"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Eng. 150: Preservation

I keep saying this, but I think once the semester gets going, I won't be posting this often. But for now, I have ideas (whether or not they're useful to anyone else is another issue entirely). Today, in my English 150 class, we discussed four Gruchow essays in the context of Preservation. Last week we talked about how we create places for ourselves and today we talked about how those sorts of things are preserved. But, before we could even get to that, we had to talk about how we come to know, truly know, what's important in our lives.

On the board: Further Reading (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring; Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire; Sharon Bishop, "The Power of Place"; Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses; the documentary King Corn.)

In "Corn is Not Eternal," I tried to tease out that the corn has become for us what the buffalo was to various Plains tribes, but my class--stubbornly, perhaps--persisted in thinking that corn gives us more than the buffalo did to the Plains tribes. I haven't watched King Corn completely yet, but I've started it. Since it's instant on Netflix, I recommended it. But we haven't completely reconciled what we've lost by giving corn this much importance in our lives.

Between "Remember the Flowers" and "Putting Tomatoes By," which works through what his father considers important (and how he preserves it for the future) and what his mother values (and how she preserves it), we talked about how these things (issues of pesticides/herbicides, monocultures, overdevelopment/conservation, migration from rural to urban/surburban, self-sufficiency, loyalty) come out of various mindsets. We talked about how the parents, who would certainly have gone through the Depression and the father probably served in WW2, formed their work ethics and such. I brought in Silent Spring, how the problems that Carson brings up come out of this post-WW2 mindset: warlike language (eradication), American exceptionalism, absolute trust in the government, etc. I was pleased that I got a few surprised looks, nods, like I'd just given them something new (and, I hope, interesting) to consider.

In "The Transfiguration of Bread" and "Putting Tomatoes By," the ideas of homemade vs. manufacturing were brought up, the values that each of those represent, and how the trend is going back towards homemade, that people are canning again, etc. Ironically, there's an article on the main UNL page today about canning.

But the way I ended class today is directly related to the readings we did for 992 this week. Because this book is largely rural in context and there are a great deal of my students who come from urban/surburban places, we ended with this question (which we started out in discussion, but then I took them to paper, to write about it):
  • How does all this function within an urban/surburban context?
  • How does that environment (in all definitions of that term) affect the ideas that Gruchow brings up across these essays?
  • How do these ideas apply to those places too?
  • How does that urban/surburban environment shape what you consider important and how you preserve it?
  • How much of that is access and availability vs. necessity? Are you more likely to go buy a can of organic tomatoes than to grow them yourself?
  • Because you have access to things like a farmer's market, does that change your perceptions?
  • What happens when things like homemade bread and canned vegetables become political choices (consumption, environmental, waste), based on a certain level of affluence, vs. what you do because you have no other choice?

Since I've been thinking about my city students and what they think of reading such rural writings, I'm glad that we were able to consider these questions today. Hopefully they'll bear fruit by the time the rough draft of their first paper is due next Thursday.


  1. Karen, I'll be interested to learn if and how your students can make the move from Gruchow to urban/suburban. A lot of the NeWP teachers in suburbia who've worked with Gruchow tell me they find pairing his essays helps -- to take "Putting Tomatoes By" alongside a Nebraska essay about something in our two major cities. Do you know Lisa Knopp's work, especially NATURE OF HOME with its essays about neighborhoods in Lincoln and what's lost to civic development? Or Jim McKee's VISIONS OF LINCOLN, esp. the chapter on the "little cities" that got absorbed as Lincoln grew? Often these pairing prompt connections that just the rural stuff by itself doesn't have.

  2. I'm interested too, to see if they'll be able to link Gruchow to other contexts. I guess I'll find out on their next reading response. I know of Lisa Knopp (and I think I have Nature of Home on my shelf), but I've never read her. But those are excellent ideas to pair--thank you so much!