Mar
21

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Re-Introducing Almanac For Moderns

FullSizeRender (1)“March Twenty-First,” the initial entry in Almanac for Moderns
By Matthew Fluharty

As spring emerges across the country, I turn to the work of Donald Culross Peattie in Almanac for Moderns, which we initially discovered and chronicled in our electronic pages in 2010. While a great deal has developed for Art of the Rural in these ensuing years — as we moved from a blog to a national organization — our belief in both the practice and the conviction within Peattie’s book has remained and only grown stronger.

In the years since, his grounded, ecological perspective led us to look even more broadly and to ask how (through a fieldwork journal, for instance) we pay sustained attention to a place, a cultural question, or a community. Much of our work, from the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange to the American Bottom Project, and all the way through to our Next Generation initiative on rural creative placemaking, seeks to learn from the bedrock of Peattie’s patient and sustained practice: to listen, to notice, and to humbly ask questions.

In the coming weeks we would like to offer up these pages for folks to share their pages from their creative Almanacs of their places, communities, and projects. Until then, please find our initial introduction to Peattie’s work below, and click on the image above to read his entry for March Twenty-First.

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As spring arrives again, our thoughts turn to the fields, gardens and container plots waiting to be planted. Or, if we don’t possess a green thumb, we wait eagerly for the warmer weather to bring the markets and roadside stands back into our lives, to sit down with that first bowl of spring greens, to bite into the first corn of summer or that first peach.

As we all look ahead to these joys, let me introduce Donald Culross Peattie. He’s a figure we’re going to keep close by this season. Here’s how one bloghas summarized Mr. Peatties many contributions:

Donald Culross Peattie was the pre-eminent Naturalist of his day. After leaving University of Chicago and French Poetry for Harvard and Botany, he worked for the Department of Agriculture and produced several works of mostly scientific value—his A Natural History of North American Trees is indispensable, authoritative and exhaustive. Later, he married the novelist Louise Redfield, and turned to nature writing as a career, for which he is most remembered. Through the 30’s and 40’s he published a dozen or so books directed to the general reader which were, owing to his popularity, distributed through many book clubs; he also wrote for Reader’s Digestand produced columns for the Washington Post and Chicago Daily News.

Yet Mr. Peattie’s career as a writer and a naturalist was not always so certain. It was actually a combination of the depression years and a return to his wife’s rural community that provided the springboard for his many later successes. Here’s Peter Friederici of Chicago Wilderness Magazine setting the stage:

In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Glenview, Illinois witnessed a subdued homecoming. A couple and their three young sons returned to the state of their origin after six years in the south of France. It was early winter, and bleak; the drought of the Dust Bowl had not yet broken. Glenview was more rural than suburban. Lacking snow, the northern Illinois farmlands looked “dingy now and threadbare.” The great old bur oaks of the prairie groves appeared dead.

They were both writers. Their books had found publishers but not much of an audience. Jobless, the man doubted his own ability to provide for his family. “Still to put trust in me, I thought . . . was to perform more than I ever had yet,” he wrote. For what, he wondered, had they left the warm delights of the Riviera?

Such was the homecoming of Donald Culross Peattie and Louise Redfield Peattie.

The book to emerge from from these Northern Illinois fields was An Almanac for Moderns (1935) a breathtaking combination of naturalism and poetry, with  a philosophical and observant eye that prefigures many of the agrarian writings that, a few decades later, would take a stand and argue for the validity and the necessity of rural culture. Remarkably, this book is currently out of print. (But can be found cheaply here.)

Here’s Robert Finch describing the Almanac in The Norton Book of Nature Writing:

The “moderns” that Donald Culross Peattie wrote for in his An Almanac for Moderns were a skeptical generation. They were the descendents of Darwin and Freud and the inheritors of World War I, who had seen “the trees blasted by the great guns and the birds feeding on men’s eyes.” … His deliberate choice of the archaic literary form of a daily almanac contrasted the stable natural order of the ancient philosophers and naturalists with the modern existential view of nature as soulless and purposeless. Its short 365 chapters not only pose many of the philosophical questions that have preoccupied contemporary nature writers, but also contain an informal survey of natural science and evocative observations of seasonal life.

