In 2004, I stood for the first time beside Nebraska’s Platte River and wondered why maps show a thick blue line to represent such a feeble a stream. The Platte was a mystery to me in this and countless other regards. Without really planning to do so, I made a quest of exploring the Platte and learning its ways. In six years of walking, watching, and reading, I became attached to a place where, as a temporary transplant, I was sure I’d never belong.
Four years ago, I was transplanted again – back to Wisconsin, the state in which I grew up. I live in Elroy, amid the spectacular hills of the Driftless Region. A quarter-mile downhill from my back door, a new river flows through my life: the Baraboo is so close that in the spring, I can throw open the windows and hear frogs singing in the bottomlands.
A hundred miles away, in the rolling farmland east of Madison, is the Crawfish River, which I crossed a thousand times – and scarcely observed – in my youth. I observe it now, whenever I visit that part of the state. I see more than I used to. Foremost, I see how little I knew – and how little I still know – about the land and waters around me. So I am home, and yet not at home. Because now, to feel at home, I must know the trees and grasses by name. I want to recognize the wildlife by their footprints and their voices, and learn the rivers’ stories. In other words, I want to feel at home the way a naturalist does – through familiarity, study, and finally, a sense of kinship.
It’s time for new quest. Time to apply lessons learned on the Platte and to see familiar, overlooked places with fresh eyes. And time to make this new home really feel like home. Join me, if you like. Explore your own home ground as I explore mine; share your thoughts.
We’ll be in good company. It happens that on this quest I will walk over lands where Aldo Leopold and John Muir walked before. They were not natives of Wisconsin, and neither am I. Indeed, if tenure alone makes a place “home,” half of our society is in danger of blowing away for want of roots.
Let us instead fashion a method of crafting our own roots, of building a sense that, wherever we may live, and for however long, our feet will lead us home, and we can become firmly attached to some small part of this marvelous planet.
I am undertaking this project, and writing about it, for two reasons. The first is enjoyment. Our lives are enriched by a deep understanding of the natural world and the landscape we inhabit. I am not a biologist, a geologist, or any other type of scientific expert. Arguably, my principal area of expertise is Curiosity. For aspiring naturalists who, like me, want to follow their curiosity, I’ll share some methods I adopted while exploring the Platte River – methods I am now using to explore my new territory. And for naturalists both new and experienced, I hope to produce something that is enjoyable to read.
Secondly, I have a practical reason for encouraging my fellow citizens to form a heart-felt attachment to the places where they live. So many parts of our planet are threatened by so many forms of environmental degradation: groundwater depletion, power lines, pipelines, noise pollution, light pollution, mining operations, hydraulic fracturing…the list goes on and on. Part of me wants to spend all my time writing letters to legislators, making speeches, waving protest signs.
But I can’t do this alone. Each place’s first line of defense is made up of the people who live there and call it home. New-comers, short-timers, lifelong residents who take it all for granted – we all share responsibility for the place where we live. We all need to understand – and love – our home ground well enough to stand up for what’s right, and to stand against what’s wrong.
These are the first steps.