May 2016 Archives

Sobriquet 97.2

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One of the first conversations I had with my host mother when I moved to Norway was about the ways in which the region's remarkable geography often affected the mental states of people who relocated there. The town to which I moved was located at the end of a branch of the world's longest fjord. When surrounded on all sides by sheer mountain faces, tall conifers, and glacier-encrusted peaks, she said, newcomers either experienced a sense of claustrophobia or, as was the case for me, a strong sense of comfort. In other words, the earth either fashioned itself into an unsettling space of perceived confinement or offered a sort of terrestrial embrace.

Some twenty years after my host mother first discussed how a landscape could have such profoundly variable impacts on individuals, while living in Iowa, I had a conversation with a friend who had been born and raised in that state. She had attended graduate school on the east coast and remarked that she felt claustrophobic when surrounded by all the trees, mountains, and buildings one encounters on much of the eastern seaboard. On the other hand, as someone who had been raised in the forest-blanketed mountains of northwestern New Jersey, I could not help but feel acutely agoraphobic in the largely deforested plains of the nation's agricultural center. For her, the wide open spaces, treeless horizons, and seemingly endless expanses of corn and soybean fields were reassuringly open. For me, the Iowan landscape (with the exceptions of the forested bluff country along the Mississippi River, the stunning Loess Hills in the western part of the state, or some of the lake communities scattered around) was deeply unsettling. For the first time in my life, I was unable to gain a sense of what the "natural" state of the land would be had human beings not moved there. I realize this statement may perplex some people, but, to my eyes, Iowa looks about as unnatural and human-influenced as Manhattan or Tokyo. Virtually all of the state's natural prairie land has been removed to make room for cash crops that cover nearly every inch of the uninhabited parts of the state. While many people understandably equate rural with nature, rural Iowa--like much of the rural Great Plains--is largely a horizon-consuming expanse of industrial agriculture, sliced neatly by an efficient city-like grid of roads, spaced evenly from one end of the state to the other. It is precisely this industrial quality I found so unsettling about Iowa. Despite New Jersey's ill-begotten reputation for over-industrialization, most parts of the state retain some vestige (if not an abundance of) the original flora. Even in many of the more developed urban areas of the state, I am able to turn my glance to something natural that reassures me that I am firmly footed on the same earth that has been here for millennia. In Iowa, that connection has been severed.

This is not to say that Iowa does not have some preserved prairie, some forests, or pockets of natural spaces. It certainly does, but those areas as so sparse that they are the exception rather than the rule: oases in a desert, islands of the real in a sea of artificiality. This is also not to say that Iowa does not have a beauty all its own. The sunrises and sunsets spreading across the width and breadth of Iowa's huge skies are truly something to behold. Even the crops, enshrouded in mist or practically glowing in the abundant sunshine, add color to tableaus featuring calendar-ready farmsteads.

But...such scenes were never enough for me to feel at ease.

Put differently, when in Iowa, I felt profoundly estranged from nature. Unable to locate any recognizable connections to the pre-human world, I felt exposed, lost, left without the safety of a retreat into the natural world. 

Thus, I have been relishing my return to the east coast. Despite the comparatively sweltering temperatures of the past few days, I have sought solace in the acres and acres of largely undisturbed forest New Jersey offers. 

Yesterday, I spent the day cycling around the Pine Barrens in the southern part of the state.

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Two friends invited me to ride a 200 kilometer brevet that would pass through the largest reserve of old growth forest east of the Mississippi River. Despite temperatures rising into the nineties (and ambient temperatures on the road crossing into the triple digits), I felt calmed and enjoyed the farmland, cranberry bogs, historic towns, and the whiffs of sea salt as we approached the Jersey Shore.

This afternoon, on a whim, I decided to visit Allamuchy Mountain State Park in Warren County:

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Although the nearby communities were bustling with the levels of activity you would expect on a sunny Memorial Day Weekend, a few short miles into the park were all the distance I needed to go to feel completely free of the stresses and distractions of the day. It was delightful.

So, yeah: it's great to be back. Really, really fucking great.

Sobriquet 97.1: Back from the abyss

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The past year or so has been a particularly difficult one for me, which is part of the reason it's been nearly two years since I've posted anything on Sobriquet Magazine's eponymous blog. 

As I've written elsewhere on this blog, after spending the better part of a decade attending graduate school in Quebec and central New York, I moved to rural Iowa to take my first job as an English professor in 2011. As one might expect, I enjoyed my fair share of ups and downs during the subsequent half decade. Some of the ups--winning accolades for my teaching, having the opportunity to work closely with inspiring students and brilliant colleagues, publishing some of my scholarship in volumes bearing the imprints of a few of academia's best university presses, traveling to some of the world's most beautiful places, and making some truly wonderful friends--have enriched my life in ways that I cannot understate. Despite those wonderful memories, however, I cannot help but feel my time in Iowa will always be defined by the downs and a pall of desolation enshrouds my recollection of the years I spent in the state. While I may someday draw upon those downs in my writing, I found the experience of living through them was not particularly conducive to writing. 

I mention this difficulty primarily because I feel obliged to provide at least a small amount of continuity to bridge the temporal gap between the J. M. Coetzee blog I maintained as a doctoral student and the blog in its present form. We'll see where it goes from here.

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