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!

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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!

https://thedigitalpress.org/the-library-of-chester-fritz/

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.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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.

Merrifield Meditations

Over the last few weeks my students in my graduate class in English have started a project designed to engage with Merrifield Hall before it undergoes major renovations next year. For those of you who have read this blog, you’ll recognize this as a development related in some way to my ongoing effort to engage with the changing landscape of campus. In the past, however, these projects – such as Hearing Corwin Hall, have privileged historical perspectives on buildings or approaches that seek to dig beneath their often beleaguered exteriors to find their former beauty, significance, and meaning.

This semester, however, the class is teaching me to pay greater attention to the surfaces as they now exist in Merrifield. To be clear, Merrifield Hall has always been a special place for me. For the first five years of my career on campus, I had an office in Merrifield Hall and taught in its classrooms. These were pretty good years for me. I was productive professionally, I was developing as an instructor and advisor, and I felt supported by the institution. Even today, as I spend the last few months in Merrifield Hall, I find myself drawn to its distinct sounds and features that form a backdrop to the changing rhythms of campus life. In fact, the recent pandemic and the longer term trend of declining enrollments at my institution transformed the once bustling corridors of Merrifield into quieter spaces where footfalls and shuffles remain distinct and reverberate off the terrazzo floors and masonry walls.

This has me thinking about how we should go about engaging with Merrifield Hall on the eve of some pretty significant transformations. My buddy Mike Wittgraf and I want to record it somehow and try to capture and experiment with the sound of the building. My students are thinking about how to understand and document the building through conventional history, but also through fiction and poetry. As I’ve blogged about before, more creative approaches to understanding our work may open us up to new ways of knowing and thinking about a space. This represents a kind of inversion of traditional ways of thinking about how we work in the humanities and social sciences. Instead of us pealing back layers of accumulated meaning from the buildings themselves, we’re starting to think about how the buildings shaped our experiences of them. This involves digging into ourselves and how we feel about a place and pealing back layers of our own experiences to try to figure out how it is that we make sense of spaces and spaces push us to make sense of ourselves.

I’m not sure how far we’ll get doing this over the next two months, but working with this group of students has started to clarify in my mind how I might engage with campus in new, more introspective and reflective ways. What’s most important for me is realizing that my previous approach of looking at campus as a palimpsest of previous experiences, adaptations, and designs which we can detangle to reveal past intentions, only tells part of the story. Being, working, and living on campus also created changes in me that require looking inside in order detangle the way that campus spaces function.   

Grand Forks, UND, and the Ku Klux Klan

I’ve been directing a graduate seminar called “Thinking with Things” in the English department this semester and so far it has been pretty great. The discussions have been probing and enthusiastic, the students eager and creative, and over the last two weeks they’re transformed the seminar from a standard, read-and-discuss format, to a more active read-discuss-produce class. As part of the “produce” part of the seminar, the students are working on a project that will engage with Merrifield Hall. Merrifield is a useful object of research and consideration because it is the current home of the English department and is slated for a major renovation in the coming year. The results of this renovation will be a revitalized building, that will largely serve as classroom space rather than its previous mixed use design where faculty and administrator offices, labs, and classrooms stood next to one another. 

Yesterday, the class spent some time in special collections where they dug into the history of the building, the history of the university and Webster Merrifield, and the history of the building’s architect, Joseph Bell DeRemer. Midway through the class, UND’s archivist came over to me and wondered, conspiratorially, whether we should tell them that Joseph Bell DeRemer was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

I have to admit that this caught me a bit off guard. I didn’t know much about Joseph Bell DeRemer, the person, and had mainly admired his works across the campus, in our small town, and across the region. Over a career spanning most of the first third of the 20th century, DeRemer skillfully blended 19th century architectural traditions of College Gothic, Tudor Revival, and Neo Classicism with sleek Art Deco touches in his carefully considered designs. In many ways, Merrifield Hall is one of his masterpieces with its outwardly College Gothic form only gently masking is modern amenities and even Art Deco inspired touches. 

That DeRemer was a member of the Klan was perhaps not entirely surprising considering the prominence of the Klan in 1920s Grand Forks. Spurred by the firebrand Presbyterian preacher F. Hawlsey Ambrose from his pulpit at First Presbyterian, the Klan sought to create a voting block in opposition to what they perceived as the growing influence of a Catholic minority in town. The 1920 census recorded only 27 Black people in town and fewer than 400 Jews, but the city had continued to attract foreign born settlers which comprised over 20% of the population. Catholics had long held positions of significance in the community including the office of mayor, police and fire chief, and on the school board. Anti-Catholic sentiments fanned by the resurgent 20th-century Klan intersected with roiling political divisions in North Dakota associated with the emergence of the Non-Partisan League with its left-leaning policies and powerful political influence. In Grand Forks, for example, Ambrose’s pulpit railed against Catholic influence locally as well as the pernicious influence of socialism and communism in the NPL. 

