21 December 2012

A New Holiday Classic

And a shameless self-promotional plug...

A couple years ago my friend Michael Gruber invited me over to co-write a tune. We had a title and imagined ourselves writing a new Christmas classic. Somehow the session devolved into playing Foosball, drinking beer, and spinning vinyl. But we did eventually find our way to writing a folk gospel holiday song; a look at the nativity scene from the wisemen's perspective. Let the angel chorus proclaim Hallelujah!

Last year we got around to recording a four part harmony rendition, with some guitar, bass, and percussion. At that point, we thought we'd had our say.

This year, Michael added some more drums and percussion, slide guitar, organ, piano and mandolin samples.  An epiphany indeed! A 2012

The result is now available on CdBaby.com. If you're willing to drop a couple e-bucks you can download a copy to add to your favorite Holiday Playlist.  Can you dig it?!


Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year!

17 December 2012

Creative Confidence

The recent post about 5 factors to help you be more creative, from John Cleese, as posted by Maria Popova on her brilliant Brain Pickings twitter feed ( @brainpicker ), is great.

I especially liked #4: Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)

I know exactly what this means. Like many people; I have had more opportunities slip past me for fear of trying than for having tried and failed.

As Benjamin Mee would say: “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

Okay, so, let's go ahead and give that a try.

05 December 2012

Promoting Place through Local Investment

An interesting article from the Energy Bulletin promoting the idea that local investment enriches a sense of place for citizens and the community.

03 December 2012

Bioenergy, Place, and Communication Power

We covered so much ground at the recent Bioenergy Futures workshop that it is hard to summarize. There were "scribes" attending and note-taking throughout the meeting who will contribute their notes to an eventual white paper summarizing the three-day workshop. I look forward to that. In the meantime, however, I offer a few thoughts... incomplete as they may be.

Sustainable bioenergy (bioE) is a robust topic. What is sustainbility? What is bioenergy? Where does the development of bioE fit within the larger picture of energy consumption worldwide? At what scale is it appropriate to think about bioE as related to other non-fossil-fuel energy (wind, solar, wave, etc.)? These are all questions that came up repeatedly among this diverse group of about 50 participants with backgrounds from sociology and law to physical and natural sciences to university extension and industry.

In some ways, all energy (like all politics) is local. When we flip on the lightswitch at home, we expect that a light comes on. But what about people who have no electricity? There are millions in the world without regular or even any steady supply of electricity. Who speaks for those disenfranchised voices and how do the elements of power play out in the politics of energy production and consumption?  If there seems to be more questions than answers here, you're right. From a roomfull of (mostly) academics, questions were often met with more questions rather than solid answers. But progress was made.

Macro- and micro-scale differences must be taken into account when discussing energy systems, that much is clear. It is difficult to effectively communication about a topic as big as energy across these scales, however. Generally, pick one "level" and stick with it. When the dialogue changes, adjust the assumptions about scale, from local to global. There are many assumptions taken for granted and most conversations would be better served if basic assumptions were laid bare at the outset.

There is the general "public" consisting of many mini-publics. These segments of the population change across cultures and subcultures and, with that change, may come various understandings (and meanings) associated with different language use or context. An ongoing effort to recognize these differences is helpful. Scale and audience are two primary 'agreements' that need to be acknowledged before moving into any in-depth dialogue, no matter what the new technology may be. What I mean by that is know who you're audience is and be specific and transparent about what level or scale is being addressed.

Bioenergy, as a set of new technologies trying to loosen the death-grip of carbon-based fossil fuels, is still a topic (or set of topics) where public opinion is forming. I mentioned this is the previous post. When uncertainty is high and opinions still forming, normative information can be part of a powerful feedback loop. What do the experts think? How do communities (rural and urban) view project development? How does the energy history of an area (of failure, resistance, and/or success) influence short- and long-term perceptions of risk and/or benefits? Who controls the dialogue and how much public participation is expected or desired? New energy developments need to take these questions into account in order to avoid what seem like common pitfalls.

One metaphor for sustainability is a three-legged stool consisting of social, environmental, and economic concerns. These are the "Three P's" of People, Planet and Profits that must be included in any sustainable outcome. When mass media frames come into being, such as the "food vs. fuel" dichotomy of the corn ethanol debate, conversations get oversimiplified into either-or dualities. This is not productive. The food vs. fuel 'thing' is an adequate question to raise but an oversimplification where other potential parts of the conversation get left out.

It takes a village to generate success. The value of group gatherings such as the Bioenergy Futures workshop is that the multiple strands of conversation included topics that were much different (given the different professional lenses avaiable) than the conversation that would have happened if it were "just" social scientists or "just" economists or "just" natural scientists, etc.. As mentioned above, the multiple conversations will be synthesized into an informative white paper (meaning, more-or-less, an academic paper but one not published in a peer-reviewed journal). It will be interesting to see how these ideas develop and bear fruit in the coming year.

Questions/comments on my scattershot recap?  Leave a comment... let the dialogue continue.

30 November 2012

A Place for Bioenergy 2

Wow. Where to begin. I've been participating in a "bioenergy workshop" at Michigan State and it's been a heady mix of physical/natural/social science. One thing that's clear to me is that risk/benefit perceptions surrounding advances in bioenergy (and energy in general) depend largely on place-based assumptions. Who do those risks/benefits affect, how do they play out (in the past, present, future) and why? There is a lot to unpack there. I know we (at this workshop) are not solving any grand problems. But we are moving dialogue forward, among this group anyway (an influential group at that).

