Picturing Minnesota’s Wild Places

Daniel J. Philippon is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He is editor of Our Neck of the Woods: Exploring Minnesota’s Wild Places (Minnesota ’09) and author of Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement. Today, he writes about why Our Neck of the Woods is “decidedly old school.”

In his recent post to NYT’s Happy Days blog, Tim Kreider quotes from James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.” (Had he been writing today, Salter might have called this the Sliding Doors paradox.)

So it goes with books, as publishing is not a non-zero-sum game. Choose to do something one way, and you can’t do it another way–at least, not until the second edition comes out. Thus have my thoughts been turning since I caught my first glimpse of Our Neck of the Woods: Exploring Minnesota’s Wild Places, the recently published collection of nature writing I edited.

What struck me most about the book is the relationship between words and images, and how the choice I made early in the editorial process not to include illustrations has created a certain kind of book, and prevented another kind of book from coming into being. Don’t get me wrong: this is not the voice of regret, wondering how I could ever have imagined a nature book without images! Quite the opposite. Now, more than ever, I’m certain I made the right choice.

Here’s why.

Our Neck of the Woods collects fifty-seven “sense of place” essays from the last twenty years of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, a donor-supported magazine that has been published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources since 1940. What’s great about the Volunteer is how visually appealing it is. Every issue is jam-packed with drawings and photographs from some of the region’s most talented wildlife and landscape illustrators. But after years of reading the Volunteer, I realized that all this visual beauty comes at a certain price; “acts demolish their alternatives,” as Salter suggests.

“Demolish” may be too strong a verb here, but a milder truth remains: so alluring are the images in the Volunteer that they run the risk of eclipsing the writing they accompany. Not prevent it from being read or appreciated, mind you, but prevent it from taking center stage. And that seemed a shame, because the writing is something special, particularly the personal essays that occasionally appear under the heading “A Sense of Place.” What to do, what to do.

Well, being an academic who spends his days surrounded by paperbacks, the answer seemed obvious. It was time to make a book.

Fortunately, the staff at the Volunteer had been hoping someone would do just such a thing, and when I approached Kathleen Weflen, the magazine’s longtime editor, she generously allowed me to develop what became Our Neck of the Woods. The result, I hope, is something that didn’t exist before, even though all of the essays have previously appeared in the Volunteer and a few of them are even available online. (As my fellow academics might put it, in synthesis we create new knowledge.) In particular, my goal was to call attention to this powerful series of personal reflections by selecting and organizing a representative sample by subject matter and location.

The cover, a composite of three photographs by Gary Alan Nelson, itself suggests the three Minnesota biomes the book seeks to represent: the North Woods, the Big Woods, and the Prairie Grasslands. But it also illustrates what the rest of the book attempts to do without illustrations: picture Minnesota’s wild places.

We are, today, awash in images: we ride to work on buses encased in ads, distract ourselves by YouTube videos while there, and return home just in time to catch the latest episode of The Jay Leno Show. Images appeal for our attention at every moment.

In contrast, Our Neck of the Woods attempts something decidedly old school: placing the written word front and center. My ideal reader for this collection, in other words, is just that: a reader. Someone who wants to be transported, in imagination, to a canoe in the Boundary Waters, a riverboat on the Mississippi, a duck blind on the prairie, and every place in between. (Imagination, from imaginare, “picture to oneself.”) And that’s what the best writing can do, can’t it? Take us places we haven’t been, or take us places we have been and show us something different.

So whether these essays are new to you or not, and whether the places they describe are familiar to you or not, I hope their collection in Our Neck of the Woods will take you someplace unexpected. Imagine that.


Daniel J. Philippon is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He is the author of Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement. He lives in St. Paul.

Leave a Reply