EXCERPT: Thinking Continental

The following collection of excerpts are from Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time, edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien (November 2017). In recent years, talking about the environment has required the insights not only of scientists but also of poets, humanists, and social scientists. Combining essays, poems, and personal experiences, this collection asks what it means to be a local citizen and also a global citizen.

Contributors Harmon Maher, Twyla Hansen, Elizabeth Dodd, Marjorie Saiser, and Tom Lynch will be at Indigo Bridge Books on Friday, November 10, to discuss the book. Below is an excerpt from each of their works included in Thinking Continental.


From Harmon Maher’s “The Deepest Layer”

My initial response to “Why Svalbard?” is well rehearsed, truthful, and perhaps expected. This continental corner of the Barents Shelf has an outlandish geodiversity, and consequently there is much excellent science to be done there. That geodiversity includes four major mountain-building episodes, all the common rock types and some quite exotic ones, and fossiliferous strata cumulatively miles thick that span some 800 million years of life. These fossil landscapes are embedded in a dynamic Arctic and alpine terrain full of glaciers, permafrost, large braided rivers, raised beaches, and patterned ground. Svalbard’s peripatetic geologic history includes previous and much older glaciations, braided river systems with dank coal-forming swamps, hot and low- latitude tidal flats where seawater evaporated to form salts, open marine seas plied by large toothy reptilians, deltas and shorelines building out into the sea, and much more. On a larger scale Svalbard was tectonically assembled from distant scattered exotic pieces, some of which lack solid continental credentials. Because of glaciation, exposures are spectacular—ridges miles long and recently disinterred valley walls thousands of feet high revealing layered cross sections. A thin and spotty veneer of rock-clinging lichen, tundra vegetation, and nascent soil occurs, but mostly the rock is naked here, unadorned compared to more verdant areas southward. Not surprisingly, Svalbard is crawling with geologists from around the world.

The Great Plains are different, the geodiversity notably less than Svalbard’s. Sediments and sedimentary rocks dominate, and it is an excellent place to study rivers, dunes, loess,  and an array of fossil mammals enclosed in Rocky Mountain detritus. However, my particular geologic niche is in earth movements and deformation. More than 1.5 million years ago, the Great Plains saw plenty of such geologic excitement, but those rocks and features are mostly deeply buried. Since that time the plains have been a semi- stable continental cratonic core—only semi-stable because, geologically, something is always going on. A midcontinental belly scar known as the Keweenawan rift started in the interior of the North American craton circa a billion years ago, leaving behind frozen lava flows along Lake Superior’s shores and a solidified magma chamber upon which the  city of Duluth now sits. But rifting waned and died, never growing to oceanic basin status, and the tectonic scar now extends under younger strata in Iowa, into the southeastern corner of Nebraska, reaching into Kansas. Several times in the long subsequent continental interior somnolence, the rift zone roots shifted and faulted the overlying, younger strata. Yet one must know where to go to see the faults—they are small, subtle. Small earthquakes occur along the scar as part of the Humboldt fault zone in Nebraska—not tectonically dead but definitely sleepy.

Twyla Hansen’s “Communion”

I worshipped amid the regulars—
families of Cedar, Cottonwood and Pine—
child on a carpet of rotted leaves
wandering the long pews
of the planted windbreak,

while the wind sighed its hymn
through limb and needle,
the hollow root filled with rainwater
a baptismal font, a pet cemetery
marked by mishmash of stone and wood,

where I first believed—the miracle
of seed and soil, the magic of sun
and rain, the might of machine
and harvest and yield—sheltered
there in my private sanctuary.

Could any place be more sacred?
Once-treeless plain where the first
people sipped from that cool spring
down in the field, where the graves
of Native children dotted those hills.

I was alone, but never lonely,
surrounded, kneeling to the season
at a shrine of piled sticks and rocks,
chorus of birdsong from the balcony,
litany of bee and mosquito and wasp.

Those fields now a factory of corn
and soybean, no trace of livestock
or silo, no milk barn or nearby farms,
windbreaks and contours obliterated
to accommodate center pivots.

Oh Christ! your body broken, eaten,
your blood shed over this land.
Forgive us for not remembering.
Before it is too late, teach us how
to love our one and only Earth.

