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Everybody Wants to be Thoreau


(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1984)


Everybody wants to be Thoreau. That is, the best of our modern essayists and nature writers have imbibed the spirit of the author of Walden along with their taste for outdoor air, and he continually haunts their perceptions of the world and their judgments about their own and others' work.


Pre-eminent among them is E. B. White, who, describing his retreat from hectic New York City life to an idyllic Maine saltwater farm, wrote his own Walden in One Man's Meat. Throughout his career White continually felt Thoreau's presence at his shoulder, declaring, "I should hate to be called a Thoreauvian, yet I wince every time I walk into the barn I'm pushing before me, seventy-five feet by forty, and the author of Walden has served as the conscience of my trivial days." Time and again White used Thoreau as the measure of conscience and of observation, writing that, "I'd like to stroll about the countryside in Thoreau's company for a day, observing the modern scene . . . and offering belated apologies for my sins." He wryly observed that "Thoreau is unique among writers in that those who admire him find him uncomfortable to live with—a regular hairshirt of a man."


Other writers find him equally omnipresent. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe John McPhee discovers that everyone canoeing the Allagash River with him has virtually memorized Thoreau's The Maine Woods, discussing around the campfire Henry's accuracy and the Allagash's changes. Thoreau is the ghostly passenger in each canoe, somehow an essential element of the forest and the river.


But he doesn't only haunt the locales of his life—Concord and Cape Cod and Maine; his spirit travels wherever literate people wander the wilderness. Edward Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire is a Walden of the American southwest, writes of reading Thoreau while rafting the Colorado. Trying to discover support for his own perceptions, Abbey most often turns to Thoreau. In Beyond the Wall he writes that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul," and then adds, "Or as an old friend of mine once said, 'If I regret anything it is my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?'"


Such writers not only see themselves in Henry's terms but judge each other by measuring their integrity and insight against Thoreau's. Larry McMurty calls Edward Abbey "the Thoreau of the American West," and Edward Hoagland writes of Abbey that "like Thoreau, he is at times ornery and subversive in thrust, undeterred by the tastemakers of his own day, a man still 'with the bark on.'" The Washington Post identifies Hoagland as "the Thoreau of our time," and the American Academy of Arts and Letters claims that Hoagland's voice sounds "like Thoreau's, the sharp note of man's independence." Scott Elledge says of E. B. White that, "early on, he knew, like Thoreau, that contemplation was a form of creativity."


All this sense of Thoreau's ghostly presence in modern creative life, all this measuring of modern accomplishments against Thoreau's model, should make us suspect that something in his life and work still speaks with vitality and force to fundamental, universal issues. E. B. White called Walden "a document of increasing pertinence" and Edward Abbey wrote, "Thoreau becomes more significant with each passing decade. The deeper and faster our United States hurl themselves into industrialism, urbanism, militarism and authoritarianism—with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America—the more poignant, strong and appealing becomes Thoreau's demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile."


As we turn with delight and pleasure to the writing of our modern day Thoreaus, we might do well to occasionally return to the source, just as they do.


Note: Thoreau's influence continues


Fate, Tom Montgomery. Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild (2012)

Gessner, David. Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (2021)

Gessner, David. A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod (1997)

LaBastille, Annie. Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness (1976)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Living at the End of Time: Two Years in a Tiny House (1990)

Mitchell, John Hanson. Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (1995)

Sanders, Scott Russell. "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86). Originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122.


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Reading Thoreau


I'm curious about the effects writing can have on readers, certain that what we react to in literature arises from our own personalities, the experiences we've had, our memories of people we've known and events we've lived through. Talking to people about books you and they have read or films or plays you and they have seen you often sense that they read something other than what you read or witnessed a different performance even though they sat right next to you when you witnessed it. I remember, years ago, seeing An Unmarried Woman with faculty friends and hearing reactions that varied widely among the happily married couple, the divorcees in a second marriage, the troubled married couple, and the never-married bachelor.


Over the years I've gravitated toward writers who eventually revealed their admiration for the same earlier writers. One such writer is Scott Russell Sanders, who examines his relationship with Henry David Thoreau in "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations," an essay collected in The Way of Imagination. It's a significant study of the effect an individual book may have on a younger writer's development of over the course of his career.


