Walking Home Ground book review
By Robert Root
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About the book
A lyrical mix of memoir, travel writing, and environmental history When longtime author Robert Root moves to a small town in southeast Wisconsin, he gets to know his new home by walking the same terrain traveled by three Wisconsin luminaries who were deeply rooted in place—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth. Root walks with Muir at John Muir State Natural Area, with Leopold at the Shack, and with Derleth in Sac Prairie; closer to home, he traverses the Ice Age Trail, often guided by such figures as pioneering scientist Increase Lapham. Along the way, Root investigates the changes to the natural landscape over nearly two centuries, and he chronicles his own transition from someone on unfamiliar terrain to someone secure on his home ground.
In prose that is at turns introspective and haunting, Walking Home Ground inspires us to see history’s echo all around us: the parking lot that once was forest; the city that once was glacier.” Perhaps this book is an invitation to walk home ground,” Root tells us. “Perhaps, too, it’s a time capsule, a message in a bottle from someone given to looking over his shoulder even as he tries to examine the ground beneath his feet.”
Root begins his story by admitting he’s a non-native Wisconsinite, though claims home territory along the Great Lakes. A naturalist, an observer, teacher, and one endowed with curiosity, Root endeavored to discover and begin to learn all he could about his final home in a way few even bother to consider. Having just relocated from one side of the state to another to settle on a farm we’ve owned for over twenty years, I was enamored by Root’s introspection and tenacity to uncover secrets of the land, and perhaps, portend the future. He kept a detailed journal of his hikes, research, and thoughts for several years.
As mentioned in the blurb, Root follows three of our more known historical naturalist homeboys on his tour after becoming familiar with his immediate new neighborhood west of Milwaukee. He visits John Muir’s boyhood territory in Marquette County, as well as August Derleth’s Prairie du Sac/Wisconsin River, and Aldo Leopold’s sand country. These three lived and wrote about south central Wisconsin. Root spent hours with maps and literature from Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and the Ice Age Trail Alliance, as well as dozens of resources about the authors, nature, topography, geography, history, and so forth about the area. The book is filled with generous details of the types of land, the differences between fen, bog, and marsh, the type of flora during the different seasons, underground, soil, native and invasive species. His knowledge of bird and animal life leaves me envious.
A somewhat saddened note sounds toward the end of the book in the section “The Land Itself.” “Settlement eliminated a great deal of Wisconsin life,” Root writes. Early pioneers describe a wondrous mix of topography and its supporting flora and fauna. “The last bison was killed in 1832,” he says, with a litany of now missing creatures. In his epilogue, Root invites us to “see the land as a community to which” we belong, and urges us to consider our lifestyle’s impact on the environment. He’s encouraged me to get to know my little piece of Wisconsin better.
Detailed and thought-provoking, Walking Home Ground is for those who love Wisconsin and enjoy nature and environmental reading. It’s a subtle call to action, and a request to remember where and who we are.
Any quibbles I had are the lack of maps, though I understand the reader is encouraged to get out his own map, or better yet, go. The book is detailed as mentioned above; once or twice I almost expected a test at the end of the segment. Included is an Index and a Resource list.
About the author
Bob Root (Robert L. Root Jr.) believes he has been a writer since he was around eight years old, when he came home with a friend from a showing of Superman and the Mole Men, pried open the lock on his mother’s typewriter, and created a series of very short adventures about Tiger Boy. Since then, his life and career have centered on his writing, his study of the way other writers compose, and his teaching of writers and writing teachers. His bachelor’s degree from State University College, Geneseo, New York, was in English education and theater and his graduate degrees from the University of Iowa were in English literature, but he also did post-graduate work in composition and rhetoric before beginning twenty-eight years of teaching at Central Michigan University. There he taught courses in composition and rhetoric, nonfiction, editing, English education, literature, and media. He retired from full time teaching in 2004 to devote more time to writing creative nonfiction and to writing about it.
A frequent presenter on creative nonfiction and composition at national, international, and regional conferences, his scholarship and teaching led to many articles and books. They include: a book for writers, Wordsmithery, which went through two editions; a book for teachers of writing (co-edited with Michael Steinberg), Those Who Do Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching; and an anthology of creative nonfiction (also co-edited with Michael Steinberg) The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, now in its sixth edition. His essay “Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment,” originally published in The Fourth Genre, has been used often in creative writing courses across the country. He has also published three books examining how nonfiction writers do what they do, Working at Writing: Columnists and Critics Composing, E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist, and The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading & Writing Creative Nonfiction.
His creative nonfiction includes essays of place published in literary journals such as North Dakota Quarterly, Colorado Review, Rivendell, Ecotone, The Concord Saunterer, and divide; “Knowing Where You’ve Been,” in Ascent, was named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2004; "Postscript to a Postscript to 'The Ring of Time'" in The Pinch was a Notable Essay in 2010 as well as a Pushcart Nominee, and "Time and Tide" in Ascent was a Notable Essay in 2011. As an essayist he has been an Artist-in-Residence at Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Isle Royale National Park; his anthology co-edited with Jill Burkland, The Island Within Us: Isle Royale Artists-in-Residence 1991-1998, won the 2001 Excellence in Media Award from the National Parks Service. He edited and contributed to Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place, an anthology of essays and writers’ commentaries on their composing published in 2007 by the University of Nebraska Press. His first full-length work of creative nonfiction, Recovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale, was named a Michigan Notable Book in 2004 by the Library of Michigan. His second book-length work of creative nonfiction, Following Isabella, chronicles his attempt to learn how to live in Colorado by tracing the trail of nineteenth-century travel writer Isabella Bird around the Front Range. He has also published a collection of his essays, Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place, a collection of his essays for radio, Limited Sight Distance: Essay for Airwaves, and an edition of columns by his grandmother, Betsy Root, titled How to Develop Your Personality. He is the author of a family memoir, Happenstance. His twentieth book, Walking Home Ground: In the Footsteps of Muir, Leopold, and Derleth, a book of place set in Wisconsin, was published in Fall 2017.
From 1999 through 2013 Bob Root was a contributing editor for Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, one of the first literary journals devoted exclusively to literary nonfiction. He continues to talk about creative nonfiction at creative writing and English education conferences and has been a visiting writer and speaker in writing programs at colleges and universities around the country. In addition to essays and haibun, he is presently at work on The Arc of the Escarpment, a travel narrative tracking the Niagara Escarpment across Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, and New York, and Literary Remains: Essaying Myself and Others, a polyptych memoir.
From 2008 until 2017 Bob was a visiting faculty member in creative nonfiction in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ashland University in Ohio. He is currently a teaching artist at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and a freelance editor of essays, memoirs, and literary nonfiction. He lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin.