Category: bioregional

History, Courage & Learning to Remember

In college, I was no history buff. Dr. Lynwood Oyos’ legendary Western Civilization class at Augustana College nearly sank me in terms of my grade point average. He was a brilliant and personable professor who expected his students to immerse themselves in history, not simply learning dates, but absorbing the past in dimensions at that time beyond my grasp. I appreciated the man but came to fear history, at least as an academic pursuit.

On our first date, Goodhusband and I met in a bookstore…yes indeed, an auspicious sign. Thumbing through a published collection of World War II photographs, he told me more than I’d ever learned about that war. While he and I were in high school, some teachers claimed that it was “too soon” to teach or learn about it, that time must bring perspective. Maybe it was just too near and painful to talk about.

World War II holds my interest as a writer because of its complexity and endless potential for storytelling, so I read quite a bit about it. My as-yet-unpublished novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, is about a woman who survived that war and lived to regret it. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, as a reader I’m attracted to stories about people caught in events so devastating, so pivotal and yet so real.

Last week I read Sarah’s Key, a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay that revisits a World War II event in Paris. Beginning on July 16, 1942, Paris police herded thousands of French Jewish families into the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deporting them in train cars to extermination camps. Sarah is a fictional character at the center of that catastrophe who captures the interest of the novel’s main character, a journalist named Julia Jarmond. This Rafle du Vél d’Hiv, or the Vél d’Hiv Roundup, is seen from both Julia’s and Sarah’s perspectives as De Rosnay explores the multi-generational and cross-cultural suffering generated by indifference and complicity with Nazi racial extermination. Her story also explores healing, which is an essential, elusive but excruciating process for individuals, families and communities at war. It’s a great story and I highly recommend it, although it depicts intense tragedy and its aftermath. Don’t go into this story expecting to emerge unruffled. For more information about Vél d’Hiv, Ms. De Rosnay and her fiction, I recommend her website. Background on  Vél d’Hiv is widespread on the web, but the Guardian ran a cluster of features on the historical event, De Rosnay’s novel and the related motion picture, featuring Kristin Scott Thomas. The Time World page on the 70th anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, this past July, is worth viewing, as well.

Denise Madeleine Bloch

My random WWII research this week also led me to the story of a survivor of Vél d’Hive, Denise Madeleine Bloch. As Parisian Jews, she and her family must have felt the tide turning; they fled Paris just in time, crossing the demarcation line into “free,” unoccupied Lyon on July 17th. There the Special Operations Executive, a British World War II organization, recruited her into resistance as a wireless operator and courier. A successful and resilient agent, she learned the art of deception, memorized cryptographer codes, underwent rigorous physical and psychological training and even gathered the courage to parachute jump. Her codenames included “Ambroise” and “Crinoline.” Ensign Denise Block was executed in early 1945 at Ravensbrück and received several posthumous awards. You may read more about her where I found this information, here.

These women–an author, an undercover agent and fictional characters you’ll never forget–their lives, events and stories demonstrate that facts can expand and live through storytelling, whether academic, journalistic or fictional. Resounding with meaning in our senses and memory, stories lead us to embrace and remember people and events that must never be forgotten.

That’s probably what Dr. Oyos wanted me to learn, once I was ready.

7 Random Drops of Water: Poured, Dripped and Logged

Lake Michigan, Door County, Wisconsin

Water is the most taken-for-granted necessity of our lives, except perhaps for air. While much of the world pines for water, here in the U.S., we bottle it, spill it, spray it out of garden hoses and flush it down the drain. As long as it flows out of the tap and doesn’t back up through our sewer lines, we give it little thought.

Today, let’s change that. As a topic, water is as vast as its oceans, glaciers and atmospheric presence. I’ve spent a little time considering it as a metaphor, a scarce necessity, a molecular compound and a force of nature. Today, I present for you 7 random “drops” of water.

Gavins Point Dam, 2011

1. The Missouri River Flood of 2011, an impressive, unexpected deluge, devastated farmland, disrupted local economies and travel and destroyed many homes and barns. Fortunately, it wasn’t fatal, as were the hurricane-related floods of the South in recent years. As with most natural disasters, finding someone to blame for this one is still a priority. Some blame nature, while others lay it at the feet of bureaucrats. I believe nature can outsmart bureaucrats 99% of the time. Smart water wranglers assure us that this was a “500-year flood,” unlikely to recur soon. Smart people who rebuild on the flood plain are pouring very tall concrete foundations for their homes. See my video of Gavins Point Dam in 2011, when 160,000 cubic feet of water passed, per second.

Thales, out of the well

2. Thales of Miletus, whom Aristotle described in his Metaphysics as the founder of natural philosophy, is reported in myth to have fallen into a well while studying the stars. Aristotle also recorded that “Thales says that it is water”–meaning that according to Thales, water was the originating principle of matter.

3. A rarely-noted water behavior is sublimation, where H2O in its solid state bypasses liquidation to become a gas or vapor. During my childhood in Colorado, I learned about one such phenomenon: the Chinook wind. According to Dave Thurlow of the Mount Washington Observatory,

Chinook winds are westerlies from the Pacific whose moisture gets wrung out as it passes over the Rocky Mountains. Once these winds come down from the mountains onto the high plains, they can be quite mild and extremely dry-as warm as 60 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit — over 15 Celsius — with a relative humidity of 10% or less. The air is so dry that when it hits a snowpack, the frozen water evaporates, going directly from the ice to vapor and bypassing the liquid phase entirely.

This sublimation is not to be confused with Freud’s psychological equation: sublimation = sexual energy transformed into creative energy, which has little to do with drinking or bathing, but likely has everything to do with Freud’s mother…drinking or bathing.

Ogallala Aquifer

4. An aquifer is a soil and bedrock formation that percolates water into purity, filtering out minerals, organisms and some contaminants. Abandoned wells (Make sure you don’t have one at your place; children tend to fall into them.) bypass the aquifer and allow those bad things into the groundwater. Here is a map showing the Ogallala. It’s very shallow, but one of the largest in the world.

5. Digging a well by hand is very hard work and this video demonstrates how it’s done in most parts of the world. Thanks to ghost32, whatever your real name, for this video of hard, thirsty work in Mexico.

Beaver by Ilyes Laszlo

6. Not only is there a Beaver Crossing Nebraska, but this village has an impressive, watery history. I lived there for less than a year, leaving against my better judgment, but holding a neighbor’s recipe for the best oatmeal cookies I ever ate. First struck in his mercantile basement by Earl Eager in the late 1800s, a gusher of an artesian well system made this village better than the average watering hole. (Did anyone else notice the fortuitous “Eager” and “Beaver” juxtaposition in this text? Of course you did.) Learn more in Mary Lanik’s history of Beaver Crossing and its wonderful wells, as well as at the first link here, in #6.

7. To the best of my knowledge, since 1866, federal water law and policy has deferred to states in the allocation and administration of water within their boundaries. Please notify me if this has changed and I will assume all blame for the error.

Bioregional Literature III — The Desert

On what will certainly not be my last musings on bioregional literary criticism, I would like to offer up an interesting example. Tom Lynch, mentioned in my previous post, is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches “ecocriticism and place-conscious literature.” Through the Texas Tech University Press, Tom Lynch has published a volume entitled, Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature. As a repeated, devoted visitor to Northern New Mexico, I look forward to reading this book. An excerpt:
“[W]hether I notice or not, the landscape suffuses my body. Unidentifiable scents enter my lungs with each breath: the mingled smells of dust, rock, juniper, turpentine bush, mountain mahogany, the heady mix of volatile oils of the creosote bush, and the ever-so-subtle odor of blue sky. Though less often articulated, all of my senses, not just vision, are engaged; the phenomena of this world circulate through me, and I through them. The landscape caresses as I pass through. . . . On my feet again, I hobble from stiffness, throw my pack on, and, leaning on my sotol stalk for balance, begin to pick my way zigzag down the long rocky slope. I am in love with this landscape. I am, indeed, a devoted xerophile.”                                   —from the introduction
For those of you like myself, who are tempted to look up xerophile and see how a person could be one…I already did. A xerophile is an organism that is adapted to conditions with a low availability of water. My longest stretch in an isolated region of the New Mexico desert was ten days and I felt an interesting sense of falling in love, a willingness to adapt to the extreme aridity, even if that sense of adaptation was primarily a keen sense of my vulnerability. It was difficult to walk anywhere without considering how far I might be from the nearest river or water source. In a larger sense, I realized the primacy of nature in that place and came face-to-face with my irrelevance to the surroundings. I was not at the center of any scheme in the desert, and it was a satisfying realization, both intellectually and spiritually.
Many have considered the westward expansion and settlement of the American frontier to have been a sort of dominion or mastery, the exertion and supremacy of human structures and energies over nature. It takes a spiritual, and even literary, humility to consider how the physical world shapes the those of us who tread on and in it. Perhaps it takes an even more profound sense of our union with and need for the earth to consider that we should tread lightly, even invisibly as we pass by.
Do we define places, or do they define us? Discuss amongst yourselves…
      photo credit: El Santuario de Chimayo, by Fermin Hernandez