Sanders tells us that he first read Walden at seventeen, "at the urging of a high school teacher who sensed that my adolescent mind, brimming with questions, would benefit from grappling with a truly radical thinker." He admits, "Much of the book baffled me." Because Sanders' country upbringing was among "thrifty, resourceful people," he appreciated "Thoreau's effort to provide some of the necessities of life with his own hands"—the physical labor constructing his cabin, chopping firewood, fetching pond water, and hoeing beans—but he didn't understand Thoreau's taking "pains to distinguish between the necessities of life and the luxuries, between enough and too much." He was excited by "Thoreau's desire to lead a meaningful life" and thrilled by his effort to explain what he lived for. His high school teacher was certainly right about Sanders' "adolescent mind, brimming with questions." He too imagined life having "a purpose beyond mere survival and the passing on of genes, beyond piling up possessions, beyond auditioning for paradise"—(what a great phrase)—but he didn't know what its purpose might be.


He quotes Thoreau's best-known passage: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary." That first reading of Walden encouraged Sanders to emulate "Thoreau's determination to observe and enjoy the marvels of Earth, to be fully awake and alive, right here, right now."


In the interval since that first reading, "fifty years and many rereadings later," Sanders acknowledges that Walden has become both "less bewildering, since I have made my share of difficult choices and suffered my share of losses, and also more challenging, since I have come to recognize more clearly my own limitations as well as those of the book." He recognizes that both he and Thoreau moved beyond Walden in their lives and their writing but acknowledges that the first reading was a formative experience for him and that "the example of Thoreau's life and the challenge of his thought remain potent influences for me, as they have been potent influences for generations of readers." Considering the age in which we live, the kinds of lifestyles that multitudes of us have acquiesced to almost automatically, he asserts that "we need more than ever to ask the questions posed in Walden": What is life for? What are the necessities of a good life? What is our place in nature? How should we spend our days? These are vital questions.


The broader assertion Sanders makes in the essay is this: "Great books read us as surely as we read them, revealing by the aspects of our character and personal history they illuminate, who we are." He confesses telling his students that, even if Walden doesn't speak to their condition, other books will—they will, in essence, read them, reveal who they are. Who we are is not always something we know well and he hopes that, whatever the book may be, it will be "giving voice to what you have felt but have not been able to say, asking your deeper questions, stirring you to more intense life." It's what reading Thoreau did for him and what it's done for a good many other readers, myself among them.



Note: "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86), was originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122. Downloadable at https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/DAED_a_00260


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The Way of the Essayist


I've been collecting the nonfiction of Scott Russell Sanders for over thirty years now. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont, the last writing workshop I attended as a student, I sat with him at lunch a couple of times. I remember he insisted that "nonfiction" or "non-fiction" was not a useful term for what he wrote, since it only identified what his writing wasn't—it was not fiction. He pointed out that it was also non-poetry, non-play, non-article.


I tended to agree with him, though I was then deeply involved in "creative nonfiction," the adjective an effort at specifying the nature of the noun. Dropping the hyphen helped. Others preferred "literary nonfiction" or "nonfiction narrative," each alternative suggesting the possibility of "non-literary non-fiction" or "non-creative non-fiction" or "nonnarrative nonfiction." I felt we were stuck with "nonfiction" and later used it (self-consciously) in my own titles and subtitles (The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction; Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place).


Sanders' intimate, open essay "The Inheritance of Tools" in Best American Essays 1987 introduced his writing to me and led me to his first collection, The Paradise of Bombs and Other Essays, centered on family and place in the Midwest—he lived and taught in Indiana. In an essay from Writing from the Center (1995), he wrote, "I write from within a family, a community, and a landscape, concentric rings of duty and possibility. I refuse to separate my search for a way of writing from my search for a way of living." I liked the idea of what he termed "a literature of inhabitation." I'd grown up and attended college in western New York, earned graduate degrees in Iowa, and taught for decades at a university in Michigan. Sanders and I were, in a sense, coming to our writing from similar places. His collections like Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (1993) and Writing from the Center encouraged me not to be one of the "nomads who write about no place at all" but to be among the writers who "have settled down and rooted their art in a chosen place . . ."


