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Listen to the Land: Conservation Conversations. By Dennis Boyer. (Madison, WI., 2009, Terrace Books. Pp. 216. ISBN 978-0-299-22564-3.)

  • Annie McEwen

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  • Annie McEwen
    Memorial University

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Whether you are a soldier who was once left behind in the unforgiving climate of 1970s Cambodia, a freight conductor from La Crosse, or a boatwoman living the emancipated life of a river-rat in Red Wing, Minnesota, you have a story to tell about your understanding of the earth around you. The late “Chubby Chippewa of Red Cliff” (3) once told Dennis Boyer that a story could entertain, educate, counsel, or heal. And from time to time a story can do all of these things and bring about a transformation of the opinions along with a change in the behaviour of its listeners. In Listen to the Land, Boyer brings together as diverse a range of stories as the American Midwest has to offer. Many of these stories contain a certain energy that, if heard by the right person, could indeed be transformative.

Boyer has had a lot of practice listening during his career as a lawyer working with conservation groups, and he was very attentive to the legends he gathered and the lore he came across as he worked on his previous publications. Listen to the Land is not a collection of essays written by specific individuals. Rather, Boyer has used the many characters he encountered during his environmental wanderings to serve as archetypes for a diversity of opinions about and connections with the earth. As Boyer explains in his Beforeword, “these are not field notes from interviews; these are impressionistic glimpses at ecological thinking in action” (ix). The stories of these characters, while modest on their own, grow into a body of noise too loud to take lightly.

An eco-guide and friend of Boyer’s since the 1980s, Chubby Chippewa is the only recurring character in Listen to the Land, leading the reader along a path Boyer traces for us as we go along. In the life of this reader, Listen to the Land has been a source of inspiration for many late-night conversations on conservation and her own personal relationship to the environment. This is Boyer’s greatest achievement in writing this book: he provides a kaleidoscope of opinions and we inevitably form our own.

Boyer tinkers with the popular impression that those who “think green” are left-wing zealots who spend most of their time agreeing with one another and damning humankind. Providing a wide spectrum of characters for the reader, the author grows along with his book, moving from weekend fishermen to eco-feminists and from prison inmates to radicals whose enthusiasm for nature crosses legal boundaries.

Boyer has organized Listen to the Land into four sections: Spring in the East, Summer in the South, Autumn in the West, and Winter in the North. Each section opens with a story from Chubby Chippewa. Boyer’s introduction to each story acts as a thread bringing together the many voices.

The reader meets a freight conductor who has spent thirty years watching the country fly past him in his seat at the back of the caboose. We learn that much of what the government decides to protect is reachable by car and is often chosen mainly for aesthetic reasons. Railroad tracks run through pulp mills as well as vast swaths of clear-cut forest, invisible from the main roads. The view from a caboose provides an alternative perspective to that provided by the pristine national park.

Boyer gives voice to a Catholic nun who participates in sustainable-agriculture meetings in the tri-state area. From her home atop Sinsinawa Mound, she can provide a visual image and discuss the interconnectedness of the communities in the area. She speaks of the disconnect existing between the political powers and what is actually happening on the ground, and she stresses the importance of local networks which parallel the natural systems around her, ignoring political boundaries and divisions.

An inner city community activist applauds those who remain in or return to their old city neighbourhoods, working to make them safe again. This character shows that with a little pro-action and determination on the part of a few individuals, the feeling becomes contagious, and more residents then lend a hand to plant a community garden or stand guard to chase away the drug-users from the community ball park. Conversations involving conservation go far beyond listening to what the woodsman or the naturalist has to say. Conservation of neighbourhoods and the space people live in have their place in this book as well.

One of Boyer’s characters, a “legendary outdoors wordsmith” (29), tells us how to read this book, just as he tells Boyer how to write it: “Listen closely. Listen to the solitary voice in the night. Listen to the banter of crowds. Listen to wise ones and fools… Listen to your own thoughts” (30). While you may not agree with some of the opinions you find in this book, and it is indeed clear that Boyer wrestles with some of the opinions as well, you find yourself engaged with the topic because it is so near and dear to all of us: our place, our community and our home.

A key criticism of Boyer’s Listen to the Land involves the tone used and the style of writing used throughout the book. While the writing is relaxed and friendly, Boyer uses the same tone and laid-back expressions for nearly all of his characters. Certainly more variation in the style of writing would have complemented the variety of opinions presented.

Each voice provides a distinct snapshot, a single life that on its own seems insignificant and faint, but when added to almost fifty others, the insistent call to take care of the place where one lives cannot help but be heard. Grassroots environmentalism is only as powerful as the number of people behind it. The book is a graceful petition, a call to become engaged: “Let people talk and discuss and learn. Help them do that” (Boyer 158). I believe that Boyer’s book does precisely this.