Searching for Place: An Interview with Jennifer Case by Gabrielle Lawrence

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In Sawbill: A Search for Place, Dr. Jennifer Case explores her relationship to home and belonging in “an inherently mobile 21st century” by chronicling her research on Sawbill Lodge in Northeast Minnesota, a place of significance and rootedness for her family. I met Jennie Case during my own season of relocation while pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. In the beginning, I was drawn to her narrative of mobility through her keen sense of environmentalism. Eventually, we were able to have a conversation about what it means to “live in place” in the midst of movement, and, in turn, how the loneliness of movement affects our environment. 

 

GL: I want to jump right in with isolation. There’s separation from family, familiar spaces, and community as isolation in this book. There’s also a scene where your family asks about your time away at graduate school in New York and you say “I can’t help but feel that New York doesn’t exist in this room.” So not being able to bring your perspective, life, or travels home with you stands out to me as a form of isolation as well. Additionally, I think academia is its own kind of isolation via research, grants, the community itself, and all the intellectualizing of conversations about place or home. 

 

There is no ideal situation. A lot of times we move out of necessity, for jobs or other financial reasons, or we just change and need something different. We do what seems best for us at the time. It’s scary because that could take us anywhere, but those truths don’t make the isolation go away. 

 

So I wonder what this crisis, this inescapable aloneness of movement and mobility, means for our stories? 

 

JC: It strikes me that we often talk about place in terms of individual choices, which is certainly part of what the book is doing, too. We live in the United States right now, and in many ways, moving is required, whether it’s for a new job, for certain professional opportunities, or for opportunities that aren’t currently available where you’re living, or where you’re from. So it’s certainly true that you’re required to move for yourself, but I think what we start to forget is that there are large cultural systems in place that are making mobility necessary. Those forces degrade rural communities in many ways, and take away job opportunities from local spaces so that you do have to become mobile. Part of the task of storytelling is recognizing that and trying to reimagine a culture or world where you don’t necessarily have to move to have a decent quality of life. Also, storytelling helps us recognize the mental and emotional toll of those transitions, because regardless of whether you love where you’re moving to or not, it’s still a transition that requires a lot of mental and emotional work in terms of place-making, community-building, and home-making.

 

GL: I don’t know that you necessarily say those things outright in the book, so how did that guide the way you approached isolation while writing? I’m asking as a new writer with questions about craft because that’s such a complex emotion to capture and there’s so much silence around it. 

 

JC: Yes, Sawbill can only tell one part of the story. What I really wanted to do was just capture the tension of leaving a place you loved and choosing not to make it a home for various complicated reasons, as well as what it means emotionally to not be able to do that. As the narrator of Sawbill, someone who was aware of environmental literature and the conversations happening around place attachments, someone who wanted to sustain place attachments and contribute to society in an environmentally conscious way, yet was seemingly following a lifestyle that went in opposition to all that—What did that mean? How did I juggle my ideals with the reality of the choices I was making or had available? So Sawbill captures that tension. I think I had to start there because that’s the tension I was experiencing during that time in my life, but also because, like you said, there’s so much silence around it. As a culture we’re starting to give voice to that conflict because climate change is forcing us to recognize, more and more, stories of people who are being forced to leave homelands or are grieving changing places, but as a culture we don’t really think about the emotional toll of leaving places. We always talk about mobility—especially economic, professional mobility—in terms of new opportunities, but what about loss? What kind of work does it take to adjust to a new place? What are we losing?

 

GL: There’s also a chapter in Sawbill titled “Aloneness” where your mother, having moved so much, fears that if she were ever sick or in trouble no one would come to her aid. As a reader, my first thought was “Oh that can’t be true. Of course there are people who love and care for you deeply. People who would show up and probably surprise you.” Yet, it’s also easy to find myself in that headspace pretty often, taking the impact of distance and separation from place personally and literally. 

 

Also, because we’re living in an age of mobility out of necessity, the more I travel the more I meet people who say they’re not really from anywhere, or that they were born somewhere and all of their family is there but it doesn’t feel like home. Even people who technically grow up in the same place, say, the same state, but due to job instability, gentrification, urban issues, etc., moving in the same area causes a kind of loneliness too. Similarly to your mother, I see them spending a lot of time wondering if their connections were real at all. 

