Problems of Place: Landscapes and Language

*Cover image: Kaitlin canoeing in the northwoods of Wisconsin near Kemp Field Station in fall 2013.

Image description: A white woman wearing sunglasses, a purple rain jacket, and tan workpants sits in a canoe in the foreground, twisted to face the camera. She is smiling. Behind her is a marshy lake. It is fall and most of the plants are senescing and turning brown.

When I went to college, and eventually graduate school, all the stories I was looking for were rooted in the ground. Plants, insects—these were the tools to understand and to save the world. It took me a long time—and fellowship with many wonderful mentors—to understand all stories are human. They begin and end with people and communities; places are made meaningful by people.

I left a place I used to love. It was a beautiful place. It fancied itself a site of important environmental history—of everything and anything Leopold, and of place. It taught me so much; I learned, so much. That place taught me to hunt, to ski, to fly fish. That place taught me all about soybeans and commodity farming and climate change. That place revealed itself through turkeys, grey wolves, sand mines, canoe trips, beehives, and wild rice. That place gave me so much more—friends, a partner, a PhD, an understanding of the world that changed my path and goals and dreams. That place changed me.

I married an environmental historian, actually. So then we had a “two body problem.” Then we had a kid, and doctors labeled their body a problem. But we rejected that premise. Our bodies are not problems; our baby was (is) perfect. 

Image description: A white couple stands in the middle of a deciduous forest in fall, the forest floor covered in mostly yellow leaves. The background is thin trees, mostly with yellowed and green leaves. The man is on the left and is wearing a baby wrap, there is a bit of newborn head peeking out. The woman (Kaitlin) stands next to him. Both are smiling.

Sometimes places are problems though. Kind of. Inaccessible spaces aren’t about place, however—they are about systems. And power. Choices about who is worth being allowed into the space, about who belongs. I don’t hold those against the place, but against the people upholding these systems, those choices. The Wisconsin River, the Ice Age Trail, and Lake Menona are not the problems.

The place I loved wasn’t enough anymore. There was no language for my son. Without language, there was no future for him, for us. The place hadn’t changed. But we had changed. We needed to live in a place where we—our bodies, our needs—were not framed as problems. Don’t get me wrong. There were (are) other problems in that place and many other bodies labeled problems. It’s selfish, but these problems of place were easier to overlook at the time, less personal but no less acceptable.

Image description: A young boy, facing away from the camera, is wearing a black winter coat and blue winter hat with a red pompom on top and playing with a small toy car on a slate stone wall. Behind him, a waterfall is falling below the stone wall. Part of one canyon wall is visible in the background.

So we moved. We live in a different place now. We have a new river, new lakes, new home, new schools. Here, my kid, now kids, are not problems. Let me repeat: the people I love more than breath itself are not problems. They deserve—we all deserve—to live in places, in community, that holds them up and celebrates them. They’ve given me life, quite literally. A bigger community, this work, different and more expansive purposes—not to mention the opportunities to learn and teach the environmental history of this place. My work has changed, as has my partner’s, because of this place and because of why we chose it; why this place chose us. So this place changed me too.

This place is home; we belong here. This place was made meaningful by people here before us, people who build access and share language, people who keep culture. Language requires community to survive and thrive. This place, our new home, has given me and my kids language. And language is what will build their world—how they will and do learn about places, about everything. The lakes and rivers they live near, the fish in them, and eventually about other places too. Their language fills my home; that is why we moved here. So this place has made us what we are and who we will be.

Image description: A toddler with red hair, facing away from the camera, wearing a grey and maroon striped shirt, leans on a slate stone wall. Behind and below her is a gorge running downstream away from the camera, with the rock walls and some vegetation on both sides extending past the camera frame.

Not everyone can move, switch places and communities, to ensure access and language. It’s a gift, it’s a privilege, it’s one of the ways I show my love to the people I’ve committed to. We moved here on purpose. Having kids, moving—they have expanded the ways I know how to give and show love.  There are so many ways. 

Not everyone can move, switch places and communities, to ensure access and language. It’s a curse, a betrayal, a loss also. To be clear, I mean a loss for the community we left. I do not grieve my kids and their bodies; I grieve a world that refuses to accept them. Why would a place not want to make space for all of them as they are? But not a week goes by without imagining what life would be like if we had stayed. It’s unfathomable. What about everyone who can’t fix their problems of place by moving? It’s not fair. Not everyone can switch rivers; not everyone wants to.

Image description: A small boy wearing a red baseball hat and grey shirt, with his back to the camera, leans over into the water on the shore of a large freshwater lake. No one else is around him, but there are people and some buildings visible on the horizon.

This place is home, we belong here. But this place is problematic, too. I bear witness to and teach the settlement of the unceded lands we learn on. I bear witness to and teach the housing covenants and redlining that prevented nonwhite people from making homes on the streets I live on, including my own house. I learn and teach not just of this place, but to change this place—out of love for the place and the people. The people I am raising, the people who live here, the people who used to live here, the people who weren’t allowed to live here. 

Problems of place shape my life and scholarship. Access is one problem of place. Loving a place can look like staying, but it can also look like refusing to accept it. People give places meaning. Loving my kids meant leaving a place I used to love, accepting them and their bodies as they are, and building a home, career, and community somewhere new.