What Time Is This Place (Part 2)

This past weekend, I put aside some of my irrational qualms about reading an older book and dove head first into Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). I was stunned by how prescient the book appeared to be, and in my post yesterday started to observe how nearly every chapter explored issues that tangentially related, in some way, to my own research and interest.

I’ll continue that practice today starting with chapter 6. 

6. Boston Time. This chapter is a photo essay that starts with images of clocks in Boston before proceeding to trace the changing character of the city as it represents the changes in Boston time. The opening images invariably reminded me of Scott W. Schwartz’s new book, The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape (2022) which I blogged about here. Schwartz notes the prevalence of clocks and temperature displays in cities and parallels the experience of time with temperature. Both tend to be represented in absolute (or at very least numerical) terms, but experienced in physical ways. As I write this its -5° F outside here, which is quite cold but not terribly unusual for this time of year. Such consistently low temperatures makes the 30° F days we experienced late last week feel downright balmy. In the same way that the 45 minutes that I’m waiting for the Eagles playoff game to start (I’m writing this on a Sunday), will speed along provided I continue to try to finish this blog post. If I were to put aside my computer, time would slow to a drag.

7. Change Made Visible. The chapter on the ways in which changes are visible, reminded me a good bit of my work with students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. In this project, we documented two buildings on campus between their abandonment and their demolition. The buildings were laced with evidence for the passage of time both in the ways that they were adapted over their century of use to the immediate decisions their most recent residents made when they decamped for the final time. At the end of our work in the building — immediately before asbestos mitigation began — we put on a concert in building’s former recital hall. The weeks before the buildings’ scheduled demolition, we had a short ceremony recognizing their memorial function on our campus. These events made the passage of time visible. You can see some of the work here.

8. Managing Transitions. In his chapter on managing transitions, it is hard to avoid thinking of the recent work on migrants of various kinds. In some ways, Lynch seems to anticipate some of the ways in which we thought about the spaces of “man camps” in Western North Dakota during the Bakken boom. These camps embodied a landscape caught in a kind of transition between low density rural settlements and the concentrated workforce necessary to support extractive industries. The ephemerality of the oil industry presented a landscape that we always only transitioning and contingent. The communities of the Bakken struggled to manage the contingency of the boom in part because the landscape preserved so little from previous booms to remind these communities how they adapted to the stress of demographic change. Elsewhere in the world the architecture of migration reflected the transitional state that migrants often find themselves as they depart economically, environmentally, or politically compromised homes and seek new ones.  

9. Environmental Change and Social Change. One way that Lynch’s work shows its age is when he talks about environmental change. In the 21st century, our mind naturally turn to thoughts about climate change rather than changes in our built environment. Lynch remains optimistic that build environments can transform social experiences. I’ve been watching my institution try to transform campus culture through architecture over the last decade. For example, the university has changed most classrooms into active learning type spaces and, as a result, students (and faculty) have come to expect both active learning and teaching techniques suited to these spaces. Alternately, the campus has invested in architectural forms and spaces designed to promote informal gathering, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a consistent sense of campus. I’ve suggested that these two impulses — student space and a consistent campus — are not necessarily complementary. 

10. Some Policies for Changing Things. Kevin Lynch made his name as an urban planner so it is hardly surprising that he concludes this book with some reflections on policy. The most compelling of these is that suggestion that we think more deliberately about the temporary rhythms and routines we expect of our students and peers. As someone who is unnaturally preoccupied with synchronizing my own schedule with clock time, I have to admit that I’d struggle with a policy that allows greater freedom for individuals to organize their lives according to different temporal rhythms. That said, I don’t think it would be bad for me to have to encounter that. Even little things like allowing students to turn in papers in their own time and developing the patience to deal with people and processes that operate on different times serve as useful reminders that I should not reduce time to a fungible commodity, but as a deeply personal form of social experience. 

Reading an older book as a way to become aware of how the passage of time enriches and transforms how we read and understand a classic text is a wonderful reminder that as creatures of the present, we are never quite free from the past and recognizing the different rhythms of life and senses of time that operate around us should not be a burden. Instead, experiences different senses of time should enrich our experiences and our ability to appreciate our world.

What Time Is This Place (Part 1)

I have a phobia of reading old books. It’s irrational as most phobia are, but nevertheless guides my actions to an embarrassing extent. As a result, it took a particular nudge from my buddy Kostis Kourelis (and a generous copy of the book) to will myself to read Kevin Lynch’s What Time Is This Place? (MIT 1972). 

This book blew my mind. To make everything about me: this book was like a cross section of my recent interest in time, ruins, urbanism, campus life, and even teaching. It’s like I was simply living in a world sketched out by Kevin Lynch. 

The book in broad strokes is a meditation on time and place. Lynch fearlessly traces the role of time in our daily lives, our building environments, and, as you’d expect, our lived experiences. In particular, Lynch is interested in the experience of time as change.

