Thursday, February 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: John T. Price, Crossing Fence Lines: The Midwest Nature Essayist

A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.

Nebraskans: we'd love to have more essays complicating/confronting the #Midwessay! Contact me at kristinelangleymahler at gmail and I'll get your viewpoints included in this project.

—Kristine Langley Mahler

When it comes to characterizing the Midwest essay, I can only speak for myself. That, by the way, is a very Midwestern thing to say. And very essayistic. Announcing that there is going to be an assertion of opinion, while seemingly limiting its boundaries to the self. Not going to cross any fence-lines! Actually, the issue of boundaries, and crossing them, is a major one for Midwestern nature essayists, at least those like me (there I go again). For instance, I am the sixth generation in my family to reside in western Iowa. Yet almost every week, for the last twenty years, I’ve crossed the Missouri River to teach in Omaha, Nebraska. Does that matter? To some people it does, like those students of mine who claim Iowa stands for “In Omaha Without Authorization” or “I Owe the World an Apology.” Apologize for what? Being too similar to Nebraska? 

This is the kind of trouble Midwesterners get into when identifying primarily with regional abstractions or with boundaries set according to state or property lines. And that’s why I’m stubbornly submitting this to the Nebraska group, which fits another version of what Iowa stands for: Idiot Out Wandering Around. It’s a much larger issue, however. Geographer James Shortridge traced popular perceptions of the Midwest’s physical boundaries since 1800, as described in national newspapers. He found that those imagined boundaries shifted over the years to protect the region’s symbolic value as a pastoral idyll, embodying the values of “morality, independence, and egalitarianism”—the simple life. Don’t like the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and Kansas? Move those idyllic Midwestern boundaries east to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Don’t like the industrial pollution of Pittsburgh or Cleveland? Move them on back to rural Kansas. I still see these overly-simplistic representations everywhere, especially during campaign season. They diminish the human and ecological complexity of this place.

So I guess that’s where it begins for me as a Midwestern nature essayist—specifics. I live in the tallgrass prairie bioregion, which covers all of Iowa, extending into eastern Nebraska, but is ecologically and culturally different from the drier, mixed-grass territory of western Nebraska. Tallgrass prairies are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. In Iowa, there is less than one-tenth of one-percent of those native habitats remaining, making it the most altered state in the union. For tallgrass essayists, instead of writing about large swaths of wilderness, we tend to write about the wildness hanging on in those otherwise troublesome boundaries—small, fenced-in preserves or rural ditches or suburban backyards or sidewalk cracks. There are a lot of pets and pests in our nature essays. And a lot of people, because they have impacted this ecosystem more than any other in the country. All of this makes it difficult, for some, to recognize these essays as environmental writing.

The form of my own nonfiction books, which might be described as “memoir in essays,” is a reflection of the Midwestern landscape as I’ve experienced it: segmented, divided into plots, some a little wilder than others, each explored from different points of view, but all interconnected—ecologies crossing fence lines. I believe I first considered this, many years ago, when reading the work of Aldo Leopold and Paul Gruchow. Maybe, too, the particular kind of Midwestern humor, which has been generally called self-deprecating, but which I think is rooted in the sense of personal and cultural inadequacy many people feel around here. Inadequacy amplified, for the tallgrass nature essayist, by the awareness of the extent of bioregional destruction we are attempting (as Montaigne might put it) to articulate and respond to. On the other hand, that humor has allowed me, at times, to get beyond the paralysis of despair and attempt to apply whatever literary talents I possess to serving the land and communities I love. A forever incomplete effort.  

But again, that’s just me. 


John T. Price is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, including Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (Da Capo) and Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (Shambhala), and is the editor of The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (U. of Iowa). A recipient of a NEA prose fellowship and other recognitions, his essays have appeared recently in Orion, Fourth Genre, Brevity,, and How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (Coffee House Press). He is the Regents/Foundation Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the English Department’s Creative Nonfiction Writing Program. 

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

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