Public opinion on bioE is still developing, which makes it ripe for study and influence both. As public awareness of bioE issues grow, risk perceptions change - even though actual risks remain relatively static. This makes it an area of technological innovation where social influence can be somewhat easily used; where media messages can have strong impacts; and where public, deliberative participation is all but essential for long-term sustainability.
Since I am typing this on an iPad which is not as convenient as a regular keyboard I'm going to keep this short. If you are on Twitter you can search #SMEP to see  how I have followed discussions throughout the day. More to come when I get back to a real keyboard. Until then, simply consider how much energy you use. It is largely invisible and embodied in the products we buy and the fuels we use but it is there, driving our First World lifestyles at the (often considerable) cost to others around the globe. Keep it in mind and conserve as if someone's life depended on it. Because it probably does.

27 November 2012

A Place for Bioenergy 1

Later this week I'll be participating in an academic workshop focused on sustainable bioenergy futures. Hosted by Michigan State University, the "Bioenergy Futures: Technical Feasibility Meets Social Sustainability” workshop is sponsored by the Sustainable Michigan Endowment Project and will feature a wide range of scholars from across North America. I appreciate that my department at UW recently posted a highlight on my involvement. Thanks, LSC!

Over the course of the workshop, from 11.29 through 12.01, I will be acting as a panelist on the "Norms, Communication, and Participation" panel led by David Secko. I plan on doing more listening and learning than anything else but it will be a great opportunity to take in so many points-of-view on this grand topic. As part of the program I will also be able to present some of my preliminary dissertation research findings. Yes, it will see the light of day! Whoa!  I'll post a mini-version of the poster here on The Topophilian sometime soon.

As the workshop progresses I will do my best to update or at least share some simple thoughts on how I see "place" as having a part in the developing realm of bioenergy in the US (and beyond). As usual, feel free to comment or share questions/thoughts and to follow me on twitter (@JTspartz) where I will be doing some degree of "live tweeting" the event (though not so much as to be a distraction...).

16 November 2012

Chicago, Wicked Good

Spending time in Chicago this weekend has me thinking of Carl Sandburg a lot.

The first lines of his 1914 poem "Chicago" are hard to forget: 

     Hog Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked...

But I don't believe it! The wicked part, I mean. I had a great time wandering around downtown along Michigan Avenue, State, Grand, Huron, Superior... Nice to get away and enjoy a little professional camaraderie (as part of the 2012 MAPOR conference, the reason for this trip).

A little something different does a lot of good, as usual.

25 October 2012

Geography Still Matters.

An interesting special "sense of place" report from The Economist has just been published.

The report covers the synergy between our growing use of computers (mostly in the form of mobile devices) and suggests that, even in our hyper-connected digital age, the physical realm still matters.

Indeed, rumors of the "death of distance" have been highly exaggerated, even as the virtual and the physical realms are increasingly intertwined. 

23 October 2012

Highlights of old New Mexico

A prose poem.

Chicago to Denver. A rough flight over The Plains. On the road South and up and over. Felix falling over the Highway of Legends, the Santa Fe Trail. The Sangre de Cristo range and the Rio Grande valley to the high desert hideaway of Taos, New Mexico.

Sage and pinon, green chili, tequila & lime. Beautiful views, wide open sky, kiva fires. Chimney Smoke. Ristras. Talavera. The Gorge.

A land of mixed race, religion, deep history and conflict and peace. Spanish until 1821. Then Mexico. USA since 1912. Centennial!

Of the conquered and conquistadors, occupied by Pueblo people never displaced. A land of inspiration and art. Neverending contradictions and characters. Stories on every turn.

Down the High Road under the sun: Truchas, Chimayo, Espanola to La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís: Santa Fe. Paseo de Peralta to Old Pecos Trail, Old Santa Fe Trail, Old Las Vegas Highway and into the hills. An adobe home awaiting under the shadow of Shaggy Peak. The most southerly named peak of the Rocky Mountains. With a warm hearth and open hearts.

National Forests Carson and Cibola.  A four-mile loop into the Santa Fe above Hyde State Park. Magic. Aspen gold among poderosa green.

Best read for history buffs: Blood and Thunder: The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West.

Discovering sights and sounds, a flavor fandango. Tomasita's, Kowboyz, Collected Works, Parts Unknown, Goler, Double Take, Lucchese. The low ceiling Palace of Governors and high arches of St. Francis Cathedral, the Farmer's Market. La Fonda, where the coffee was not very good. High-end Art has taken over. But the real pulse of independence still courses through the Place, the Ancient Spirit. I felt it.

Highway 14, The Turquoise Trail, to San Marcos Cafe & Feed Store, Madrid and The Mine Shaft Tavern. Boots, boots, everywhere.

A controlled burn on the Jemez Mountains left a smoke stream haze for many miles floating south.

Dusty, dry Albuquerque. The Lobos running UNM. Nob Hill. Old Town. Sandia Peak. Sunset. The last day.

Leaving. Heading north. Weaving back up to Chimayo and one last taste of Taos. Then Angel Fire, Eagles Nest, and the swaying switchback of Cimarron Canyon. Where the Mountains meet the Plains.

Pronghorn, elk, bison dot the land. Raton and interstate to Trinidad. Bella Luna Pizzaria - the only happening place in town. Darkness descending, Pueblo, Colorado Springs into Aurora and DIA.

Another flight and home again to the Midwest rain. A week of New Mexican exposure has done a mind and body good.

The memories... a pull to return.

A door that's always open.

19 September 2012

Geography's Creative Juices

Apparently September is "musicians and sense of place" month here at The Topophilian.

Today's quip comes from The Man, Mr. Heart of Gold himself, Neil Young.

In an interview by David Carr of the New York Times, this excerpt caught my eye:

“For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it,” he said. “You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there.”

Best to always either be coming from or going to that 'good place,' it seems.

It's good to have goals.

18 September 2012

Erica Wheeler's Search for Sense of Place

Performing songwriter Erica Wheeler has spent 20 years as a touring folky and, as it turns out, has a great interest in "sense of place."