Here are some running notes chapter to chapter. 

1. Cities Transforming. The first chapter considers change on the level of the city and the way in which people’s experience and idea of the city shaped the transforming of cities. It made me think a good bit about my work on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and our efforts to document (and in some ways influence) the transformation of the city of Grand Forks. For example, my wife and I produced a massive study of mid-century housing in the city that traced its transformation from a city largely anchored in its pre-war pedestrian plan to one defined by cars, post-war prosperity, and the rise of the suburb. You can read the report here

2. The Presence of the Past. This chapter is even more relevant for my wok on the GFHPC. It focuses on the role of ruins and material evidence for the past in creating a sense of presence in a community. This is literally the mission of the Commission, but as Lynch points out, one that is not as straight forward as preservation for the sake of preservation might allow. Over the past five or six years, we’ve talked more and more about the value of attempting to preserve and document buildings and districts not limited to the obvious or even elite building which often carry the burden of the past for a community. Instead, we have shifted at least some of our attention to apartment buildings, schools, commercial spaces, and (if I had my way) neighborhood bars that preserve the workaday landscapes of the city. We’ve also talked more about how to make present a past that has disappeared as a result of the city’s floods, urban renewal, and social change. What do we do to inscribe the memory of these places into the urban fabric?   

3. Alive Now. Lynch’s brilliant contribution to urban planning is that he foregrounded the experience of the city and sought to create urban forms sensitive to the needs of an individual. In this book, he considers time as more than simply made manifest on a collective level (so that everything doesn’t happen at once), but also experienced individually. As readers of this blog might know, I am obsessed with time both personally through my modest collection of watches (or my collection of modest watches) and professionally through my work as an archaeologist. It is hardly surprising that I’ve been fixated on the concept of slow as not only an antidote to the sense of urgency that suffuses so much of our professional life, but also as way to make explicit the tension between clock time and the time of experience. 

4. The Future Preserved. When Kostis sent me this book, he made explicit reference to the world of Sun Ra who has become an obsession for me. For those of you unfamiliar with Sun Ra, he is one of the founders of mid-century Afro-futurism which he expertly grafted to afrocentric views of the Black past (as his name suggests). As Lynch recognizes in this chapter title, there is a crucial need to preserve the past not only as a way to remember past presents, but also to remember past futures. The growing interest in Afrofuturism reveals the potential of past futures to shape present futures and to make us aware of how we have and have not lived up to our aspirations (however well intended). It goes without saying that continued struggle for racial equality offers a sobering context for mid-century Afrofuturism. It is also a good reminder that as much as we cringe or even protest at pseudohistory, pseudoarchaeology, and other “false” views of the past, the line between false pasts and false futures is a fine one indeed and the goals of both projects tend to intersect in the messy politics of hope. 

5. The Time Inside. One of the more fascinating chapters of the book considers how our internal sense of time clashes with external constraints. Anyone whose body resists the tradition of eight continuous hours of sleep is familiar with this feeling. I’ve speculated on this as it applies to the length and rhythm of the academic semester. Lynch clearly recognizes that time is a factor in learning and how and when we learn, remember, and think various not only as individuals but also collectively. Last year, for example, I started to notice how student workloads, commitments, and time often doesn’t serve to advance student learning.  Instead, the time for student learning is a constantly negotiation of space, finances, and other commitments. This is inevitable, of course, but it nevertheless reinforces how the personal time of student experience is not entirely under their own control.  

I’ll come back with Part 2 tomorrow!

More on Rivers

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Donald Worster’s classic Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985). I read this as part of my effort to become a bit more familiar with American environmental history, but also get to understand the larger conversations surrounding “hydraulic society” in the American West. In many ways, Worster provides a key formative statement in how we understand the environmental manifestations of the United States’s quest for empire. By tracing the changing attitudes toward water and rivers in the American West from the 19th century to the mid-20th, we get to see the interplay between small farmers, wealth landowners, local communities, state governments, and the federal government in creating a new hydraulic society with both democratic potential and the capacity for exacerbating economic and social inequalities at a nationwide scale.

Some of this is also relevant for my growing interest in the flood mitigation efforts made along the Red River of the North. To be clear, Worster’s main focus was not only managing floods. In fact, flood management and navigation fell under the domain of the Army Corps of Engineers and Worster’s main focus was on the Bureau of Reclamation which sought to transform the rivers of the American west into a source of water for agricultural prosperity both in the region and nationally.

Worster’s understanding of American attitudes toward nature and to the flow of rivers, however, emphasized the desire of Americans to project their imperial yearnings not simply over the Indigenous people and territory of this vast region, but also of the rivers and natural resources. The earliest efforts were small scale and directed immediately toward the needs of communities struggling with the aridity of the region and the need to adapt their eastern crops and practices to irrigated farming.

