It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
Thursday, June 17, 2021
The #Midwessay: Alison Townsend, Where the Glacier Stopped: Essaying the Upper Midwest
To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say.
We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]gmail.com
Where the Glacier Stopped: Essaying the Upper Midwest
The Midwest essay? My first reaction is knee-jerk, bi-coastal, and biased. I recoil, the far-too-often repeated words, “I’m not from here,” rising to my lips. But the truth is the Upper Midwest, specifically Wisconsin, is where I have lived and written for over thirty years, twenty of them spent on a four-acre patch of prairie and oak savanna detailed in my forthcoming book of essays, The Green Hour: A Natural History of Home. If “here” is not where I am from at this point, I better give up on being from anywhere. Like it or not—and at first I did not, having moved unwillingly from the Pacific Northwest—here is where and who I am, the farm country outside Madison where I make my home and the surrounding landscape both source and inspiration for my creative work.
“Here” is the drumlin I live on, a hill in the shape of an earthen tear formed of debris left behind by the glacier. Here is the erratic the glacier left behind, a 1.8 billion year-old boulder I sit on after runs or walks. Picked up and dragged from somewhere else, perhaps as far away as Canada, the boulder possesses strange energy and rests, like a holy object, or a naturally occurring, fallen menhir on the back hill. The erratic reminds me of myself, as does the earth beneath my feet, both of them perfect metaphors (as I say in my book) for someone like me who has lived too many places in her life. The hill is anchored by prairie and a savanna of oaks, both red and white, some of them nearly two hundred years-old. Oak savanna is a landscape that echoes our original one on the African plain. Because it both shelters the inhabitant beneath the trees and allows her to see out over the surrounding area, it is a kind of Ur-landscape, a mother grove that welcomes us home, even if we have come from somewhere far away. As someone who railed, often and loudly, about the lack of trees in the Midwest, I knew as soon as I stood within the savanna that this place would shelter me.
And so it has, as I have learned the names of prairie plants—monarda, Joe-Pye weed, compass plant, big bluestem—and how to burn the land each spring, so that it may be restored the way the Ho-Chunk people did for centuries before this place became a hill farm, once grazed by my farmer neighbor’s cattle. The whole experience of living in this landscape has unfolded the way an essay does, bolt by beautiful and unexpectedly patterned bolt, association by association. It is all fluid and changeable as the light that sweeps over the sapphire gem called Island Lake in great waves one would not see anywhere else. While writing The Green Hour, I discovered they baptized believers in the lake during the nineteenth century, a fact that has always intrigued me. Would I be even more deeply rooted in this place if my soul were dipped in water wild with the calls of chorus frogs, sandhill cranes, wood ducks, and cedar waxwings? I hold it out as a possibility, imaging some hot July afternoon when I will slip out of our yellow canoe and dip myself in the cold, sprang-fed water, emerging even more deeply changed.
Living here, the features in the landscape pull me forward on the page the way the glacier plowed inexorably over my adopted state, stopping not far south of here, then retreating, changing the shape of the land as it did. In the same way, I have been changed by living in place, keeping watch, taking notes, making it my business to notice and remember. The page before me is not unlike the snowy fields I snowshoe or cross-country ski across, following fox and coyote tracks, taking measure of where I am, then looping back again, essaying the landscape that has, somehow, over all these years, become first entries in my place journal, then lyrical, nonfiction pieces about the land and its inhabitant, an finally a book that took me over.
Surrender to a landscape is one prerequisite when it comes to loving a place. As a native Pennsylvanian, whose identity was burnished by long periods in rural New York State, Vermont, California and Oregon, I can’t speak fully for other places. As I say in my book, I haven’t lived anywhere long enough to be truly of a particular place. But I have lived in Wisconsin longer than anywhere else in my life, and this particular Midwest landscape, whether it be the open vistas we view from this hill or the prose poem-like glimpses between barbed wire fences, has taken and written me. I have listened and learned its language, though there is always more to know. And so I dare to add my voice to the patron saints of this place—Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Sigurd Olson. As always, I wish there were more women’s chronicles of the natural world—Lorine Niedecker perhaps the region’s most profound poet of place—more records like that of Mountain Wolf Woman’s (Xéhachiwinga).
What does all this add up to? I say the Midwest essay is a woman walking the country roads in below zero weather, a green plaid scarf shielding her face. It is the swirl of doves she watches, their wings silvered by the light as they fight the wind to land on an old silo, where, one by one they slip in under its dome. It is the stubble of corn, each broken stalk brushed gold by sun, a flute played by wind. The Midwest essay is the milkweed and monarchs, the coyotes and white-tails, their fawn with backs splotched with snowstorms of blossoms. It is bluebirds we feed mealworms to and the ghosts of meadowlarks I have never seen here, not in thirty years. It is foxes and great horned owls. It is the hob-nailed boot of an F3 tornado kicking out of the sky with winds of up to two hundred miles and hour, but missing our house. The Midwest essay is the annual spring burn, blackening the prairie, new green appearing within a week like small tongues of flame. It is family farms closing. It is losing everything and starting over again. That is something I did here too, walking away from a bad marriage with a thousand dollars to my name, into a job teaching at a land grant school, and then, eventually, into a marriage with my partner in adventure on this hill. We call this place Deer Run for the narrow paths those lovely beings braided through the tall grass long before we made our human trails.
The Midwest essay is the call of sandhills retuning each spring before the ice is even out, and the flocks of tundra swans that come through around Thanksgiving. It is the aurora, shaking its green silk skirts on frigid winter nights. It is starlight and snow and sunsets over Island Lake. It is the process of looking deeper than I ever have anywhere else, absorbing it all, filled with wonder and awe, even amidst the heartbreak of the Anthropocene. The Midwest essay is me, sitting on the glacial erratic on the drumlin, changed by forces larger than I am as I listen to the land for what comes next, the untrammeled page open before me. I still flinch slightly if someone says I’m “Midwestern,” quick to correct that appellation to the “Upper Midwest,” which feels more appealing with its Great Lakes, oak savannas, the Driftless Area, and northern forests. But then I step back, still a migrant, but one with roots that now reach as far down as those of prairie plants, which can take root after years of dormancy and grow twelve deep. Wisconsin has written me, calling me home to myself in ways I never imagined possible. Who could resist such a place?
Alison Townsend is the author of a collection of essays, The Persistence of Rivers, and two books of poetry, The Blue Dress and Persephone in America. Her poetry and nonfiction appear widely, and have been reprinted in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Essays 2020. She won the 2020 Rattle Poetry Prize. Emerita professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she lives on four acres of prairie and oak savanna in the farm country outside Madison, the inspiration for her essay collection, The Green Hour: A Natural History of Home, forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press in fall 2021.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors