Thursday, January 27, 2011

Writing about place

Place-based writing has a long tradition, in fiction and creative non-fiction. Place-based writing can enhance your sense of place not only about the specific place about which the piece is written but also in more general terms.

I recently read A Year in Place (W. Scott Olsen and Bret Lott, eds, Univ. of Utah Press, 2001). It’s a collection of essays, stories, poems, journal entries, loosely about a particular month in a particular place. It starts with an essay about January in Northridge, California and finishes with a story about December in New England. I say loosely about because in each case, the month and the place act as the backdrop of a story of people interacting with people; as the lead editor says it’s stories “in the places we find ourselves blessed enough to be.” It’s a good read. I recommend it. You’ve heard the expression that good actors can read the phone book and make it sound interesting. I’m not sure what analogy is for good authors, but the place and time become less important than the story itself. This collection falls into that category.

In Not Just Any Land, John Price lets us follow his pursuit of and growth of his sense of place in the North American prairies and plains as he describes his visits to six specific places across that geography and discussions with four authors who write about places there. It’s a good introduction to the literature of the plains and prairies (a literature I was not well familiar with, but am moreso now) and to some of the people working to conserve those places. It, too, is a good read, and a good story, but with a direct, intentional tie to specific place. I especially appreciated it given my affinity for those places but it may be a good case study for anyone trying to find their place.

Another set of place-based essays can be found at www. This site, sponsored by the Creative Non-fiction Foundation, celebrates the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh. I have no connection to Pittsburgh and have never really been to Pittsburgh but the essays were still a great read. It also provides an interesting model for other places to follow in collecting writings about a place.

All of the above examples are from professional writers. Even if you’re not a professional writer, there’s value for you and for others in you going to the trouble of putting your thoughts about down in writing. It helps you cement your thoughts about your sense of your place and may encourage others to do so as well. A member of the local writers group here is thinking about getting something like the Pittsburgh collection going for our area. I’d love to see that happen.

SIDEBAR: Using writings to help develop a sense of place
The NorthWest Earth Institute, an organization that develops “innovative programs that empower individuals and organizations to protect the Earth” (, has developed a set of readings to support a discussion course titled “Discovering a Sense of Place.” The book includes excerpts from writings by Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry and other well-known writers of place and protection of place as well as accounts from less famous writers about their places and actions taken to protect those places. The book is designed to serve as the basis for a series of discussions. The idea is that a group within a community would bring members of that community together for discussions that would spur better appreciation of the place and thus enhanced conservation of the special features of that place. This specific model may or may not be the best strategy for your place, but you will find plenty of useful ideas and ways of thinking.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cool Toys of the North

Our university library presently has a display of northern-related works by two local artists. One of the display items is a kick sled. Very cool. Perhaps you’ve seen them in scenes from Scandinavia. It has long steel runners with a seat towards the front. The operator stands on the runners behind the seat and pushes off with his/her feet. Apparently it works quite well. I haven’t had the opportunity to try one out but I want to.

I recently saw another interesting mode of transportation for the north -- a kit to convert a bicycle to a pedal snow machine. Not so sure about that one. It’s gotta be a lot of work but would be an attention getter. I also have heard of a combo XC ski/snowshoe. Don’t know if it’s the best of both or the worst of both. When I lived in Fargo, a fellow cyclist would put a traction chain on the front wheel of his bike. If you’ve ridden on ice and snow, you know that the friction for steering becomes the limiting factor before friction for propulsion.

That’s only a few of the many cool toys available for people who live up here in snow country. (There are summer toys, too, but they’re not as unique). I guess if one were sick of the north, one could do like Odysseus but instead of an oar, travel with, say, a ski-joring harness until people began to ask ‘what’s that’ and you’d know you were out of the far north country. What would you take if you wanted to be sure you got farther south? I think everyone would recognize snowshoes and XC skis. Maybe a tip-up?

Along with the toys, I also like the fact that we have a 4 season wardrobe. The shorts have swapped places with the sweaters in the back of the closet; next spring, they’ll switch again and the short sleeve polos will come out of the back of the closet (but the sweatshirts and long sleeve shirts will stay in easy reach even in the summer). Tomorrow may be cold enough to get out the flannel lined jeans. They’re just plain fun. Like having your ‘jammies on all day.

What’s your favorite toy/gear/apparel for the season?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thought this was kind of an interesting concept. Randomly popped up while I was searching for other things.
A Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World, fashioned after the great national park lodges of the northwest.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some more thoughts triggered by Plains and Praires

As I mentioned in the last post, my family and I took a trip to visit relatives ‘back home’ in Kansas over break. So I still feel like I have a foot lingering in the plains so to speak, with the other foot figuratively yet solidly in the Great Lakes region (afterall I did just get in from skiing the Ashmun Creek Natural Area). It’s not divided loyalty, it’s feeling at home in both places.