By the early 20th-century, however, these limited and pragmatic approach quickly gave way to more expansive plans driven by competition and profit. At this stage the control of water and the ability to irrigate represented a pathway to wealth and wealthier landowners found ways to contravene efforts to preserve equality (or at very least fair) access to water in the West. As a result, control over water in the West soon took on the form of an ironic tragedy as the rhetoric used to champion increasingly bold and costly hydraulic interventions became increasingly detached from the outcomes of these intervention which rather than fortifying an idealized agricultural democracy, created more wealthy and powerful landowning class. The only commonality between rhetorical posturing of Bureau of Reclamation and the avarice of landowners was the desire to control the rivers of the West. 

How this all applies to my work here in the Red River of the North is bit unclear right now. Certainly there is reason to suspect that flood control along the Red River of the North is part of a larger effort to control western rivers in the name of stable settlement. The flooding of the river in the 19th century had revealed its destructive potential and floods in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s promoted increasingly monumental and ambitious interventions.

All this was done against the backdrop of the Pick-Sloan plan along the Missouri River which sought to control and harness the flow of the Big Muddy to irrigate farms, mitigate floods, and provide recreational opportunities. The destructive ambition behind the Garrison Dam, which led to the flooding of thousands of acres of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation made clear that North Dakota was part of the larger mid-century hydraulic landscape of the American West punctuated by massive dams and large scale diversions. Even today, massive diversions of the Red River around Fargo-Moorhead and around Winnipeg reflect a persistent willingness to transform the region by controlling the flow of rivers. 

My interest in reading Worster’s book, then, is less to discern whether the particular conditions that shape the Red River of the North appear in his analysis. For most of the time that this book covers, the Red River is both too far east (climatically speaking) and relatively untapped for irrigation. At the same time, I suspect that areas on the margins of the American West found themselves particularly susceptible to the mentalities that developed in the wider region. If we see Worster’s book as much a commentary on shifting attitudes toward empire building in North America as it is a specific technocratic, bureaucratic, or even economic response to certain environmental conditions (and the claim that Worster’s work smacks of a healthy dose of environmental determinism have been greatly exaggerated), then the work to control the Red River of the North fits into wider pattern that by the middle years of the 20th century had largely become unhinged from any particular justification. This ensured that the broader Western mindset that guided the continued damming of western rivers to provide irrigation for crops that would not sell, electricity for towns that did not exist, and solutions to problems that did not exist, could be applied to marginal cases because there was no longer a tight connection between the problem, the solution, and the justification for the approach.

This is not to suggest that the flood mitigation efforts imposed on the Red River of the North weren’t adequate or technically appropriate. Instead, I’m hypothesizing that the approach by the Army Corps of Engineers to the Red River in Grand Forks reflects attitudes developed in very different circumstances elsewhere in the American West. 

Whether this proves to be the case will involve some deeper digging!

More on the Grand Forks Greenway

One of the down sides of struggling with work/life balance issues is that even the most mundane things that I do have the potential to slide from “life” to “work.” For example, volunteering on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as the Commission’s archaeologist has fueled my interest in the history and materiality of the city. Walking my dogs along the Grand Forks Greenway, has spurred me to think more carefully about how the Greenway and the Red River of the North shapes not only the city’s past, but also its present relationship with its surroundings.

Sometimes these two interests coincide, such as when I find myself collaborating with another commission member, Paul Conlon, on an integrity survey of the 1950s era flood mitigation features in the city. It appears that most of these features were removed during the construction of the far more substantial post-1997 flood walls. Despite this disappointing discovery, Paul’s research and my rumination have led made it hard for me to shake a potential paper idea especially as I walk the dogs on the Greenways scenic paths.

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Right now, the paper is still at the “slowly crystalizing idea stage” which means that I have a title: “Cold War, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change in a North Dakota City.”

If I had to start to write the paper today, rather than, say, work on my syllabi for the spring semester, I’d start the paper with an overview of recent work on the environmental history of rivers with special attention to the goals of mid-century hydraulic programs such as the Pick-Sloan as well as more local initiatives designed to both protect communities and to provide water for recreation and irrigation. For the local situation, Kathleen Brokke’s dissertation will be an invaluable guide. She touches on the role of suburban sprawl and the growing desire for burgeoning urban communities to harness local rivers for recreation, but her work remains an expansive view of Red River region rather than an intensive one. Moreover, it appears that she doesn’t connect suburban sprawl of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to the region’s growing role in the Cold War. 

My goal with this imagined research wouldn’t be to re-produce Brokke’s expansive environmental history of the Red River, but to zero in on the relationship between the river and the city of Grand Forks. In particular, I’d be interested in understanding how efforts to control the Red River in Grand Forks in the 1950s emerged alongside the transformation of the city itself as it grew into its post-war form and its growing role as an important regional “front” in the Cold War. The vulnerability of Grand Forks to flooding should be understood in the context of the construction of the Grand Forks Air Force base in the 1950s, the expansion of the University of North Dakota in part due to its capacity to harness federal grants and to serve military veterans, and the influx of new residents drawn to the city by its post-war amenities and opportunities.

