: “What are you doing? I was fair. I never took sides against you!”
“What do I care?” said the wolf. “I am hungry.” Then the wolf swallowed the rabbit, whose fairness earned him nothing.

When I was writing You, Beast, I kept returning to fables, particularly those involving animals. A good fable has tremendous compactness and rhetorical force. In that sense, it’s like a well-crafted syllogism, or a poem. Many fables are political in nature, but by stripping away the sociocultural particulars of a situation, their lessons become harder to refute.

This is actually the second draft of my post for the UW Press blog. In my original draft, I drew a connection between one of the poems in You, Beast and some aspects of the current political landscape. If that sounds a bit vague, here’s why: the Press told me that because of their affiliation with a public, state university, they could not publish something on the Press’ blog that overtly endorsed or (in my case) condemned a particular political party or politician. So, obviously, the Press is the rabbit in my fable, but I don’t mean to let myself off the hook by claiming I’m the truth-telling mouse, just trying to be heard. The fact is, I’m the rabbit too. I’m a professor at another public, state university, and in that capacity, I strive to be a teacher for all of my students, regardless of their political affiliations. But as a poet, I often wonder about the costs of that vision of fairness, about truths I don’t give voice to in its name. The Press’s decision not to publish my original post bothered me because I make similar decisions in my own speech and conduct on a daily basis. And I’m worried that my restraint won’t mean a thing to the wolves who want to gobble us up.

Nick Lantz is the author of The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, and How to Dance as the Roof Caves In. He is the editor of the Texas Review, co-curator of thecloudyhouse.com, and an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He has been a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an Emerging Writer Fellow at Gettysburg College.

New books for November 2016

We are pleased to announce three new books arriving in November.

Hu-DeHart-Yaqui-Resistance-and-Survival-cPublication Date: November 1
YAQUI RESISTANCE AND SURVIVAL
The Struggle for Land and Autonomy, 1821-1910
Revised Edition
Evelyn Hu-DeHart

A landmark history of the Yaqui people of northern Mexico

Hu-DeHart-Evelyn-2016-c

Evelyn Hu-DeHart

“Still stands as the most comprehensive and rigorously researched history of the Yaqui in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hu-DeHart reminds us that in spite of the destruction wrought by the Spanish empire, the Mexican Revolution, and modernization on both sides of the border, the Yaquis resisted and survived.”
—Elliott Young, Lewis & Clark College

“Some works of history are timeless. Yaqui Resistance and Survival is such a book, reminding us never to forget just how brutal and vicious the history of colonialism has been. Here is the history of the Yaqui Indians, who resided in what became the northern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. From the eighteenth century to the twentieth, they faced missionaries seeking souls, miners demanding disposable labor, and entrepreneurs who wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. The Yaqui fought back to keep their lands, their culture, and ways of life.”—Ramón A. Gutiérrez, University of Chicago

Bouldrey-Inspired-Journeys-cPublication Date: November 22
INSPIRED JOURNEYS
Travel Writers in Search of the Muse
Edited by Brian Bouldrey

Bouldrey-Brian-2016-c

Brian Bouldrey

“The tremendously satisfying and uplifting sense of these essays is the ongoing nature of human pilgrimage, whether to the center of the self or the ends of the earth. After reading this book, I want to go on a journey myself! Highly recommended.”—Antonya Nelson, author of Bound

“Bouldrey has assembled a stellar collection of writers—  true storytellers all—who describe in the most human of terms their varied pilgrimages around the world in search of their elusive muses.”—Booklist

Townend-The-Road-to-Home-Rule-cPublication Date: November 22
THE ROAD TO HOME RULE
Anti-imperialism and the Irish National Movement
Paul A. Townend

Townend-Paul-2016-c

Paul Townend

“A bold and original interpretation in which empire emerges as the essential context—rather than a mere sideshow or backdrop—for the rise of Irish nationalism. To find the origins of Home Rule, we will now need to look not simply at the internal politics of the United Kingdom but at Irish responses to events in India, Egypt, Sudan, and South Africa.”—Kevin Kenny, Boston College

New Books For September 2016

We are pleased to announce these three new books arriving in September.

My Son Wears Heels book cover

Publication date: September 6
MY SON WEARS HEELS
One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass
Julie Tarney

“A memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.”Foreword

Julie Tarney

Julie Tarney


“Not only does the book chronicle an especially memorable mother-son relationship, it also suggests that the best parenting is the kind that does not forcibly mold a child into what he/she ‘should’ be but lovingly allows him/her the freedom to follow his/her own special path. A fearlessly open and frank memoir.”Kirkus Reviews

 

Lithium Jesus: A Memoir of Mania book cover

Publication date: September 13
LITHIUM JESUS
A Memoir of Mania

Charles Monroe-Kane

As featured on This American Life

Charles Monroe-Kane

Charles Monroe-Kane

“A young man grapples with bipolar ‘voices’ via religion, hedonism, activism, and Lithium. In his debut, Monroe-Kane, a Peabody Award–winning public radio producer, brings a fresh perspective to familiar memoir territory. . . . [A] compelling account of wrestling with inner turmoil against gritty, dramatic international settings.”Kirkus Reviews

“This humble, funny, raw (yes, sex) book is a pell-mell kaleidoscope of faith, drugs, bawdy behavior, and mental illness that resolves not in soft focus or shattered glass but in the sweet important idea that there are many ways to be born again.”—Michael Perry, author of The Jesus Cow

 

Treehab book coverPublication date: September 27
TREEHAB
Tales from My Natural, Wild Life
Bob Smith

“Smith, a successful comedian and author of both nonfiction and fiction, has lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease [ALS], and even though he now communicates through his iPad, his wit is as sharp as ever. . . . Never moving too far from his comedic nature, Smith delivers one-liners throughout, and nothing is off-limits. A truth-telling tour conducted by an agile guide.”Kirkus Reviews

Bob Smith

Bob Smith

“To say that Bob Smith can make a hilarious one-liner out of everything from imminent ecological catastrophe to his own struggles with ALS is to emphasize only one aspect of the beautiful and devastating Treehab. This is a profound meditation on the fragility of life and the enduring power of tolerance, love, and the many ways of creating families. A smart, funny, inspiring guide.”—Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection