Making It Home

Making It Home

Spring 2010

Home is where the heart lies, the place it comes to rest.

The stories we tell about our lives and where we live help us more deeply understand ourselves and our neighbors. The essays in this issue of On reveal common values and seek to make sense of our differences. We find that home is found both on the land and in community.

In this issue of On

From the Director’s Desk

More than five million people make their home in Wisconsin. Some, like my neighbor, live in the house in which they were born, supporting themselves on the same land their grandparents did. Some are new arrivals from other states or nations, who’ve never seen the Mississippi or eaten Friday night fish fry. As Curt Meine suggests in this issue of On, “home” may be the feel of a forest or a particular geography, or even an ache in the heart. For each of us, “home” becomes filled with meaning through the stories we tell about it.

But why should we care about the meaning of “home”?

Because the meaning of “home” is where the future of Wisconsin can be found. What do we treasure about Wisconsin? What do we care enough to protect? What might we change? And what might change whether we like it or not? The stories we tell about our lives here help us more deeply understand ourselves and our neighbors. Our stories reveal common values and make sense of our differences. They teach us how to work together, thoughtfully, to nurture our lands and communities.

The WHC’s Wisconsin: Making It Home project brings neighbors together to share stories and celebrate the ways we connect to land, water and each other. The traditions of Muir and Leopold continue in so many ways today, from efforts to grow healthy food inside Milwaukee’s city limits, to sportsman’s clubs in rural areas working to protect wildlife habitat, to communities exploring what it means to become an “eco-municipality.”

To contribute to this tradition and inspire new conversations, the WHC presents the Making It Home Film Festival in Baraboo, Dodgeville, Milwaukee and the Chequamegon Bay this spring. Each festival offers its own line-up of films from around the world, selected to spark conversations about matters of local and regional concern. Join us for fresh perspectives about the connections between people and place, and conversation with neighbors about how they make Wisconsin home.

Learn more about the Film Festivals and related programs at www. MakingWisconsinHome.org. We want to hear your story about making Wisconsin home.

Dena Wortzel | Executive Director | dwortzel@wisc.edu

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Essay: On Making it Home by Curt Meine

One bright June afternoon in the early 1970s, my older brother and I decided to head north, retreating from suburban Chicago through Wisconsin to Upper Michigan. His rattletrap red van, normally in service as his band’s primary road vehicle, was misbehaving. With night coming on, fuses blew out every twenty miles, leaving us without lights. Finally, we decided to pull over for the night and bed down along the Wolf River, on Highway 55 in the Menominee Indian Reservation. I’d never been there before.

We awoke to a warm, golden, green spring morning at river’s edge, among the famously old white pines of the Menominee Forest. Oblivious to the unique history of the landscape and its people, I still knew this was a different place. That much was clear from the character of the forest. Even among the tribal lands of Wisconsin, Menominee country is special. The Menominee are the only native Wisconsin community to have held onto, and still have a reservation within, the land they have called home since their story as a people began. For them, the keeping of the forest and the keeping of the community has been a continuing and connected story. In those years it was a troubled home for its people, as the community wrestled with itself, its direction and its place within the dominant culture. On that memorable morning I was likewise oblivious to that painful historical and social reality.

That night beneath the pines expanded the boundaries of my own home. The waters of the Wolf River connected the North Country with the post-war sprawl of suburban Chicago where I lived. The white pines tied an ancient story to my ephemeral moment. Highway 55 bound a clueless kid to a culture that was foreign to me, but native to the place. Home was no longer a tightly defined space in a constricted present.

Home is where the heart lies, the place it comes to rest. At home the core of our selves seeks definition and sustenance, security and calm, and its most intimate meaning. Home is the location of our shaping—the local geography that we make, and that makes us. For the settled, home provides at least the illusion of permanence, for as long as we do make it. For the nomadic and homeless, home is defined by constant change. For the lost and displaced, home is an aching.

But if we are to be honest, home also is where the heart may lie—where we can most easily hide, and hide from, sober truths about our selves, our communities, our landscapes, our past, and our consequences. If home grounds us, it can also provide easy escape. Home, in fact, can serve as our last true refuge, a place where we are free to ignore degradation, injustice and pain.