The Cold War, post-war consumer culture, and the long-term, geological history of the Red River provides three key vectors for understanding not only the history of Grand Forks, but also the form that this investment in controlling the flow of the Red River took. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, the form of the post-1997 flood walls themselves speak both to long-standing attitudes toward natural forces especially on the Great Plains and the role that the Army Corps of Engineers plays in attempting to exert control over “nature” in these contexts. 

This opens our work to a fourth vector that I would love for our article to explore. This vector would foreground the role of landscapes of control in the “late-modern” world. I have this idea that it might be a way to interrogate attitudes toward the Anthropocene. This is immediately relevant to the situation of the Grand Forks on the Red River of the North as six of the ten worst floods in history have occurred in the 21st century. More than that, the flood control systems put in place after the 1997-flood offer a visible, daily reminder of the separation, or even alienation, of humans from their natural environment. A subtle paper might observe that the flood walls, which evoke military fortifications, offer only on perspective on the relationship between the town and the river. Less visible, but every bit as important is the network of pipes and pumping stations that not only connect the city to the river for drinking water and the disposal of run off, but also prevent the river from reclaiming these same connections to flood the city. In other words, the very landscape of flood control in the city emphasizes the need to protect the community from the river itself while hiding away the deeply interconnected relationship between the city and the water. 

The flood walls, of course, contribute in strikingly visible ways to the modern ontological distinctions that locate in separate categories the “natural” and the “cultural,” “human,” or “man-made.” Scholars who have engaged with the Anthropocene as not only a term useful for defining a new geological epoch shaped by human actions, but also an ontological challenge to the view that human activities represent a separate category from the affairs of nature. The challenge of contemporary, anthropogenic climate change, then, is a direct critique of the Grand Forks flood walls themselves and their militarized station dividing the unruly power of the Red River of the North, for the neatly organized settlement of Grand Forks.

It strikes me, then, that post-war efforts to harness rivers and to control the flooding in Grand Forks offers a particularly compelling example of the way in which mid-century consumer culture created new landscapes that sought to reify the division between humans and nature by making visible the power of humanity to bring it under control. To be clear, the post-war generation was not the first to do this—gardens culture, for example, long celebrated the ability of individuals to present nature in aesthetically, economically, and politically productive ways— but the mid-20th century marked the first time that humans could manipulate the landscape on such a massive scale. Archaeologists of these decades refer to this capacity as a hallmark of supermodernity in which nowhere on earth escapes the human intervention. No expression of this is more dramatic than the ability to spit the atom. This capability plays a key role in the creation of Cold War landscapes in the American West. These landscapes not only relied on the atomic power of the post-war “military-industrial-academic” complex for its national relevance, but also demonstrated how the confidence unleashed by the atomic age could introduce new levels of prosperity and security for at least some Americans and some of their allies.

Of course, the promises of prosperity and security appear increasingly illusory in light of growing evidence for climate change. Perhaps here is where the efforts to control the flow of the Red River through Grand Forks offer the most poignant or even useful metaphor. The division between the town and the natural spaces of the Greenway, while compelling in our daily lives where it is easy (and even necessary) to imagine nature held at arm’s length, is no more absolute than the collapsing ontological division between humanity and the wider relational network in which we live on Earth. 

Snowmobiles on the Greenway

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking about some kind of paper, article, or intervention involving the area known as The Greenway in my hometown of Grand Forks, ND.

The Greenway came into its current form in the aftermath of the 1997 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers removed the housing and other buildings close to the Red River of the North to create a flood zone. This work paralleled the construction of a massive flood wall and a vastly improved pumping system designed to upgrade the structures installed in the 1950s and 1970s to keep the Red River at bay during its unruly springtime floods. This intervention has been spectacularly successful even as the annual floods have increased in magnitude and frequency (6 of the highest flood levels recorded in Grand Forks have occurred since the 1997 flood).

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The construction of this Greenway created a massive park system which the city proudly proclaims is larger than Central Park in New York. The Greenway is set off from the city of Grand Forks (and East Grand Forks) by earthen and concrete flood walls complete with a gates that drop into place when flood waters exceed a certain stage. As denizens of the Northern Plains will immediately recognize the system of earthen walls evokes earlier forms of boundary marking in the region: namely the Plain Village sites such as Double Ditch which featured earthen fortifications. The concrete walls deliberate evokes coursed masonry vaguely reminiscent of those from around the Roman world. 

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There is little doubt that the evocation of military fortifications serves to remind denizens of Grand Forks and visitors to the Greenway alike of the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in protecting the city from the wild waters of the Red River. As a result, the boundary between the settled neighborhoods of the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the banks of the Red River is, at least symbolically, militarized.