She recently wrote about being a "Sense of Place Sleuth" on her blog. In fact her whole website (and career, in many ways) revolves around what she labels "inspiring connections between people and place."

Erica Wheeler, 2012, as pictured on www.ericawheeler.com

"Wherever you live, there is a history, both natural and cultural," writes Wheeler. "And you can discover it through your computer or newspaper, and then just beyond your front door."

If you're in Wisconsin, you can step 'just beyond your front door' to catch a Wheeler live show, in Marshfield on the 20th and in La Crosse the 21st.

Keeping a fresh set of eyes is vital, suggests Wheeler. "You'll find places you never knew about or see familiar places through new eyes." I couldn't agree more.

12 September 2012

Jason Isbell and Americana

Isbell in Madison, WI, 2007.   
I've often been aware of how "place" fits in to so many good songs, not to mention the presumptive worldview of so many good musicians, writers, and other artists. 

This recent CBS News post about northern Alabama native Jason Isbell's "great year" at the Americana Music Association (AMA) awards caught my eye. The AMAs are a sort of Grammy's for the American "roots music" crowd. Other favorite artists of mine in this vein include Justin Townes Earl, Gillian Welch, The Avett Brothers, The Secret Sisters (also mentioned in the CBS article), and many others. 

Tonight they'll all gather in Nashville and, as Isbell recently tweeted "get to dress like @JustinTEarle for a while!" Funny guy.

I wrote about Isbell and his band the 400 Unit back in 2007 for Madison's alt-weekly newspaper Isthmus. I've been a fan since DBT days of "Outfit" and "Danko/Manuel." His latest album Here We Rest is nominated for album of the year.

"Isbell's upbringing left him with a strong sense of place," writes Chris Talbott of CBS, "...he's used it to turn heads in the Southern songwriting community, first as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and later as a solo artist."

The piece also quotes John Paul White of The Civil Wars, noting the strength of place-based lyrical attributes. While this approach is nothing new, it seems that generation after generation of songwriters (and others) rediscover such basic knowledge again and again.

I've blogged about this connection before, here. Now go out and find yourself some good "local" music!

20 August 2012

Vernacular Buildings - Appreciating the Ordinary

A short post on Farming Life focuses on vernacular buildings in rural Ireland and a project to map and preserve these wee bits of workaday history in and around Londonderry.

Vernacular buildings are of the land, often built of local materials such as stone and wood. Over time they. too, become the land. These ordinary and often overlooked bits of architectural history are symbolic and "represent the ingenuity and resourcefulness of our ancestors." They exhibit "the human ability to work with the local natural environment and to be an integral part of it."

This sort of "vernacular built heritage" weaves itself so intimately with the local natural environment over time that it becomes simply part of it, part of the sense of place for that particular community. I can think of several examples of old stone housing foundations, old barns, or pump houses that I used to play in and around as kid. They were indeed distinct parts of the landscape, part of what connected me to those places.

10 August 2012

Yi-Fu Tuan's Humanist Geography

The wait is over!  A career-spanning look-back by a pillar of "place" philosophy, Prof. Yi-Fu Tuan, is now available. I saw a copy of this at the American Society for Environmental History conference last spring but it hasn't been publicly available until now. Yes. I know. Exciting!

It seems to be distributed by both University of Wisconsin Press and GFT Publishing. They introduce the book as such:

For more than fifty years, Yi-Fu Tuan has carried the study of humanistic geography—what John K. Wright early in the twentieth century called geosophy, a blending of geography and philosophy―to new heights, offering with each new book a fresh and often unique intellectual introspection into the human condition. Humanist Geography: An Individual's Search for Meaning, his latest and last book, is a final testament of all that he has learned and encountered as a geographer.

I love this stuff. I'm not even sure why exactly. But I do. And that's okay.

As a student at UW with an interest in the "place literature" I have read a lot about it. Many, many scholarly articles mention Tuan when crediting the origins of this approach to humanity's interaction with the physical world. I've even seen him walking around campus once or twice. Sort of like nerd celebrity sighting. Next to Prof. Wm. Cronon, Tuan is about as close as one gets to such a sighting around here. Though I once saw Wisconsin alum, Jane Kaczmarek (a.k.a. the mom from Malcolm In The Middle) walking through the Memorial Union with some people who were probably family. And there are plenty of other well-known scholars who've come and gone through UW, I suppose. Still, seeing someone who you've "gotten to know" through books and essays is always a treat (at least for a sort-of lit nerd like me).

Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (University of Minnesota Press, 1977) is a bookshelf favorite. Again, I'm not even sure why. Which is odd. But there is just something endearing about it. It's certainly not for everyone. It's not light fiction. It's no Jodi Picoult. Thank goodness.  The world's got enough of that crap. (Sorry, Mom).

GTF says that Tuan's intent with this book is "to show how wonderful life on our small planet can be, even as we must deal with nature's stringencies and our own deep flaws." His take on the future is hopeful, which will be a welcome reprieve from my own pesky pessimism, to be sure.

If you pick up a copy, let's talk. I'll be cashing in my coin jar to scrape together the $26 purchase price post haste.

07 August 2012

LAND and how it gets that way. A review.

