from A Sand County Almanac
by Aldo Leopold
in Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth
by Robert Root
“After reading Leopold, we walk out into our own country, wondering where its riches might be hidden.”—Robert Root
This is the third installment from Robert Root’s new book Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. Bob’s book is an exploration of the meaning of place—his chronicle of making Wisconsin, where he has come to live, a home ground by following other writers through the countryside and peeling back the layers of significance that over time a place acquires. Last week I chose a paragraph from John Muir’s childhood chronicle, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth that is quoted in Bob’s book. This week we take on Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac and next week we complete the survey of the authors Bob followed into his home ground with the work of August Derleth. Finally I will end with a parting commentary of my own from the second section of Bob’s book on walking The Ice Age Trail and Fox River.
In this week’s commentary, Bob examines Leopold’s seminal distinction between “land” and “country” an idea that allows any place in nature—no matter how modest—to reveal its treasures.
The Paragraphs of the Week
The taste for country displays the same diversity in aesthetic competence among individuals as the taste for opera, or oils. There are those who are willing to be herded in droves through "scenic" places, who find mountains grand if they are proper mountains with waterfalls, cliffs, and lakes. To such the Kansas plains are tedious. They see the endless corn but not the heave and the grunt of ox teams breaking the prairie. History, for them, grows on campuses. They look at the low horizon, but they cannot see it, as de Vaca did, under the bellies of the buffalo.
In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches, to perceive which requires much living in and with.
In his essay "Country," originally published posthumously in Round River and later, with other essays from that book, added to an expanded edition of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote: "There is much confusion between land and country. Land is the place where corn, gullies, and mortgages grow. Country is the personality of land, the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather. Country knows no mortgages, no alphabetical agencies, no tobacco road; it is calmly aloof to those petty exigencies of its alleged owners?" The theme is one he sounded in "Great Possessions" as well and in more allusive ways in other essays. He makes some distinctions among those who encounter country, suggesting that a public preoccupation with "wilderness vistas" and "sublime panoramas" leads to a shortsighted perspective on the natural world. Leopold invites us to challenge our sense of where we are. The almanac is the result of much living in and with the country where he had chosen to dwell and his perceptions revealed its hidden riches. After reading Leopold, we walk out into our own country, wondering where its riches might be hidden.
Note: In his book, Bob inserts Muir’s words into his paragraph, but here I have taken the liberty of arranging the paragraph and commentary to fit the side-by-side format of The Humble Essayist.
from Walden West
by August Derleth
in Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth
by Robert Root
“August Derleth's home ground is not centered on the natural world but encompasses it along with the life of the community he has been bound up with. ”—Robert Root
This is the fourth installment featuring paragraphs from Robert Root’s new book Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth which is, in fact, a compendium of excellent authors on the subject of nonfiction and place. Bob’s book is an exploration of the meaning of place—of making Wisconsin, where he has come to live, a "home ground" by following other writers through the countryside and peeling back the layers of significance that over time a place acquires. Last week I chose a paragraph from The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold that is quoted in Bob’s book. This week we take on August Derleth, the author of Walden West, a book which emulates Thoreau's text but with a difference: it remembers that a place has a human as well as a natural history. What sets Derleth apart from Thoreau and the other writers in Walking Home Ground is the subject of the commentary by Bob and gives a fine summation of our exploration of Wisconsin writers. Next week I will conclude our series with a paragraph and commentary on Bob’s journey along the The Ice Age Trail and Fox River in the second half of his book.
The Paragraph of the Week
Perhaps it is the subconscious yearning for past time, for a time of irresponsibility, which lays traps for the unwary, the longing for a return to the dark, enclosing place, the intimacy of being lost to alien eyes, of being secret and alone, which may be another expression of the desire to be merged with all things, with earth itself, an awareness not of timelessness as such, but of the obliteration which is both death and the merging into time, the moment behind is the moment that has died, as were it knowledge that death always lurks behind, and before, the unknown, and beyond the unknown somewhere death at full circle, life and death being one.
Walden West, in its profiles of Sac Prairie townspeople, is largely a book of the dead. It makes sense that Derleth, who is aware at the time of his writing the book that Derleths have been in Sac Prairie for more than ten decades and he himself has passed half a century there, would be unable to avoid thinking about losses. In spite of his tendency to focus so much on his interior life, August Derleth's home ground is not centered on the natural world but encompasses it along with the life of the community he has been bound up with. In that sense, unlike John Muir and Aldo Leopold perhaps, August Derleth is someone very much more like all the rest of us.
from Walking Home Ground:
In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth
by Robert Root
“What is remarkable, though, is the way home ground can reassert itself simply through an act of attention.”—THE
This is the final installment from Robert Root’s new book Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth, an exploration of the meaning of place, of making Wisconsin, where he has come to live, a home ground by following other writers through the countryside and peeling back the layers of significance that over time a place acquires. Over the last month we have looked at paragraphs by John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth—all writers who have done significant writing about place. This week concludes the series with a paragraph and commentary of my own on Bob’s journey along the the Ice Age Trail and Fox River.
The Paragraph of the Week
At times as I've been walking the Fox River, I've been a solitary hiker, and the people I've encountered, be they strollers or joggers, bikers or sunbathers, fishermen or idlers, have all had their own relationships with the river. Beyond the riverbanks and the pathways the energy it takes to be part of the hustling, rushing mainstream shuts down our sense of where we are. In our frequent trips between Waukesha and Wauwatosa, where our daughter's family lives, Sue and I are continually aware of the intensity and pace of traffic, the thumping and bellowing of the car stereos in the next lane, the concentration on cell phone conversations or arguments in the cars ahead of or behind us, the frenzy of the tailgaters and lane changers. To drive amidst all that takes concentration and some degree of resignation. When my wife drives I try to gaze out the window at the passing landscape, looking forward to the lowland marshes on one road, the dips and rises of another, the occasional wooded stretches—anywhere the land reminds me of its presence despite what squats and clusters upon and around it. As when I walk through the woods and stroll along the river, I can often feel that I don't simply dwell upon this terrain but truly inhabit it. I have no way to connect with the urgencies and anxieties of the travelers beside us on the highways, but even as we flow among them I can feel connected to the land itself, can remember that I'm passing over home ground.
We are all familiar with the way the rush of modern life “shuts down our sense of where we are.” The highway between “Waukesha and Wauwatosa” is the no man’s land of every highway in America. Robert Root’s description in the final section of Walking Home Ground captures the sense of dislocation perfectly: “the intensity and pace of traffic, the thumping and bellowing of the car stereos in the next lane, the concentration on cell phone conversations or arguments in the cars ahead of or behind us, the frenzy of the tailgaters and lane changers.” It is really no place at all, but a way to a place which is disconnected from the land by asphalt, rubber, and metal and subject to the continual distractions of stereos and cellphones. What defines it is the urge to be someplace else—mentally and physically—creating a growing tension: “arguments in the cars ahead of or behind us, the frenzy of the tailgaters and lane changers.” What is remarkable, though, is the way home ground can reassert itself simply through an act of attention on our part, or more precisely an act of distraction away from inattention that can return the harried traveler to sanity. When his wife, Sue, drives, Bob writes that he can “gaze out the window at the passing landscape, looking forward to the lowland marshes on one road, the dips and rises of another, the occasional wooded stretches—anywhere the land reminds me of its presence despite what squats and clusters upon and around it.” Even as he flows with the traffic of American life, over land that has been branded, stripped, abused, and man-handled, he can open himself to receive the gift of place. “I can feel connected to the land itself,” Bob writes, “can remember that I'm passing over home ground.”
“The Inside Out Mermaid”
in If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
by Matthea Harvey
“The Inside Out Mermaid is fine with letting it all hang out–veins, muscles, the bits of fat at her belly, her small gray spleen. At first her lover loves it–with her organs on the outside, she's the ultimate open book.”—Matthea Harvey
Lets have a month of poets writing prose! We’ll look at prose poems, pieces of prose inserted in poems, paragraphs as poems. Poets test the limits of language and reading them can sharpen our own writing and give humble essayists a renewed sense of the fresh possibilities and the inevitable limitations of language.
We will start with Matthea Harvey who was born in Germany, spent her childhood in England, and moved to Milwaukee with her family when she was eight years old. She attended Harvard as an undergraduate and the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Her collections of poems include Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000), Sad Little Breathing Machine (2004), Modern Life (2007), Of Lamb (2011), and If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (2014). She has also published two children’s books: The Little General and the Giant Snowflake (2009, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel) and Cecil the Pet Glacier (2012, illustrated by Giselle Potter). In 2017, Harvey was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. You can learn more about her and read more of her work at The Poetry Foundation and at her website here.
The poem is called “The Inside Out Mermaid,” and, like many of her poems, it is a single paragraph.