To be clear, Bell DeRemer was not a rank and file Klansman who joined for political reasons or in the heat of the moment. He was an inaugural member of the Klan in the city and stood second only to Ambrose himself on the founding documents of the organization. Because we don’t have much information on the other members of this secretive order, it is a bit challenging to trace the influence of the Klan in town, although William L. Harwood’s careful 1971 study, “The Ku Klux Klan In Grand Forks, North Dakota,” in South Dakota History 1.4 suggests that it was considerable, at least in the 1924 elections.

The Klan’s influence on campus life is likewise difficult to discern. For example, we know that Ambrose inveighed against both the historian Orin. G. Libby and the sociologist John M.  Gillette in his church as being socialists and communist sympathizers. This outburst emerged from their public battle with UND’s president Thomas F. Kane who sought to have them both dismissed. Gillette and Libby were two of “Merrifield’s Faculty”: the first group of formally credentialed academics hired by UND in the first years of the 20th century. They pushed back against many of Kane’s efforts to modernize and professionalize the university as well as his opposition to the politically ascendent NPL. It is worth noting that Kane hired (whether personally or through his office as President of UND) Bell DeRemer to design Merrifield Hall in 1927 at a time when the Klan’s political influence in Grand Forks and elsewhere in the state remained significant.

Of course, it is tempting to assume that political allegiances would be consistent with Klan ties, but there are enough cases when this doesn’t appear to be case, to give us pause. For example, Governor R.A. Nestos, who came to power with the backing of the Independent Voters Association, a group set up to oppose the NPL, made it illegal for the Klan to perform public activities while wearing their masks. His successor, Grand Forks native Arthur Sorlie was a Republican and an NPL member and denied membership in the Klan throughout his campaign. Locally, Ambrose found it possible to criticize John Gillette in his church, but also to offer support to his wife when she ran for school board. She declined to receive Ambrose’s or the Klan’s endorsement. 

Kane was clearly a political animal and sought to use statewide and university politics to advance both his position and the position of the university. It would not surprise me if he sidled up to the Klan during the 1920s. For example, he pushed back against Libby, by dividing the History Department into two Departments: a Department of European and a Department of American History. To lead the former, he hired Clarance Perkins away from Ohio State. During his time at UND, there is some evidence that Perkins harbored anti-Semitic attitudes or at very least sought to hire faculty who would be comfortable with the political landscape of the university and Grand Forks. Whether this meant that he knew about Kane’s possible association with the Klan, shared his attitudes, or simply read the tealeaves about the political life of the community is unclear. 

By the 1930s, the power of the Klan both in Grand Forks and nationally diminished. Ambrose left town in 1931 and Kane retired in 1933 (whatever his sympathies and allegiances). Interestingly, Joseph Bell DeRemer is the architect of record on Grand Forks’s B’nai Israel Synagogue which dates to 1937, although it appears that his son, Samuel Teel DeRemer had a significant hand in its design. Nevertheless, this must count among a very small number of synagogues designed by (former?) member of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Music Monday: Classroom Music

This past week, I listened with a good bit of enthusiasm to the Koichi Matsukaze Trio feat Ryojiro Furusawa, Live at the Room 427 re-released by BBE as part of their series of Japanese jazz. It’s a great example of Japanese jazz from the 1970s and both reflects the internationalization of this deeply American form of music and is immediately recognizable as jazz. (Do check out this recent article on “J Jazz” in the Guardian.) The highlights on this album is the 20-minute “Acoustic Chicken” which is simply brilliant and the disassembled and improvised version of Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man.” You can listen to it here.

The album title, At the Room 427, refers to a classroom in Chuo University which Matsukaze (a saxophone player) and Furusawa (the drummer) had attended. The idea of recording a performance at a university isn’t unique at all. In fact, jazz music especially in the 1970s, was popular on campus and any number of well known albums were recorded at specific campus venues. (Joe McPhee’s Nation Time recorded at Vassar’s Chicago Hall, remains in heavy circulation at my house. Chicago Hall, of course, is a theater so perhaps this isn’t very surprising!). There’s a tradition, of course, of music at libraries, jails, lofts, homes, and other unconventional venues as well.

A classroom, on the other hand, feels unique to me and maybe it conveys a kind of intimacy or even intellectual and creative security that this album exudes. Where else would we feel the most free to experiment, to improvise, and to explore than in a university classroom? (Wait, don’t answer that…) 

I also got to thinking about how classrooms are acoustic spaces where we both produce sound and listen intently. What better venue for creating improvised music?