It may sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not: A sheep farmer, a car dealer, a horse trader, and a real estate developer all walk into an open field. What do they see? From the same vantage point, they see a sheep farm, a car lot, a horse pasture, and rows of rooftops. These various perspectives are the central dilemma around which filmmaker Walter Brock creates a compelling and well-rounded snapshot into the disputes that these senses of place create. These are the varied views of land, and how it gets that way.
            It is a story of place, Woodford County, Kentucky, during a ten year period starting in the early 1990s. It is a story of disputes over land, community, economics, and aesthetics. And it is as timeless as it is ubiquitous. Brock uses these archetypes - the agriculturalist, the business man, the horse trader, the developer - to exemplify the heated battles that have been happening not only in central Kentucky but throughout the United States since before the many battles for independence in the 1770s. What Brock finds is just what one might expect: political positioning, rhetoric, name-calling, a dose of good intention, and a wagon-load of pride.
            To be sure, these are not simple decisions. Any community that has wanted to expand its economic base while striving to preserve its unique geographic and cultural heritage has come up against difficult and divisive decisions needing resolution. Do land owners have the right to sell property on the edge of the city if it is properly planned according to a comprehensive zoning plan? Certainly. Do preservationists speak for the voice of many when they claim that development should be approached cautiously so as not to convert valuable agricultural land (be it pasture or tilled acreage)? Of course. The problem, as Brock shows, is that people typically want to do what they please on their own land, yet they also want to tell others (often direct neighbors) what they should or should not do on on that adjacent land.
            This hypocritical bit of human nature (or at least the nature of the landed gentry) is exemplified by the car dealer who doesn’t want the land around his residential estate developed but wants to build new car dealerships on pieces of “ugly land” here and there throughout the county. And the preservationist whose family sold off land for a tidy sum to developers but yet eloquently relays a convincing line of argument about why others should be restricted in their desire to profit from parcelization.
            Brock narrates the film, which was shown on Kentucky Public Television (some time ago) and offers a balanced view of the opposing sides. Most importantly, he spent the time to give viewers a longitudinal perspective by investing a decade in filming the central characters while they struggled to continually convey their side of this evolving story. It would be very interesting to see how such issues were affected by the ongoing recession but, to be fair, when making a film one must create parameters and at some point shout “cut!” for the last time.
            In the end, Brock asks “where exactly in this world is the line that divides us from the land?” In trying to answer this question, Brock utilizes these archetypal perspectives to exemplify the deep rifts playing out in one small Kentucky community. The subtle point running throughout the film, however, is that we are all intimately connected to land. To quote the great environmentalist and philosopher John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Where we live and work and the roads we travel by all have different meanings from different perspectives. And it is this basic pluralistic conflict that will keep filmmakers like Brock, for better or for worse, indefinitely supplied with ample stories to share.

31 July 2012

More Books With A Strong Sense of Place

A list of "top ten books with a strong sense of place" was recently posted over at Down The Writer's Path, a writerly blog by Vikk Simmons. This particular list sets up a challenge for me since I've only read two of the listed ten. Time to add a few more titles to the ever-expanding List of Books I Need To Read Next. I posted a different link to books with a strong sense of place here.

Any "top" list, sense of place or otherwise, will be lacking the favorites of others, of course, (no House Made of Dawn?!?! no Desert Solitare?!?! no Death Comes for the Archbishop?!?!) but it is a good conversation starter.

Personally, I've just finished The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and I'm damn close to (finally!) finishing Coming Into The Country by John McPhee. I've never been to Nepal or Alaska but both these books evoke an incredibly strong sense of place and definitely "put me there" in terms of imagining the icy isolation and the vastness of those mountains. I've also been reading Rock Springs, by Richard Ford. It also evokes a certain Western States desolation. In places such as Idaho, Montana, North Dakota. And it's a great short story collection of the so-called 'dirty realism' variety.

Read on readers. Don't forget to write.

22 July 2012

Who cultivates your Sense of Place?

You do, of course. We all do. It is a very personal thing. Flipping it around, however, it is also a very shared and public sort of thing, this sense of place. So who (else) in your community cultivates the heritage, feel, vibrancy, history, and future of your favorite places?

I would love to hear from people on this one. Please leave a comment.

10 July 2012

Driftless Cafe

The Kickapoo River in SW Wisconsin's Driftless Area
One of the real treats-within-a-treat from last week's visit to the Kickapoo Valley region in SW Wisco was a stop at the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. A menu full of locavore fare, a room full of conversation, craftsman-level woodwork, and a kid-friendly staff make this a must-return destination. Viroqua itself is the thriving county seat of Vernon County. How many small towns have a music store (with instruments rather than just used cd's), a bookstore, wine bar, co-op grocery store, and weekly farmer's market with equal representation from local Amish vendors? Not many. This town is a real gem.

Of the cafe, one thing that's missing is The Story. Maybe I just missed it, but what it needs, on its website and in the storefront, is a succinct retelling of its own creation story. Putting the human element in more than just the culinary creations would help visitors like us who, at a busy Friday's dinner hour, seemed to be of a minority who did not know many others in the room. For business so full of personality in many ways, we left knowing little of the owners and/or managers. I would like to know more about how the cafe fits into the larger context of this thriving local economy.

Other than that, the Driftless Cafe will be a go-to stop when traveling, as I often do, on Highway 14 up to SE Minn. to visit family. With a menu that changes with the seasons, there will be new discoveries a-plenty. We were there during the recent 100-degree heat wave. In cooler temps I look forward to strolling Main Street under nicer weather conditions.

03 July 2012

A Boreal Getaway

The river we could not best.

With one of two stringers from a full day.
The boreal forest of Ontario, Canada, have become a favorite, or should I say favourite, escape. A getaway from the overly busy lives we have all seemed to find. In a word, it's magical.

A few friends and I just returned from a week in NW Ontario. It went by way too fast. Up near where 90oW crosses the map, just north of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, we lost track of time and immersed ourselves in boreal beauty. A stone's throw west of Kakabeka Falls, our days were filled with fishing and fun, lakes and sun, a lot of beer and a lot of laughs. They zipped by like so many mosquitoes buzzing about our cabin door. 

