David J Bodenhamer (10)
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6 Representations of Space and Place in the Humanities

David J Bodenhamer Indiana University Press ePub

GARY LOCK

Space and place are complex and elusive concepts1 so any representation of them (which according to my dictionary is something that “corresponds to, or is in some way equivalent or analogous to”) is immediately contentious. Or is it? Through this chapter I would like to intertwine notions of landscape with those of representation, partly because landscapes are obviously spatial at one level but also because landscape is a humanizing theme which draws together many of our disciplines.2 Considerations of landscape have also brought to the fore a tension which is central to forms of spatial representation: both landscape and maps are at the same time a representation of material phenomena and an interpretation formulated around and within subjective meaning. So, to answer my own question, it is possible to have representations that are not so slippery and contentious, indeed we all regularly use maps, or these days more likely sat-navs in our cars, which perform in an acceptable functional way via an accepted code of symbolic representation that attempts to avoid subjective interpretations (although we still get lost!). The oft used quote from the influential Chorley Report,3 “GIS [Geographic Information Systems] are the biggest step forward in the handling of spatial data since the invention of the map” is interesting here as it implies a technology that can go beyond the traditional map into new realms of representation. Twenty years on though, the challenge is still whether we can take subsequent arguments and theoretical constructs and percolate them down into practice, particularly the difficult practice that involves GIS.

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1 Turning toward Place, Space, and Time

David J Bodenhamer Indiana University Press ePub

EDWARD L. AYERS

Just as many disciplines rediscovered place and space over the last thirty years, so did they rediscover time and temporal representation. A critical geography and a new historicism have reoriented many humanists and social science disciplines. Like the spatial turn, the temporal turn now grounds the analysis of everything from literature to sociology in new kinds of contexts. The exciting challenge before us now is integrating those new perspectives, taking advantage of what they have to teach us.

The spatial turn began within the discipline of geography itself. By the early 1970s, geographer Edward Soja observes, many people in the field “sought alternative paths to rigorous geographical analysis that were not reducible to pure geometries.” In this new critical geography, “rather than being seen only as a physical backdrop, container, or stage to human life, space is more insightfully viewed as a complex social formation, part of a dynamic process.” By making this argument, geographers opened their discipline to humanists and social scientists who found congenial both a skepticism toward positivist social science and a focus on the texture of experience.1

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7 Mapping Text

David J Bodenhamer Indiana University Press ePub

MAY YUAN

This essay centers on the idea that innovative semantic syntheses and geo-referencing methods can enable transformation of text to maps. Hence, the attempt is to explore the possibilities of projecting text to produce maps and enabling maps to tell stories. Both stories and maps are important and effective frameworks of learning and understanding the world for both children and adults.1 Humanities Geographic Information Systems (GIS) must incorporate the ability to represent narratives in GIS databases and map texts to offer the geographic contexts of stories. By doing so, we may be able to realize Sir C. P. Snow’s vision of “the third culture” that bridges scientific and literary disciplines.2

Text is one, if not the, major form that records the human experience with an epistemology of reality. Dumbrava argued that text converts experiences to discourses and enables us to perceive experiences of others and other times.3 One effective means of communicating experiences in text is through metaphors that bridge the gap between concrete experience and revelation of reality. Consequently, text becomes the space of “culturalization” that transforms history to culture with common ontological and epistemological dimensions of comprehension and sense making.

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9 GIS, e-Science, and the Humanities Grid

David J Bodenhamer Indiana University Press ePub

PAUL S. ELL

The development of electronic resources for use by scholars in the humanities has proliferated at a dramatic pace over the last twenty years. Although scholars might feel that few resources are available to them, this is likely not to be the case. Much effort, and funding has been devoted specifically to create e-resources, ranging from highly specialized and subject-specific material to, and of more import to most scholars, what might be termed strategic or key resources. These latter resources might be considered strategic because of their spatial spread (i.e., they provide information for a spatially large area), their spatial granularity (providing information at a detailed spatial level), their chronological depth (data available over long time-periods), or their contextual nature. They are consulted and used by relatively large numbers of scholars, forming, if not a core foundation for their research, at least a backdrop. Such e-resources vary in their nature and include national censuses, socio-economic surveys, the work of mapping agencies, thematic collections of monographs, manuscripts, and journals, and so on.

