Midwest Interlude: Perspective, through ASLE, friends, and family

Looking up through a structure at Hamtramck Disneyland in Hamtramck, MI, while stopping by with my NYU buddy Nate Preus during the ASLE conference in Detroit. The chaos here somewhat represents the past couple weeks of travel. Photo by author.

I’m a firm believer that the best academic work flows from and feeds into what we often call our “personal” lives. Thursday evening I returned to Ithaca, New York after a two-week whirlwind tour around parts of the upper Midwest that are especially important to me. And, man, was it a whirlwind. On June 16, I made it to my hometown of South Haven, Michigan (after something like a nine-hour drive) in time to celebrate my mom’s birthday; on the 17th, I drove down to Gary, Indiana to celebrate the marriage of a couple dear college friends who I hadn’t seen in years; on the 18th I was back in South Haven to celebrate Father’s Day with my parents; from the 21st to the 24th I was off to Detroit to attend and present a paper at the twelfth biennial ASLE conference (that’s the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) while crashing with my brother Ben, who teaches at the Detroit Waldorf School; after another brief stop in South Haven I headed up to Northfield, Minnesota to visit my maternal grandparents on the 25th; then I visited my paternal grandfather and my Uncle Steve in Elgin, Illinois on the 26th; and after reuniting with my parents again on the 27th we were all off to Detroit to see a Tigers game (which didn’t end very well) with Ben on the 28th. It was back to Ithaca for me on the 29th, and yesterday morning (the 30th) I was back in the archives at Cornell.

The gears of my brain that had been arranged for my summer dissertation work are now beginning to spin again, but I wanted to take a moment to consider how valuable these past two weeks were for me — which is also to say for my work, for my general well-being, and for my sense of myself.

The “blue marble” photograph of the earth, a major symbol of the environmentalist movement taken by a NASA astronaut in 1972. A rather heady view. Public domain.

I should say something about the ASLE conference, which was stimulating in a number of ways that were more or less relevant to my work this summer — but all relevant in some way, I think. It was an honor to present a paper alongside a number of lovely and intelligent people whom I have gotten to know through “Ecosphere Studies” gatherings at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas in recent years: Leah Bayens, John Hausdoerffer, Aubrey Streit Krug, and Julianne Warren. Our panel, on “Ecosphere Studies: Recovering our Membership in ‘Earth Alive!’,” approached from a variety of perspectives the idea of the Earth as a living Ecosphere — not the same as an organism or even as an ecosystem, but with its own different way of being alive, possessing its own emergent properties, not just a “superorganism” but a life form entirely its own at the same time that this Ecosphere contains and is constituted by all of us lower organic and inorganic entities. (You can see how the languages starts to slip away as soon as you start describing it!) The idea is that thinking through questions through the lens of “Ecosphere Studies” alters the ways in which we make sense of the world and our place in it — a place of humility, to say the least. The paper I wrote to present for this panel was an attempt to distill some of the big ideas that I’ll be unpacking in the introductory chapter to my dissertation — except that I haven’t done most of the research yet, so it was all an exercise in trying out new ideas (which is really what academic conferences are best for). The title, unwieldy and vague, was “Ecospherism on the Land: Field Work, Ignorance, and Ecological Creativity,” and as it evolved in the writing of it (well after the title and abstract had been accepted) it ended up taking Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead as test cases for an idea that I’m trying to work through about ecospheric cosmologies in various traditions of American literature.

The feedback was helpful (and more attentive than I could have hoped for), my fellow panelists were both inspirational and thought-provoking, and it allowed me to work through some of my big first-chapter dissertation ideas before I start writing Chapter 2, which is my big task for the summer (leaving Chapter 1, the theoretical chapter, for later in the process). But the value of ASLE went well beyond the panel I sat on. One of the things I love about the Ecosphere Studies people is that they have the enthusiasm and energy of folks involved in a movement — they share the sense that the conversations we are having are important and need to be gotten right, whatever that means, as we think through ways of flourishing as members of our Ecosphere in the Anthropocene. Conversations with them in passing, or at the bar the night after our presentations, about politics, or our lives, or the various projects we are working on, probably did more to energize me than the panel itself or even the other great panels and plenaries I attended that week (although the Ross Gay reading, my second of the month, left me incredibly moved as well as a sopping mess of emotions). Those kinds of conversations with colleagues who are also friends give perspective to the work that we do — they get us out of our own heads to see a little more of the bigger picture, much like the Ecosphere concept is meant to do.