Bioregional LIterature II

While recently visiting the Western Literature Association website, I noted a literary term that was new and yet familiar to me; bioregional literary criticism. Merriam-Webster defines a bioregion as “a region whose limits are naturally defined by topographic and biological features (as mountain ranges and ecosystems).” In the 1970s, Peter Berg described bioregionalism as “an environmental perspective that emphasizes action over protest, lifestyle over legislation.” He later expanded the definition of a bioregion as “a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness.” 
“A terrain of consciousness.” Mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, meadows and plains shaped (and still shape) not only our physical expansion as a nation, but also stirred (and still stir) American writers to deeper insight about the human experience. For example, Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping gave us Fingerbone, a lakeside mountain town as physical and dreamlike as any in American literature. She demonstrated with insight and precision that a literary “place” absorbs and exceeds its ecology, topography and biology.
According to the WLA site when I consulted it, Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty and Karla Armbruster are currently at work on a volume of essays on the topic of bioregional literary criticism. They propose to examine situations and writing from “community-based writing projects” to “place-based publication ventures,” as well as considerations of how “post-colonialism, globalization, and environmental justice affect literature worldwide.” I haven’t discussed the topic or their developing project with these editors, but I look forward to their future publication.
As writers, we only approach and honor the universal when we attend to the concrete details of human experience. Through vivid, specific characters, actions and places, we create an alternative interpretation and influence of reality, whether we render it starkly, ornately, or with a touch of the fantastic. Bioregional literary criticism is another way we might explore “where we are” and “who we are” in literature and in life.
I hope that this blog becomes “fertile ground” for exploration and discussion of how fiction, poetry and essays help us read and write ourselves into a sense of where and who we are.

Bioregional Literature I

To classify a literary work as “regional” may at first glance seem to limit its scope and appeal. Some essays, novels or poetry are initially slow to generate interest beyond their “land of origin.” However, readers today increasingly seek out literature that provides an experience that they would never otherwise find. Fascinating and worthy writers who record native, immigrant, minority and exile experiences increasingly capture contemporary readers’ imagination.

Many readers and critics favor one or another specific “lenses” through which to interpret what they read (gender, politics and linguistics are just a few). One such lens, a personal favorite of mine, is to explore the particular nuances that resonate from a literary sense of place.

My first exposure to this particular literary lens came while I was an English student at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Dr. Arthur Huseboe, who established the Center for Western Studies there, dedicated much of his scholarship to the culture and literature of the Great Plains and the West, with special scholarly attention to authors Frederick Manfred and Herbert Krause.

I learned more about Great Plains and Western regionalism while attending a Western Literature Association conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in October of 1989. By that time, I had lived across a broad swath of the region mockingly dubbed “The Great American Desert”–from Texas to Minnesota, and Colorado to Iowa. The idea of the American Plains and West as fertile ground for literature led me to focus on it, as well as creative writing, in my Master’s degree studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a reader, the “meanings” of this particular region still fascinate me. The romance of literary participation in this regional tradition fires my own fiction writing.