Home, then, is not so simple a place, despite its connotations of simplicity (homecoming, down-home, homemade, homespun…). It is where the threads connecting us to one another, to the land and to the larger world intersect; where relationships open, close, stagnate, grow, linger, evolve, resolve. It is where we both establish continuity and make change. It is the place we leave to experience the world, and where we return to understand what we have made of ourselves in the meantime.

For the Menominee and Ho-Chunk, Wisconsin has been home since time immemorial. For the Sauk and Fox and Dakota, it was the home they left behind. For the Ojibwe, Oneida, Potawatomi and Stockbridge-Munsee, it was the home they came to. For the trappers and missionaries, it was a place not to abide, but to harvest furs and souls. For the lumber barons, it was a place to convert those white pine forests into fortunes. Some lumber barons stayed, choosing to invest their returns and make a home; others moved on. There is a town named Weyerhaeuser in northwest Wisconsin; no Weyerhaeusers live there.

For the newly arrived from Europe, the work of making Wisconsin home fell to farmers who eventually discovered that continuous wheat and speculation in hops were not the basis for a sustained economy or a healthy soil, and that dairy provided one way to draw the nutrient loop tighter. It fell to progressive educators and workers and business owners and political reformers who saw that sound homes had to be embedded within sound communities, which had to be embedded within a responsible civic culture. It fell to early conservationists who worked to nest our human homes within resilient lands—greater communities of soil and water, plants and animals, thriving and self-renewing, supportive of the human communities within.

For John Muir, the famed naturalist and author, Wisconsin was home for only fifteen years. He left Portage and his domineering father for Madison, then left the University of Wisconsin for “the University of the Wilderness.” On one letter he provided his ultimate home address: “John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe.” Some of Wisconsin’s famous sons and daughters have followed Muir’s example, passing through their Wisconsin homes on their way to fates borne out elsewhere: Carl Schurz, Georgia O’Keefe, Orson Welles, Les Paul, Brett Favre. Many, like Gaylord Nelson, stayed closer to home, making new pathways through the familiar, and in the process changed how we Wisconsinites understand where we come from. Others followed Aldo Leopold’s course—people from other places who eventually made their way to the modest, flyover, worked, pedestrian, too mosquitoey, too wintry land of Wisconsin, finding here a home to celebrate, to nurture, and to see into in unexpected ways.

There is no telling how our sense of home may change. Yet there is no sense of home that exists apart from our telling of it. Home, wherever we make it, is where we tell our stories, reclaim our pasts, make our meals, sing our songs, project our images. We’ve done it since Lascaux, since Gilgamesh, since the Odyssey, since Turtle Island emerged from the waters. Sharing our stories, we connect our homes to all others, over time and across space. As we do, we find ourselves leaving home and coming back again, making our way between the Wolf River and the Universe, and back again.

Curt Meine lives in Sauk County, where he is Senior Fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Director for Conservation Biology and History with the Center for Humans and Nature

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Making it Home Film Festivals

In the spring of 2010, we presented the Making it Home Film Festival in four communities across the state. For this issue of On, we asked Festival organizers to ponder the meaning of home, as well as the power of film to get people thinking, talking and coming together.

 

Community Voices: Liz Nevers, Film Festival Project Director, Baraboo

A farmyard scene of chickens, a barn and a silo.What does “making it home,” in other words making a home in Wisconsin, mean to you?

When I think of home, I think of a place I care about deeply, where I share my life with family and friends. Home nurtures me emotionally, physically and spiritually. Wisconsin is where I landed by chance, but stayed by choice. When I think of Wisconsin as home, it’s a specific landscape and a local community of people, plants and animals. Home has a legacy to be passed on. Part of making Wisconsin home is sharing and celebrating that legacy with others. There is an old adage that “home is where the heart is.” Sauk County is definitely where my heart resides.

How do you think a film festival can help to strengthen a community?