And this was really true of the time I got to spend with the handful of MFA friends at the conference, all of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Similarly to the time I spent at Bread Loaf Orion earlier in June, I felt like I was being reminded of my other life — the life in which I write outside of the academy, in which I am a little less nervous about the title “artist,” in which my friends carry notebooks with them on hikes in case they get ideas for their poems. These moments help remind me of the road that led me to this PhD thing in the first place and of the larger frame that my own life provides for the work that I am trying to do now, as well as the work I want to get back to, that I left unfinished.

But for me, there is no more effective way to take a gut check and reframe my thoughts and aspirations than spending time with family, which is much of what I spent the rest of my two weeks doing. Listening to my Johnson grandparents reminisce about their time in Nome, Alaska in the 1950s and the generosity they found in a place that seemed to have so little, or listening to my Grandpa Linstrom recounting stories about his childhood on the Nebraska farm, the dust clouds that would sweep in from the north and south of their valley during the Dust Bowl of the thirties, and how his parents and other ancestors came to be there, all provides an incredibly humbling kind of learning experience. Then, back home, my mom laughs about the sleepovers she remembers as a child and the seances she and her friends would jokingly perform, or my dad speaks with pride about his father’s work with organizations trying to desegregate neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana when Grandpa was a pastor there, and I am reminded, no matter how many books I have read, of how very little I know about my own family, my own story, and how much I have to learn.

We are the sum of the family members and friends who have all contributed to the peculiar world out of which we all continue to emerge, just as we are also the sum of the more-than-human “environmental actants” (ASLE-speak) that surround and shape our lives and outlook. My mom, a teacher and true naturist in the old sense of the word, has spent a lot of time thinking lately about the voices of these nonhuman others and how they teach us, as she describes in her own recent blog post. It seems good to occupy ourselves, most of the time, with the work in front of us, rather than risk getting too caught up in the obsessive self-fashioning and empty self-promotion that consumer culture constantly reinforces as legitimate. But I also think it’s easy to get lost building our castles in the air if we don’t occasionally — even regularly — find the time to take a gut check and remind ourselves of who we are by remembering where we came from and where we’ve been going. Bailey’s phrase “the artistic expression of life” comes to mind again here, as it did for me in Vermont earlier last month. In order to slow down and notice the world as it shapes us, which I think we need to do if we are going to remember ourselves, he once wrote that we need to let the “background of the day” shine through, in one of my mom’s favorite Bailey passages:

“There are two parts to the common day, — the performance of the day, and the background of the day. Many of us are so submerged in the work we do and in the pride of life that the real day slips by unnoted and unknown. But there are some who part the hours now and then and let the background show through. There are others who keep the sentiments alive as an undertone and who hang all the hours of work on a golden cord, connecting everything and losing none; theirs is the full life; their backgrounds are never forgotten; and the backgrounds are the realities.” -L. H. Bailey, from The Garden Lover, 1928, p. 25

To be truly artful in our life expression, I think we need to be reminded of ourselves in ways that we can’t do on our own, but in ways that the people of our lives, as well as the animals, the plants, and the landscapes of our lives, do constantly communicate to us, in stories and in the whispers of dune grass, if we take the time to listen.

A view of Lake Michigan from the shore near South Haven, where I grew up (about a mile from where Bailey grew up). Photo by author, March 2014.

For some context, see my intro post. To get in touch, use my website.

The archive archive: Intro | Days 1–3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Interlude| Day 8 | Day 9

Thanks and credit goes to all the wonderful people in my life who I reconnected with during my crazy two weeks back in the Midwest, including my parents Robert and Rebecca Linstrom, my brother Ben (and dog Finn), my grandparents Curt and Ruth Johnson and Robert E. Linstrom, and my uncles Carl and Steve; Ellen and Jeremy and all the college friends too many to name (Megan! Allison! Jake! Burruses! et al!) who came to their wedding in Gary; Jared, good friend since kindergarten, for a quick rendezvous in South Haven; my fellow ASLE panelists Julianne Warren, Leah Bayens, John Hausdoerffer, and Aubrey Streit Krug; my other various ASLE-attending friends Jonathan Aguirre, Chip Blake, Taylor Brorby, Brianna Burke, Deb Marquart, Nate Preus, Lindsay Tigue, and surely others!; and everyone else I saw, shook hands with, or passed, at Trinity in Grand Rapids, on the streets and beach of South Haven, and in places I know less well. And thanks, too, to the Michigan duneland and small town communities that continue to shape me, even in my present diaspora.