"Local Life Aware Of Itself"
On Friday, I attended the launch of Dr. Tom Lynch's new book, Face of the Earth, co-authored with SueEllen Campbell and others, and he read brief excerpts from his chapter on deserts, which he said have a lot to do with grasslands in terms of perceptions. He spoke of the vertical and horizontal sublime and it reminded me of something W. Scott Olsen wrote in his essay "Gravity":
"People who live in the mountains or visit them say, 'You can see so far!' Yet, living on the prairie, I know I can see farther. The difference is one, I believe, of a framed and unframed landscape. In the mountains, you see more surface. You see more dirt, but you see less far. On the prairie, you can't see nearly as much surface. The surface falls away with the curvature of the earth, but you can see forever."
How to look and what you see when you look at the prairies and grasslands is the essential focus between John T. Price's "The First Miracle of the Prairie" and Wes Jackson's "Matfield Green." Both consider how teachers like us might contribute to place-consciousness. Jackson advocates that universities should "assume the awesome responsibility of both validating and educating those who want to be homecomers--not that they necessarily want to go home, but rather to go someplace and dig in and begin the long search and experiment to become native." The idea of being a homecomer is especially attractive at the present moment, because it allows for people to make a home anywhere they are, whether they were born in that soil or not.
Price's essay starts out with much the same rhetorical strategy as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, as Price sets up a specific place that should provoke a specific reaction, yet results in exactly the opposite reaction. Price expects to feel "its character, its magnitude...something special to mark this as an arrival, something spiritual, mystical--God. Instead, I felt cold gusts working the collar of my sweatshirt, the itch of fly bites, the painful throb in my right palm where I had stuck myself on a prickly pear." Price is coming to the grasslands from a perspective after the 1993 Mississippi flood, where nature has been anything but a passive physical setting where other things happen.
The first step to forming a commitment to the landscape where one is (whether that is where one is born or where one chooses to be) is, as he asserts, a matter of language. He mentions Annie Dillard, that "seeing is a matter of verbalization," and that the 1993 flood destroyed his ability to attach language to what he was seeing in action. I felt the same way during the various Red River floods between North Dakota and Minnesota, especially the 1997 Flood. Price argues that articulation is the first step to his "own confused and contradictory relationship to my home region, my own tenuous reach, as a resident and a writer, toward commitment, responsibility, and love." He takes his own path to articulation through the words of other writers (passive learning), but then he takes the initiative to write to several of these writers, interview and meet them, and actively participate in the conversation of the place (active learning). That movement was not lost on me as a teacher, as we've been considering active learning in the past several weeks in this class.
What was particularly striking about Price's essay was the juxtaposition between the landscape itself and the writings that came out of it. The grasslands and prairies are considered empty landscapes, devoid of any inherent redeeming qualities, having no value at all until money can be made from it (by cultivation or ranching). Throughout the essay, he begins the journey to understand that the grasslands are valuable all on their own, that there is incredible biodiversity here, that this place is indeed special. As he does this, he also makes a case that the grasslands are not devoid of writers writing about them either, as some might assume. If you asked most people to name writers writing about the Great Plains, some might be able to name Willa Cather, Loren Eiseley, Ted Kooser, maybe one or two more. But the sheer number of nonfiction writers he mentions (seeing most of the names he mentions absolutely thrilled me, because some of them are quite unknown) means that there is more value here, on a literary level, than most could articulate on first glance. Some of the writers he mentions in this essay are among my favorites: Kathleen Norris and Gretel Ehrlich, Bill Kittredge and Linda Hasselstrom, and more. (And it reminded me that, sheerly by coincidence, my fiction class is reading Dan Chaon's short story "The Bees," and I had no idea that he was originally from Nebraska. I keep adding to this list of classes I want to put together--and now I'm getting some cool ideas for "Contemporary Literature of the Great Plains.")
What Price advocating is that writing can be the savior of the prairie--both in the reading and in the writing. He asks, "How might we return to that other perspective, facing in the grasslands that thing which humbles us, inspires us, throws us back upon our selves?" The next question to ask, though, is yes, but why should we? This is a question answered in a different, more economical/practical way by Jackson. For himself, Price advocates the place of the nature writer, a classification of writer that is, like the grasslands, marginalized even among the genre of nonfiction, not taken as seriously as writers who are not labeled "regional." Part of the problem is teaching prairie children (and prairie writers) that their place is not as important as other places, that writing that comes out of local places, stories of "local color," are simply charming, not important--both in literature and their own writing. As Price quotes Hamlin Garland:
"Local color, he claimed, has 'such quality of texture and back-ground that it could not have been written in any other place or by any one else than a native. It means a statement of life as indigenous as the plant growth.' Such a statement does not arise from calculated literary choices but rather from a perspective so intrinsic that 'the writer naturally carries it with him half-consciously, or conscious only of its significance, its interest to him.' It is a way of writing as natural as living."
For too long has the term "local color" been pejorative in literature, but it certainly is an example of what it means to know a place intimately (and be able to articulate that to others). The complexity that that kind of knowing offers is exactly what Wendell Berry describes, as Price quotes him later: "without a complex knowledge of one's place, and without the faithfulness to one's place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed." For the purpose of this class, asking how to facilitate students forming that type of complex knowledge is important. What constitutes this complex knowledge? Is it knowing names of plants and how the ecology works? Is it knowing the geological history (like Ashfall) and how that effects how we live in this place today? Is it knowing the human history, the toll that the Europeans forced on this particular bioregion? Is it asking students to investigate their own personal history in this place? Is it all of the above?
While Price worked through the literary presence on the prairie, Jackson articulated well some interesting economic ideas, towards a sustainable economy. These aren't perfect places, he writes, that "the graveyard contains the cuckolder and the cuckoldee, the shooter and the shot, the drunk and the sober." He writes of the realities of Place, how it is possible to become native to a place, that it requires not just social and contextual elements, but also economical ones: such things cannot--and should not--be separated. This offers hope for a larger population. As he writes of the ladies' club in Matfield Green, learning how to cope with the August heat, he writes that in what we could call "uneducated" ways, they're learning how to be a native of that place: the alternative to which is air conditioning, which is detrimental in more ways than we can count.
It makes me wonder if this is one way that we as educators can translate these ideas of place-consciousness to our students: how is it possible to become native to a place that you were not born in, didn't grow up in? John Banville, the Irish novelist, writes in his novel The Untouchable, "To take possession of a city of which you are not a native, you must first of all fall in love there." John T. Price mentioned love at the beginning of his essay, and the idea of love is also frequent in Gruchow's essays. What does it mean to love a place? How is that the same and different from loving a human being? How is it not a one-time event, that it is a way of making a life, of continually forming particular relationships? Too often we see the land as passive, that humans are (almost) the only active element on it. Both Price and Jackson articulate that in order to find value in a place, the relationship needs to be equal, that we need to see (and verbalize) how the landscape acts on us as much as we act on it.