From Elizabeth Dodd’s “A World of Islands”

On the map Maud Island looks like one of the pair of abstract stingray earrings my partner, Dave, gave me one year so I could keep a glint of sunlit water on my body after a  eek at the beach. Thimble-tiny in the filigree of sea-circled hilltops in Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the island offers refuge to a few of the species disappearing from the archipelago continent. Like much of the country, Maud Island was turned to agriculture (“hill farms,” we’d call them in Appalachia, where I grew up) by the end of the nineteenth century. Sheep, goats, I don’t know what else. Then  in the 1970s the government acquired the property as a scientific research station and a wildlife preserve. Only 5 percent of its native forest—“bush,” the New Zealanders say—still plunges roots into the island’s abrupt slopes. But protected now, the bush is growing back.

Somehow this thumbprint hilltop had, through three centuries since Europeans first arrived, escaped the scourge of mice. The rats-stoats-weasels triumvirate of New Zealand bird death has been absent for decades now, banished when the preserve was opened. Australian possums, if they were ever here, are gone as well. None of these mammals was indigenous; they’d all arrived with Europeans, hundreds of years after the Polynesians’ dogs and rats gave the first interruption to the geologic epochs—seven of them—where birds evolved without mammals in the shadows to shape quick, evasive lives. Insular, as if afloat, a raft without wolves, coyotes, lions, deer. Without rats. Without, mostly, us.

Marjorie Saiser’s “Asking Why”

When I sit up to read
in the yellow of the lamp,
the blackest of beautiful black
filling the corners of windows,
I hear the quail.
Not a melody
but one lone note.
She has only one
and she doesn’t care
if I hear it. She lies low
in the laurel, as if she queries
the universe in some
ancient language. It’s not
the elegant owl who
speaks for me. It’s the
one-note of the quail,
a question rising
like a flag in the dark.

From Tom Lynch’s “Braided Channels of Watershed Consciousness”

On the morning news I hear reports of flooding in town. More than seven inches of rain fell overnight, on ground already saturated from weeks of rainfall: a one hundred–year event, they say. As I ride my bike to a meeting on campus, I descend the casual drainage toward town. The bike trail first follows a neighborhood creek, normally just a trickle and too small to have a name. In her essay “Meanderings” local writer Lisa Knopp discusses this drainage, notes that this creek is indeed nameless, and so, on the assumption that it had been diverted to its present location when the nearby neighborhood was constructed in the 1920s, christens it “Diversion Creek.”4 As far as I can tell, however, that name has not been officially adopted, and the lack of a formal name for a fairly prominent feature of the local landscape suggests a certain impoverishment in the watershed consciousness of the local officials and residents.


Places and their distinctive features exist at a complexly graduated range of scales, revealing nested and interconnected characteristics from the smallest to the largest level.  Few planetary landforms illustrate this more cogently than watersheds and the larger hydrological cycle of which they are a part. Being fractals, watersheds can be envisioned at a seemingly infinite range of self-similar, recursive, and mutually constitutive scales:

• at the molecular level soil moisture is absorbed into plant tissue via the root and xylem to eventually transpire into the atmosphere;

• at the bodily level water flows from aquifer to tap and courses through our bodies in dendritic patterns of blood flow that (also being fractals) uncannily resemble watercourses in drainage basins, which in a sense they are;

• at the neighborhood level the rainwater shed from rooftops passes through gardens,  yards, and streets;

• at the community level water discharges accumulate in storm drains and local streams, posing sometimes vexing problems for flood control;

• at the bioregional level larger streams and rivers gather community runoff and create often bountiful riparian ecosystems;

• at the continental level major river systems discharge into the ocean the accumulated water (as well as soil, trash, and toxins) of continental interiors;

• at the planetary level the hydrologic cycle powered by solar energy lifts water out of the  oceans into the atmosphere and eventually deposits it as rain or snow onto distant terrains;

• and indeed even at the cosmic level we are now exploring
comets as potential sources for the water we find on Earth.

In short the movement of a water molecule through bodies, watersheds, oceans, continents, and even interplanetary space gives the lie to the local versus global polarity. Buell concludes that thinking in terms of watersheds “challenges parochialism not only of jurisdictional borders of whatever sort but also of ‘natural’ borders that fail to take larger interdependencies into account, interdependencies that finally reach out to include the whole planet.”5


4. Knopp, “Meanderings,” 210.

5. Buell, “Watershed Aesthetics,” 264.