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2 The Potential of Spatial Humanities

David J Bodenhamer Indiana University Press ePub

DAVID J. BODENHAMER

Space is everywhere, and its definitions are legion. We are inherently spatial beings: we live in a physical world and routinely use spatial concepts of distance and direction to navigate our way through it. But this routine and subconscious sense of space is not the one that engages us as humanists. We are drawn to issues of meaning, and space offers a way to understand fundamentally how we order our world. Here, contemporary notions of space are myriad: what once was a reference primarily to geographical space, with its longstanding categories of landscape and place, is now modified by class, capital, gender, and race, among other concepts, as an intellectual framework for understanding power and society in times near and distant. We recognize our representations of space as value-laden guides to the world as we perceive it, and we understand how they exist in constant tension with other representations from different places, at different times, and even at the same time. We acknowledge how past, present, and future conceptions of the world compete simultaneously within real and imagined spaces. We see space as the platform for multiplicity, a realm where all perspectives are particular and dependent upon experiences unique to an individual, a community, or a period of time.1 This complex and culturally relativistic view of space, the product of the last several decades, has reinvigorated geography as a discipline, just as it has engaged scholars within the humanities.

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David Robertson (5)
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CHAPTER TWO Toluca

David Robertson University Press of Colorado ePub

IN JANUARY 1997 A NEWS STORY APPEARED ON CABLE NEWS NETWORK (CNN) describing a small Illinois community’s fight to save two piles of mining waste—relics of a moribund coal mining industry—from being removed by city bulldozers. “Some people in an Illinois town are going to bat for slag,” stated the report. “It looks like a mound of dirt . . . but some say the slag is a national treasure and they want to preserve it.” The town was Toluca, a historic coal mining community located 120 miles southwest of Chicago. The television feature described how residents had organized to protect their two landmarks, locally known as “the Jumbos.”1

Tolucans were grateful for the attention their cause received, but this momentary exposure in the media spotlight provided only a superficial glimpse into a much richer story. The CNN report was typical of mass media items used to round out coverage of the day’s “hard” news: a vignette illustrating the seemingly eccentric behavior of folk in a far-off corner of the countryside. By portraying residents’ reverence for the Jumbos as strange, CNN trivialized their fight to protect Toluca’s industrial heritage.

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CHAPTER ONE Introduction

David Robertson University Press of Colorado ePub

“EVERY MATURE NATION HAS ITS SYMBOLIC LANDSCAPES,” WRITES GEOGRAPHER D. W. Meinig, idealized places that evoke commonly understood meaning. He cites the New England Village, the Main Street of Middle America, and the California Suburb as examples of symbolic landscapes that have come to represent idyllic spaces for American family life. But, as Meinig also observes, although the favorable imagery of these iconic places is familiar, their physical and social character is poorly understood. “Perhaps,” he cautions, “we have been deluded by the very power of the symbols. When we attempt to penetrate the familiar generalizations and clichés . . . we may be startled at how narrow and uneven are the foundations upon which these stereotypes rest.”1

Myth often obscures the complex realities of place, and this observation holds equally true for locales occupying unfavored perceptual territory. For example, symbols of difficult and unwholesome living, impoverished central cities, and isolated rural boondocks are also burdened by misperception. Negative stereotypes dominate these environments, and although not wholly inaccurate in terms of conventional economic and aesthetic measures, such generalizations obscure the internal value they hold as lived-in places. Mining has created a symbolic landscape similarly stigmatized. In the popular imagination, mining landscapes—mineral extraction and processing areas and the adjacent settlements for mine workers—have become icons of dereliction and decay. For those who live in these places, however, these landscapes may function as meaningful communities and homes.

