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At Home, or Dear Professor Cronon

July 4, 2016

There is a professor at the University of Wisconsin whose work I like very much. I am  not alone in this: William Cronon is esteemed and beloved in a wide range of scholarly circles, and if you doubt this, just listen to how he is introduced here. On his website, and in that introduction, Dr. Cronon appears a perfectly balanced, compassionate, and committed scholar. But what interests me most about his work, and also perplexes me somewhat, is his own interest in my hometown.

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Of Portage, Wisconsin, he writes:

But three figures clearly stand out as the most influential representatives of this Wisconsin story… Curiously, all three found their environmental compass, their most intimate sense of place, in a small area within fifteen miles of Portage, in the sandy, low-lying country near where the headwaters of the Fox River converge with the Wisconsin River. Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage in 1861 and spent the first eighteen years of his life there. John Muir migrated at the age of eleven to a small homestead less than a dozen miles northeast of Portage in 1849. And Aldo Leopold’s Shack, the abandoned farm he immortalized in A Sand County Almanac, was located six miles upstream from Portage on the south bank of the Wisconsin River. Rarely has so unlikely a landscape evoked such passionate responses from figures of such intellectual importance. Together, these men represent three different strands of Wisconsin’s environmental tradition, and say much about the American sense of place in general. (1991)

Dr. Cronon is currently working on a history of Portage, one that spans the end of the last Ice Age to the present. In his words, “It explores how people’s sense of place is shaped by the stories they tell about their homes, their lives, and the landscapes they inhabit.”

I love this.

I also feel a great deal of skepticism that Dr. Cronon’s going to nail the “present” part of his Portage history.

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I was in Portage last week, en route to Duluth. I love Portage. I have to think carefully about this love, and I do often. Is it the privileged love of someone who has left and who likely will not–or does not have to–return? Is it entirely nostalgic? Is it because I’ve known remarkable love here, and because so many family and friends are of this place? Each of these things is true. Lately, though, I think I love Portage because its familiar streets slip quietly into the space in me that seems to yawn open; it satisfies an otherwise acute absence of feeling at home.

I am in therapy these days, and I also see a couple’s counselor with my husband.* The thing that has been hardest for me to talk to my therapist about is how I do not feel at home here. I try cheap shots: “I am not kidding, Kathy, not a day goes by when I don’t almost get mowed down by a woman on her cell phone in a Land Rover.” This is true and very stressful, but it is also neither kind-spirited nor brave. I get practical: “When I’m having a hard time, all I want to do is just get in the woods and go for a run, and I can’t do that. I have to drive at least 40 minutes, and then the trail is manicured.” This is also true, and I have no way to frame that more positively. There are a whole host of other, more honest and legitimate reasons why I (and we) don’t want to stay, but then I go home to Portage, like I did this past week, and I get it.

I don’t know that Dr. Cronon can get it.

These days, Portage is not a very good looking town. There are about three semi-okay restaurants, the best of which is located in an old boxcar. There aren’t many places to shop besides Wal-Mart. There are two liquor stores, but Wal-Mart recently received a liquor license and everyone is pretty sure the liquor stores are going to go out of business. There are a lot of churches and a lot of bars and it is hard to spend very much time in either of those places without recognizing at least a few people. This is what is called a “high density of acquaintanceship” (Freudenberg 1986), and I generally feel ambivalent about it. It means that a person may not report domestic abuse because her or his partner is friends with a local cop. It also means that if there has been some sort of terrible family emergency, a person is assured casseroles and Hallmark cards for a significant duration of time.

What I do feel certain about, however, are Portage’s landmarks. By landmarks, I do not mean Fort Winnebago or so many failed signs about Zona Gale. I mean this: If you take HWY U off of HWY 33 and turn left on Diehl Road and run as far as you can (sometimes it’s flooded) you are guaranteed really spectacular summer smells. I think that is worth landmark status. It is muggy and the road is covered with dense, dusty, clattering leaves and the frogs on either side of you croak low and long. Depending on where you are, you will smell mud and corn and honeysuckle and fir trees and the wind. In the winter, you will see a million tracks in the snow and, if you’re lucky–or not, depending on how you feel about turkeys–just as many young turkeys.

