Call for News Submissions

3169 days ago

Local Culture seeks the submission of news stories, and topics for these submissions are open-ended; we especially welcome feature stories, with photographs, on sustainability concerns and ecological projects at colleges and universities.

News submissions are published and updated regularly on our website, and, although there is no restriction on length, our “News” section will contain generally shorter works than our “Essays” section.

Please email your News submissions or queries to Jaron Gaier, Editor-in-Chief, Local Culture, at Submissions will be subject to blind review. Authors of News submissions will be notified of their status within 14 days of submission.


Students, Community Members Work Together to Bring Healthy Local Food to Residents

3169 days ago

by Leah Mortensen – Augustana College

Augustana students dirty their hands clearing land for the community gardenOn Saturday, April 17, 2010, the sun shone and the breeze sighed fresh perennial smells over a small plot of land as roughly one hundred community members gathered at Franklin Field on 10th Street in Rock Island, Illinois to till the ground in preparation for a community garden. Two women, Reverend Dr. Jacqueline Cunningham-Walls of the apostolic church in Rock Island, and Alexa Ritterhoff are Dr. Jason Peters of Augustana College breaks ground for the garden.responsible for the garden’s anticipated fruition. When asked how these plans began, Reverend Cunningham-Walls replied, “I worked as a parent coordinator in the Rock Island school district. I tried to do what I could [to be involved in local social justice and local food efforts], but was in school at the same time.” Last year, after speaking with a city commissioner and securing a plot of land of about three-quarters of an Jim Johansen plows while the indolent Dr. Peters looks on.acre, Dr. Cunningham-Walls was finally able to see her dreams take root. She came into contact with Jim Johansen of Wesley Acres Produce, and with her sister, Alexa, and another friend, planted the plots with food to give to homeless and women’s shelters.

Alexa Ritterhoff became involved with the garden because she recognized a huge need for quality food in homeless and women’s shelters in the Quad Cities, and A student tries her hand on the tractor.also saw it as an opportunity to get kids involved in growing food from a young age. Last year, kids from the Martin Luther King Center came to help harvest the produce, and the women hope to see the same, and hopefully more, involvement from kids in the area with the second plot. “The best part of [this garden] is that it’s a community effort,” Ritterhoff said on Students and community members working together to bring local food to area residentsSaturday. The two-acre plot on Franklin field will soon be planted with potatoes, peas, summer and winter squash, radishes, turnips, spinach, cabbage, kohlrabi, okra, green beans, and four varieties of lettuce.

“We want to teach children how to be entrepreneurs.” Reverend Cunningham-Walls said. “We want to teach them to fish, and then we also want to teach them to can.”
Jim Johansen of Wesley Acres Produces puts his experience to work.


60 Years of Geography at Augustana

3415 days ago

by Nick Borchert — Augustana College

On October 16-17, the Augustana College Geography Department hosted “The Geography 60th Anniversary Symposium: A Celebration of Learning, Research, and Service.” Dozens of graduates of Augustana’s geography program returned for the symposium, which coincided with the college’s Homecoming Weekend. Over the two-day celebration, twelve presenters shared their professional experiences in geography. These former Augustana students included college and university professors, a high school teacher, government officials and community planners, and owners and directors in business and industry. After the Friday presentations, Augustana professors Norm Moline, Charles Mahaffey, and Reuben Heine led the participants on a field trip on the Mississippi River aboard the department’s “Steward-Ship” boat.

If you happened to be an editor for a publication that concerns itself with issues of sustainability and localism, there was much at the symposium to catch your attention. The presentation with the most overt localist implications was the account of the goings-on in Augustana’s geography department given by Dr. Charles Mahaffey, chair of the department and member of the faculty for 32 years. In regards to the Quad Cities area surrounding the Rock Island, Illinois college, Mahaffey said, “Our department is bound up in this place.” This was no surprise coming from the professor who, along with Dr. Jason Peters of the English department, has taught for the past three years in the Environmental Literature and Landscapes Learning Community that has been featured in several other news articles in Local Culture. Mahaffey described the ways in which the Geography Department at Augustana seeks to cure its students of the modern malaise of the “multiply situated self” by locating the education within a particular physical context and “helping the student to develop a geographical imagination.” In addition to their good work with the students, the four members of the Geography Department have logged, by Mahaffey’s estimate, over 100 years of service on boards in the Quad Cities area. “We feel obligated to go out to the community, and the community has been gracious enough to come to us.” Mahaffey’s message of place consciousness and contextual education is a refreshing reprieve from the typical academic agenda, which treats place as irrelevant and encourages professionalization rather than holism.

