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.

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