This also got me thinking a bit more specifically about a situation at UND. Sometime over the next year or so, Merrifield Hall, one of the oldest buildings on UND’s campus, will undergo a significant renovation and upgrade. Whatever the results of this transformation (and some of the renderings look pretty significant and impressive), the building will never be or sound the same. I’ve had to good fortune of having an office in Merrifield hall for most of my years at UND: first as a member of the history department when it was housed in Merrifield and then as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. My time in Merrifield Hall is inseparable from its distinct sound. The wide hallways paved with terrazzo floors, with cement walls, and lowered acoustic tile ceilings create a particular sound when a middle aged male faculty member with a bit of a lazy shuffle walks down them. The classrooms, many of which are original, likewise have a unique sound to them with their large windows, solid walls and carpeted floors. Anyone who has taught in Merrifield know the feeling hearing their voice sound just a bit different when facing the outside wall or the middle of the room. This isn’t to suggest that the classrooms are especially live, but rather to point out that they do have a unique sound.

My guess is when the building is renovated some of the unique sound will disappear and I wonder if it is worth putting some energy into capturing its distinctive sound before it’s gone?

For a bit of visual history of Merrifield Hall check out my posts from 2009 when the history department was last in the building: Room 215Room 217Room 209,  Room 300Merrifield graffitiimages from the department of history, and the Merrifield move.

Three Things Thursday: Books, Teaching, and the Red River of the North

I’m just over 60% done with my first week of classes, and I’m settling into my new weekly scramble. As per usual, buy the half way point of the week, we life has started to fragment as I desperately flailed to capture the bits and pieces of the time, ideas, and work that had been so neatly arranged earlier in the week. 

In other words, it’s a good time for a Three Things Thursday:  

Thing the First

Because we all decided that we weren’t busy enough, Richard Rothaus, who might just be the MOST busy, decided to restart our moderately unsuccessful podcast: Caraheard. As we awkwardly come to realize, this would be our fourth season and as our tradition in the past, we kicked off the year with a discussion of our favorite books of the year with our very special guest Kostis Kourelis. 

My favorite books read during the past year were Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series published by The Dorothy Project. These books are amazing and I blogged about them last February. I also talked a bit about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which I blogged about here. Finally, any survey of my annual, pandemic inflected reading had to include something about Sun Ra. I talked about the wonderfully reproduced copies of some of Sun Ra’s poetry by the Chicago gallery Corbett vs Dempsey. I’ve blogged about them here.  I’m going to need to spend some time tracking down the past seasons of  Caraheard and maybe getting them up in the Internet Archive or something. So, stay tuned.

Thing the Second 

I’m teaching a lot (for me) this semester. In fact, I’m almost teaching “for the cycle”; that is teaching a 100, 200, 300, and 500 class. I’m teaching this semester as a bit of a “teaching sabbatical” in which I prioritize these four classes over my other contractual responsibilities. In fact, I’ve reduced the percentage of my contract designated for research to almost nothing and have controlled my service responsibilities by rotation off a pair of particular onerous committee. While I know that many faculty teach four or more classes year-in and year-out, and so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to valorize by teaching load or anything of the sort. For me, however, teaching more classes and more preps creates a chance for me to shift my attention to teaching in a way that sometimes gets lost when I find myself juggling my classes as just another facet of my professional responsibilities. 

There’s something about the constant pressure that four preps places on me that keeps thinking about teaching in the forefront of mind. This has made me wonder why teaching sabbaticals aren’t a thing? Why do we tend to assume that faculty want to spend a year immersed in the research grind and freed from responsibilities to teach and to do service, but we don’t offer the same for faculty who have a significant commitment to teaching? I would love to institutionalize the opportunity to take a year away from service and research and really focus on the craft of teaching. More to the point, I also think it would emphasize the importance of teaching not only to faculty, but to the institution itself. I could imagine a teaching intensive schedule paired with opportunities to be mentored by teachers in other departments and disciplines, there could be a retreat prior to the start of the semester where faculty could focus on installing new methods, approaches, or curriculum. There could be opportunities to refresh tired classes or to emphasize major changes in medium – from in-person to on-line, for example, or from small section to big? 

More importantly, departments and colleges would not only not be penalized for faculty taking a teaching sabbatical, but be rewarded. For example, colleges and departments would still receive the full percentage of research funds allocated on the basis of that faculty member’s typical research contract. Service responsibilities will be entirely eliminated for the year as would occur during a typical research sabbatical, but departments would be given support to incentivize other faculty stepping into service roles for the duration of the sabbatical.

Thing the Third

I serve on our community’s historic preservation commission as the commission’s archaeologist, and at the past meeting, in a not entirely spontaneous gesture, I raised my had to take on a small project that was sent out to bid and did not receive any interest. I’m going to investigate whether any parts of the 1950s era flood wall still exist along the course of the Red River in Grand Forks. Fortunately, we have already done a bit of research and received the Army Corps of Engineers maps showing the 1950s era wall. I also have a copy of Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch’s book, The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood (1996).

