While reading the late Paul Gruchow’s contribution to Our Neck of the Woods, I was reminded that becoming “native” to a place goes beyond simply being born there. It’s how you live, work, play—even eat.
In a sense, Our Neck of the Woods is a wonderful series of love letters to Minnesota’s natural landscape. Daniel Philippon, a U of M English professor and nature writing expert, has pulled together 57 essays that first appeared in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer‘s “A Sense of Place” section. In 1996, Volunteer editor Kathleen Weflen created a department in the magazine where people could reflect on their personal relationship to the state’s natural resources. The idea had first been hatched a few years earlier by Gruchow, a frequent contributor to the magazine.
A few of these pieces selected for Our Neck of the Woods were penned by well-known bards like Gruchow, Sigurd Olson and Greg Breining. But some of the most touching essays are by people who aren’t household names, or who don’t even consider themselves professional writers. And these voices are important; it’s amazing how love for a specific place can give birth to writing that is a joy to experience.
As Philippon points out in the introduction: “…the first-person singular does more than merely convey information; it also conveys emotion, and with that emotion, a writer’s values. Moreover…it’s hard to value an abstraction; we love particular people, particular places, and particular things. The personal essay captures these intimate relationships by describing that which is closest to us, those places in which we feel most at home.”
And that’s what makes these essays more than love letters—they’re public proclamations that without certain aspects of our landscape, the authors’ lives would be somewhat lacking in depth.
Some of the writers show their connection to those special places through camping, hunting, fishing or birding. Others do it through observation, research or simply being present in the moment.
All of these essayists are seeking to express in words what it means to, as Gruchow puts it, “be native to a place.” Weflen points out in her foreword to the book that humans are migratory, making geographic definitions of “being native” pretty moot in most cases.
I’d like to think I’m showing my connection to Minnesota’s rural landscape every time I buy food from a local, sustainable farmer. It’s one thing to say you are in favor of a sustainable, family farm-based agriculture in the abstract. But spending my food dollar in a certain way allows me to make that support more personal, more particular.
The day after Thanksgiving my daughter and I drove to a farm in the Whitewater River Valley in southeast Minnesota to pick up our year’s supply of beef and chicken. The meat is raised on carefully managed, rotationally-grazed pastures—pastures with deep-rooted perennial grasses that hold soil in place, protect water quality and sequester carbon.
Outcroppings of limestone karst geology near the farm are reminders of how vulnerable this area is to pollutants making it into the groundwater. An old Civilian Conservation Corps stone structure stands in one of the farm’s pastures. It looks like it was built to withstand a hurricane, but in reality the overbuilt structure was an attempt to deal with a different kind of catastrophe: the horrific soil erosion that plagued the region during the Dirty Thirties when some of these steep hills were corned to death.
After getting our meat, my daughter and I drove down to Whitewater State Park and parked next to the river. We crossed a footbridge and scrambled up the stone steps that lead to Chimney Rock.
At the top we took in an unmatched view of bluff country. I felt a connection that went beyond just being an appreciative sightseer. Part of the reason the Whitewater Valley has recovered from the ravages of past, unenlightened land use is that an increasing number of farmers in the area are utilizing sustainable methods like rotational grazing. And part of the reason they are able to keep farming this way is families like mine are supporting them with our food dollar.
Gruchow wrote that Sigurd Olson was not indigenous to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, “…but he stayed long enough, once he had arrived, to take notice, to take account of—to discover—and so at last to learn to sing its poetry.”
Supporting local, sustainable farms requires time and the willingness to discover and take account of its benefits. I’m no poet, but I get a certain sense of place whenever I tuck into a good grass-fed steak produced in the Whitewater Valley.