 

Throughout the book you mention this desire to stay put because it would allow you to care for the community and land in a different way. The danger of internalizing distance becomes a threat to the environment, because perhaps we see it as temporary, not belonging to us, not a part of us, not our responsibility. As you illustrate in this chapter, the same can be said about communities of people in any given area. How do you think the theme of loneliness affects our ability to recognize our impact on the environment and our presence in the community that lives there? 

 

JC: Well, the experience of loneliness is at its core an experience of disconnectedness, right? So we feel separate from and not connected. And when we feel separate from a particular place or community, we don’t feel like we have as much at stake. We feel on the outside, looking in. Not intertwined. Also, not complicit in what’s happening in that community or that region. Even though we are complicit, just by the nature of being there. So I think loneliness, feeling disconnected in a community as a result of mobility or a mobile lifestyle, makes it easy to not see and not notice the long-term consequences of our actions. That’s dangerous for ourselves, spiritually, and for our personal wellbeing. One of the core needs we have as humans is to have a sense of belonging. It’s also dangerous for the earth. When we are disconnected like that, we aren’t seeing ourselves always in relation to other lives, species, and forces in that region. We’re less likely to make decisions or act in a way that would sustain it. 

 

GL: I think too with social media supporting that disconnectedness people know that climate change is real and they see that things are getting worse on their feeds all the time, but they don’t know how to act on that anxiety from an isolated space. So how did you navigate taking care of a space you didn’t really understand even though you were overwhelmed with separation, transition, and aloneness? What small steps did you take toward developing that awareness and building community during your own transitions?

 

JC: One of the things I’ve learned, having moved a handful of times at this point, is that it takes at least two years for me to start to feel like I’m part of a new place. So I know that the new place is going to feel odd—exciting in some ways because there are lots of new things to try and people to get to know, but odd because there’s always that sense of being just outside, being the newcomer. It’s not until about two years later that I develop a sense of belonging or rootedness. 

 

In terms of getting to know the region, I’ve always turned to gardening. When I was in Nebraska, I participated in a community garden. I also did that when I moved to upstate New York. So I got to know neighbors through the community garden. I also got to know the ecology, the weather, and the climate of those regions by having to deal with them. The same thing happened in Arkansas, too. Just getting my hands into the dirt and growing vegetables made me suddenly feel like I had something at stake here. 

 

A few years ago, we bought a house here in Arkansas. The top of the backyard was in really bad condition. The topsoil had been stripped, and the backyard was eroding badly. So I began turning that back part into a native prairie, which forced me to research what grasses and flowers were native to this region, what would grow well, what wouldn’t require a lot of upkeep. Suddenly I found myself driving from Conway to Little Rock, or to various towns in Arkansas, and I’d recognize the wildflowers on the sides of the highway—wildflowers I hadn’t even noticed before I had been studying them in a plant catalog. 

 

So that kind of knowledge and experience—planting and gardening native plants and vegetables—is what helps me not only to build community with other people, but also to figure out who I am in relationship to the earth and the environment. 

 

GL: I value that idea of giving yourself grace, adjusting your expectations, and being able to find peace in the fact that it’s going to take time. 

 

JC: And knowing that it is a process. Place-making, as a verb, is a process. Knowing what helps you as an individual feel like you’re part of that place or that environment is important. I did a lot of research on place and place attachment when I was in grad school. One of those things I found fascinating is something called natal habitat preference induction. Scientists have discovered that our brains develop in direct response to the physical, visceral cues of the environments in which we are raised. We use those cues later on to determine whether an environment we encounter as an adult would be a good place to raise kids or settle down in. So that’s why we are constantly comparing where we live to where we grew up, good or bad, no matter what. And we can’t get away from that. In other words, our childhood environments always, always, always affect how we attach to and experience places. However, scientists have also discovered that interacting with animals and plants releases oxytocin in the same way that raising a young child or interacting with a lover releases oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone. So for me, being out there in the garden, plucking weeds or stroking that tomato leaf, releases oxytocin and has bonded me to each place I’ve moved. 