Recently, with the release of his most recent collection, The Way of Imagination, Sanders was interviewed online about his writing. He explained that, instead of "nonfiction," he prefers specific terms for what he writes: essays, personal narratives, memoirs. Over time he has become, increasingly, an investigator of ethical and moral issues centered on daily living, the focus of books like The Force of Spirit (2000), and A Private History of Awe (2006). I particularly admired Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journeys (1998), which alternates chapters about his relationship with his son with his efforts to find reasons for hope in a world that his son thinks has made his father desolate. In the interview Sanders claims, in regard to the calamitous state we have recently been living in, "I'm not optimistic, but I am hopeful." He believes in "the human capacity to change, to learn" and it's the reason he keeps writing essays.


Referring to Montaigne, Sanders explains that the word "essay" comes from a French word "meaning to test or to try." In his own writing process, "an essay almost always starts with a question, a question I don't know the answer to or at least I don't have a satisfactory answer for. And the essay is my way of trying to come to a better understanding of the thing that puzzles me or moves me or bewilders me." He thinks that an essay, at least as he writes one, "doesn't start by knowing what you want to end up saying—it's a quest to figure out something or at least to gain greater insight into something. [. . .] And when I'm writing a piece and I feel a sense of discovery, I know the essay is alive."


I'm one of the readers of Scott Russell Sanders' essays who has often discovered how alive his essays are. In the very first pages of The Way of Imagination I was aware that I was reading perhaps his most profound and observant collection. Even before I finished reading it, I volunteered to review it for River Teeth because I wanted to urge everyone to read it. It's a very vital volume.


Note: Further Reading:


Root, Robert. "Creative Nonfiction," Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume Two: Dimensions of the Midwestern Literary Imagination. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016:179-184.


Root, Robert. Review, "Meditative Naturalist, Intimate Essayist, Visionary Author," review of The Way of Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders, River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, January 8, 2021.


Root, Robert L., Jr. Review, A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8:1 (Spring 2006): 143-147.


Sanders, Scott Russell. Interview by Mitch Tiplitsky, Morgenstern Books. October 3, 2020.


Sanders' Website: https://www.scottrussellsanders.com/

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Once an Inauguration


On the night before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, partly anxious about potential disruption the next day, memories of earlier inaugurals kept me awake. I didn't expect to have them surface, but memory often decides on its own what you should think about.


Biden is the 46th president since our first, George Washington. As someone pointed out the next day, inaugurations have occurred every four years without fail for 232 years, a total of 58 altogether. Biden is the 15th to be sworn in during my lifetime, his inauguration the 19th I might have witnessed. I was barely two years old for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's third inaugural, and though I might have later heard about FDR's fourth one and his death and Harry Truman's victory over Thomas Dewey, it wasn't until Dwight David Eisenhower's inauguration that I was in any way a witness.


My family leaned Republican politically. My father, my uncles, and some aunts had seen military service during World War II, conflicts between North and South Korea were heating up, and everyone I knew "liked Ike," a celebrated general. Eisenhower was inaugurated in January 1953 and, for the first time, we could witness it live on television, as it was happening, rather than wait to read about it later in newspapers or magazines like Life.


I saw it on the small television screen in a large wooden cabinet in the house of friends. We clustered in front of it until urged to clear away so everyone could see the screen; the sound of on-screen speakers alarmed their little dog Maggie and she barked and growled at the machine until they put her outside. I don't really remember much of the ceremony.


It was a grand year for pomp and circumstance. About six months later we watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a somewhat grander occasion than the inauguration. I made sure to buy the View-Master slide reels of both events so I could see images of them over again. I probably watched Ike's second inaugural as well but don't recall View-Master recording it.


In 1960, when John F. Kennedy campaigned in our town, I saw him among crowds on the Big Bridge over the Erie Canal but didn't pay much attention. By the election my friend Dave and I were in the Southwest and, returning across the border from Mexico into California, we were asked by an official whom we'd voted for. When I told him I'd have voted for Nixon, my family's choice, but was a week and a half too young to vote, he approved, told me I was also too young to have crossed into Tijuana on my own, and cheerfully sent us on our way.


I started voting in college, somehow more liberal than my parents. The Vietnam War, which I was against, determined my politics. In the 57 years and 15 elections I've been allowed to vote in, my preferred candidates served 24 years, my rejected ones 32 years. At one point I felt as if my vote jinxed the candidates I favored.


