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ISSUE 119 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/21/2006

Tallmadge redefines wilderness

By Jean Mullins
Executive Editor

Friday, April 21, 2006

Writer and professor John Tallmadge visited St. Olaf on his way to Earth Day celebrations at Gustavus Adolphus College Tuesday. He discussed his professional and personal relationship with the environment and read from his book "The Cincinnati Arch,”" which details his reflections on being a naturalist in the city.

Professor of English Mark Allister introduced Tallmadge, calling him "influential."

When Allister told the audience that Tallmadge’'s books were for sale at the back of the room after the reading, Professor of History Jim Farrell said, "You should buy two, they’'re small and very good."

Tallmadge, who taught at Carleton College before moving to Cincinnati, expressed delight to be back in Northfield. He praised St. Olaf’'s sustainability theme, saying that it has been a topic of lifelong interest for him.

Tallmadge joined the army during the Vietnam War, a war that he said scared him. He was stationed in California and on weekends would hike in the mountains with his friends.

"I was dazzled and overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape in that area," he said.

Due to these experiences in California, he became interested in exploring the environment as a professional career. He attended Dartmouth College and Yale University and became a professor of English at Carleton. However, he did not receive tenure and took a job in Cincinnati.

"For a wilderness lover it was not exactly high on the list," he said.

Despite his initial reticence about moving to the city, Tallmadge found that he was surrounded by nature: He only needed to refocus.

Tallmadge related his change in focus to sustainability.

"If we are going to have a sustainable world, then we have to start paying attention to where we live," he said.

Thus, Tallmadge was inspired to write his book, "The Cincinnati Arch," from which he read portions to the audience.

Tallmadge described his shift in perception.

"I had such horror at being forced to live in what many would consider environmental hell," he said. "It all turned out well in the end."

Part of Tallmadge’'s transition in thinking came from becoming a father. He explained that having small children requires one to get close to the ground, to examine the smaller wilderness.

While before Tallmadge had considered bison and deer to be wilderness, his children'’s delight in the slugs and small mushrooms brought about a redefining of wilderness.

"Wilderness is not just a state of nature, but a state of mind," he said.

Tallmadge described five practices to better see and understand the urban wilderness.

Tallmadge encouraged those in attendance to be mindful of the possibility to learn, and to be attentive to the learning process. People should be engaged in the natural world (for example, he explained, having a garden), and should be pilgrims looking for formative experiences as well as witnesses to those things that one learns and experiences.

As Tallmadge skipped to a portion from the end of his book, he discussed how many people live in places where they cannot see the Milky Way.

Tallmadge also addressed decomposition and the cyclical nature of life. He contrasted the trash dump, where decomposition takes place, with a beautiful cemetery that is artificially maintained by gardeners.

After he finished his reading, Tallmadge answered audience questions.

When asked about his favorite nature place, Tallmadge said that it was hard to choose, but that he loved the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, but was growing fonder of places in the city.

Tallmadge also recommended other urban naturalist writers for reading, such as Ann Matthews and Annie Dillard.

When asked by one attendee if nature will survive humans, Tallmadge quoted Gary Snyder, saying, “"'The world will go on after we’re gone, but will not be as fine.'"”

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