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Essays on Air


I stopped recording radio scripts for Michigan Public Radio in 1987 and concentrated on writing academic and literary essays, as well as a book about wandering Great Lakes states. When my wife and I spent a few years in Colorado, I wrote a book about wandering in the Front Range. In 2008, we moved to Wisconsin where I soon found myself writing a book about its foremost nature writers (Walking Home Ground) and later started another one about following the Niagara Escarpment from Waukesha County, where I now lived, through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario back to western New York, where I grew up. Occasionally, I revised segments of the book-in-progress and submitted them to literary journals.


Through all those years we routinely listened to public broadcasting in our car and in our home. That was how I became familiar with the "Wisconsin Life" programming on both Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. The Wisconsin section of The Arc of the Escarpment, my book-in-progress, was full of narrative moments set in a chain of locations from my southeastern county to the northern limits of the Door Peninsula and beyond, and I considered excerpting some segments to propose to the producer of the radio show—I had once been a radio essayist, after all, and wasn't likely to attempt video stories for the snippets shown on television. The sample I sent her turned out to run too long but convinced her shorter ones might work. Eventually I drove into Milwaukee a couple of times and taped several submissions each day while she supervised me from Madison. I recorded six essays, half of them revised from chapters in my then unfinished book (I still had Ontario and New York research to do) and others that grew out of rambles around Wisconsin or excerpted from Walking Home Ground.


As it turned out, "Wisconsin Life" aired only three of the essays, one a year in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and the producer I worked with left the station. I was discouraged by the scant broadcasting of my writing and didn't try to submit more with a new producer. But recently, checking the program online, I learned that those three recordings still had links, all with additional background music and introductory remarks from the producers. "Synchronicity in Nature and Life," linking the Niagara Escarpment and the Ice Age Trail, was broadcast April 22, 2016; "The Welcome Oak," set in the section of the IAT I stewarded for a while, was broadcast May 17, 2017. Both have their texts online. "Cave Crawling," broadcast June 13, 2018, only has a link to the recording; I'll post the text of that essay next week. The following week I'll post "In the Labyrinth Garden," one of the unaired scripts, without a recording.


In the twenty-nine years between my final Michigan broadcast and my first Wisconsin broadcast, the nature of communication changed quite a bit. I'm aware that I'm now as likely—perhaps more likely—to publish a new essay online as to publish it in print. Since many of those sites are available on cellphones, publication is often possible on podcasts or at least with audio or video accompaniment—that way, readers don't have to only read but can also hear and/or view a reading while they walk or run or even drive. When my essay "Time and Terrain," another segment from The Arc of the Escarpment, was accepted by The Split Rock Review in Spring 2018, I was asked to record a reading of it; I also provided a short piece on writing about place for a Contributor Spotlight. They're still online.


I've just listened to all the essays I recorded for "Wisconsin Life" and The Split Rock Review and I'm not too embarrassed by them. At home, I read aloud a large portion of what we listen to at dinnertime, more often fiction than nonfiction, and try to adapt my reading to approximate the voices of characters and narrators. I suspect that, in the age of rampant (and too often necessary) self-publishing, it could be possible for me to do my own audiobook of something or other. I'm not much tempted to, but I'm glad I had the chance to be an audio essayist as often as I did. It was almost like keeping up with the times.



Notes: Links to Online Essays


"Synchronicity in Nature and Life," Wisconsin Life. Wisconsin Public Radio, April 22, 2016.


"The Welcome Oak," Wisconsin Life, Wisconsin Public Radio, May 17, 2017,


"Cave Crawling," Wisconsin Life, Wisconsin Public Radio, June 13, 2018,


"Time and Terrain," The Split Rock Review, Issue 10: (Spring 2018)


Contributor Spotlight March 13, 2018: Robert Root on "Time and Terrain"


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