Tidewater Review - March 2008
New Age Nonsense Plus Neuroses Equals Tiresome Essays
The Nature of Home, by Lisa Knopp. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-2754-X. 219 pp. $24.95.
With a title that includes nature and home, it’s no wonder this critic was ready to embrace the author’s point of view toward both of my favorite subjects. Sad to report, this non-fiction collection of essays made me bristle more often than beam.
It’s not so much that Knopp anthropomorphises birds and bugs: I’d be a fine one to criticize her for that. I write about creatures as if they had human traits all the time. Scientists never do, but I’m not a scientist, so I indulge in the liberty. I do, however, follow one rule when I describe something adorable that Benjamin Bunny is up to in my back yard. I may make him sassy; I never make him sappy.
As I mentioned, a lot of this book made me bristle. And yet, occasionally I came upon an entry that was so perfectly done, I’d forgive the hippy-dippy tone of its irritating parts. Those pleasant interludes were too few, too far apart.
In a nutshell, Ms. Knopp was happy in Nebraska, although she lived in Ohio until she was in her early thirties. Having divulged that much of her biography, she confuses us by saying she started school in Nebraska. She’s equally vague about where she went to college, but post-college she taught high school in Nebraska for three years before she returned to Ohio, bore a son and went to graduate school in Illinois. Four years later, she went back to Nebraska, married, had a second child, divorced and earned a PhD.
Trust me when I say I’ve made her journey so far much tidier than she presents it. At any rate, she was unhappy enough to want to leave the state and proximity to her ex-husband, so she took a job at a university that she doesn’t name, for unexplained reasons, but that she clearly hated. “This place was so unprairielike (sic) and uninhabitable and too far from my young daughter, who spent more time with her father in Nebraska than with me,” she writes. She claims that homesickness literally made her sick.
We’re not discussing a child spending his or her first summer away for two weeks at camp, or even a college freshman having trouble adjusting to a major separation from home and family. Knopp writes as if she were the feminine counterpart to Peter Pan, the kid who refuses to grow up. For crying out loud, the woman is in her forties and writes proudly that, “since I was 21 my hair has been past my waist,” always worn in a single braid down her back.
I’m not sure why it irritated me so much when she insisted on referring to Nebraska as her “belonging-place” and everywhere else as “the estranging-place.”
Once or twice might have been acceptable, but repetition soon became annoying as all-get-out. She was sick with longing for her belonging-place, although at the university where she taught, she tried to adapt to southeastern forests instead of pining for the tallgrass prairie, wide sky and few trees.
One wonders how hard she tried to appreciate the beauty of the Smokies (she does give us that hint). She kept in touch with her friends back in Nebraska, as well as a friendship with a man on Nebraska’s death row who insisted that God had sent her to the estranging-place for a reason.
“I continued sessions with my Jungian dream analyst in Nebraska by telephone, since I did not trust anyone to plumb my depths who lived at a place where my bodymind felt so sick,” she writes. Yes, bodymind, all one word. And I do find it hard to connect with anyone who has a personal Jungian dream analyst.
Dare I throw in more word combinations that made my hackles rise? In a discussion of religion, Knopp organizes the deities thusly: Motherfather God of the sky and Daughterson God of the earth. One can’t help wondering about mindaltering substances. The counterculture influence appears to have never abated from her adolescent period.
With it all, and however non-mainstream her beliefs, she seems to be a gentle soul. She loves to meditate and go on long walks, as often solitary as with her children or friends. She is entranced by the beauty of native grasses and wildflowers. She describes an outing with her daughter where they lay on concrete piers above the water to observe the “Jesus bugs,” water striders that walk on water.
In another essay, she rhapsodizes over two ash trees she and her children planted in their yard to replace a pair of wind-damaged trees. They named the trees Daphne and Apollo. “I water them weekly during the warm part of the year and speak to them often, telling them how much I love the ash tree’s long straight trunk, its open crown, its leaflets that turn purple in early autumn...’ etc., etc., she goes on.
After several chapters about her grief at the loss of most of Nebraska’s tallgrass prairie, the author laments the changes in the land, both from the introduction of the steel plow that made large-scale farming possible, and the tree-planters who were determined to replicate the forested lands familiar to settlers from the eastern states and immigrants from Europe and Russia.
She cites the Great Depression when years of drought resulted in topsoil blowing thousands of miles in terrible dust storms. That’s when the federal government helped plant trees as windbreaks around prairie fields. It wouldn’t have been necessary if plows hadn’t opened the land for farming, she argues, and there would be no need for trees on what was originally a treeless landscape. She doesn’t, however, suggest that settlers should have not stopped, but moved on through, leaving the prairie to the buffalo and the Indians.
And after excoriating the advocates of tree planting, Knopp gives us a laundry list of trees associated with spirituality, from Moses and the burning bush to Abraham under a tree when the figure of Death appeared, on to Buddha getting enlightenment under a tree and practically everybody except Johnny Appleseed.
While she is ambiguous about experiments that show that plants have memory and intelligence, she also says she wonders if the “bodymemory” she has of tree shade patterns could be related to tests of plant memory. Do plants have awareness? Do I lie awake nights wondering about it? Should I engage my own Jungian dream analyst to see why I couldn’t care less?
So much neurosis, so much immature self-indulgence, what I call picking the lint out of one’s belly-button with the assumption that readers will be fascinated with adolescent angst, and suddenly the reader is brought up short by an essay called “Witness.” The writing is so flawless, so powerful and wrenching that it validates the rest of the nonsense in the book.
“Witness” chronicles the behavior of protesters at the execution of a death row inmate at the penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska. Knopp attends as one of the death penalty protesters separated by a fence from a mob chanting for the prisoner’s electrocution. Suddenly, Knopp’s admiration for her Nebraska neighbors takes a nasty re-evaluation. The pro-death crowd is big, loud, drunken and partying, while the small contingent of anti-death penalty people pray and sing hymns. Knopp is shocked by the hatred and callous goading of the crowd celebrating death.
Withall, the book did evoke a surprising reaction in this critic. Knopp’s elegiac accounts made me want to visit Nebraska. I’d love to visit the museums and state parks commemorating the passage of travelers on the Overland Trail. I’d be fascinated by the skeletal remains of long-extinct mammoths, of which Nebraska has more relics than any other state in tne union. I’d love to see sandhill and whooping cranes on the meandering Platte Rivers.
I’m surprised that a publishing house with such a fine reputation as the University of Nebraska Press would allow sloppy editing that didn’t correct phrases like “When I pour over copies of photographs of earth lodges...” Surely she meant to write “pore” over. Or a reference to “male frogs’ vocal sacks...” Vocal sacs, maybe. Such errors seem egregious from a PhD.
Knopp is on the faculty of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. She writes that she is happy to spend only two weeks at the end of summer on the Baltimore campus. She contacts her students electronically for the rest of the semester.
Goucher is my alma mater. I’m very glad she was not on the faculty when I was a student there.