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There is also a stretch of sidewalk by the river that I used to roller skate on, one that has been slowly and rigidly slammed upward by strong roots. I would skate up and down the block, humming something really terrific like Mariah Carey, and each time I approached the tiles I would nervously yank my heavy foot ahead of my body. Lurching forward, I would slam that skate down and yank up the other just in time. And then exhale.

It’s about the same when I run there now, though I don’t feel nervous. I just feel full, almost breathlessly so.

The sidewalk has been patched up but not sufficiently. I ran on it last Tuesday night and thought about how my parents always said the people who lived here drank too much. I wonder now what “drank too much” meant to them, though there was always a box full of empty bottles on the curb. The people also had a dog named Rosemary. On summer nights, as lake flies and dragonflies flew loud, lazy circles over the dark river below, we would hear a woman calling, “Rosemary!” down the block. We would laugh and laugh: Rosemary.

I cannot think of this stretch of sidewalk without also recalling clouds of swallows; the glow of snow in street lights; a tennis court smothered in weeds; snails caught in a nearby pond; the river’s strong undertow. It is a landmark, to me.

And there’s the rub, right?

“Curiously,” writes Cronon, “all three found their environmental compass, their most intimate sense of place, in a small area within fifteen miles of Portage.”

I don’t think it’s curious at all. Ever the ethnographer, and obviously partisan, I am admittedly more curious about the many other people who still live in this small town–most whose lives will never receive the scholarly consideration of Cronon’s estimable triumvirate, and many to whom the history of Portage is a bit of an indulgence (like a blog)–and their intimate sense of place. After all, I don’t think I am alone in having a grid of memories overlay each street, so many fields, this train track, that church, that parking lot, the football field, the rock at that intersection… Nor do I think I am alone in knowing this place so expertly. The culmination of so many tangible, breathed knowings won’t result in a shared land ethic or a communal “glorious!” like Muir’s or even an agreement as to what the compass divines, but it is worth knowing. I would love to know those stories. I hope Dr. Cronon would, too.




*I mentioned this fact to a colleague a few weeks ago, and she contorted her face awkwardly–Was it sympathy? Embarrassment?–and said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.” I was taken aback and have since struggled to articulate how terrific I feel about being in therapy. The closest thing I can liken it to, both the individual and couple’s counseling, is the box of old, glass Christmas ornaments that I inherited from my grandmother. They’re incredibly fragile and probably contain lead paint, but  they’re also pink and yellow and striped and look almost brazenly cheerful when I wipe them off each year. This is how I feel about counseling. Isn’t it terrific that we’re getting polished up like this? I think. We are going to glow by the time we’re done.





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  1. Late to the game, very late, but not never, never, never. Steinbeck traveled through Wisconsin on his famed roadtrip with his dog Charley, in a RV called Rocinante. He was driving through on an October day, as he headed west for the coast. It was one of those fine fall days we have sometimes in the Midwest, where the air is so clear it rings like a bell when the wind comes through.

    He wrote of it: “Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake? . . . I don’t know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with hear, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate. There was a penetration of the light into the solid substance so that I seemed to see into things, deep in, and I’ve seen that kind of light elsewhere only in Greece. I remembered not that I had been told Wisconsin is a lovely state, but the telling had not prepared me.”

    Here is hoping that you are doing well, warm and loved and getting ready to unwrap those lead poisoned tree ornaments with your family.

  2. Matthew Denman permalink

    I enjoyed this post very much. I’ve always enjoyed the voice that you write with. Bill Cronon’s been working on that book at least since I was a History student at the UW. Cindy I-feng Chang was a graduate student working with him and she told about the book. I’m under the impression it’s going to be a giant book. Every now and then I google around to see if it’s been published yet.

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