Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth

By Robert Root

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Paperback: $22.95 224 pages, 10 b/w illus., 5.5 x 8.5 ISBN: 978-0-87020-786-0 E-book Edition Available

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Root's celebration of pristine places is a valentine to a small region that inspired giants of conservation. -- Foreword Reviews 2017

A lyrical mix of memoir, travel writing, and environmental history When longtime author Robert Root moves to a small town in southeast Wisconsin, he gets to know his new home by walking the same terrain traveled by three Wisconsin luminaries who were deeply rooted in place -- John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth. Root walks with Muir at John Muir State Natural Area, with Leopold at the Shack, and with Derleth in Sac Prairie; closer to home, he traverses the Ice Age Trail, often guided by such figures as pioneering scientist Increase Lapham. Along the way, Root investigates the changes to the natural landscape over nearly two centuries, and he chronicles his own transition from someone on unfamiliar terrain to someone secure on his home ground.

In prose that is at turns introspective and haunting, Walking Home Ground inspires us to see history's echo all around us: the parking lot that once was forest; the city that once was glacier." Perhaps this book is an invitation to walk home ground," Root tells us. "Perhaps, too, it's a time capsule, a message in a bottle from someone given to looking over his shoulder even as he tries to examine the ground beneath his feet."

To receive a media review copy, to interview the author, or for more information, contact the Wisconsin Historical Society Press marketing department at whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

 

Robert Root has long been immersed in the nonfiction of place. He is the editor of Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place and the author of twenty books including Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale, named a Michigan Notable Book in 2004, the memoir Happenstance, and the craft studies E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist and The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. Root teaches nonfiction in Ashland University's MFA Program in Creative Writing and for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. He and his wife live in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

An Interview with Robert Root, author of Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth

Why did you decide to write Walking Home Ground?
The novelist E. M. Forster once wrote, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?” That sums up my decision to write Walking Home Ground. Since childhood, writing is the primary way I’ve tried to understand myself and my world. The book started out simply as a journal in which I record and reacted to my wanderings around Wisconsin. At the same time, because I’ve always read earlier writers about the places I’ve traveled, I became immersed in the Wisconsin writings of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth. The first two I’d read before but Derleth’s nonfiction was a surprise, and walking in their footsteps on the page opened me up to deeper possibilities in my own experience. Eventually, I realized I was not just writing a personal journal. I was writing something that wanted to be a book.

How did nature—and the naturalists and environmentalists—become your guides? Was it always easy to follow their footsteps? If not, why not?
In my childhood the neighborhood kids and I would head for the woods every chance we had, and my childhood reading was always about the outdoors. Like Muir and like Derleth, I was introduced to Thoreau in college. Walden is the first great “walking home ground” book in American literature. I’ve read a good many walking books since then and been on a good many trails hoping to get in touch with where I am just as those other writers have. In Wisconsin it was good to have the Muir Natural Area and the shack at the Leopold Center to visit as well as some of the places Derleth walked, though when I realized what was different about that terrain, it made me more attentive to what it meant to try to walk in their footsteps.

Why should someone not from Wisconsin read this book?
I’ve read and written a great deal about place, and I’ve realized that, wherever a book is set, the setting always expands the reader’s horizons. Few readers will ever actually visit Thoreau’s Walden Pond or Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek, Reg Saner’s Keet Seel or Chet Raymo’s Dingle Peninsula, but they’ve been opened up to a way of viewing the natural world that may impact the way they see the world around them right where they live.

My hope for Walking Home Ground is that readers from anywhere might see in my experience a way for them to connect to their own home ground. Wherever they’re from, being introduced to Muir, Leopold, and Derleth will be a positive experience and may make them wonder who the similar authors might be in their own parts of the country. Of course, I also hope they’ll feel that Wisconsin has a pretty captivating landscape.

How can this book serve as a guide to Wisconsin history? American history?
At the same time that the places we live are distinct and different from one another in terms of specific events and specific characteristics, common threads run through all our natural and social histories. Reading Muir, Leopold, and Derleth and walking through their landscapes connected me to a history of settlement and development and change that has been replicated all across America. Part of knowing where you are comes from understanding how where you are came to be what it is. It’s a part of history, as you yourself are and will be in the future. If we comprehend what has brought soemthing we hope to preserve into existence, we have a better chance of discovering how to preserve it and how to negotiate the inevitable changes that will arise.

