31 December 2011

Memorable Places of 2011

In thinking about some of my favorite places of the past year, it occurs to me that I did not travel very much. The Big Trip of the year was a late June jaunt up to Ontario, Canada, out in The Bush just west of Kakabeka Falls (yes, the Niagra of the North). It was a great trip, and a wonderful place to visit. I hope to return in 2012 to do a little more fishing and relaxing and a little less studying.

Not long after that trip, in the first week of August, I took a mental trip into the land of preliminary/qualifying exams. Social Influence & Social Norms; Knowledge and Trust in Risk Communication; the role of Place in Environmental Communication; Qualitative Methodology; and Social Networks & Network Theory. What a trip! I had a mental hangover for weeks, maybe still do.

My daughter and I took several trips out to a favorite county park about 18 miles into the edge of the Driftless Zone just west/northwest of Madison. Many picnics were packed. Berries were picked, birds sighted, and fun was had. This was my (our) most frequent trip out of town. In 2012 I hope to explore a few more of the small county parks around the area. Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Stewart Lake down by Mount Horeb are tops on the travel to-do list. These are oft-overlooked geographical gems well worth seeking out.

I only made a few trips back to SE Minnesota to visit family. These trips generally go via State Highway 14, a winding and scenic route traveling west/northwest along the northern edge of Driftless country. It passes through the Wisconsin River valley by Spring Green (the famous, and infamous, home to Frank Lloyd Wright), the beautiful yet much smaller Kickapoo River valley, up and over the ridges through the burgeoning hippie/sustainable/greentelligentsia hamlet of Viroqua and down again through Coon Valley before once more up and over into the great Mississippi River valley at LaCrosse. From there we cross over into Minnesota and either take Highway 16 up the Root River valley to Rushford or follow the Great River upstream to Rollingstone, just outside of Winona.

On the last trip, just a few weeks ago, we saw many big birds along the still-open waters of the Mississippi. At least a dozen bald eagle, some snow geese (I think), and a possible golden eagle. It is a recurring challenge to watch for birds (my eyes were wide for any snowy owls that might appear, as they have had an irruption into the Upper Midwest this fall/winter) and to drive. But I do a pretty good job and almost never go very far off the road.

Having recently watched the National Parks documentary series originally aired on PBS, I am anxious to visit many of the wonderful parks out West. There are many places to go and, for most of us, not nearly enough resources to make all those travels happen. The key, I think, is to enjoy where you are -- wherever you are -- and be happy with the company you keep. Either that or just keep on truckin'.

24 December 2011

Holiday Places

There is an old barn in central Wisconsin that smells of wood smoke and sprigs of spruce. Myriad native and exotic farm animals roam the grounds freely. Be careful where you step. Six inches of snow and a slight wind under a sunny December sky make for a perfect family get-together. Even an imperfect memory can create a lasting impression such as this. I've been fortunate enough to visit this place a number of times with family and friends. It has made an enduring holiday memory. 

What are your special holiday places? Are there place-based locations that your family and/or friends like to gather during times of celebration? Perhaps it is a lake cottage on July 4th or a ridgeline looking west on while the winter solstice sun sets. The mixture of special people over the course of time creates the memories and attachments to these special places. To preserve these places and times we collect photographs, videos, and just plain old memories which, when combined with the feelings of love and closeness, offer an enduring connection to the physical spaces surrounding such interactions.

On this holiday season of 2011 I hope you all can share time and space with the people that you love. You never know when you're creating a memory in the mind of a child or a friend. Be Well and Best Wishes for a joyful and prosperous 2012.

19 December 2011

The Topophilian Daily

I've been experimenting with a new way to aggregate my Twitter feed. What the hell am I talking about?  It's Paper.li and it affords "publication" of links, stories, and pictures of those I follow on Twitter.

For those who are not on Twitter, you can get a sense of my "information network" from that stream. See below for some of today's headlines. Paper.li updates daily and allows you to subscribe to various sources, including The Topophilian Daily!

I follow mostly media and science/environment feeds on Twitter along with a not-so-random sampling of humorists, journalists, musicians, and smarty-pants academics, philosphers, and public intellectuals. 

You can join the fun on Twitter (see @JTspartz, for example) or subscribe to The Topophilian Daily!  Thanks for checking it out. Please let me know what you think.

11 December 2011

Brothers in the Water: The Rushford Flood of 2007.

A sense of place, almost destroyed.
A new book is out that may be overlooked by the New York Times Book Review. It will, however, resonate more deeply for many people I know than any other release this year.

Brothers in the Water: The Rushford Volunteer Fire Department and the Flood of 2007, compiled and edited by local writer Bonnie Flaig Prinsen, describes a dark night of the soul for many residents in my small SE Minnesota hometown. The Winona Daily News, the local daily paper for many in the Root River valley, covered the story extensively at the time. The Tri-County Record weekly still hosts an extensive flood photo gallery.

Many homes, businesses, and livlihoods were destroyed when Rush Creek overflowed its banks in August, 2007. Seventeen inches of rain fell in a 24 hour period. Amazingly, no human lives were lost. The disaster tore a lot of things apart. Ironically, it also brought a lot of people together. Many volunteer groups from all over the country, several from religious organizations, helped rebuild homes and, in effect, lives in the year(s) following the flood.

I haven't lived in Rushford for over 20 years. It's still "back home" for me even though I'm an outsider to any long-term resident. I remember driving up the valley, just south of town near Ferndale Golf Course, a few days after the rains stopped. The smell was potent even a couple miles away. The city streets were still covered in a putrid muck. Limited fresh water and only one outlet for food was the new normal for many, many days.

The picture below shows a house directly across the street from my parents' home. I used to shovel this driveway in winter and mow the lawn during the summer. It belonged to my kindergarten teacher. Thankfully, she wasn't home when the gas line blew.

photo credit: Jill Halverson
I have yet to read the book. I have no doubt it will evoke a lot of emotion. It will also provide a sense of closure, even four years after, for many people still struggling to regain balance in the wake of those murky waters and the difficult weeks and months following. If you visit Rushford, and I encourage anyone to do so, there are still signs of destruction but, due to the hard work of a stalwart community and despite some difficult local political wrangling, much in the way of progress has been achieved.

This video, courtesy of WKBT out of nearby La Crosse, WI, shows some floodwater footage from the area. Interviews with a few of the crew, despite the poor audio, show how it's still a tough memory to reconstruct. The video editing isn't very good but the images remain strong.

I know a few of the men who've been volunteer fire fighters in Rushford since I was just a kid. My dad was on the crew for many years and was Fire Chief for five years but retired from that position a year or so before the flood. His close friends Mike Ebner and Brad Erickson, among others, had the incredible task of coordinating the massive emergency response effort. As suggested in the above interviews, this is a story of a town saving itself. Mike doesn't give himself enough credit though. I believe his own home sat full of floodwater while he worked selflessly for days to help everybody else.

Being a volunteer firefighter is a tough job with little in the way of reward. These and all volunteer fire fighters deserve an immense amount of credit for putting life and limb at risk for their community every time the siren sounds.

This book will, in many ways, both recognize and memorialize the trying times of that August night. It's been a long road of recovery for the town and its people. Books are being sold for $15. Proceeds will first go to repay an advance from the Rushford Community Foundation and then to the Rushford Fire Dept. Relief Association. Call Rushford City Hall at 507-864-2444 if you're interested in purchasing a little piece of history wrapped in the narratives and memories of this courageous crew.

UPDATE (12/12/11): Embedded below is a new video report about the book, courtesy of KTTC in Rochester. In it, the author reads from Brothers in the Water and talks a little about the four year journey of recovery in Rushford.

07 December 2011

Of Sigurd Olson & Les C. Kouba

I recently picked up a copy of Sigurd F. Olson's "Of Time and Place" at the library. What a great read. Olson is an exemplary Minnesotan, legendary outdoorsman, and a great writer, yet I don't recall ever being exposed to his work as a young person growing up in rural SE Minn. It's a shame. I think I would have gravitated toward his short yet deeply evocative essays about backcountry times spent in the Superior-Quetico area, among other North Country places. There's one aspect of this book, and the whole Olson series published by University of Minnesota Press, however, that has fairly deep connections for me in terms of place and family history: the art.

In paging through this relatively slim volume, the last book Olson finished before he died in Minneapolis in 1982, one can't help but notice the awesome artwork. Leslie "Les" Kouba illustrations, black & white sketches, add a sense of magical realism to the text. Owl, otter, moose, trout, cabins, waterfalls, wolf, all offer detailed visual appeal to the stories of watertrails and voyageurs, the memories and reflections of backcountry endurance. Both men share a deep appreciation for wildlife and wilderness, and it shows.
Kouba was born near Hutchinson, MN, in 1917. Featured in the National Museum of Wildlife Art and many other galleries, Kouba is a strong regional favorite. He was a colorful character with a twirled moustache and a down-home, Woolrich jacket sort of appeal. My grandpa had two of the three Shelter Series prints and several others featuring whitetail deer, Canada geese, various ducks, and the prairie favorite, ringneck pheasant. These now hang in my parents' house. Kouba was an instrumental precursor to modern sentamentalist Americana painters such as Terry Redlin and Michael Sieve.

Along with his distinctive signature, Kouba often incoporated 13 things, be it mallards, geese, or cans of Grain Belt, Schmidt or other rural detritus into his works. According to Kouba enthusiast Arlen Axdahl, Kouba also took his art to the people after picking up on public interest in watching a painter in progress. He visited Elks clubs, Kiwanis groups, and other places throughout Minnesota to paint for groups. This no doubt endeared him to many and helped develop his wide popular appeal as the "Norman Rockwell of Minnesota." Kouba died peacefully in 1998 after a successful and colorful life. His sense of time and place, as a corollary to Olson's literature, evoke a great diversity of wildlife and wilderness available to us, if we only take the time to look, listen, and feel our way through it.