The decision to militarize the boundary between the town and river also reminds the residents of the cities of the role that the National Guard played during and after the 1997 Flood. In this way, it echoes the increasing militarization of national borders which serve to mark out the “civilized” space of the nation from the uncontrolled lands beyond. In fact, much like the formalities of national borders, the flood walls do more than protect the cities from floods. They also serve to tame the Red River by delineating its course through town. Despite the term “Red River Valley,” the Red does not flow through a valley, but meanders along the bottom of a glacial lake bed creating new channels wherever it wants unless some authority external to the local topography brings brings it to heel. Just as our world is created through national boundaries, so concrete and earthen walls create the Red River.

The Greenway, then, is a manifestation of our desire to create order upon which we can construct the foundations for our settlement and community. The capacity of the Greenway to define the Red River’s course and to absorb its unruly waters reifies our efforts to create a clearly delimited space for nature (or space of nature) in clear relation to the space for and of human settlement. This is all the more significant in a region characterized by landscapes devoid of the kinds of stable features — mountains, hills, forests, and even predictable river valleys — that European settlers historically found meaningful for describing (and thereby controlling) their surroundings. The border between Minnesota and North Dakota has moved significantly over the past century owing to the untamed character of the Red River and required legislative intervention.

What the hell does this have to do with snowmobiles?

Well, recently some snow mobile club has asked for permission to create snow mobile tracks in the Greenway. Folks seem generally opposed to this for a series of predictable if poorly considered reasons. 

Some have argued that there shouldn’t be motorized traffic on the Greenway, despite the fact that there are literally roads and parking lots on the Greenway not to mention a golf course with golf carts. In other words, this involves a silly selectivity in how folks understand the use of this space even in the present.

Some have argued that snowmobiles are noisy and this would be a nuisance to folks whose homes back onto the Greenway. This is fair, I suppose, but right now, the snowmobiles zip up and down the Red River on a regular basis (and in the summer months, fishing boats zip up and down the Red River). Maybe snowmobile paths will cause more snowmobilers to use the Greenway creating more noise? This seems possible. 

More interesting, however, is the argument that parks are places set aside for nature. This is undoubtedly true, even if the goal of Greenway is control or even create the natural world or, perhaps better, to protect our desire for stability and predictability from the vagaries of the river. There is no doubt that the Greenway serves as a wildlife corridor and it may be that snowmobiles would upset the deer who bed down along the river’s wooded banks and maybe fluster the fishers, foxes, bunnies, beavers, mice, owls, eagles, hawks, and various other critters that make the Greenway home. On this matter, I remain a bit skeptical mostly because I figure these animals are as drawn to the opportunities of living close to town as they are protected from its vices by the constructed nature of the Greenway itself. 

A bit more interesting still is the idea that people like the idea of the Greenway as natural. The 1997 flood walls created a bit of nature in our backyards. But it’s the GOOD kind of nature. It’s tame, it’s largely peaceful and non-violent, and, most importantly, it is predictable. It’s close to home, but also outside the walls.

(In fact, it’s a bit like parking. We all want parking, but we want the Good Kind of Parking. And no one wants parking lots. We want the Good Kind of Nature. Not the kind of nature that involves floods that trash the entire town.)

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the Greenway provides some of the benefits of nature, especially the kind of nature that European settlers brought with them from more densely populated areas further east. There are trees, for example, marking the course of the river and evoking arborist fantasies of primordial European woods. Like many enclosed parks frequented by leisure seeking settlers, there are also well-kept lawns and enough landscaping to let folks know that this area is safe for children and pets. The lawns and woods are a nice reminder that there are opportunities for chance encounters with a range of critters, but also clearly established rules. Similarly, paths, groomed trails, and pavement pierce the reconstituted patches of prairie grasses and the tangles of riverine undergrowth making it possible to encounter some vestige of the earlier landscape, but even this is safely contained behind the formidable floodwalls.  

Is it reasonable to want to preserve the illusion of nature along the Greenway by maintaining a set of rules and policies that conform to our Romantic expectation?

Yes, it is.

In fact, the Greenway represents in both practical and ideational an effort to bring order to our lived space. This means both defining where were live from places where we don’t or can’t live and ensuring that the places where we don’t or can’t live are available to absorb the vagaries of a world that we cannot (or chose not to control). The Greenway represents the anti-city and despite the sometimes clumsy or exaggerated arguments for its bucolic character, the need to define the city and to preserve civility will always result in the creation of the anti-city.  

Do I care whether there are snowmobiles on the Greenway?

No. I do not.

Finding Home in Grassland Grown

Over the weekend, I read the first of a little gaggle of books on the environmental history of the Northern Plains and the West that have been staring at me from my shelf. Molly Rozum’s Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairie (Nebraska 2021) was a pleasant read. Rozum argues that the first generation of settlers born on the grassland plains of the Dakotas and Prairie Provinces played a vital role in creating a sense of place and identity for this the white settler society of this region. In fact, she argues that the creation of this settler identity was part of a larger colonial process that involved the overwriting of Native American understandings of the landscape and replacing it with a view deeply embedded in settler experiences on the land. 