I caught some of the biggest fish I’ve ever hooked into on lakes that were pristine and clear, teeming with the Northwoods trifecta: Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, and the highly prized Walleye. Some real whoppers!
Aside from the fishing and friendship, it is the immense boreal forest ecosystem that really establishes the sense of place. With potential for moose, black bear, lynx, fox, and wolf around every turn, not to mention hundreds of varieties of ducks, geese, owl, and other fowl, it is a nature-lover’s paradise. Of course there are also the horseflies, black flies, biting flies, no-see-ums, ticks, leeches, and buzzing hordes of mosquitos. But with those you just deal; stay calm and carry on.
Our fearless leader, Curly.   
The boreal forest, also known in more northern climes as taiga, covers most of inland Canada and Alaska, much of Russia, Sweden, Finland, inland Norway, and northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Japan. It is the largest biome in the world. 

Formed after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, the biodiversity that we see now only started to shape up around 5,000 years ago. Not very long in terms of geographic maturation. As much as it is loved, it has also been threatened by unsustainable logging practices and parcelization, among other things.
A neighbor visiting the dock at Rancho Relaxo.

In 2010 Canadian environmentalists and logging companies struck an historic deal: the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. The CBFA established a moratorium on logging across nearly 29 million hectares of forest land, an area about twice the size of Germany. About 1.2 billion acres were protected overall in an effort to save endangered caribou and create a sustainable logging system across all seven provinces. Doug Struck wrote a great piece about it for the Pew Trust magazine in November of that year.

Boreal shoreline.
Despite what might seem like progress, as The Guardian's Leo Hickman reports, the Harper administration in Canada has been on a strident path of deregulating environmental standards and defunding of oversight and research capacities. Whether continued clear-cutting in British Columbia, massive tar-sand mining in Alberta, or destructive fishing practices along the coasts, it seems wholly short-sighted and obviously unsustainable.
Logging practices can be harsh, and not just in BC. When I crammed into my friend Matt's Toyota 4x4 with four other guys to drive about 50 miles into the bush to find a somewhat mythical ("killer walleye!") lake we drove by some ugly clear-cut areas. Piles of slash were stacked on the roadside, set to be burned during the cold winter months. 

Logging slash in an area of clear-cut forest.
What was a less evident but highly crucial part of the process were the scores of summer-job youth who brave heat, bugs, and bears to plant jack pine at a rate of 2:1 for every tree harvested. This is cause for some hope. But it's likely a limited effort in the grand scheme. 

We found this out by talking to a local friend, Willy, who has been working for the logging company by maintaining a bush road for decades. And I tell you what, never a finer bush road will you see than after Willy gets through with a days work in the grader. Smooth traveling!

Though the government seems to be back-tracking in terms of ecological intelligence, Ontario it is still a beautiful vacation destination... for now. Get there while the getting is good! I hope to go back many times.

Chatting with Willy, the Roadmaster.
Until next time, however, I will dream of the 31" pike and the 19.5" smallmouth I caught floating down "Lunker Alley" on the lake we call Horseshoe. One modest trapper's cabin sat obscured by trees off of its shore and not a single other boater was there to disturb us. 

"I don't go fishing to catch fish," says our guide, friend and native Wisconsinite, Mark Winkelman. "We go fishing to get away from people." Just my kind of guy. Thanks, Mark!

07 June 2012

For the Record... Following Yesterday's Post.

For the record, I do not think rural people are all idiots. My prior post was written with a touch of anger and despair in light of the recent democratic ass-whuppin' here in Wisconsin. All people are idiots sometimes.

Even "over-educated liberal elitists" like myself are idiots sometimes. I could write about that, too, but, frankly, that would be a whole different blog. It'd be called "All the Ways I've Screwed Up, Over and Over and Over Again... Just Ask My Parents or My Wife." I'm a recovering cynic and an active skeptic. Forgive me. I slip. Sometimes I fall.

We are all subject to media influence and the trap of seeking out information to confirm our foregone conclusions. This is normative behavior, motivated reasoning. And it is part of life in modern society, for better and for worse.

Truth is, the ideals of a deliberative democracy are only approached through a pluralistic and open set of discourses on the potential direction of any group. Large or small, state or nation, we all need to work towards a common goal of more-or-less centrist progress. Some of my recent comments were reactionary and un-centered in ways that have caused a little turmoil. For that, I apologize.

On the upside, however, it has afforded a direct and vigorous dialogue among my lefty and righty friends. As much as I normally eschew controversy and conflict, it has been a good lesson in putting oneself out there and needing to take the heat of reprisal. Keep up the dialogue friends. It's the only way Forward.

06 June 2012

Response to a family member regarding the recent Wisconsin election

I received the following email this morning from a family member in nearby Minnesota. This is in light of the historic Wisconsin recall effort of yesterday:

Well I see I was correct and Walker got reelected. Now just think if Wis would have waited for his term to end then try and get him out the $$$ it would have saved the state.
One reason for his reelection, to save $$$ for the working class????!!!!

Just  had to pimp you a little on this. 
have a good day................!!

Just for kicks, I am posting my response (replied to via email) below:


You'll notice that the two largest economic engines in the state, the centers of population and education (with both UW and Marquette universities, among others) voted overwhelmingly to recall. And much of the rest of the state was not strongly "red" nor "blue" but more of a well-mixed "purple."  It was in the strongly rural, central part of the state that the millions in outside corporate money was largely spent to influence voters in favor of Walker.  I want to have faith in people to make up their own minds but, sadly, it keeps turning out that most people are just fucking idiots.

It is a blow to lower income people, a blow for minority populations, a blow to women, a blow to public education. You may not be a strong supporter of progressive education but policies here over the past year have cut public schools off at the knee and effectively started bleeding them dry. We are also dead last in job growth for the entire nation.  A future of private schools (for those who can afford it) and shit-for-brains (for those who can't) is what Wisconsin is facing.

It's the best government that rich white men can buy, no doubt. You can pretend that society deals everyone an even hand and provides equal opportunity for all if they only "get off their asses" and "work hard." But it's not true. Hard work matters, yes, but current "leadership" that continues to privilege the upper class, corporate sponsored oligarchy does all that it can to disenfranchise those who don't have the social or financial capital to "make it." 

In a crowded landscape of opinions can you expect your voice to be heard, even if you and hundreds of thousands of your like-minded peers are yelling, if the opposition has a 500 watt amplification system set up and is drowning out the voices of reason with its extremist propaganda?  This is a metaphor I hope you can consider, if not actually accept.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thank god the senate has at least turned to a Dem. majority in order to provide some balance to the extremist right-wing agenda being set forth by the Koch brothers and their puppet boy, Walker.

There was a lot to fix with the unions. There was nothing much to be excited about with Barrett. But I'm tired of extremism. Just try to find some non-partisan news on TV or radio any more. It is rare. I may be pretty liberal in a lot of ways but I'm also tired of the far left just as I am sick of the far right. Elected officials need to remember that they are ostensibly elected to represent ALL the people of their region, not just the monied interests that bought them into power. Walker is an ideological extremist.  He benefits his people and only his people. Not THE people.

What this election comes down to in a lot of ways is the "Citizens United" decision that allows unlimited campaign donations. It's incredibly bad for democracy and for America as it simply acts as a catalyst to further divide both the growing gaps in power and knowledge among the electorate. Until it is repealed, the voices of the people, the actual people, the concerned people, will be flooded out and washed downstream on a wave of billionaire attack-ads and ALEC-sponsored legislation. People who are not outraged by this, as cliche as it may be, are simply not paying attention.

I'll be somewhat surprised, frankly, if you're still reading this email. But, if you are, thanks.  I think its probably best if we just don't talk about politics any more.  The Brewers also got their asses kicked last night. We can talk about that.

31 May 2012

Poetry and Place from Orion

The lovely Orion Magazine has published some recent poems centered on "place."

Whether Michael Hettich's The Garden, Eva Hooker's Prairie, Under Full Moon, or Tallahatchie by Susan B. A. Somers-Willett; you are bound to find beauty and depth in these lyric creations.

Discover a longer list of poetics from Orion, here.

11 May 2012

Books with a Strong Sense of Place

Alison Flood of the Guardian's Book Blog recently posted a note briefly examining a few books with strong sense of place. Her vote was for Annie Proulx's The Shipping News which explores the coast of Newfoundland. My vote would have to rest with the book I'm currently reading, Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee, which describes the breadth of and majesty of Alaska in the 1970s.

30 April 2012

Memoir and Memories in Shadid's House of Stone

The Americans for Peace Now site has posted a review of Anthony Shadid's posthumously published book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and Lost Middle East.

was a highly regarded Middle East correspondent for the New York Times who tragically died earlier this year from an apparent severe asthma attack while on assignment. He was a beloved UW-Madison grad and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the Washington Post. His book Night Draws Near is essential reading for anyone interested in stellar journalism.

The NY Times published a House of Stone excerpt last February.

From the APN book review:
The definitions of Arabic terms and the descriptions of personal interactions coalesce into a sense of place only slowly penetrated, and once penetrated, if not quite familiar, still never again entirely alien.


This is the crux of Shadid's memoir, not the restoration of his great-grandfather's house, but the restoration of a family's history embedded in a place to which it no longer belongs, a place, moreover, which no longer exists.

I look forward to reading this book.

Driftless Highlight on Boing Boing

Maggie Koerth-Baker, science writer/editor at Boing Boing, wrote a short little piece last Friday called The Driftless Area: Wisconsin's strange ecology. As part travelogue and part earth-science lesson, it does a nice job of explaining the allure of this unique region. Koerth-Baker is based in Minneapolis. A train ride down the Mississippi and into Wisco brought her to Madison for a book reading and afforded what seems to be her first glimpse into idyll Driftlessness. You can follow her on Twitter, as I do, at @maggiekb1.

Though she focuses on the Baraboo Range as an exemplar of the area's topography, this is just a small part of the larger unglaciated driftless region. Surrounding the confluence of the Wisconsin River and the mighty Mississippi, the Driftless Area expands across NE Iowa, SE Minnesota, SW Wisconsin, and NW Illinois. I've written a little about my experiences in the Driftless Area, here and there.

Koerth-Baker offers a good, short read with some beautiful images. She also defines monadnock so, that's nice. You'll probably learn something.

28 April 2012

On Writing, Rivers, and Place Identity.

Image borrowed from NY Times review
On the banks of Thoreau's beloved Concord River, UMass-Lowell hosted author Jane Brox as she spoke of "Reading, Writing, and Sense of Place." Brox wrote Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light which was praised as one of the top nonfiction books of 2010 by TIME magazine, among others. It was reviewed in the New York Times, here. Speaking of rivers and home brought up memories of my own hometown and the river running through it.

I've written about this little river before.

How have your memories of  places changed over time? For me, when I go "home" to SE Minnesota, it is a mixture of memory and change that gives me pause. Often the difference between the "then" of youth and the "now" of adulthood have an intuitive continuity. Sometimes there is a striking disconnect.

Sunset on the Root.
The changing community and my changing self find, in essence, one common constant: the Root River. One may never look into the same river twice, so to speak, but time and again, there it is. Even after disastrous floodwaters recede, or when drought threatens, there it is. Popular with anglers, paddlers, and bikers along the converted railroad trail, it is the lifeblood of this Driftless rural region in many ways, not the least of which is tourism.

I often feel I should write about it, the old home place, but never really have. Writing for an audience of one (oneself) seems an exercise in solipsism unless tied to some greater, external relevance.  That relevance (or, more specifically, the time to ponder it) just hasn't cracked my consciousness. Or, if it has, I've just been too busy to notice. It is a "place" I carry around with me still, a piece of what social scientists and humanistic geographers usually call place identity.

A water trail map (pdf) from MN DNR is available here, for those who are interested. Write about it or your own home place. And, please, let me know if you do.

22 April 2012

Searching for Sense of Place

Below is a sample of results from a Google search of the phrase "sense of place." Every day I receive a list of search results from both "regular" Google and Google Scholar. These are a few from "regular" Google. You can see in each one where the phrase "sense of place" shows up. Everything from literary tourism to neighborhood economic development and even a bit on Roger Corman's "Nurses" series. Whoa!    
Artists of the Week: Bob Diven
Las Cruces Sun-News
"Dinosaurs are the mascots for my interests in science and the origins of life, which are really a search for my own origins and sense of place. Plus, there are a lot of fun things you can do with dinosaurs." . His film projects include "Mom," a ...
New US literary tourism: read it, watch it, live it
Chicago Tribune
But Southerners claim a distinct sense of place and storytelling art rooted in the often tragic history of a region where, as Faulkner famously wrote, "the past is never dead. It's not even past." "It's the Civil War, it's the King James Bible, ...
Neighborhoods need city's help
It's exploring “form-based code” (see box) to help neighborhoods create a heightened sense of place and scale, plus economic stability. The city's new economic development director, Odis Jones, who starts work Monday, needs to focus on neighborhoods.
Stop the demolition of First Christian Church
The Gazette: Eastern Iowa Breaking News and Headlines (blog)
When done properly, be it a cathedral or simple one-room dwelling, architecture can provide a sense of place, civic pride and spirit outside oneself that hits on the greater spirit of mankind. I wonder what it would cost to build First Christian Church ...
Trees stand tall in Sunshine State
The News-Press
Our connection to trees is emotional as well; many of our well-loved leafy landmarks are key to the region's sense of place. Many mourned the ancient live oak outside the old Lee County Courthouse (now commission chambers) that had been ailing and ...
Bangkok haunted by caricature
The Nation
The plot was outrageous but fast-paced, and Burnett's sense of place was superb. The second, "Bangkok Tattoo", carried forth his main characters - Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former monk turned honest police detective; Colonel Vikorn, his venal but ...

Roger Corman's Cult Classics: The Nurses Collection
In fact, one of the only highlights of Candy Stripe Nurses is this near-documentary sense of place: barrio tenements sprouting bright-hued graffiti, crabbed auto graveyards teeming with wreckage, and greasy-spoon diners strewn with neon lights. Shout!
Earth Day Emphasizes Environmental Needs
The Ledger
"We need to increase awareness of how conservation areas provide vital services like clean water, give local communities their sense of place and hold the secrets of sustainability for future generations." Martin said the challenge is continuing to ...

17 April 2012

Dumping Your Drugs

Chemicals in regional ground- and drinking-water resources is nothing new. But it is easy for most of us to ignore or forget.

In 2008 I conducted a research project with my academic adviser, Prof. Bret Shaw, to investigate medication disposal in the hospice industry. We were interested in talking with hospice professionals (in Wisconsin, USA) about the disposal of pharmaceuticals in their agencies. 

Individuals undergoing hospice care often get very strong medications. But what happens after the drugs expire or are no longer needed? Often, for reasons of safety or other concerns, they are simply flushed down the toilet or tossed in the trash. Concerns about the negative environmental impacts of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the water has grown in recent years.

Various outlets provide some basic information on the issue, including MSNBC, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Health Organization.

I recently noticed that the article Prof. Shaw and I published as a result of our research has been cited a couple of times, in 2010 and 2011. The Google Scholar search results are here. As a "young" social science researcher, it is nice to sense that others find one's research interesting as well as methodologically sound enough to cite (in one case, several times). 

Disposal of household pharmaceuticals is not just an issue facing hospice agencies. Think of how many expired or unused prescription drugs are sitting in your own medicine cabinet. What do you do with them? If you flush them down the toilet or down the drain, where do you think they go? They certainly don't just disappear.

Thankfully this issue has gotten some attention. Many communities now have "clean sweep" programs like the one here in Dane County, Wisconsin. Wastewater treatment plants do not generally screen out pharmaceutical pollutants. They go right through, into the ground and surface water systems of your community or, more accurately, downstream communities. Evidence suggests that the cumulative effects of decades of negligent disposal has led to negative consequences on aquatic plant and animal life. 

The Food & Drug Administration offers guidelines for the safe disposal of unused medications.

15 April 2012

Sacred Headwaters, BC

Orion Magazine has a short but powerful slide show of images from Sacred Headwaters, British Columbia. The inherent beauty of this remote and relatively unexplored region is being threatened by powerful forces supporting natural resource extraction. What makes a place worth protecting? Should resource extraction be allowed under minimal-impact agreements? How will awareness campaigns help (or hurt) the critical aspects of public opinion formation?

The site Water Canada, from which I borrowed the above photo, also explains some of the issues surrounding the Sacred Headwaters area, including quotes from National Geographic's Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis.

13 April 2012

Feeling the Magic

The Main Mouse, in front of Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center
Much has been written about Disney World and the whole Disney empire. Writing about it here seems redundant. But I'm doing it anyway. Bracketing for a moment the excessive commercialization and questionable environmental impacts of this multinational corporation, I have to say I enjoyed my family visit to Orlando's crown jewel. Yes. I felt the Magic.

Victoria Gardens at Epcot Canada
Out of trips to Magic Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios, and Epcot (we skipped Animal Kingdom) - Epcot was the consensus favorite for the (3) adults. Magic Kingdom did the trick for the (2) six-year-old girls. Epcot tries to (re)present cities/cultures/countries from around the world. It largely succeeds, as far as theme parks go. The essence of the "World Showcase" is in every way rooted in Sense of Place. From the food to the music, costumes, beverages, architecture, and decor; it is multi-sensual. It works.