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CHAPTER FOUR Picher

David Robertson University Press of Colorado ePub

FEW HISTORIC MINING TOWNS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE PLAGUED BY MORE severe environmental problems than Picher, Oklahoma. In fact, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiled its initial list of Superfund sites in 1983, the community was designated as one of the agency’s highest priority cleanup areas. At the time, the environmental problems afflicting Picher were considered more serious than those at Love Canal, the EPA’s most infamous hazardous waste site. Unlike its ill-famed contemporary, however, many of Picher’s environmental hazards remain uncontrolled more than two decades later. Named after the stream that runs through the Picher area, the Tar Creek Superfund Site extends over forty square miles. It is one of the oldest and most costly Superfund sites in the nation.1

In the early twentieth century, Picher was the largest mining town in the Tri-State Mining District, once the world’s most productive lead and zinc mining field. Ore was discovered in the Picher region in 1914 and within three years, the settlement’s population exceeded 20,000. A quintessential boomtown, Picher captivated its earliest visitors with its remarkable growth. Mines were opening at a feverish pace and outsiders marveled at how quickly the mine derrick and ore mill, unquestionable symbols of prosperity, had come to dominate the prairie landscape. Community accolades quickly turned to antipathy, however, after the novelty of the mineral discovery faded. The intrusive nature of industrial development, the lack of basic civic amenities, and Picher’s ramshackle appearance were impossible to ignore, and although some sympathized with the plight of its residents, most simply voiced disdain for the community. This external perceptual legacy is one Picher has found difficult to discard. The last of Picher’s mines closed more than thirty years ago, but consistent with the mining imaginary, most outsiders still view the town as a hopelessly despoiled place.2

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CHAPTER THREE Cokedale

David Robertson University Press of Colorado ePub

STATE HIGHWAY 12 RUNS WEST FROM TRINIDAD, COLORADO, CLIMBING INTO the pinyon-speckled foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As the road tops a rise eight miles west of Trinidad, a wall of black coal waste interrupts the verdant scenery. The highway parallels the bank of mine tailings as it descends into the valley. To the south of the highway lie two rows of crumbling coke ovens. In their ruin, the oven arches resemble an ancient Roman viaduct. To the north, at the base of the spoil pile, a gravel road runs up the canyon. At the intersection sits a sign: “Cokedale—National Historic District.” Built on Reilly Creek in 1907 by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), Cokedale is the only company town in the Trinidad area to survive mine closure. It is among the best-preserved company mining towns in the western United States.

Cokedale lies hidden beneath a canopy of elm trees (Figure 3.2). Only after crossing the bridge that spans the creek does the town come into full view. A parking area marks the entrance to Cokedale. Here, pinned to a bulletin board, is a guide for a self-guided walking tour of the community; complimentary copies sit in a brochure holder.1 Leaving cars behind (the best way to experience Cokedale is on foot), visitors begin the walking tour by heading north to Spruce Street. Standing to the right is the old icehouse, which is difficult to recognize as it has been converted to a home. To the left, a dozen cottages of similar design front the dirt road. Like all of the town’s company-built houses, the cinderblock structures have metal-clad roofs and are two rooms wide. One is in disrepair and lies abandoned but the majority of Cokedale’s old company houses are well kept. The road curves and climbs up to Elm Street. At the junction, a road leads north to an elegantly restored schoolhouse, where, the walking tour brochure explains, the sons and daughters of three generations of miners once attended first through eighth grades. Both sides of Elm Street are lined with cottages. Those nestled into the canyon wall are larger than the others, and all of the homes on Elm are occupied. Behind low fences lie carefully tended gardens. Beside the front doors of many are woodcut signs bearing the names of the homes’ occupants.

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CHAPTER FIVE Conclusion

David Robertson University Press of Colorado ePub

IN THE ANTHRACITE COAL MINING TOWNS OF PENNSYLVANIA, BEN MARSH OBserved: “[T]HERE is a paradox to these valleys. . . . The land means much, but gives little.” Marsh explained this contradiction by showing that a broad concept of place includes consideration of the physical support a landscape provides, or its means, as well as its less tangible meanings. His research is revisited in order to highlight its salience to the case studies presented in this book. Residents of the mining communities herein also have maintained attachments to landscapes that have provided, or continue to provide, limited material reward. Indeed, Marsh was correct in suggesting that this phenomenon stems from a common set of experiences in historic mining areas. “The same history that so degraded this countryside,” he wrote of the anthracite coal region, “has solidified this society.”1 The same holds true for Toluca, Cokedale, and Picher.

In fact, these commonalities in place experience are especially notable given the diversity of the case studies. All are turn-of-the-twentieth-century rural mining communities, but each occupies a different physical and cultural region of the central United States. Each was settled by people of different ethnic and national backgrounds, and mining’s operational lifespans and the mineral commodities produced also varied. So, too, have mining’s economic and physical impacts. Deindustrialization has produced varied economic outcomes and each community now confronts different planning challenges and different degrees of environmental problems. Regardless of these differences, however, there exists in each community a shared attachment to place that is rooted in the mining past. In each case study, the mining landscape draws residents toward that past, reflecting and reinforcing central aspects of identity.