In a technological and social moment when the “archaic literary form of a daily almanac” doesn’t really seem that archaic, we’re hoping to use this site (updated almost every day) to celebrate the work of Donald Culross Peattie–and to hopefully start a word-of-mouth campaign to give this author the new edition he richly deserves.

[Editor’s Note: A new edition of Almanac for Moderns was published by Trinity University Press in 2013.]

Mar
1

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Introducing The American Bottom Project

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East St. Louis, at the base of a Cargill elevator and overlook; photograph by Jesse Vogler

[We are pleased to share that the American Bottom project has recently received a Divided City grant from the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This generous grant will provide for an exhibition in the American Bottom in the fall of 2015 and for continued engagement and publications — along with a full interactive website on the American Bottom, which will launch in April of 2016. 

We are also grateful to curator Nancy Zastudil and Bill Gilbert of the University of New Mexico Art and Ecology program for supporting an exhibition of photographs from the American Bottom Archive at the Central Features gallery.] 

Art of the Rural recently launched Middle Landscape, a series of projects that combine releases of artistic and cultural material with digital work and on-the-ground action to facilitate a collaborative space that creates relationships between ideas, individuals, and communities. Today we are excited to share the American Bottom Project, one that will evolve over the course of many years and will connect across multiple fields and conversations.

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Few regions in the United States exhibit a social and spatial fragmentation as extreme as that of the vast flood plains of the East St Louis region. As a coherent geographic interval stretching from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers down to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River, this flood plain–known to geographers and anthropologists as The American Bottom–is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precocity. Yet this is a region defined less by its inherent ecological and geographical continuities and more by the industrial patterns that have effectively fractured this region into closed communities of extraction, production, and displacement.

The American Bottom is a landscape of interruptions and strange adjacencies – but also a living landscape, where sites of the familiar and the extraordinary continue to shape the social and spatial processes of the present. This project — a collaboration facilitated by Middle Landscape and The Institute of Marking and Measuring, with The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Preservation Research Office, and the Husbandmen design group — seeks to tell a political, spatial, social, and ecological history of The American Bottom by focusing on the cultural landscapes of this region.

One only needs to a run a finger down the length of the Mississippi to begin to uncover the complexity and variousness of this story. Alton was a flashpoint in the abolitionist movement (when the eastern banks of the river meant the difference between freedom and enslavement), the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and also the birthplace of both Miles Davis and James Earl Ray. A long red line on the ConAgra grain silos mark the height of the 1993 flood that submerged blocks of the city.

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Holding grounds in National City for Interstate 64 renovations, November 2013; photograph by Matthew Fluharty

Moving south, we find the highest cluster of industrial suburbs in the country: a few include Wood River (built by Standard Oil), Alorton (formerly named Alcoa), Granite City (US Steel), and Sauget (formerly named Monsanto). While these company towns occur in great number, this region also features a number of municipalities that were dis-incorporated and subsequently razed when industrial owners withdrew. This appears most forcefully in National City, the former home of the National Stockyards; at its peak, this was the site of the largest hog processing facility in the world. All that remains now of National City is the National Stockyards Building and an abandoned playground (another spatial theme across the bottomlands).

These social and economic legacies converge in East St. Louis, perhaps the most misunderstood area in the midwest. Much of the political and economic challenges to the growth of East St. Louis are decades old, historically embodied in the most violent labor- and race-related riot of the twentieth century, in 1917, when white mobs infiltrated the city and murdered hundreds of its African American citizens. While the structural causes of the issues facing East St. Louis often go unexamined in the region, the city holds a rich cultural heritage stretching from the emergence of ragtime and jazz, through to modern architecture and innovative community projects sparking new forms of engagement.