There are any number of things that made this book particularly compelling to me, but one of the key arguments Rozum makes is the role of childhood experiences with animals, in nature, and at home that shaped the distinctive character of settler identity in this place at the turn of the 19th century. In other words, this first generation of prairie born settlers experienced the landscape not as adults who grew up in points east or Europe, but as individuals who only knew this country as their home. By examining dairies, journals, and published accounts of growing up on the Northern Plains, Rozum was able to trace how individual experiences (even if filtered through nostalgia of adulthood) constructed a real sense of identity, priorities, and regional character. Her use of a diverse range of sources from both sides of the US-Canadian border was fascinating to me (unfamiliar as I have tended to be with literature that treated this area as a transnational zone). Her use of Era Bell Thompson’s 1946 memoir was another revelation. It was remarkable to see the prairie (and Grand Forks) through the eyes of a black girl and woman.   

Rozum goes on the show how the various ecologies, experiences, and environments encountered by settlers shape their efforts even after they’ve left the Northern Plains to construct a sense of regionalism and regional identity.

The book is far enough from my professional bailiwick that I’ll refrain from even attempting a review, but three things did strike me as interesting.

First, over the last few years, I’ve made a more serious effort to get out into the landscape of the Red River Valley. At first, I did this by walking along the banks of the Red in our local park and then I did this by riding my gravel bike outside of town. As I did this, I think that I’ve become a more careful observer of the countryside, come to appreciate local animals (especially birds!), and even have come to understand the path of the rivers and creeks throughout the intensely flat plains that surround Grand Forks.

I had never really thought about my efforts to develop a greater sense of place in the area as part of a process of settler colonialism. In fact, I had vaguely considered my growing appreciation of the local landscape as part of my effort to connect with a world that extended far beyond my limited sense of self. Whatever my intellectual (and not a little arrogant) assumptions about locating myself in the landscape, my developing sense of home represented the transposing my views of countryside over those that had gone before (whether Native American or white settler). Making Grand Forks “my home” represented a sense of possession.

Second, Rozum did a wonderful job connecting the developing sense of regional identity to both global and local trends in literature. This led me to start to root around in early 20th century literature from folks who grew up on the Northern Plains. For example, I discovered the work of Robert McAlmon whose book of poems, Explorations (London 1921), interlaces his travels (after his marriage of convenience to the writer Annie Winifred Ellerman [pen name Bryher] which provided him with a significant source of income) with images of the grassland prairies. He went on the live in New York and then Paris where he founded the literary magazine Contact with William Carlos Williams (which is now available via the HathiTrust), started a small press of the same name, and publish poetry, short stories, and the novel Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period (Contact 1924). Despite this galavanting, he continued to recognize the value of grounding critical voices in a sense of place and regionalism. Perhaps because of his travels, he recognized this as a tonic for the dreadful character of the modern world. 

I also was introduced to Clell Gannon another prairie poet and also a painter whose art contributed to the cover of North Dakota Quarterly in 1950s. If McAlmon’s work had all the literary pretensions of Modernism in interwar Paris, Gannon’s work was more homespun, but no less accomplished. In fact, there’s something about Gannon’s work that makes me want to republish his 1924 collection, Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres which features his endearing sketches and even more endearing poetry.

Finally, the penultimate chapter discusses the definition of a region by interrogating the terms used to describe the Great Plains, Northern Plains, the Northwest, the West and myriad variants. And, Rozum unpacks its borders (and the borders of the arid west from its sub-humid neighbors to the east). Debates centering on the 100th, 98th, and even 96th Meridien reminded me that despite the everyday colonialism of my effort to make this landscape home, I inhabited a borderland characterized by constant hybridity, cultural interaction, and movement both to the north-south and to the east-west.  

Reading the debates about naming and defining this region struck me a bit a hard than I expected. Rozum doesn’t delve back into how the acts of defining (much less describing) a region once again traced the contours of colonialism across the region, but perhaps at this point the book, this understanding is tacit. 

Environmental History at the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a couple sessions at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Fargo. Each year that I end up attending this conference, I invariably return home with a head swimming with new ideas and perspectives. 

This year, I managed to only make it to two sessions: one where I presented with the other editors of state journals, and the other on environmental history. This latter panel got me thinking about two long simmering projects on my overloaded academic hot stove.

First, I was completely fascinated by Kathleen Brokke’s paper on the environmental history of the Red River Valley. It was poetic and sweeping and managed to draw me into the complexities of the tall grass prairie, the wooded river and stream banks, and even the more recent shelter belts, ditches, and fields of the Red River Valley.