 

GL: There are several knots of frustration with attachment throughout the story from the very beginning. Namely, not being able to pick what, where, or who you are attached to, those attachments not being validated, the silence surrounding them even from the people you place there. There’s also a frustration resulting from our memories of places we’re attached to and how different they are in reality once we return to them. I love the scene leading up to Kevin’s proposal, when you return to a place you love with someone you love and it’s nothing like you thought. These two parts of your life do not fit seamlessly together. You aren’t able to tie everything you love to this place. We see this again when you finally meet Mary Alice in person, one of the major players in Sawbill’s history. You’ve studied her in writing and in pictures but she is vastly different than what you expected. You actually have things in common. You feel the same way. You come to the conclusion the perspective of mobility and helped you realize that holding onto place, staying put, would have actually made the area less special to you. You say the knots are just knots “…facts laid bare, no life or sense of haunting.”

 

This is where I felt both seen and conflicted while reading. I can identify with the loneliness, the displacement, the exhaustion of mobility, but I’m becoming changed by the world-shifting kind of perspective that comes with each transition. It is difficult, tiresome, incredibly heavy, but it also feels wealthy. In a way, I also feel like my own sense of environmentalism grows the more I move. It wasn’t that way at first but it was like a seed that grew over time. 

 

So I wonder if you can say more about the advantages of mobility. Especially, given the conclusion the book comes to. Sawbill is a place that can’t seem to hold onto people, and even the lodge itself has to move at some point. It does hold something, just not what you or readers expect and want from it. So what is that perspective for you? What is the cost of it? 

 

JC: I think I’m still pondering that point. The reality is that we need both kinds of people and experiences. We need rootedness, where people are committed to and engaged in their local environments enough to work hard to enact change on that level. We also need people to work hard to enact change on broad campuses. We need people who are moving around, growing, and can offer that perspective to others. We need people who have a chance to visit other places and bring that experience and perspective back to their own towns. There isn’t one way to become a good environmentalist, or one clear path. Of course this is frustrating. Especially as a 20-year-old, which is how old I was during most of the events in Sawbill. I think at that age you want a clear path into the future, and it’s discomforting to realize there is no right or wrong way. There is no clear path. Also, I don’t think I know which lifestyle is most effective when it comes to activism. A lot of environmentalists are still debating that too. Do we need to encourage everyone to think in terms of global communities and global impact? Or are people more likely to take care of the environment when we think about local communities, since habitat imprinting leads us to attach to individual places more easily than to broad, abstract concepts? 

 

I’ve been in Arkansas for five years, and I’m starting to settle in. Yet as I get more involved in local activism, I sometimes feel cut off from larger cultural conversations—too comfortable in my out routines. Mobility offers newness and novelty, but both lead to growth, and that’s important. Growth can also occur at home, of course, but change and new opportunities always do lead to growth. It gives you the chance to learn from other people and see how others respond to the problems you face. If you don’t have a chance to learn from others, it’s easy to get stuck and continue to make the same kinds of decisions. When it comes to climate change, that’s not what we need. We need as many suggestions, ideas, and innovations as we can get. 

 

GL: Jealousy comes to mind. Sometimes I’m jealous of people who don’t move as much, but I also remember being extremely frustrated without movement. I see the need for the balance you’re talking about in different communities and cultural systems, but also within myself. I was going to ask what mobility teaches you about caring for the environment or community, but I think you answered it when you mentioned the level of personal awareness required to understand that no matter how long you end up staying, or how often you end up moving—It’s all about experience. You can use whatever you have to enrich the environment.  

 

JC: You know one thing you lose is local activism. For instance, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota, like a lot of public lands around the US, is under attack right now. Corporations and the federal government are trying to increase mining, which would have devastating impacts on the natural environment. And I’m not part of that battle. I’m too far away and am now involved in other initiatives. So the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has perhaps lost an activist. Maybe I could’ve done good things if I was still emplaced there. Yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t be active here in Arkansas, which has just as many needs. 

