Landscape and Expression

After attending Juliet Schor's talk on the New Plentitude this Wednesday, I kept thinking about the differences between a place like Cedar Falls, where I live, and Winona, MN, where I still maintain several close friendships. Others have inquired about this as well, including one young woman, a current student at UNI, but from Marshall, MN, who expressed curiosity over the differences between what, on the surface, are largely similar small cities. Cedar Falls, Iowa; Marshall, Minnesota; Winona, Minnesota. All three have a relatively small, public university focused on providing a liberal arts education. None are major metropolitan areas, but are local centers near more regional hubs (Marshall is near Mankato, Cedar Falls adjacent to Waterloo, Winona near LaCrosse, WI). All three are midwestern cities with an economy tied to agriculture and local industry.

Yet, despite these similarities, my experience of these cities is one of great difference. Winona has a much more vibrant craft movement, anarchist collectives, three intentional communities, downsizing, alternative education, and much of what Schor cites as beneficial and sustainable. Cedar Falls, despite in a slightly larger urban area and with a slightly larger university, nonetheless is comparably more conservative in this regard, if "conservative" is the right word. There are some excellent things in Cedar Falls, but not the kind of informal networks that provide support for building an alternative economy Schor argues for. Moreover, things have not always been this way. My friend, Matthew, shows in the "Secret History of the Cedar Valley" that musically, Cedar Falls was once a stop on many punk touring circuits. People in both Winona and Cedar Falls describe regular commerce, travel, and interaction among "progressive" individuals from both cities in decades past, but a resulting decrease as many of these individuals left Cedar Falls. So, I wonder about this. What conditions allowed these things to develop and grow in Winona and the surrounding areas? What conditions might have inhibited their growth in Cedar Falls?

In talking with several folks about this in recent days, there are certainly some not-so-surprising variables:
  • students attending UNI are about 90% from Iowa, many from very small communities where alternative economies are largely unknown,
  • without an influx of out-of-state students, as in Iowa City and Ames, there is less exposure to new ideas,
  • Cedar Falls has less heavy industry than Winona, though John Deere is nearby in Waterloo. This maintains a higher land/ housing value and average income.
  • The population of Cedar Falls is more organized around churches than might be the case in Winona.
I agree with all these, but I also think the landscape itself is a significant factor. And I feel this way for two reasons: 1) the way the land is used as a geographic site is markedly different and 2) the way individuals feel themselves related to a community of land, people, buildings, and potentials is also quite distinct in each. The first reason, as it relates to self-expression is similar to Nedra Reynolds' findings in her research on student writers at Leeds. However, my second reason extends more into the terrain of "speculative realism," because it is concerned with how students "prehend" the khora or inventive potential of emplacement.

Taking first things first, Winona is situated on the Mississippi River and its historical legacy as well as its current identity is intimately tied to it. Travel along the river takes on a mythological dimension from Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, blues music, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the like. Since its settlement by people of European ancestry in 1851, Winona has been a wayplace for transients, drifters, "river rats," and, according to some, even gangsters. This continues today with Winona being the fourth-largest port of call in Minnesota, a terminus for the DM&E railroad, home to Watkins, Inc., RTP, We-no-nah Canoe, Hal-Leonard Corp, and several electronics factories.

Cedar Falls, located on the Cedar River, sees only small watercraft passing along its watercourse, though it did accommodate some riverboats in the 19th century. Moreover, the access to water traffic is limited by two features: the small bluff along the south shoreline of the river where the main part of town is built and the bottomlands of North Cedar which separate this community from the town's center. With the construction of the Highway 218 interchange, the Cedar River is pinched between the higher southern shore and the built up ramparts supporting the interchange. This probably led to greater flooding in North Cedar during the 2008 floods. Still, the landscape is simply not able to accommodate river traffic in the same way as Winona.

Aside from the river, Winona's geographic location is part of the Driftless Area, a highly distinctive landscape of bluffs deeply cut by small rivers, creeks and other drainages. Such a landscape is not as conducive to large-scale factory farms as the young drift plains around Cedar Falls. Within the cities, Winona's development is marked by immigration patterns quite different from Cedar Falls. Notably, Winona has several, small neighborhood taverns interlaced with residential areas.By contrast, drinking establishments are more concentrated in the downtown, College Hill, and 18th Street areas in Cedar Falls. The cities are shaped, in some degree, by geography and history. The landscape presents some opportunities for its use as opposed to others. These, in turn, shape population flow, income, socioeconomic interactions, and the like.

This is all well and good, though it doesn't satisfactorily explain the differences to me. More accurately, the ways in which these explanations might be offered seem overly deterministic, failing to explain why there are several individuals in Cedar Falls, myself included, who seek and work toward alternate economic and social relations but who are regularly frustrated with the opportunities. My theory I work out here relies on speculative realism, a concern with ontology or "being" in a set of complex relations that exceeds the epistemological, or "ways of knowing." In short, my contention is that the way individuals relate to the landscapes -- the way landscape affects rather than the effects of landscape -- is what needs accounting.

In Winona, the bluffs offer an easily discernable place "outside" the hub of the city. One can see the densely wooded bluffs from any point within the city proper. In Cedar Falls, such wooded areas like Hartman Nature Preserve or Big Woods Lake are hidden due to a flattened topography. Horizon lines are quite different and, as such, offer a very different "sense of place," an affect of inhabiting a particular location. In Winona, as in mountain towns where I have lived, or large cities with skyscrapers, there is more of a sense that one can travel outside those horizon lines and see things differently. In Cedar Falls, moving outside those horizon lines simply brings one to more of the same. The horizon may have shifted, but what it encompasses is largely the same content.

Such an affective sense of place might also work more reflectively on a Cedar Falls subject since it feels true that, as the old saying about small towns goes, everyone can see your business. There are no hidden valleys, protrusions to hide behind, or geographic location with which to shield one's self from the business of the city. Such affective dimensions to thought appear secondarily in written and other forms of expression. Different perspectives, insights, or ways of being are difficult to come by in one's daily life if one sticks within "the grid" of a small city like Cedar Falls. They simply do not have the opportunity to arise in our consciousness as a result of our daily interactions with our environment.

From a speculative realist standpoint, inhabitants of such areas might "prehend" their place quite differently. That is, an individual's sense of place becomes one complex machine by which possibilities are grasped and with the ability to grasp some possibilities but not others (to have some possibilities readily "at hand"), a specific skein of thinking and expression is woven from the khora. This always generates new possibilities and the conditions may one day be ripe for Cedar Falls to have a network similar to Winona. So, the sense of place one gets from certain horizon lines is never determining, but nonetheless real in the way it is ultimately woven into the forms of expression and life chosen by individual dwellers.

Perhaps this means, for teachers on the plains, be they coastal or interior, we need to keep this in our minds as we formulate lesson plans and pedagogies. We might add new things for students to weave from and into. We might work to give them places to hide, peaks to scale, reference points in the distance that could help re-orient them within space and place, offering new possibilities for expressing and living.


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