Nature flows throughout the stories you tell in this book in almost a nostalgic way—what makes nature such a nostalgic, bonding element?
Ever since the Garden of Eden the history of mankind has been a persistent and continuous movement away from nature, more slowly incremental in most of our history but, in our increasingly technological, suburbanized, and digital age, now insistently pervasive. The cost of ignoring or exploiting nature is often high, and we only remember we have to pay it in times like the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression and in our own era of rapid climate change. And yet some part of us knows we are a part of nature. Studies have shown how tense viewers get at images of industrialization and urbanization and how calm they get at images of lakes and forests and rivers. Nostalgia is both a longing for what’s lost and a desire for reconnection. If you see land as something you dwell in rather than as something you merely reside on, you feel connected to something grander and more lasting than yourself. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic about that.

How can this book increase our understanding of Sense of Place and how Wisconsin is the same—and different—from other places in the US?
One of the unique elements of Walking Home Ground is the insertion of what I call “Interludes” throughout the book. I recall that August Derleth called the italicized nature walk sections of Walden West “interludes” as well. The interludes in my book, like the ones in his, grew out of my journals—I actually use revised journal entries in the final chapter as well—and through them and through similar segments in all the chapters I try to bring the reader along with me on my walks. As I tell writing students, it’s a literary attempt at inhabiting a scene or a space so that the reader can inhabit it as well, can intuit a sense of place in the same way the author did. From time to time in every chapter the reader will hear the voices of Muir, Leopold, Derleth, or Increase Lapham bearing witness to the scenes they inhabit. Writing itself brings any author to a deeper sense of place and, by extension, offers readers a chance to enhance their understanding of the same place. The passages about geological and regional history and about biographical background of the other writers are attempts to locate that sense of place in a particular context, one that may be simultaneously unique and universal.

As anyone can imagine, writing a book is a deeply personal experience. How has writing Walking Home Ground been a personal experience for you?
Writing a book like this required not only a lot of time walking various Wisconsin landscapes but also a lot of time reading a variety of Wisconsin writers, from Juliette Kinzie, Increase Lapham, and Reuben Gold Thwaites to Laurie Lawlor, Milton J. Bates and Michael Perry. My sense of place was vastly expanded by all that trail time and reading time, even if I didn’t follow all the footsteps I might have. More personally, all that journaling and composing made me feel somehow connected to that centuries old community of authors. Before writing the book I thought of myself as a Wisconsin resident; now I think of myself as a Wisconsinite writer. This is my home ground.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As I remember it, my earliest attempt at writing was coming home after a showing of Superman and the Mole Men with my friend Bobby Hall, prying open my mother’s typewriter case, and spending the afternoon typing up superhero stories. Mine were about Tiger Boy. I was about eight years old. I’ve been writing ever since. Most of my early stories were always variations on the kind of books I liked to read, usually stories about horses or jungle boys or space cadets. It wasn’t until college that I finally came out of my self-constructed closet as a writer. Eventually, as a university professor, I wrote a great deal of academic work before I began teaching and writing creative nonfiction nearly twenty years ago. Since then I’ve tended to identify myself as an essayist and a memoirist and a nonfictionist of place. My intuition tells me I’m unlikely to stop writing any time soon.

What do you think inclined you to write a book following in the footsteps of another writer?
I think the impulse comes in part from reading other writers who’ve done it. I read books by both Samuel Johnson and James Boswell about a walk to the Hebrides they took together, and then discovered Frank Delaney’s book about retracing their footsteps. Since then I’ve read similar re-enactments, captivated by the idea of examining time-bound and timeless characteristics of sites other writers recorded exploring. When I finally went to Walden Pond, I took not only my copy of Thoreau but also E. B. White’s essay about his visit, and it gave me a perspective in triplicate that fascinated me. This kind of investigation is a form of time travel, and you learn such an abundance of things.