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Edited By Arijit Sen And Lisa Silverman (7)
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4. Eating Ethnicity: Spatial Ethnography of Hyderabad House Restaurant on Devon Avenue, Chicago

Edited by Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman Indiana University Press ePub

ARIJIT SEN

In 2006 an item in the Chicago Tribune announced the closing of Hyderabad House, an ethnic restaurant located on Devon Avenue, a popular and crowded retail street on the northern edge of the metropolis. The heart of a diverse and ever changing immigrant community, Devon Avenue is well known for its Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi stores. Frequent visitors know that ethnic restaurants appear and disappear with regularity on this retail strip, so the only remarkable thing about the Tribune's report was its vivid description of the health hazards in the establishment:

A restaurant on Devon Avenue, a stretch well-known for its global cuisine, was closed Thursday after inspectors found insects, mouse droppings and food held at dangerous temperatures.

The city's Dumpster Task Force visited the Hyderabad House, 2225 W. Devon Ave., after receiving complaints about rodents, but soon found it was a “minefield” of food safety problems, said Matt Smith, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

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6. “Art, Memory, and the City” In Bogotá: Mapa Teatro's Artistic Encounters with Inhabited Places

Edited by Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman Indiana University Press ePub

KAREN E. TILL

A young woman wearing a pink formal gown walks through a recreated bedroom. Candles and spotlights illuminate her figure as she steps atop a bed and begins jumping on a mattress. Rather than speak lines, her performance—part of a collective interpretation of Heinrich Müller's Prometheus titled Project Prometeo: Acts I & II—is an embodied one.1 Her body is framed by her live-time performance as projected upon one of two very large screens (more than three-stories high); on the other screen we see historical and contemporary images and listen to sound recordings of the neighborhood that once existed upon the empty fields where she performs (figure 6.1). She continues climbing up and down off of the bed as other performers begin or continue to enact their own interpretations of the myth. We see a married couple sitting at a dining room table playing cards, a clown performing in a playroom, a man sitting at an imagined doorway lighting matches.

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5. Urban Boundaries, Religious Experience, and the North West London Eruv

Edited by Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman Indiana University Press ePub

JENNIFER A. COUSINEAU

On the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, February 23, 2003, a woman carrying her infant child walked out her front door, through her yard, and into the street.1 This seemingly unremarkable occurrence was an unprecedented act among Sabbath-observant Jews in London. After centuries of Jewish life in London, why should such a mundane gesture mark a significant departure in the experience of the Jewish Sabbath? The catalyst for ritual innovation in this case was a spatial device called an eruv (plural, eruvim). An eruv is a space whose disparate areas are regarded as forming a single domain by virtue of the contiguity of its boundaries. An eruv can be built in a single street, uniting several dwellings on that street, or on a much larger scale, uniting many streets, households, and even neighborhoods. All eruvim, however, require real, physical boundaries. These boundaries tend to be minimalistic and are usually well integrated into the urban built environment. It is often difficult, even for eruv users, to detect the boundary by sight.2 Where possible, preexisting features of the urban environment deemed acceptable according to Jewish law, such as fences, row houses, hedges, railway lines, embankments, major roads, and bridges, can be borrowed imaginatively to create a contiguous boundary for the eruv. Where preexisting urban features are not fully contiguous, under certain circumstances Jewish law can allow for the boundary to be “completed” by erecting poles and wires to close gaps. The erection of some eighty poles in this way permitted the creation of an eruv that now encompasses an area of 6.5 square miles in North West London, including large parts of Hendon, Golders Green, Finchley, and the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and encircling the majority of the Jewish population of North West London. This eruv is known as the North West London Eruv.

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2. Visualizing the Body Politic

Edited by Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman Indiana University Press ePub

SWATI CHATTOPADHYAY

The concept of public space in modern political theory is remarkably impoverished. It largely ignores the material attributes of space—its architectonics and physical-sensorial dimensions that enable habitation—and the process of social production that creates the “publicness” of public space. Such imagination of public space is disembodied in keeping with the disembodied, abstract imagination of the modern state. When it does consider material attributes and the bodies of citizens at work in shaping public space, it assumes a particular delimited imagination of the Greek polis. Both ignore the possibilities of a political vernacular that might enable us to expand the imagination of public space and its attendant materiality.

