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!