I have to admit that didn’t quite grasp relevance of her work until it intersected in my head with David Vail’s paper on the Great Plains Agricultural Council’s work in the 1950s. Vail demonstrated that the administrative logic and pubic presentation of the GPAC aligned with the same national security priorities present in such programs as Civil Defense. In the 1950s, fear of another dust-bowl type drought and the potential for both short term and long-term damage to agricultural outputs (and food security) motivated large scale research and policy making from the executive branch of the US government. The most visible example of this was the personal involvement of both President Eisenhower, who toured the most vulnerable agricultural areas of the Great Plains in the 1950s, and former President Truman who was active on GPAC as an advisor. 

This helped me realize that the efforts to tame the flow of the Red River of the North through the city of Grand Forks in the 1950s was part of a larger program associated with the post-war and Cold War restructuring of American society and its landscape. It was interesting to hear about the series of dams built in the 1950s to control the flow of the Missouri and Sheyenne Rivers for irrigation and power. At the same time, the city of Grand Forks, which had started to expand to the south following emerging trends in suburbanization remained susceptible to flooding from the Red River. The devastating Red River flood of 1950 prompted a new set of flood walls constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers to protect the downtown of the growing city. At around the same time, the US Air Force started construction on the Strategic Air Command base at Grand Forks. 

The development of shopping centers, malls, housing developments with large lots, modern churches, schools, and recreation facilities contributed to the creation of the post-war city that manifested the privileges of convenience, consumer culture, and the steady growth of the “butter economy”. Of course, this growth also included features like bomb shelters and new forms of architecture inspired by military installations (e.g. not only brutalism, but also more broadly modernist forms of architecture that embrace the coarse textures of concrete and fortified facades that imitate gun slits).

The 1997 flood wall, constructed by the US Army Corp of Engineers no less, mimics the forms of military architecture with its solid concrete walls (textured in an ashlar pattern) and long stretches of substantial earthen barriers. Thus by the end of the 20th century the Red River itself was subjected to militarized forms of discipline which served to protect the vulnerable consumer culture that emerged on Grand Forks’s expanding urban grid. Thus, environmental history, the Cold War, and Civil Defense intersected in the developing landscape of Grand Forks in ways that I wouldn’t have considered fully had I not enjoyed a couple of papers at the Northern Great Plains History Conference.

New Book Day: The Library of Chester Fritz

It’s homecoming week at UND and we have a homecoming themed book for New Book Day! It’s the first book in what should be a pretty exciting 2022/2023 publishing season!


Brian R. Urlacher’s, The Library of Chester Fritz, is the first novel published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, but is very much in keeping with our focus on the history of the state, our campus, and the region’s remarkable characters.

More importantly (especially to anyone without a real connection to North Dakota or UND), the book is a good story. Urlacher’s novel weaves his story into the real journals of Chester Fritz to produce chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

If that sounds pretty cool to you, you can download the book for FREE from The Digital Press website or buy it for the low, low price of $7 from Amazon. Remember being a paperback copy offers more than just the fine sensation of holding a paper book in you hand, but also supports The Digital Press’s mission to publish more open access books in the future!


If you’re still on the fence as to whether to download a free book, I offer a slightly more dramatic version of the book’s plot below:

Fate has entangled a library, a businessman, and the future of humanity. A trail of documents left behind by an eccentric businessman, traveler, and philanthropist Chester Fritz is the only way to understand the urgent danger. This book brings together Chester Fritz’s journals and follows his travels through war torn China and his ascent to the heights of global capitalism.

As World War II plunges the world into chaos, Fritz and his traveling companions wrestle with what to do and what forces are too dangerous or too dark for humanity to wield. But something must be done, and the decision will fall to Chester Fritz.

Thank you, as always, for supporting The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and, if you like this title, do share your enthusiasm over twitter (@digitalpressund) or Facebook.

If you don’t like this title, that’s ok! It was FREE. And I’m pretty sure we’ll publish something that you DO like later in 2022-2023 season!

The formal press release is below and you can download the book’s full media kit here.


Time is Running Out!

The Chester Fritz Library holds the secret of its mysterious donor and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Anyone who has spent time on the University of North Dakota’s campus knows it to be an enchanted place. A new novel takes this feeling to the next level.

The Library of Chester Fritz, is the debut novel by Professor of Political Science, Brian R. Ulacher. This daring and imaginative work hints that the power of the UND campus might go far beyond its well-kept gardens and collegiate Gothic architecture. Urlacher’s novel traces the travels of former UND student and benefactor, Chester Fritz, through early 20th-century China and speculates that his experiences on this journey introduced him to a powerful, and dangerous, secret.

Chester Fritz’s journal a version of which was published by the University of North Dakota Press in the 1980s and describes his work and travels in China prior to World War II. Fritz was born in Buxton, North Dakota and attended UND before heading to the West Coast and then abroad to make his fortune. In 1950 and 1969, Fritz made sizeable donations to UND which funded the library and auditorium that bear his name. Urlacher built from this manuscript and developed his story in a way that integrates seamlessly with Fritz’s own words. The result is a chimerical narrative where Fritz’s words, Urlacher’s story, and the landscape of early 20th century China combine to create a world where the line between truth and fiction is so blurry as to be almost indistinguishable.

