by Paul Buhle
Quinney, Richard: Field Notes, Madison, Wis: Borderland Books, distributed by University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9768781-6-3, 130pp, $28.
(Swans - January 12, 2009) Richard Quinney is an odd bird as well as a noted bird-lover, a farm boy from Wisconsin who attended a one-room school before setting out on a global adventure as crime-studies sociologist, photographer, theological and ecological theorist, and world-class literary returnee to his rural origins. This is his latest log of autobiographical entity, and as an extended prose journey, invites inquiry about the purpose of the whole thing.
He has sketched out in previous works how he moved with determination from home, abandoning farm life of the second half of the century. Photos of his family farm, with recuperated memories of family, mark one of the most poignant sagas of Middle America in our time. Not that anything spectacular happens. Father and mother, grandparents and others, get along in life with crops and sales, travels westward, hobbies (especially amateur photography), accommodation to the tourist economies (the family farm is not far from Chicagoans' vacation spot, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the mixture of food, fun, and sex that go along). They mix personal conservatism with consumerism, nature lore, and other odd bits that the flyover territory of Middle America seem obscure and almost unimaginable to the sophisticates of the Coasts.
Field Notes digs deeper, personally. Quinney is 75, and he wants to think about life and death issues. He does not press the points, he does not insist that his life and death, whenever it comes, are more important than anyone else's. But he has his own source works, and he opens them to us. Quinney's inspiration, or a considerable portion of it, comes from the texts of past naturalists, especially Gilbert White's eighteenth century totemic work, The Natural History of Selborne. In the emerging tradition of the "natural scientist" who learns from nature, a vital intellectual current that ran parallel to radical critiques of class society (and sometimes, as with the life's work of William Morris against the destruction of historic hedgerows, merged the two), the real lesson is that humanity is itself part of nature and cannot escape. Indeed, the attempt to escape through total subjugation of nature offers the greatest dangers, the Promethean hubris of the atomic/nuclear age and the Cold War confrontationism still with us in the mad pursuits of global domination. But acceptance, too, has its lessons: nature is full of its own destructive power if never, since 1945, as complete as our own.
Trying to wrestle with these contradictions takes Quinney from one favorite writer to another and from one favorite place to another. Sometimes the place is the family farm, the rural life of the 1930s-40s, and how the return to the farm in recent times brings him to a unique realization of the meaning of the texts. He tells us how he watches ground and sky, how he drives and walks close to the Ice Age Trail and the regionally famed "driftless" zone in Wisconsin where the glaciers did not reach. Always he is looking for a home on this earth, and always realizing that the search is elusive but always worth the effort.
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