This year’s Fox Cities Book Festival provided a great opportunity to be reminded of the great work coming out in Wisconsin at present which helps us explore and appreciate nature in Wisconsin – and how we make use of it. This also increased my appreciation for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, and our public support for it – since they actually published the books which each of these four authors presented on!
To open my festival experience I had the chance to see Wisconsin favorite Jerry Apps, sharing stories from his just-released book Whispers and Shadows: A Naturalist’s Memoir. His folksy charm, and mixture of details of rural nature with amusing anecdotes (oh, the pets kept by one of his neighbors!), was appreciated by the audience – a good number of whom, based on questions Apps asked, had rural roots. Along with his his nonfiction books on history and rural life, Apps also explores our relationship to nature through novels, which he feels allow him to more effectively explore multiple sides of issues like frac sand mining. It was inspiring to hear how popular Wisconsin Public TV’s programs based on Apps’ work have become, throughout the country; a lot of people are interested to hear about rural life in Wisconsin! (My favorite Apps project, though, is The Quiet Season: Remembering Country Winters, and the related Wisconsin Public Television program; since I am Milwaukee’s Ambassador of Snow, it is great to see someone helping us appreciate what Wisconsin winters have to offer!)
Bill Berry discussed the history of Wisconsin environmentalism, and the work he did to research that topic, in a presentation based on his book Banning DDT: How Citizen Activists in Wisconsin Led the Way. Berry demonstrated how individuals from a variety of occupations got involved, particularly due to concerns about birds and health. The cast of Wisconsin residents he discussed included UW-Madison scientists, journalists – and of particular importance, female activists including Laurie Otto. Understanding the impact of DDT, and the value of native plants, required collaborations between people working to spread the word, people developing knowledge (and questions) through experience with their local environment, and cleverly designed scientific studies.
While birdwatchers were the key group of nature-users Berry discussed, Travis Dewitz got to know hunters. Dewitz said that in his overall work as a photographer, he has learned to appreciate the diversity of perspectives people have to offer, as he gets to know the subjects of his photos. As a community, we should appreciate the diverse ways we look at nature. Working on this particular project, Blaze Orange: Whitetail Deer Hunting in Wisconsin, he learned a lot about the knowledge that is gained through hunting, and ideas about hunting which are broadly shared amongst Wisconsin hunters.
Meanwhile, photographer Kevin Miyazaki’s subjects in Perimeter: A Contemporary Portrait of Lake Michigan are a variety of people who use Lake Michigan; and the lake itself. He looked at the lake through the eye of a photographer concerned with the aesthetic qualities of his shorts; and at his human subjects through the eye of a portrait photographer hoping to capture the ‘glow’ he feels people have. So his book provides a look at what the lake means by giving us glimpses of the lake, on its own, from a variety of locations around the lake – and by giving us a sense of the variety of people who use the lake, and the variety of ways in which we make use of the lake and the lakeshore. His collection includes images of a surfer, swimmers, steelworker, farmer, and more.
In Wisconsin, we are hunters, farmers, and longshoremen; we are surfers and people who landscape our yards with native grasses. We know nature by keeping an eye out for birds and deer, to shoot with bullets or cameras, or just to watch in local nature centers. We also know nature through the work of those who carefully study it using the methods of science, in our DNR, university system, and elsewhere. Through these experiences and forms of knowledge, Wisconsinites like Frances Hamerstrom, James Hickey, Aldo Leopold and others have made important breakthroughs in understanding how we shape nature through our actions, through clever management but also through unanticipated consequences. (And again, we learn from the Wisconsin Historical Society helping us understand our history!) Our public lands and lakes provide wonderful opportunities for a variety of ways to enjoy nature, and enjoy connecting with others while doing so.
Apps suggested that the greatest environmental danger facing Wisconsin is when view the environment as only an economic asset. If we do so, we are denying ourselves much of what we, and our ancestors, have used to shape our identities; and we will misunderstand and mismanage our environment. We should take pride in our connectedness to nature, our ability to understand nature both through research and through experience, and our history of awareness of the importance of nature in Wisconsin. Thanks to the Book Festival and the Press for promoting the work of authors who remind us of this!