If I review my lifetime voting record, I'm aware that I haven't been strictly partisan. I've voted for candidates who were likely to support those causes I care about—education, environment, employment, healthcare, diplomacy, peace—or, since the candidates I most admire seldom win their party's nomination, for candidates who might do the least harm. I supported moderate Republicans over ideological Democrats—William Milliken in Michigan, Robert Ray and Fred Schwengel in Iowa, for example—in the days when it was possible for Republicans to be moderates and when a bipartisan approach at least produced somewhat positive results, if not as fully positive as the general population needed them to be.


I've often said that I'm against what Republicans stand for and don't know what Democrats stand for. I know that what the party in power stands for may change when it's out of power, and vice-versa. At this year's inauguration, I thought all the generalized positions the speakers espoused were encouraging, all the promises positive. Much of it was moving and reassuring. But then I remember, before he was elected, all the accurate negativity his own party rivals expressed toward the character and motives of Donald Trump, how loyally and aggressively they supported his character, motives, and behavior once he wielded power, and now how sternly they decry the deeds they themselves fostered and abetted. Truth is the proper thing to uphold before abundant falsehoods lead to destruction, not something to pretend to promote later on.


It was inspiring to listen to the promises Biden's administration is making. I watched the inauguration all the way through. I hope it will be one I want to remember.


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Duck and Cover


When the City of Waukesha's warning siren sounded one Friday morning, I opened its website to learn what it was warning about. Vague possibilities entered my head—in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, armed vigilantes in Michigan had swarmed the state house to intimidate their governor and partisan politics in Wisconsin could get as menacing. A host of memories emerged from long seclusion. I needed to know what the city thought I needed to know.


The city tests its weather warning sirens at 9:30 a.m. every Friday from April to October, the website explained, to see if they work and if we all can hear them. I could confirm, if asked, that they did and that I could. But the website also claimed that the tests "will not occur if threatening weather is possible." That wasn't reassuring, suggesting that, if I didn't hear the sirens, threatening weather was likely and if I did hear them, it was unlikely. I didn't ask how often threatening weather might occur at 9:30 a.m. on Friday mornings between April and October.


But rather than a weather warning, the first thing I thought of that morning was the catastrophe preparation I'd been grilled in during my school days growing up in Western New York. It wasn't natural disaster we were taught to be alert for but forms of destruction brought about by fire or aerial bombardment.


Sometimes during the school year, preferably on a sunny, temperate day, we'd hear the fire alarm sound and line up in our classrooms for a swift but orderly departure from the building. We'd move out onto the sidewalk circling the school or perhaps onto the playground or playing fields and wait for the all-clear signal. Sometimes firemen showed up, especially if the fire drill were the result of a defective alarm or a careless or reckless child, but most often we simply stood around until re-entering. The message of the drills was direct and brief: in case of fire, get out of the building.


The air raid drills were more ominous, preparing for a foreign power to drop bombs on our community—our troops were fighting in Korea, and our Cold War with the Soviet Union included a nuclear armament race. We needed strategies ensuring survival. People built fallout shelters in basements or backyards, underground refuges stocked with emergency provisions and supplies. Students were taught to stay in their school buildings during air raids, away from doors and windows where glass and debris might spew across the classrooms. "Duck and cover," we were told. We were shown filmstrips of people dropping wherever they were, in parks and playgrounds and shops, curling under whatever was nearby. At the warning signal students either hid under desks or, given enough time, made swift but orderly progress into hallways to kneel facing the walls, bending our heads, and covering our necks. When the all-clear sounded and we rose to return to our lessons, we didn't ask how curling up in a ball on the classroom floor would have saved us from the blast of an atomic bomb.


Catastrophe, we were encouraged to believe, was always imminent, even if relatively remote. My parents worried more about polio—58,000 new cases and over 3,000 deaths in 1952—than school fire or nuclear attack. But times change. Today, with students at risk from random gunmen, schools require active shooter drills to prepare students to lock themselves securely away if a killer enters their hallways. Unlike my childhood drills, we now need to guard more alertly against one another. Eight years ago, as my wife and I shopped at a mall, in a salon across the street a man killed his hairdresser wife and two of her co-workers and wounded three others before killing himself. Such events are no longer rare.