This work will be a little more salient this year as the community looks back 25 years to the 1997 Red River flood which overran the earlier flood walls and led to the massive installations that we have installed today. While many people won’t be interested in looking back at the 1997 flood (if for no other reason than it represents a time when community cohesion, resilience, and state support provided a foundation for recovery), I feel like we have an ongoing obligation to think about how our decision to make our home on the river has shaped the landscape. 

First Snow

Winter has sprung here on he Northern Plains and so it is time for my traditional “first snow” post. It’s not too bad this evening, but it’s supposed to get worse as the night goes on.

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I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2020 (October 17)2019 (October 1), 2018 (October 4)2017 (October 26), 2016 (November 22), 2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8), 2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

More on the Greenway

Yesterday, I posted a draft of a paper that I’m planning to give (well, “to post”) at the annual CHAT conference. This year, the conference is dedicated to pilgrimage and movement with all the complexities that these words entail. I proposed a paper that considered my every day pilgrimage through a local park which has led me to unpack this break from my everyday life along spatial and temporal lines. 

The more that I’ve mulled this paper over, I can’t help think that it will benefit from some revision. As a way to kick start this process, I’m going to offer some random thoughts here that maybe will find their way into my paper.

First, I’ve been thinking a bit more about my somewhat lazy use of the concept of communitas. In Victor Turner’s work this term refers to the experience of social equality that occurs during pilgrimage or other kinds of ritual life. I think my use of the term would benefit from re-reading Edith Turner’s book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (2011). My thinking is that the concept of radical equality experienced through communitas could extend beyond the limits of human community and considered as a way to understand a transformed relationship with our physical environment. I’m less concerned here with the experiences of stones, trees, animals, or house foundations and more interested in considering whether our relationship to these things changes as a result of the suspension of at least some of the rules of every day life. 

More importantly, does this suspension of the rules of everyday life open up the potential to experience space in new and significant ways. It would probably be useful, I suppose, to consider aspects of de Certeau’s arguments in his The Practice of Everyday Life that distinguishes between strategy and tactics, but, if I recall de Certeau correctly he suggests that tactics include every day practice that seeks to complicate and appropriate efforts of the state to structure practices whether through design or such structured encounters as ritual. The role, in this context, of every day rituals, such as the momentary experience of pilgrimage that comes from my morning walk in the park, remains less clear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the experience of being in the park is shaped in part by the administrative work that defines the space as a park. On the other hand, my ritualized encounter with this space at least questions (if not subverts) the limits of the human work invested to create the controlled landscape that is the park itself.

This brings me to my second point that will require a bit of development. My daily pilgrimage commences when I cross the earthen flood wall that separates the Greenway from my neighborhood. This simple, if mildly transgressive act, of crossing a wall always triggers me to think about the recent outpouring of literature on walls of various kinds (for example). Walls, for all their imposing monumentality, functioned in a wide range of ways. As Randall Maguire’s articles, for example, have shown walls can go from representing a common space for a community (such as the early fences that separated Mexico from the US) to barriers to movement and marks of division. The earthen and concrete walls in Grand Forks, for example, represent protection from the unpredictable and often violent forces of Red River and this function reinforces its role as a barrier between the ordered life of the community and the less controlled forces of nature. The design of the concrete flood walls, with their molded ashlar-like pattern deliberately evoked stone fortifications of antiquity. The earthen walls, whatever their intended aesthetic, would have made some viewers think of the fortifications at Mandan towns such as Double Ditch where ditches and earthen bases for palisades formed barriers. In this context, crossing the wall involved the kind of tactical (sensu de Certeau) move both historically and in the space of Grand Forks, North Dakota that depended upon the intentional misrecognition of the wall’s function. Despite its appearance, the wall isn’t meant as a barrier to human movement at all. This is simply a side effect of its official function to prevent the inundation of the main area of human settlement during the seasonal floods.

So crossing the flood wall requires a tactical act of misrecognition of their function to enter into the space of pilgrimage along the river. This movement initiates the space of communitas where traditional social relations between things and individuals is suspended.

The final thing that I’d like to include in my paper is a brief musing on the “dog park at the end of the universe.” I no longer take my dogs there, in part, because they can’t be trusted around other people or dogs, but also because I find it so very depressing. There’s something about the history of the park that makes setting aside some of it for our dogs to romp and roam intensely sad. The juxtaposition of the former neighborhood homes that stood where the dog park is now creates a melancholy sense of waste or perhaps irreverence. I wonder if I struggled with confronting the modern ability to unsentimentally repurpose a landscape or the expectation that the past will some vanish beneath the pressing need of the present.