“To be embodied,” writes James Mensch, “is to be physically situated.” By that logic it is also to “exclude other persons from the position that one occupies in viewing the world.”1 This produces a plurality of viewpoints that we must accommodate, because we are also “dependent” on others to inhabit this world. To be embodied is to be aware of the vulnerability of the flesh. An embodied understanding of politics and public space thus requires attention to the conditions of our physical situatedness in relation to other bodies and objects. It involves an understanding of our position in a given space, our movement and ability to access space, what we can see, hear, feel, and touch: our vulnerability as well as our capacity to manipulate and change the aforementioned conditions. These states of vulnerability and capacity that actualize our political freedom set the parameters of our relation to fellow subjects. These material conditions (and their limits) are the bases of our political subjectivity and enable our political imagination.

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7. Jewish Memory, Jewish Geography: Vienna before 1938

Edited by Arijit Sen and Lisa Silverman Indiana University Press ePub

LISA SILVERMAN

Alles aus Liebe (All for Love), one of the most successful cabarets in 1927 Vienna, was, according to a critic for the Neue Freie Presse, a show intended mainly “for the eyes.”1 Like the other cabarets that year, it featured an entertaining musical score and plenty of talented comedians, including the well-known Karl Farkas, who also wrote its more than fifty lighthearted sketches. Like much lowbrow entertainment, it poked fun at its audience by humorously reversing traditional gender roles and mocking class distinctions. But this revue also featured something different: a dazzling array of women in extravagant costumes that evoked all things Austrian and Viennese—from culinary favorites like Wiener schnitzel and Sachertorte (chocolate cake), to the castles and gently rolling green hills of the country's beloved provinces. Appearing toward the end of the first half of the show, this visual display culminated in a set of striking tableaux of women costumed as Vienna's iconic buildings: the Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral), Karlskirche (St. Charles's Church), Rathaus (city hall), parliament, Schönbrunn (the emperor's summer palace), and even the city's Prater district and its famous Ferris wheel. This panoply was not, however, simply a diverting spectacle; like the rest of the show in which it appeared, it too challenged Viennese assumptions about the seemingly self-evident, stable order of things.

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Tyra A Olstad (5)
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1. Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

Tyra A. Olstad University of North Texas Press ePub

CHAPTER 1

Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

1.1 Terra Incognita

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Before desire and before knowing, how can I say I am? Consider. Dissolve in the beauty.

—The 72nd of Shiva’s 112 ways to open the invisible door of consciousness, trans. by Paul Reps 1

The wind was whipping fiercely. Grey clouds hung low over a rugged expanse of scraggly sagebrush, sandy arroyos, and the occasional tumble-weed or dust devil or raven swooping by. Because I didn’t yet have the words for “sagebrush” or “arroyo” or “raven” on that cold November morning, I was left with nothing but an empty horizon and big black birds.

I had been driving for hours, following Interstate 40 into northern Arizona, where I was to report for an internship at Petrified Forest National Park. Although I sought a bit of adventure—anything other than another long cold winter at college in New Hampshire—I was beginning to wonder just what I was doing, where I was going, how I could possibly pass the next four months in such a place. (Such a place! Were there any people here? What were those birds?) Having spent my life comfortably surrounded by roads and rivers, trees and buildings, I was both intrigued and terrified by the yawning desolation of the landscape—what was out there but cold, windy, open space?

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2. Mixedgrass

Tyra A. Olstad University of North Texas Press ePub

CHAPTER 2

Mixedgrass

2.1 Wonderlands

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping . . .

—Willa Cather, My Ántonio1

Green! Lush, luxurious green!

So this was the legendary sea of grass; here was the soft growth of Poaceae; now was Willa Cather’s “spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly”2

I thought I needed to try something more spectacular—less desolate and more inhabitable—so headed northeast, destination South Dakota. I arrived at Badlands National Park on a glorious day, mid-May—a sunny, blue-sky-with-puffy-white-clouds, air-throbbing-with-spring sort of day. I should describe the drive: how I was so eager to get to there from Denver that I woke pre-dawn and zipped all the way along the Interstate instead of lingering on scenic back roads; how I hadn’t even turned off I-80 at Wall to drive through the bulk of the park, but rather stayed on the highway until I reached the exit nearer the Ben Reifel Visitor Center; how I had slowed slightly and opened my windows to let the fresh morning air and the liquid songs of meadowlarks permeate my car; how I caught my first glimpse of the jagged, pink-cream-red-striped mountains of clay, passed the parking area for the Notch Trail and Castle Trail, then rolled down the steep hill after Cliff Shelf and finally stopped at the visitor center; how I had introduced myself to a half-dozen new faces, then gotten directions to my new quarters; how I had begun to unpack my car, but, halfway through, finally looked up and around and realized, I’m here! I dashed out the back door, scrambled over a hill, flung myself down into a soft carpet of spring grass, and let my mind explode with, Green! “Bad” lands?

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4. Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

Tyra A. Olstad University of North Texas Press ePub

CHAPTER 4

Shortgrass / Semi-Desert Shrub-Steppe

4.1 The Return to the Plains

Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming

He who pursues learning will increase every day; / He who pursues Tao will decrease every day.

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching1

I could tell you about how I’d seen the place a year earlier, when traveling through on the way to somewhere from somewhere else, and thought, hmmm, I could live here. I could tell you about how circumstances obliged and I moved to southwestern Wyoming—Fossil Butte National Monument—late one spring to start work as a physical science technician (paleontology). I could tell you about the months I spent perched halfway up the side of a tawny bluff, peeling up layers of limestone in search of 52-million-year-old fossil fish, or the hundreds of walks I took up and down old ranching roads and off into the scraggly steppe, looking for wonders. In short, I could review the process of getting to know a place—exploration, exhilaration, familiarity; flowers, marmots, cattle; sunrise, sunset, storms—and Look, I could sing, how beautiful the plains are!

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3. Tallgrass

Tyra A. Olstad University of North Texas Press ePub

CHAPTER 3

Tallgrass

3.1 Experiment and Experience; Or, How I Tried to Like a Prairie

Konza Prairie Preserve, Kansas

I didn’t dare leave much out. I wanted to bear witness to the facts . . . There’s no cleverness to be found here, only rawness

—Rick Bass, Book of Yaak 1

You cannot make yourself love a place. You can go again and again with different expectations, for different reasons, in different seasons, but you can’t make yourself love a place. You can learn the names of the plants and the colors of the sky, make friends with the deer and come to terms with the wind, but you can’t make yourself love a place. You can rationalize and rhapsodize, open your mind and narrow your field of vision, sit and watch, walk and think, think and try through rain snow sunrise sunset, but no. Know you cannot make yourself love a place.

When I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, late one summer, I was not dreading what journalists such as Stephen Darst denigrate as an “all-pervading flatness, moral, cultural, social, topographical, political.”2 Rather, I was eager for Kansas! The Heartland! Wide-Open America! As Big as I Thought! I thought it would be big. And beautiful. Ad astra, per prairie!

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Prologue. Flyover Country; Scottsbluff, NE

Tyra A. Olstad University of North Texas Press ePub

PROLOGUE

Flyover Country

Scottsbluff, Nebraska

[W]hile I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, and precede all the rest . . . what most impress’d me, and will longest remain with me, are these same prairies.

—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, America’s Characteristic Landscape1

Hot. Hazy. The June sun was glaring down on the dusty brown earth and distant black cattle and my father and me, sitting in a Piper Cherokee, slowly buzzing our way west.

It was our fourth day in that little plane. We had begun the trip full of enthusiasm, lifting off from the Niagara Falls International Airport into a sun-pierced sky and skimming over islands of light on Lake Erie. The next day, we slipped between tidy white puffs and their neatly spaced shadows on checkerboard fields below. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, then past the muddy meanders of the Mississippi (the Mississippi! I’d never seen the Mississippi!). The land began flattening out, drying brown, browner, beige. Thin strips of road cut indomitably straight lines toward the horizon, occasionally intersecting in sharp, desperate 90-degree angles. Tiny bovine dots clustered just as desperately at infrequent watering holes while bzzzz the engine droned on above them, were we actually moving or just hovering, suspended in time and space? It was hard to tell.

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