As I write this, the Coronavirus has infected over 23 million people and killed over 385,00 in the United States. The pandemic still surges rather than abates. As I write this, our Capitol and our Congress are recovering from assault by supporters of a malign and sociopathic narcissist. We're uncertain at the moment how much insurrection and sedition we and our long dysfunctional and ineffectual government still have to face. The combination of plague and anarchy is daunting.


The present moment should remind us of the constant need to be ready for disaster, catastrophe, possible annihilation all the time. None of those we've gotten through in the past were overcome without cost; complacency puts us in peril, as the scale of our latest losses and persistent alarm makes us aware. If we are alert to what may be imminent, we'll be able to cope with what we don't want to be eventual. We'll have no need to duck and cover.


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A New Year Morning


This morning, like so many lately, low hanging clouds seem tempted to become freezing fog, and I gaze at gray skies above snow-covered roofs and lawns, empty street and driveways, and stark leafless trees. None of the condos across from ours show signs of life, as if, like me, none of my neighbors feel the urge to rise and start the day. I witness no bustle anywhere. For a moment I pretend my glumness is not mine alone but, since I don't interact with my neighbors, I can't verify that assumption. I've often allowed myself winter blues, but I know it isn't only the weather affecting me.


I keep reacting to the times we live in. The pandemic that has killed so many people and broken so many families will continue to surge while, in America at least, efforts at prevention and healing will constantly be hampered; the impact of climate change with its fires, floods, storms, and species extinction will increase while we continue to exploit the earth. If I scroll through posts on Facebook or check online news at NPR or CNN, my levels of foreboding rise. The president who in his single term decimated every aspect of American life I value—education, environment, employment, health care, human rights—continues relentlessly to undermine the democracy, this week inspiring riots in our Capitol building. I want to be cheered by the presidential election and the shift of power in the Senate out of the hands of committed hypocrites but still feel the weight of uncertainty and tension.


I lived through the last half of the 20th Century. It had abundant moments of social and political and environmental upheaval but, living the life of a reasonably well-educated and relatively solvent citizen, a reliable worker and responsible family man, I usually felt like a distant observer, a bystander only vaguely distracted by the news of the world. So far, the 21st Century hasn't provided any reassurance about my remoteness from the public sphere. If anything, it's been heightening my remoteness from the most intimate aspects of my own life.


I'm now at the age my grandparents were in my youth, when their siblings were passing on and I attended their funerals with my parents, not always certain who the person we were mourning had been or who he or she had been related to, seldom recognizing that person's offspring, often unsure if I had ever even met that person before. Now I tune in to year-end recitals of the prominent deceased, remembering some songs they recorded or a film they appeared in or one or more of their books. Often, they are either my age or the age my grandmother was at her death or occasionally younger and I nod when someone says they left too soon. I check birthdates in all obituaries.


In 2019 my sister, my cousin, my aunt, and my closest colleague all died, and I learned of earlier deaths of relatives and friends I hadn't known about. I attended only one funeral before planned memorials were postponed by the spread of the pandemic. In mid-2020 my younger brother died unexpectedly, his funeral put off indefinitely. All these occasions would have required travel and none of their bereaved wanted friends and loved ones to gather until . . .well, whenever it would be safe. For all of us, any sense of closure has been curtailed indefinitely, any acceptance of their absences suspended.


There are absences among the living as well. We haven't visited our son in California in over a year, will not be with our daughter in Florida and her family for most of the year ahead, see our daughter in Wisconsin and her family half an hour away only intermittently, only wearing masks, social distancing, and air hugging. Too often I feel confined in our condo, less a home now than a cell or a fortress under siege. I'm challenged by the lack of connection I feel with the people I love most and with the outer world in general and haunted by the awareness of the deaths I've distantly experienced of family members and friends.


And the very world we live in seems tormented by uncertainty, its air suffused with the virility of the pandemic, its democracy reeling, our daily existence nothing we can comfortably take for granted. I keep looking out my windows, noticing that the fog has lifted though the sky is still all one single shade of gray-white. I look off to the southeast. I wonder if there's any chance of sun at all.