Urlacher points out that Fritz’s journals themselves offer more than enough fodder for the imagination. He said, “I’m fascinated and frankly perplexed by Fritz’s choice to travel across China in 1917. He was utterly unprepared when he set his course through the heart of a civil war in which warlords, bandits, and crusader armies vied for every inch of territory.”

In Urlacher’s novel, Fritz’s mysterious experiences abroad become entangled with his monumental library at the heart of the UND campus. Urlacher explains that he was inspired by the Chester Fritz Library: “I’ve spent a lot of time just wandering among the stacks. I’m not sure if other people experience this, but I get a static tingle in libraries. Something about massing books, each representing a lifetime’s worth of experience, in such close proximity is powerful. There are so many stories about books being more than just pages, and libraries being more than just buildings. When I sat down to start world building, there was never a question of where to anchor the story. It had to be the Chester Fritz Library.”

Urlacher noted that something of Chester Fritz’s spirit lingers on our campus, observing, “Fritz had this unshakable optimism, and it comes through in his journal. He writes with an understated North Dakota humor, which is makes for very charming prose.”

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, The Library of Chester Fritz is available as a free download or as a paperback book from Amazon.com.


Snow Day!

There are different kinds of snow days here in North Dakotaland. There are those in November and early December which feel like the first kiss of winter. There are those in January and February which come with bitter cold and howling winds. And then there are those in March and April which sometimes arrive after the thaw begins that bring their own sense of excitement.

It looks like we got about a foot of heavy, wet, snow over night and might get 6-8 inches more today. The University of North Dakota is closed today. I feel partly to blame for that as I told my Wednesday night class that they could have the Wednesday after Easter off since I had left an extra class anticipating a snow day. It looks like that jinxed them and they’ll have to take their snow day today. I suspect that they won’t mind.

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It’s funny how many people assumed that with the Zoomification of Education, snow days would become things of the past. It turns out that even classes conducted over Zoom require faculty, staff, and planning. Who knew? So for now, snow days will continue and students (and faculty and staff) will get unexpected breaks from our usual routines. 

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The nice thing about these April snows is that they’ll be gone by next week.

Musical Merrifield Hall

Last night, after the last faculty and staff had left the building, Mike Wittgraf and I also with two graduate students set up some speakers and recording equipment in Merrifield Hall in the University of North Dakota’s campus to see whether we could capture some of the building’s distinctive sound.

This project is a bit of a passion project for me. I started my career at UND in Merrifield Hall and spent many happy hours in the North Dakota Quarterly office and my various academic office’s in the building. As part of that, I often found myself immersed in the building’s distinctive soundscape. From the reverberation of footsteps down it’s long, terrazzo paved hallways to the whirring and clunking of the building’s various pumps and lifters, the building’s sounds have long offered a kind of familiar backdrop to late nights and early mornings on campus.

Next year, the building will undergo some serious (and much needed) renovations and I suspect some of the characteristics that made it so endearing to me will be lost. My students in a my English graduate class on things have likewise recognized that Merrifield’s century old design and layout will give way to something more contemporary. They are working on a series of papers that consider the history and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling and experience of Merrifield Hall.

Our efforts to record the sound of the building are part of this larger effort. Last night began by running a series of long tones from a 1000 watt JBL subwoofer.

It has just enough power for us to discover that a tone of 44 hz would produce a standing wave in Merrifield’s basement hallway. We could walk through the wave and find nodes where it was almost inaudible and then walk a few feet further and find places where the sound was almost deafening. These tone tests also revealed when various features of the building would resonate with various frequencies and rattle windows in offices. You can hear some of those moments at the end of the video above.

We then set up a pair of powered fuller-range speakers to complement the subwoofer and to play with a wider range of frequencies. 

We marveled at the how clearly we could hear the notes linger and decay in the hallway. At times we could literally hear the pulse tone racing back and forth up and down the long corridor. For me, these reverberations echoed some of the sounds I remembered fondly from my time in Merrifield and I got pretty exciting that we were not only producing new kind of sonic situations (poetry?) in the building, but that it was also so deeply rooted in my own experiences there.

Finally, we set up a microphone on the fourth floor landing at the opposite corner of the building from our speakers. There’s a lot of a concrete, steel, brick and glass between the speakers and the microphone, but we hoped that we could not only record the time that the sound too to traverse the building, but also show how the building itself amplified, distorted, and conjured sounds through its fabric.    

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We connected this microphone to a laptop which could be time synced with the computer responsible for producing the sounds. This should allow us to measure the time it takes for sound to traverse the building. We also anticipate that it’ll create some interesting sonic features as the microphone also captured the various background sounds that are so characteristic of Merrifield Hall.

The end result of this work is a bit hard to know right now and I suspect we’ll come back over the summer to do more recording and play around with how things sound, but we have a start.