Walking Home Ground, Robert Root. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2017 (forthcoming, October 2017).
Summary: The author hikes the “home grounds” in Wisconsin of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and August Derleth, and records his reflections on the landscape then and now, and his observations of the Ice Age Trail, and his own home grounds of Waukesha, Wisconsin.
I’ve long appreciated “writers of place.” I love the work of Wendell Berry writing from nearby Kentucky, Wallace Stegner writing about the American west, and especially fellow Ohioan Louis Bromfield writing about his beloved Malabar Farm. It is one thing to live in a place; another to carefully observe it, to understand its past and present–geologically and topographically, the ecosystem of the place, and the land’s inhabitants.
This is another work in that vein. I picked it up because my work frequently takes me to Wisconsin, a state I’d love the chance to explore more. Robert Root has given me some ideas of places that it might be interesting to explore. After moving to Waukesha, located on the western edges of Milwaukee, he conceived the idea of walking the “home grounds” of three fellow “writers of place” who either grew up or lived in Wisconsin–John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth.
He began with John Muir, hiking the lands around Muir’s childhood home in Marquette County, much of it now within John Muir State Natural area, centering on Ennis Lake with bogs, oak openings, and prairie. He then goes on to the “shack” rehabilitated by Aldo Leopold and the Leopold Center and surrounding lands along the Wisconsin River in Sauk County that Leopold helped to restore from a worn out farm to wetlands, forests, and prairie. From there he goes to nearby Sauk City and Sac Prairie, the home of August Derleth, a prolific writer of science fiction, horror, and regional fiction and non-fiction, including journals of his walks through his home town and surrounding lands.
In all three instances, he compares what he sees in their writings with what he witnesses as he walks the home grounds today, noting how land is in a constant state of change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. He also explores the geological and ecological history of these lands, including how they were shaped by glacial inundations. He returns in different seasons to see the land in all its moods.
This leads into the second part of the group and some of the walking of “home ground” of his own the author does, including hiking parts of the 1000 mile Ice Age Trail that winds its way from the Door Peninsula in the east through the heart of Wisconsin to its northwestern border with Minnesota. Along the way he spots drumlins, kettle moraines, and other evidence of glacial action. Most fascinating to me was a discussion of the Niagara escarpment, reflecting glacial depositions stretching from southwest of the Door Peninsula, into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, across Ontario to the Niagara Falls and western New York where the author had previously lived. References to dolomite deposits and a mine reminded me that I have seen this on visits to a conference center in the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula where we would drive past Port Dolomite, just before arriving.
He introduces us to Increase Lapham, who recorded the first topographical history of Wisconsin, wrote numerous papers on the flora and fauna of Wisconsin, and helped create the U.S. Weather Service. Lapham probably studied the “home ground” of this state more exhaustively than any man before or since.
I read this work in e-galley form. This version included photos of a number of the places where Root walked. What might have been helpful and I hope is incorporated in the print edition are some maps of the areas where Root hiked for those of us not familiar with Wisconsin geography, and perhaps a glossary of terms, particularly related to glacial geology.
The book concludes with the author’s observations and reflections as he walks the “home ground” around his home in Waukesha, walking along the Fox River through the city, including some fascinating history about when the town was known for its springs. His walks help him become aware of the history of his own home ground and how development is re-shaping this land as well. Root’s conjoining the past and present of the land in all of these reflections makes us think about what our home grounds will be and the impact our own care, or lack of care, may have. He piques my interest to explore some of the places he walked, but even more, the places I call “home ground.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.