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In the Labyrinth Garden


I should have realized that the Labyrinth Garden Earth Sculpture in West Bend's Regner Park wouldn't be a typical labyrinth. The words "Garden" and "Earth Sculpture" were the giveaways. The other labyrinths I'd walked in Wisconsin had been gravel paths between borders of stones and small boulders or they'd been paving stones between brick barriers, all leading to a bench in a center circle. Most replicated the medieval pattern from Chartres Cathedral, eleven circuits divided into four quadrants, rife with twists and turns; some followed the less complicated Cretan pattern of seven concentric circuits. But in the Cretan design of the Labyrinth Garden, a grassy path wound through barrier walls of well-tended flowerbeds. Beyond the outermost wall of flowers was a circling lawn ringed with inscribed commemorative "Celebration Stones." A low wrought iron fence enclosed it all and a huge metal dragonfly hovered above part of the path. It was as much garden as labyrinth.


Labyrinths are meant to inspire walking meditations, where you try not to think of the world beyond the labyrinth. Meditation guides advise you, "When you walk, just walk." You try to concentrate on your breathing or to focus on an emotion, like compassion or empathy or forgiveness. When you reach the center circle you hope to sit calmly, silently, and meditate a little longer or simply breathe, before winding slowly back to where you started.


But when I first walked the Labyrinth Garden, I found it hard to meditate. Rows of fragrant, colorful flowers, ornamental grasses, and herbs bordered the path on either side. Sometimes the breeze made the tallest flowers rock towards me and then sway away. Flitters of movement continually caught my eye: a goldfinch visiting one thistle after another, an upside down bee clinging to a pulsing flower, abundant butterflies drifting down or fluttering up. Once, rather than disturb an orange butterfly on an orange blossom, I waited for her to fly off before I moved past her flower.


I stopped often to bend and read identifying metal tags on low posts in the mulch. Some names were familiar, like Larkspur and Lupine and Prairie Smoke; some were whimsical, like Gryffindor Colors, Intelligent Design, and Panties in a Bunch. When I moved on, I would remember the names but not the images of the flowers. Further down the path I would stoop and read a name I'd read only minutes before, then mutter to myself, "Ah, Forget-Me-Not," as if I recalled it from before.


It took me a while to make my way to the center of the Labyrinth Garden, sit for a few minutes contemplating only morning air, then retrace the circuit at the same attentive pace as before. I circled the labyrinth, slowly reading inscriptions on the Celebration Stones. I paused once to watch a butterfly settle on one that read, "In Loving Memory." It was not my usual walking meditation. Still, after an hour in the Labyrinth Garden, in sunshine and warm breeze, gazing at flowers and grasses, at birds and bees and butterflies, I felt a meditative calm. I felt content. I felt at peace.


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Cave Crawling


(Broadcast on "Wisconsin Life" June 13, 2018)


I'm the only one signed up for the cave tour at the Ledge View Nature Center, but Jane Mingari, the assistant naturalist, agrees to lead it. Despite a fear of tight, dark places, I'd resolved to explore a cave. Now I have no excuse to back out.


We walk to the entrance on the roofs of caves. Jane explains how the solution caves below us were carved by seepage of rain and snowmelt that sometimes became underground streams and even waterfalls. The ground beneath us is honeycombed with chambers and channels. The Carolyn's Caverns cave system is over 700 feet long. It's accessible part of the year for tours but closed from October to May for bat hibernation. Its first room, the Bat Room, has an opening in its steel door for bats—big brown, little brown, long-eared, and tri-colored bats—to enter and exit.


Jane urges me to explore two side rooms. I smile gamely and commit myself to crawling and clambering. I squirm on my belly in and out of one narrow passage and climb down a ladder into a small enclosed space with a muddy bottom. I hope I've acclimated myself to what's ahead.


We wander through other rooms and passages, stepping carefully on the uneven floor, wary of protrusions near our heads. I bend, I stoop, I crawl on my hands and knees, and I slither outright. Only one place is especially tight, less so for Jane than for me, but crawling through passages like the Whale's Throat and the Kid's Passage means venturing into long dark holes with no chance to raise my head or propel myself by any means other than elbows and thighs. I try not to think about getting stuck and soon realize I don't need to think about it.


When we descend to Carolyn's Cave, the original entrance to the system, we're 17 feet below the surface; at the bottom of Dave's Sink, the deepest room, we're 36 feet—four stories—underground. At times, bending to look down a dark passage, I feel the lure of crawling in to see just how far it would take me, how tangled and interconnected the cavities might be.


