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

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Eng. 150: Children's Blizzard, Day 2

Monday was a great day. I'm sure my students were overwhelmed with all I tried to cram into our fifty minutes, but such is life. We're reading excerpts from David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard and on Monday I paired our reading with a couple of articles. I know my students hate the articles, but they're so important--and I'm so hoping that is coming clear to them. So many of their Think Pieces from last week detailed how they'd never heard of the Children's Blizzard, even having lived in Nebraska their whole lives. I know. I know. So we read John Opie's "Moral Geography in High Plans History" and Marita Sturken's "Desiring the Weather: El Nino, the Media, and California Identity." Fascinating. Simply fascinating. Half the class had read one of the articles and the other half read the other article and they taught what they had read to the other half of the class. It's the first time I've tried that tactic and I think it went well--but I'm really missing my longer TR class periods.

Getting my students to consider the Plains in terms of Opie's "moral geography" was an interesting process. What happens when we impose a morality on a piece of land, how a landscape is made to represent fundamental values of a group of people? We talked about Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, the Homestead Act (most of my students had no idea what that was), and how all of that plays into shaping the people who live in this place we are also now calling home. The article also talks about various federal Farm Bills as moral responses to take care of the people starving in this geography.

Some thought-provoking moments:

"On the Plains, when farmers failed they believed they were under the divine hammer and had also betrayed the American dream. They believed it was both sinful and unpatriotic to abandon their homesteads" (244).

"It offered a geography of hope, a pastoral idealism preached by Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and many others. By the ninetieth century, a near-mythic belief that life on a family farm...was a superior way of life stood as an article of faith at the heart of Americanism" (245).

"Because God was on the United States' side, surely nature would conform to God's plan. A livable landscape could thus be imposed on the challenging Plains" (247).

"By the second half of the twentieth century, the Plains had slipped off most Americans' mental map; they became a region beyond society's edge. By mid-twentieth century, American 'social space' stopped at the boundaries of suburbia, and any unique features beyond suburbia appeared to be antique, hardly relevant curiosities" (253).

And more. I could go on and on and on. This is a great article, thinking about all the ways this landscape was manipulated--and in the case of many of the immigrants that Laskin follows throughout his book, how the immigrants themselves were manipulated into this place. Wes Jackson makes an appearance here, a welcome introduction for my students into a biocentric view of the world.

Combining this with Sturken's article about the weather and El Nino was likewise fascinating. I'm looking forward to my students' Think Pieces tomorrow, because I really want to see them applying ideas and moving in and out and among them. Sturken writes about the weather as a thing "not to be experienced so much as watched and consumed" (162). She moves through the weather as entertainment and how the weather, throughout much of history, "has been dictated by narratives of control" (163). She considers the weather in terms of revenge--and as we've been talking about in my class, morality tales. (Dear students, this is a moment of connection you should be making with the blizzard and Opie...)

A fascinating moment, though, is how she connects the weather and its narratives to citizenship and nationalist discourses, where "weather is most often defined as coming from elsewhere" (164). El Nino was "a foreign entity...visited upon the United States" (165)--and for the purposes of thinking about the Children's Blizzard, it came on the wings of an Alberta Clipper. Weather, she writes, "is also one of the means through which people situate themselves in the world, not only as local citizens but as national and global citizens" (171). She does discuss Othering in terms of who is affected--and I really wish we could have dug into that a little deeper in class. Oh, the limits of the classroom space.

One piece my students found fascinating was the two narratives of weather and disaster in California: the first is that of an apocalyptic narrative, that it's inevitable that The Big One will come and California will be destroyed and crack off and become an island in the Pacific; and the second one is a narrative of "California desires what it gets [coming] under the guise of a moralistic stance about consumerism and popular culture" (182), that because California is asking for these disasters because of their immoral ways (Godless in Hollywood, gay marriage, all that fun stuff). Fascinating, because she also points out that Florida and other states in the path of hurricanes regularly suffer more damage than California, but Florida and those places have no apocalyptic narratives. And it's even more fascination how Sturken considers all of this in terms of California's regional identity. Another point of contact for my students and our class. You can't escape how a landscape shapes your identity as an individual and you can't escape how it shapes your community.

Ending as Sturken does was a great way to end the class--one I hope we can continue to talk about in our class--that "These narratives are ultimately about the question of survival... The story of weather disaster is about finding meaning in survival" (186). She continues, "In creating an overreaching narrative for the weather, El Nino provided an explanation for that thing which is perceived to be the most uncontrollable... This was weather with a purpose, and, as such, an indicator of a larger purpose in life" (187). We talk about these disasters because they have meaning--not in themselves, but meaning that we give them, as we try to find answers in the unknowable, patterns in the random, explanations in the unexplainable. It's why the Plains--and other places prone to disasters--have formed this moral geography, because it's one of the ways that we find meaning in our lives.

On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser is coming to our class to talk about his book Blizzard Voices, which is a collection of poetry about the Children's Blizzard. I can't wait. It's going to be fantastic.

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