The stories in the films will help us reflect on what we have and be mindful about our impact on the place around us. The films let us see how other communities have interacted with their “place.” We can draw inspiration and learn lessons from these stories. Communities once sat around the fire and listened to storytellers, whose stories helped form and guide the community. For the most part, we no longer sit around fires and learn about who we are and how we relate to a particular place. I believe this film festival can help us do that.

 

Community Voices: Bob Berglin, Katie Abbot and Eli Wieczorek, Film Festival Project Directors, Dodgeville

A tallgrass prairie.What does “making it home,” in other words making a home in Wisconsin, mean to you?

Making a home here means creating connections that help us care about what happens to our state’s people and places. Our connections may come from family and friends living nearby, from institutions like school and church, or from culture, art, music and history.

I need a connection to the natural world, too. It’s not enough to drive by and acknowledge a pretty setting. I need to get out of the car, to see it up close, and witness how it changes through the year. The connections to people, culture and nature turn just a “place” into a home.

What do you think is at stake in your community if residents don’t talk about the land and our connections to it?

We’re connected to nature in every facet of our lives: food, shelter, fuel, air, water, scenery, recreation, health, happiness. But if we don’t talk about our connection to nature, we may not realize how important it is, and it may become sacrificed in the name of progress. Nature has no voice. Discussion can give the land a voice, and can give people a voice, too. Discussion can bring our connections to nature to the forefront of our minds and hearts, and help us make decisions that honor that connection.

 

Community Voices: T.J. Fackelman, Jamie Ferschinger and Beth Fetterley, Film Festival Project Directors, Milwaukee

A group of teenagers outside the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee.Most of the films in the Making it Home Film Festival aren’t based in our state. How does the Festival help people relate to land, water and community in Wisconsin?

We don’t live in isolation. We learn from our neighbors in nearby and faraway places much the same way that we learn from our past. We live in a global community full of interconnectivity, and the way we treat our environment has consequences far outside our own local communities. We can learn a lot from stories from other parts of the world, just as they might learn from us, and we might learn from one another.

How do you think a film festival can help to strengthen a community?

A film festival can help strengthen a community by bringing a large group of people together for the shared experience of seeing and hearing a new story. Films are all about sharing ideas and stories; and at film festivals, those ideas and stories come from all over the world. The Making It Home Film Festival, in particular, helps strengthen the Milwaukee community because the Festival includes more than just films. The discussions and community involvement opportunities included in the schedule are just as vital and give our community real and substantial ways to make connections.

 

Community Voices: Ruth Oppedahl and Linda Mittlestadt, Film Festival Project Directors, Chequamegon Bay

Two kayakers.The Making it Home project brings people together from many walks of life. How would you describe the diversity in your community?

Our community is a diverse mixture of folks from backgrounds ranging from the working poor through professionals, liberals through conservatives, and everyone else in between, coexisting in a beautiful environment we all cherish in our own ways. The variety of opinions from these diverse backgrounds makes for a lively yet civil forum for discussion about how best to treat the world we share.

What do you love about the region where you live? Why is this important to you?

I moved here because I wanted to be near Lake Superior. There’s something special about being near big water: it’s calming, and I enjoy watching the lake change with the seasons; we can swim in it in the summer and ski across it in the winter, expanding our boundaries of space.

The imprint of history is close to the surface here. Parts of the shoreline around Fish Creek Sloughs look the same as when Radisson and Groseilliers camped here 350 years ago. Our vibrant Native American communities link us to the past, and their customs help me understand our connection to the landscape. I’ve learned to consider how current actions will affect people seven generations from now. This powerful belief informs the personal philosophy of many people in our area.

 

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About the Photos

Cover: This is a historic image of former Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson, courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society (Image ID # 56790). Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 and is known for initiating the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In the front of the canoe sits Senator Nelson canoeing down the Namekagon River in an effort to protect the river under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Circa 1966. Photographer unknown.

Chickens: Photo by Donna Neuwirth, the Wormfarm Institute

Prairie: Photo by Katie Abbott, the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area

Group of Teens: Photo courtesy of the Urban Ecology Center

Kayakers: Photo courtesy of the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center

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