Visiting with two six-year-olds doesn't allow for lingering in "boring" places, of course. But even walking past the many cultural significations was interesting. The stone facades and log cabins of Canada; the fish 'n chips, soccer jerseys, and tea gardens of the UK; flower garden refinements and wine from France; beer hall pretzels and steins of Germany; the deep allure of Tokyo pagodas; rustic charms of Haiti, and many more... Norway, China, Mexico, Italy, Morocco. Around the world on one small lake.

The tourists, a large and seemingly unhealthy lot, detract from the otherwise carefully crafted multi-sensual sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the various international stations. But what can you do? I will just say C'mon, people. It's time to get off the couch, ditch the processed food snacks and show a little self-respect. I know leisure and convenience rule, but seriously. Can't we be nice to self and other for a while? If you're looking for hope in humanity's future, steer clear of Orlando, Florida. That's probably too much but it is all I'll say.

Educational signage for the Creole gardening style of Haiti
Koi pond in Epcot Tokyo
I digress. I had fun. Not being a world traveler as much as I would like, it is nice to catch the faintest hint of cultural diversity on a pseudo-global scale. Through a college-student employment exchange program, student-age employees can be found working their "home country" section of Epcot. The young woman who served me a beer in Germany was from Freiburg. The young woman who served me a beer in France was from Paris. You get the picture.

Marie, from the Aristocats, on the streets of Paris.

And speaking of pictures, here are a few more. I could go on but this post has lingered long enough. Overall, I recommend taking in Disney World at least once in a lifetime. It is quite a spectacle, and one by which all other theme parks are rightly judged. But once is probably enough for most people. Maybe twice if a decade or more intervenes.

We spent five days going back and forth and between parks. Next time, if there is a next time, I think three days followed by a couple days of lazy beach-combing would make for a better vacation experience.

Thanks to my friend Adam who sent a link to this NY Times aricle on the same topic. If you're going to "Do Disney," read up, make a plan, have fun.

Clock tower at Epcot Germany
Just another tourist, soaking in the culture.

31 March 2012

Mickey Mousing around

Loading up and flying off to a Golden Birthday week excursion to Disney World... I can hardly contain my excitement. That was sarcasm. Though it shouldn't be "that bad," the over-commercialization of the place, like a small country where every experience is manufactured and manicured, is not normally an experience I seek out. But for the favor of a six-year-old, I will go smilingly. I hope to do a little writing about this experience and hope to weed out the cynicism while I'm at it. We'll see how it goes!

27 March 2012

People of Places in the Twittersphere: Who are you?

As an avid Twitter user I am on the look out for like-minded folks "out there." Using HootSuite.com as a way to manage the various streams of Twitter activity (lists including media, politics, environmental comm, various people I follow, and a list I call "people of places") has been effective for segmenting the nonstop flow of information.

Unfortunately, my list of People of Places is a little thin. Other than the fact that I think most of us are people of places, there are few who ring true as overt persons of place, so to speak. Though I've had little in the way of ongoing engagement on this blog, I welcome it. Indeed, dear reader, this would be an excellent time to start letting me know what you think.

My short list of people of places includes a few that stretch my (rather loose) conception of what or who people of places means. But it includes only nine entities! This, compared to the 66 members of my "Intelligentsia" list, is, as suggested, a bit thin. Again, I am open to suggestions!

On the list so far are the outdoor sports and recreation magazine Outside (@outsidemagazine); a regional advocacy group from Madison, WI (@ThriveHere); a group offering the Rainbow Bridge from a Native perspective (@Native_TRB); author and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, Richard Louv (@RichLouv); a group focusing on nature deficit disorder (@naturedeficit); a group operating out of a barn in Yorkshire (@SenseOfPlaceUK); a place protector from Virginia, USA (@MFinnemore); and a regional booster group focusing on Wisconsin tourism (@TravelWI).

Who else is out there in the world of social media focuses on Sense of Place?  This could be from an academic perspective or simply as an informal personal interest. I welcome input from all quarters.

15 March 2012

Zinsser, On Writing Well about Place

Paging through a 20-year-old copy of William Zinsser's entertaining tome On Writing Well, I have happened upon a few pages on place. Samples of WZ's thought on writing about place are included below. Please forgive the gendered language. Apparently, even in 1990, gender neutral language was yet to be considered in On Writing Well.

Nevertheless, some Zinsserian nuggets...

"People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built."

"Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels."

"As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self -- the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells -- and keep an objective eye on the reader."

"One man's romantic sunrise is another man's hangover."

"...choose your words with unusual care. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion -- it's probably one of the innumerable cliches that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing... Strive for fresh words and images."

"...whatever place you write about, go there often enough to isolate the qualities that make it special. Usually this will be some combination of place and the people who inhabit it."

"...when you write about a place, try to draw the best out of it. But if the process should work in reverse, let it draw the best out of you."

08 March 2012

The Topophilian Daily

I am finding lately, in my just-a-little-too-busy lifestyle, that the aggregation device I use to collect more-or-less interesting tweets from the network of Twitter users I follow is an efficient way to get a sense of the daily news. It's only a slice of all the news out there, but among active twitterers in my sphere of influence, so to speak, it works. Granted, my busy lifestyle could use a little time-out. But that's another blog altogether. Check out The Topophilian Daily for a peek into my sphere of news & information.

28 February 2012


Where have I been all month?  With my head stuck in a sound hole, that's where. It was February!  This means February Album Writing Month (FAWM).  Although I have not enough time and a shortage of good ideas, I took on the challenge. Not having quite made the goal of 14 songs in 28 days doesn't matter so much as just simply trying. I developed 7 or 8 songs. A few of which are worth further development.

Get a sample of this work at my FAWM site. Or on the YouTube.