 

I did almost laugh, though, when you talked about attachments at first because I’ve been reading a lot more about Buddhism over the past couple of years, and Buddhism is all about attachments: recognizing what suffering can come from attachments where you don’t allow flexibility and change. Re-reading Sawbill, I keep thinking, “Oh! There’s another attachment!” An attachment to a certain vision for the future or a certain kind of life.

 

GL: I’m in the middle of my own major move too so attachment definitely came up. There were moments in the book that felt heavy with relevant lessons. It didn’t feel heavy when I was reading because I think there’s a freshness about the writing, but when I finished and had to sit with what I absorbed, I was struck by the depth of all that I had taken in. 

 

JC: Yes. It’s ultimately a book about mourning. It’s a book of grief about leaving a beloved place and lifestyle. Even if you’re sure you’re making the right decision or hopeful that you’re making the right decision (I’m not sure there ultimately are right or wrong life decisions), it’s still a transition. You’re still grieving a place that was meaningful to you or a different life that you could have lived and have to let go of. 

 

GL: My last question is about craft. I see a parallel between relationships and place-choosing. I think of the general cultural shift away from monogamy, but in a broader sense toward hybridity, fluidity, and even genrelessness and how it’s connected to our relationship to place and environment in some ways for me. In poetry, I’m noticing how I’ve employed visual or experimental language in form and structure to mimic that inevitable movement and it’s effect on the way a speaker sees herself or the world around her. You touch on something similar when referring to the blend of accents acquired by your family’s movement and their ability to retain the strongest sounds of their dialectical origin. 

 

How did you think movement affects the very structure of this book or place-based writing in general? What are some of your major roadblocks and how do you overcome them? Who inspired you and how?

 

JC: Have you read the work of Melissa Nelson at all? 

 

GL: I haven’t.

 

JC: She’s an Anishanaabe scholar, activist, and writer. She does a lot of work on place from an indigenous perspective. I had a chance to listen to her at a conference this summer, and I think about her in response to your questions of monogamy and place. Western environmental writers such as Scott Russell Sanders and Wendell Berry talk about needing to marry and commit long-term to a place, much like you would a person. Culturally, you are right: we’re moving into something more fluid that accommodates movement or fluidity, and we’ve already talked about the pros and cons of that. But Melissa Nelson said that in a lot of indigenous cultures, the environment isn’t necessarily personified as a lover, where you just choose one (or even, if you’re thinking about polyamorous relationships, more than one). Instead, the land is a relative, an elder. I thought that was really interesting when thinking about relationship to place because then it’s not a question of committing to, but of honoring and learning from.

 

GL: That’s fascinating.

 

JC: Yeah, and I think it’s a nice way to open and allow for more places to teach you. It’s a way to feel more welcomed in those environments while still recognizing the importance of seeing yourself as fully in place and enmeshed in those human-environment relationships.   

 

GL: Do you recommend any books or videos in particular?

 

JC: Nelson has a talk I loved called “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?” Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist have both shaped my thinking about place, too. I’m also always drawn to Terry Tempest Williams’ writing. In particular, Refuge. It’s set in Utah and weaves together personal loss, environmental loss, and political/cultural trauma. I’ve always really loved the way that braided structures in place-based writing can integrate the personal, historical, cultural, political, and social in a manner that replicates the layered-ness of any particular place. Williams handles all of those artfully.

 

When I was writing Sawbill, I realized I had essentially three strands as well. It was my personal history with Sawbill, the less overt thoughts about place-based writing, place consciousness, and the desire to commit to a local place, and then there was me as a young adult, who wasn’t doing any of those things but instead moving around the country for graduate school. So I wanted to find a structure that would allow me to weave those three strands together. I used her book quite a bit as a guide for that. In an afterward, she once wrote about having three different piles of paper and putting them together like a puzzle to decide when and where to transition between the strands. I did the same thing with my first draft of Sawbill.  

 

GL: What a beautiful concept. 

 

Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Arkansas.

Gabrielle Lawrence is an editor for Harpoon Books, and Editor in Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and an interviewer for TERSE.