When one can’t be somewhere, reading about that somewhere may well be the next best thing. So I’m reading other people’s accounts and descriptions of life in the plains. In my readings about place, I ran across two accounts of the prairies and plains as place. One was PrairyErth, which I mentioned in the previous post but still haven’t read, the other was Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner*. Both books were termed ‘deep maps,’ in-depth accounts of a fairly limited geographic region. That description prompted me to pull off my shelf the copy of Wolf Willow a fellow plains-o-phile had given me. I read it over break. It’s a great read. It’s a combination memoir of Stegner’s youth in the plains of Saskatchewan near the Cypress Hills from 1914 to 1921 and a history of the last of the native people and white settlement. I recommend it highly.

One part I didn’t agree with, though, was his willingness to write off the plains small towns as doomed to become backwaters from which youth must leave to achieve. Stegner was very appreciative of the opportunity to grow up under the influence of the plains and in a small town setting in which he could kick around. But he was just as appreciative of the opportunity to leave all that and take on a life in the arts. Clearly it worked for him. He said that without some kind of ability to draw in outside influences, small plains towns are doomed to remain stagnant and closed minded. He specifically cited ‘academies’ as one such influence.

That part I agree with. All of my years as an adult have been in towns/small cities with universities. Small towns with small universities, a small town with a large university, two small cities with large-ish universities. Small college towns provide the advantages of a small town but the advantages of some degree of refreshing outside influence (even if the town-gown split indicates that locals don’t always appreciate those influences). We have a lot of work to do here in this town and at this university to help both take full advantage of each other, but based on how many other small college towns have really built on the best of both worlds, we have a bright potential anyway. I just hope that 20 years from now, we’re not still talking about our great potential.

Unlike Stegner, I grew up in the suburbs then moved to rural areas. I attended a large suburban high school and appreciate the many opportunities it afforded me. I liked going downtown for what one can only get in a city. I did go to the art museum frequently and the symphony at least once a year. But I'm glad I have since lived in small towns, though admittedly my small town experience is limited to small towns with universities. I think I'll take the small towns with universities.
*Another account that I’ve just started is all about someone’s development of his sense of place in the prairies and plains – John Price’s Not Just Any Land. I’ll pass on my impressions of it. In the ‘By the same author’ list in the book is the very intriguing “Man Killed by Pheasant.’ From the title alone, I think I’ll have to add it to my list.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plains and Praires

By training, I’m a grasslands ecologist. All my university years were spent in the plains and prairies. I’m attached to them. I appreciate them close up, marveling at the tremendous diversity of plants and animals even within a fraction of a square meter. I appreciate hiking over rolling hills, watching the changing patterns of plant life that match the terrain and scanning the horizon several miles away. I even appreciate them flying over at 35,000 ft. For me, there’s nothing that matches an expanse of rolling grassland, especially if it is clear of roads, buildings, fences, communications towers, wind turbines, and other human aspects of the landscape. Don’t get me wrong. I get to the prairie and plains over roads. I take advantage of buildings. I’ve put up a fence or two. I use the services of the communications towers. And I am not altogether opposed to wind power. I don’t buy into the plan to put the entire swaths of the Great Plains into a ‘buffalo commons.’ But I am glad there are some areas that one can still gaze out over the sea of grasses. It fuels my imagination unlike any other landscape does.

In the central part of Kansas lies such a place. The Flint Hills owe their open lands status to the resistant layer of chert which makes for bluff-like topography and thin soils. It’s not plowed extensively. It’s not criss-crossed by section line roads. In fact, you can pick out the area on Google Earth by the absence of such roads. They owe their open lands status to good stewardship of generations of ranchers. This grassland is dependent on fire and grazing. In the absence of fire, it becomes juniper scrub. There’s not enough rain for the oaks and hickories of the forests just to the east, but enough rain for the junipers. And enough rain to grow big bluestem, indian grass and switchgrass as high as you can reach. In the absence of grazing a small number of plants come to dominate. Light to moderate grazing allows a wide variety of plants to flourish. Poor grazing management -- too much or too little --reduces diversity and productivity.

I’ve been visiting the Flint Hills since I was in high school and still look forward to a swing through as we travel to visit family in Kansas, even if it’s just a passing view from I-70 near Manhattan, Kansas. Over the past few decades, the Flint Hills have become more widely appreciated. The National Park Service established the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Prior to that, the Nature Conservancy established two large reserves, one near Manhattan and one in Northern Oklahoma. A tourism association promotes the cultural, historical and natural features. The book PrairyErth and follow-on media interpreted the history and landscape to a wide audience. I hope there’s been some increased tourism to help the local economy, but I don’t think there’s any danger of the place being over-run with tourists. If you find yourself traveling across I-70 through that part of Kansas, look up, look around, take in the prairie. Better yet, take some additional time and travel south on K177 through the small towns and down to the Preserve. Or just let your imagination go in any grassland setting even a small patch of grassland in your region.