Curt Roseman, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Southern California, discussed similar initiatives in his department for involving students and faculty with the surrounding community. “Other public universities in the U.S. have a long history of ignoring their surroundings or being fearful of their surroundings, and the people in those surroundings have a history of being fearful of the universities.” Thanks to the efforts of Roseman and others in his department, USC is now one of the best universities in the nation in terms of community interaction. For example, geography students keep a map of the surrounding neighborhoods, which includes the location of many previously unrecognized landmark historic buildings. The school is also extending its hand to the low-income families in its area. Students who complete the university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative from 6th-12th grade are guaranteed a full ride scholarship to USC.

Other presenters did not address localism or sustainability directly, but when the discussion is about place, those issues are rarely far from the fore. For example, when Sandy Fecht, Lake Level Program Hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, mentioned a lake-front property owner who wanted the state’s permission to grout the bottom of a Minnesota lake in order to prevent the water level from dropping in times of drought, I was not hard-pressed to draw the causal arrow between the consumers’ demand for unceasing entertainment and the degradation of local landscapes. And when Americans aren’t trying to control nature in order to better recreate in it, they’re doing so for economic gain. Another speaker, Paul Osman, Manager of the Statewide Floodplain Programs for the Illinois Office of Water Resources, has repeatedly had to fight battles against Illinois municipalities who have wanted to construct levees and dams in order to secure undeveloped land for future development. This occurs most frequently in the St. Louis area, says Osman, where, although the Mississippi River is already threatening to burst its banks in many places, cities have repeatedly requested levee construction in yet-undeveloped areas. It is exactly this sort of economic tunnel-vision that leads to community environmental disasters like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We cannot hope to control a Mississippi River that continues to rise indefinitely, yet that is precisely what it will do if new levees continue to be built and old levees continue to be raised. Yet so long as the prevailing measurement of community health is growth, there is little hope that communities will learn to work with, rather than against, the natural ecosystems of their areas.

But growth does continue to be the key yardstick by which communities measure themselves, as another speaker, Clayton Lloyd, former Director of Community and Economic Development for nearby Davenport, Iowa, made clear. “We have always in this city—and I think in most cities—wanted to have growth,” said Lloyd. “There is a sense of health when development occurs.” Never mind that this “sense of health” is almost always illusory, and that most growth is in fact cancerous to the city proper, tending as it does to produce sprawl and suburbanization. To Lloyd’s credit, he recognized that not all growth is good growth. He bemoaned the fact that in Davenport, while the size of the population has remained fairly constant over the past three decades, there has been a decline of over 20,000 residents in the city’s core and fringe areas. Development in the outlying areas has covered the difference. These statistics are not unrelated. “Healthy” development in the outliers, in the form of cul-de-sac neighborhoods, commercial districts, and big box department stores, has rendered the city itself unattractive to those with money.

Growth also remains the key determinant of the economic success of businesses, much to the detriment of the locales in which those businesses set up. Presenter Tom Weigand, co-founder of the restaurant Noodles & Company, discussed the ways that his training as a geographer has helped him to pick the business locations “that [are] going to result in the highest volume of sales—which is the measurement we use for success.” Noodles has expanded relentlessly since its inception in 1995, and its stores now number over 220 and reach from coast to coast. This scale of business necessitates that Weigand’s location selection process be formulaic. Whereas the owner of a single restaurant locates in his own community or neighborhood, caters his menu and marketing to the people he serves, and is perfectly content to run one moderately successful restaurant—in other words, his operation is entirely compatible with the ideal of a self-sufficient community—a chain-restaurant owner is a transient, locating his businesses where the development is occurring and encouraging development in the city’s outliers. To quote Weigand, “The perfect scenario is a big business park over here, a big neighborhood over here, and a big shopping center in the middle.” This is indeed the outdated picture of a healthy economy, but the healthy local economy of the post-oil future has no room for such transient entities as office parks, chain-store shopping centers, or the kinds of upper middle class sprawled-out neighborhoods that Weigand has in mind. Thankfully, Weigand’s attempt to hire a consultant to develop an algorithmic “site selection model” resulted in an “unacceptable level of site variance,” meaning that, for now, locations must still be selected by hand. This has led Weigand to the conclusion that “site selection is both art and science.” “The best approach,” he says, is to “learn the local geography.” Apparently this takes “a few days” of watching the people, traffic, and activity in an area, though I know of no other great art that can be started and completed in such a short span.