Jane illuminates layers of Silurian strata, fossils, miniature stalactites, chert and cave coral. She steers me around "hungry mud," the sticky pools on the cave floors, remnants of times the caves have been flooded, at least once as much as eighteen feet deep. By the time we make the long crawl through the Whale's Throat back to the Bat Room, I'm busy thinking about the slow and relentless formation of the caves, the scale of their existence. Despite the weight of the rock strata above me, the density of the walls around me, the impenetrable darkness beyond this room, I feel no eagerness to leave the caves. When we reach daylight, I feel no sense of relief.


I suppose you could say I confronted my fear of crawling in caves and overcame it. It seems to me more likely that I was too absorbed in where I was to notice my fear. Neither the caves nor my guide would let me think about that.



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

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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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(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1982)


If traveling some six thousand miles in a single month taught me nothing else—other than the wisdom of getting to a place and staying put—it taught me the arbitrariness of the boundaries people project upon the land. After all, nature puts no boundary lines upon the earth; those that appear on maps are products solely of the lawyer's imagination and the surveyor's ingenuity.


I should have known all this before, of course—I've traveled enough to know that if you fall asleep in western Ohio and then wake up with only the landscape to tell you where you are, you really don't know if you're in southern Michigan, northern Indiana, or eastern Illinois. I've seen the flatlands of northwestern Minnesota become the flatlands of first North Dakota and then Manitoba with only highway markers and the colors of police cars to give warning that some people have divided this featureless landscape into two states of one country and a province of another.


But I only began to think about the ways the land contradicted subdivisions as I traveled west one August. Leaving Missouri and entering Kansas, I saw no difference in scenery. I watched the land change as we crossed Kansas, observing the lift of the land as we drove from the prairies of the Missouri River basin into the table-flat high plains section of western Kansas, on our way toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But I never saw sharp distinctions—one topographic division led into another and, when we crossed the border into Colorado, I saw only more high plains before us. It would be another hour before the gradual incline led us to a place where the mountains would emerge on the horizon.


The remainder of the trip confirmed the suspicions about boundaries that Kansas and Colorado raised. At Mesa Verde, I looked out from Park Point at the one place in the nation where four states meet in a single location. The Park Point handbook could superimpose boundary lines on pictures of the vistas I beheld, but I couldn't see any natural borders between Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the days that followed, as we roamed the Four Corners area, I could see that changes in topography were always well within states, never between them. The canyonlands of Utah became the canyonlands of Arizona, following the Colorado River; the Guadalupe Mountains made no distinction between Texas and New Mexico; the Chihuahuan Desert extended from deep within Mexico to deep within the United States.


I could see as well that nature's indifference to boundaries extends to the zones of habitation it creates. Rivers are the centers of their environment, not the edges; nature works upward from them toward mountaintops, creating climate zones along the way, saying that here on the plains the pinyon may grow and here in the foothills belongs Ponderosa pine and here in the Montane Zone may grow Douglas fir. And yet a traveler up a mountainside will often see the zones overlap, pinyon growing with Ponderosa pine and, higher up, Ponderosa pine mingling with Douglas fir.


In McKittrick Canyon, in the Guadalupe Mountains, hikers can tramp through something like five biotic communities in a couple of hours, discovering the northernmost limits of the Texas Madrone tree, the westernmost limits of some deciduous trees more common to the Appalachians, the southernmost limits of some conifers.  Such a mixture of habitats causes a mingling of unexpected forms of wildlife as well.


The blurring of zones of habitation isn't confined to flora and fauna—it happens with people as well. I'd often noticed how southern Iowans behaved like northern Missourians and northern Iowans behaved like southern Minnesotans. In the west, I found the New Mexicans of Las Cruces not much different from the Texans of El Paso. Santa Fe seemed virtually a McKittrick Canyon of human habitation, where the styles of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Tesque Pueblo, of Eastern Jew, Western Gay, Mexican, cowboy, and American Indian, all blend in an adobe melting pot. In parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation occupies a space larger than New England, unnatural boundaries overlapping other unnatural boundaries.


Nowhere can I find evidence that boundaries between states and between groups of people are anything more than the fictions of mankind, unnatural pretenses that sharp distinctions are possible. Nature seems to work by gradation, oblivious to unnecessary delineations. In place of continued conflict over imagined borders and hair-splitting distinctions of race, religion, and ideology, mankind might do well to ponder nature's example.



Note: "Boundaries" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 64-66.

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