The Paragraph of the Week
The Inside Out Mermaid is fine with letting it all hang out–veins, muscles, the bits of fat at her belly, her small gray spleen. At first her lover loves it–with her organs on the outside, she's the ultimate open book. He can pump her lungs like two bellows and make her gasp; ask her difficult questions and study the synapses firing in her brain as she answers to see if she's lying; poke a pleasure center in the frontal lobe and watch her squirm. No need for bouquets or sad stories about his childhood. He just plucks a pulmonary vein and watches the left ventricle flounder. But before long, she starts to sense that her lover, like all the others before him, is getting restless. This is when she starts showing them her collections–the basket of keys from all over the world, the box of zippers with teeth of every imaginable size–all chosen to convey a sense of openness. As a last resort, she’ll even read out loud the entries from her diary about him to him. But eventually he’ll become convinced she’s hiding things from him and she is. Her perfect skin. Her long black hair. Her red mouth, never chapped from exposure to sun or wind, how she secretly loves that he can’t touch her here or here.
He is fine with turning himself outside in for his mermaid, one of his ears touching the other, his arms intertwined, his toes pleated like a fin for her pleasure before turning inward. She watches him sit cross-legged so long that he simply ties himself into a knot that cannot be undone. At first she loves it—with his exterior safely out of sight, he is mysterious again. She can feel his lips on her lips just by thinking about them, and his lips on her eyes merely by closing her own. She has no idea what actually happened to the body she once loved, but under her closed eyelids it becomes perfect: the freckles gone at last, the swag at his belly tucked in with the rest of him. And as for his penis—she can only imagine! But before long, he senses that she—like others he has pretzeled for—is getting restless, and he bobs in the wake of her fin as she swims off now and again. He tries magic tricks: turning a dollar upside down in three folds, retaching a detachable thumb, and pulling a nose out of a coin. Flummoxed, he disappears altogether with a poof, but none of it works. When she closes her eyes she finds parts of him showing up elsewhere, his leg in a hotel lobby potted plant, a hand around a thigh, and his lips—oh no, not there! Secretly he loves it. She closes her eyes and searches for him in the dark, while he levitates beyond her cornea, floating here or here or anywhere else.
from “Fifty Ways of Looking at Tornadoes”
in This is Only a Test
by B. J. Hollars
“Scientists may try to predict storms and offer advice for surviving them, but in the end a tornado is more like a strange deity, ‘encircled by a blue light’ and casting out bolts of lightning like arrows and balls.”—THE
Our Paragraph of the Week is segment 18 of “Fifty Ways of Looking at Tornadoes,” in which B. J. Hollars uses a segmented essay to convey the disjointed chaos and absolute terror of a mighty twister. The essay is from This Is Only a Test, a collection on those times that we—and those we love—feel most vulnerable to natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. “This is Only a Test" exposes our fears—real and fake, invented and embedded of disasters” writes Jill Talbot. Sadly, it is a book of our time.
Hollars is interested in essays like this segmented piece that push nonfiction and edited Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, a collection of genre-bending pieces accompanied by the commentaries of authors who wrote the essays. We have featured B. J. Hollars in the past, and you can find his earlier Paragraph of the Week in the archives, here.
The Paragraph of the Week
On April 11, 1965, the people of Toledo tried just that [to avoid a tornado]. It struck anyhow, bringing with it something strange. The strangeness came in the form of two streams of parallel light, along with a cloud filled with lightning bolts "shooting straight ahead like arrows." The tornado was said to be encircled by an "electric blue light," as well as by "balls of orange and lightning" trailing from the tip of the tail. Do not expect science to explain any of this. One witness added that the tornado's tail was reminiscent of an elephant trunk. "It would dip down as if to get food," the witnesses described, "then rise up again... [to] put the food in his mouth."
What B.J. Hollars and his wife and unborn child discover on April 27, 2011 while hiding under cushions in a bathtub in Tuscalooosa Alabama is that a tornado is not a weather phenomenon, but a mystery beyond human understanding. Scientists may try to predict storms, and offer advice for surviving the them, but in the end a tornado is more like a strange deity, “encircled by a blue light” and casting out bolts of lightning like arrows and balls. It is a “god-muscled torso surrounded by lightning bolts with his head hidden just out of the frame.” On the morning that the twister struck Hollars’ town, he and his wife were enjoying an Indian buffet. “A few hours later, that restaurant was a demarcation line.” He spends the essay trying to put the event “into perspective,” and does redefine privilege as survival: “We still had our lives, our dog, our unborn child.” He also understands, though, that “there is no calculus to a cumulonimbus,” and even after the essay is done he is still struggling to put the event in an understandable context because “tornadoes, always, are a mystery” and “essays, like bathtubs, provide only temporary relief.”