As our finger might progress south, we find a transition from rural to urban already underscored by the rural diaspora who populated, and built, the industries and municipalities of places like East St. Louis. These connections stretch across cultures, geographies, and centuries. For instance, our finger might trace a line from Brooklyn, the first African American incorporated town in the U.S., to the Cahokia Mounds, once a city of 40,000 residents and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We might trace a line from the labyrinthine man-made cave system of the Rock City Business Complex (housing both the National Records and Archives Administration and, in the deeper cold storage facilities, the hops for Anheuser-Busch) to Valmeyer, a farming town submerged by the 1993 floods and subsequently rebuilt atop its neighboring bluffs.

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Display from the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Though these points of connection and divergence can be overwhelming, we find that a whole history of America can be told here—through the beliefs, hopes, aspirations, and failures of five centuries of civilizations.  With the American Bottom project we will focus on the specificity of place and storytelling to access the what is at stake on a conceptual, historical, and local level.

Over the first twelve months of this project, we will reach out to new partners and audiences and deepen our engagement with the region, its people, and this cultural landscape. This autumn, in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we will create a project within their Land Use Database. Through this period we will welcome individuals and groups from the St. Louis area and beyond for guided tours and fieldwork excursions.

In concert with these collaborations, the project’s focus will turn to the production of publications, recordings, maps, and additional events to further connect disciplines, cultures, and forms of community practice. Along the way, we will regularly share online images from the American Bottom Archive alongside pertinent news, readings, and links from this river landscape.

Feb
17

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Announcing the Launch of the Next Generation Digital Learning Commons

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The Next Generation home page, featuring an image courtesy of The Coleman Center for the Arts

Today, Art of the Rural (AOTR) and the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) announce the launch of a new Digital Learning Commons (ruralgeneration.org). A platform for storytelling, research, and best practices, the Commons fosters an inclusive space for deeper collaboration and learning exchange, to assert the essential role of arts and cultural organizations in rural economic and community development. In doing so, the Learning Commons addresses two of the major challenges facing rural arts practitioners – geographic distance and access to information and networks – and establishes a digital intermediary through which these partnerships can develop.

Next Generation: The Future of Arts & Culture Placemaking in Rural America engages artists, organizations, and communities across the public, philanthropic and private sector to advance collaboration, share innovative strategies and research, and elevate emerging leaders in the field. This initiative is designed and facilitated in concert with a wide range of regional and national partners and supported by The University of Iowa and The National Endowment for the Arts.

“Next Generation emerged from conversations between The Rural Policy Research Institute and Art of the Rural,” stated Matthew Fluharty, Executive Director of Art of the Rural, “as we recognized that the missions, collaborative partnerships, and credibility with which each operated in their respective spaces were critical to those of the other, if both were to fully achieve their mission. This initiative is designed to catalyze transformational change in public, private, and philanthropic commitments to rural America.”

“From a rural context, we have much to learn from the evolving creative placemaking conversation,” Chuck Fluharty, President of the Rural Policy Research Institute, indicated. “However, the critical interchange between arts and culture, and rural development and public policy beyond the arts has yet to be fully articulated. Furthermore, the cross-sectoral synapses this enterprise is connecting in urban locales must become expressed beyond our cities. The future of our rural places, and the next generation of its citizens, depend on the kinds of innovation and collective impact fostered through such collaborations.”

ABOUT NEXT GENERATION:

Next Generation operates through three interlinked activities: Regional Networks that spark exchange, collaboration, and dissemination of best practices; a Digital Learning Commons that shares this knowledge and contributes further perspectives from across the rural arts and culture field; and Next Generation Convenings, including a national Rural Creative Placemaking Summit, to be held at the University of Iowa, October 12-14, 2016, that will merge the activities of the Networks and Commons and expand the rural placemaking network.

To learn more, visit http://www.ruralgeneration.org.