During the course of his introductory remarks, Dr. Norm Moline, another long-time member of Augustana’s Geography Department, recommended to young geographers that they specialize in one place, because “they’re all so complicated.” I would add only that that one place ought more often than not to be the place in which the geographer actually lives. One excellent instance of such local expertise was to be found in Dr. Colin Belby, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, whose area of expertise is sedimentation in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain. Dr. Belby studies the effects that chemical runoff from farms and other industrial activities has had on the biotic systems in his own backyard, which gives him a level of investment in his work that must surely be lacking in an East Coast geographer who studies the Brazilian rainforests. In point of fact, we are all deeply invested in the life and health of the places in which we live; therefore must we all become, to a certain extent, experts about our regions. I see no good reason that Dr. Belby’s example should not become normative. Though my incorrigible eye has certainly been overly critical of some of the geographers who presented at the symposium, nevertheless, I remain unhesitant to applaud those geographers who use their expertise to understand and help others to understand the physical and cultural geography of their particular places, and to condemn those who use it otherwise.


Augustana College: Sustainability Converts and a New Student Garden

3678 days ago

For Augustana students Logan Beausoleil and Jordan Voigt, sustainability was not priority number one during the first half of their college years. So when they enrolled in an“Environmental Literature and Landscapes” learning community and were asked to read books like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and to work on their own out-of-class landscaping projects, needless to say, they were a little put off.

But at liberal arts colleges, all students have to do work for courses that might not suit their interests exactly, so for their landscaping project, Beausoleil and Voigt decided to re-invigorate a garden that had lain fallow for several years and had been overrun by grass and weeds in the backyard of their rental property. And even though the two were excited by their initial idea, some uncertainty set in when they began to consider how difficult it would be to pull the project off.

“As soon as this project was assigned I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish,” Voigt said. “I did experience initial hesitation toward the project because I knew that I was not normally a manual-labor lover…but [a]fter feeling inspired from readings and working on Wesley Acres, I decided to face my own personal mental challenge of manual labor.”

What follows is Jordan Voigt’s account of the work that he and Logan put into their project, as well as a reflection on the value of manual labor in partnership toward a common end.

“Our rental property has a 30 × 36 foot garden area that was used to grow vegetables a number of years ago. Since that time, the fenced area had become a sort of communal trash bin, and the garden area experienced significant weed growth. In fact, the weeds were completely covering the fenced garden area, and most of those were weeds taller than I was!

When I went home to Bettendorf [Iowa] to pick up the supplies we would need to tackle our project, I spoke with my neighbor, who was in charge of our church’s garden ministries group. He provided me with some great insight on the process of creating a garden, and he offered a tiller to help get the garden into shape. Even as Logan and I began pulling out the first couple of weeds, we had no idea how much work would be involved in pulling and shoveling out the deep weeded roots.

But even throughout the long process of ridding the garden of those weeds and sowing those first vegetable seeds, we experienced laughter and great frustration, and ultimately we saw the beauty in nature. We laughed at each other when we were sitting in the dirt with weeds in hand and the root still in the ground. We were frustrated as we began to realize what a time-consuming activity we had decided to tackle—not to mention dealing with the large family of honey bees that were residing in the back left quarter of the garden. But most importantly, through what we first saw as hardships, we saw so much of nature’s beauty in developing the land.

We now water the garden on a daily basis. It’s a good feeling to water the garden as the sun shines and the beautiful plants begin to grow, and all of that from the sun combining with our labor. As Wendell Berry said in his essay, “Think Little,” “A person who is growing a garden, organically, is improving a piece of the Earth.” I feel as if I am improving the Earth and that I am returning something to it—even though I currently contribute more waste than I give back. It is a good feeling and it has inspired me to live more sustainably in a number of ways. I enjoyed the experience so much that I intend to one day maintain my own garden with a wide variety of vegetables and herbs.”

After Jordan and Logan finished clearing the weeds and planting a new garden, Alyssa Wilson, another student in the Learning Community, decided to put her own shoulder to the wheel. For her project, Alyssa erected a strawbale greenhouse over a patch of turnips that Jordan and Logan planted, which Alyssa’s greenhouse protected from Illinois’ -20 degree temperatures this winter. Students are hoping that the turnips will be ready for harvest later this spring.

[Late last year, USA Today published a story covering Jordan and Logan’s good work, along with other projects from the Environmental Literature and Landscapes Learning Community. You can read that story here. —AS]


Augustana College: Local Culture 1 Opens its Doors

3825 days ago

by Margaret Foley — Augustana College

Local Culture 1, Augustana College’s version of what are known as “eco-houses” and “sustainable living projects” at other schools, welcomed its first student residents this fall term.

The house showcases several sustainable features, both inside and out; it is the work of students enrolled in the college’s Environmental Literature & Landscape Learning Community, taught by Professors Jason Peters and Charlie Mahaffey.

College President Steven C. Bahls budgeted $50,000 for the house; students did the rest.

Some of those features include a geothermal heating system, a low-flush toilet, energy-efficient windows, 100% recycled rodent, fire and insect-repellant insulation, Energy Star appliances, two rain gardens, non-toxic paint, rainbarrels, bamboo flooring, permeable paving, a garden, a compost, recycled furniture, low-flow faucets and CFL lightbulbs. Augustana’s Student Government Association also contributed over $6000 dollars toward sustainable appliances and a 75-year steel roof.

In other words, the house has an “atmosphere on campus unlike anywhere else,” said Senior Beth Flynn, a Geography and Political Science major and student General Manager for the project.

Administrative support for the Local Culture House grew out of Augustana’s Transitional Living Areas (TLA) program, where, historically, the college purchases houses near the campus and remodels them for student use. Professors Mahaffey and Peters and their students proposed to the college administration the idea of retrofitting one of these houses with the goal of sustainable living.

The college granted the group the same funding available to other TLA houses, which made ‘sweat equity’ a necessity as work at the house progressed.

Seen initially as an obstacle to be overcome, the labor done by students became more of a blessing, as students gained valuable experience interacting with administrators, contractors, and facilities workers, making installations and repairs, and working with one another.

“Rock Island city inspector and contractor examinations of the house proved useful, as well,” said Mahaffey, because students learned why and what parts of the house were faulty, what options they had to fix them and how to fix them.

Flynn, who spent much of her junior year working at Local Culture 1, said she “would much rather be out working on a house than sitting in a classroom.”

Both Flynn and Mahaffey agree the experience of learning how to create a more environmentally sound home as well as how to communicate with occupationally diverse people created a truly educational experience.

Local Culture 1 is an attempt to influence the College as well as the faculty and students to reduce energy consumption and to spend money locally. Toward that end, many of the house’s sustainable features were purchased from local vendors, and current residents maintain a small garden for their own use.

Mahaffey stated the House is a symbol for what can be done successfully to live in the 21st century, to live locally and to live in good harmony with neighbors and community, and to “generate ripples through the student body”.

And Local Culture 1’s charter challenges its residents to make those ripples. Residents are asked to recycle, compost, maintain a garden, and purchase food from local farmers’ markets instead of ‘big box’ stores.

Despite those requirements, residents seem ready to get to work. “Anything we can do to stop sending waste to the landfills [makes a difference],” said Katie Fick, a junior, who seems to be enjoying her experience. “It’s totally a privelege to live here,” she said.


Augustana College: Suburbanites Return to Their Roots

3840 days ago

“To deracinate” means both literally and figuratively “to pluck or tear up by the roots; to uproot, eradicate, exterminate” (OED). And as Bill Kauffman writes in his excellent essay on Wendell Berry, “Wendell Berry on War and Peace” (in Wendell Berry: Life and Work), the cultural forces of deracination seek to ‘uproot’ people from their places and their homes to artificial communities of their employers.

But at Augustana College, that cultural trend toward deracination is one that some deracinated students are beginning to buck: they’re learning the importance of place and how to find value in local communities—in short, they are being re-racinated.

Wesley Acres Chief among those re-racinators are students enrolled in the college’s Environmental Literature and Landscape “Learning Commuinity,” a two-course program that requires students to read books on sustainability and then introduces them to the methods of sustainable living—though “introduces” is perhaps too soft a word.

Professors Jason Peters (English) and Charley Mahaffey (Geography) require their students to work at a local organic farm, Wesley Acres.

Working at Wesley Acres Farmed by Jim and Linda Johansen, Wesley Acres requires a kind of labor foreign to most of these suburbanites, though not so much because it requires them to get their hands dirty. More likely, it is because the work requires a closeness—a kind of care for their work, for their partners in work, and for the literal fruits of their mutual labor—that many of these students find lacking in the “nature preserves” of suburbia.

During their time at the farm, students have planted cabbage, harvested produce, and helped to set up the support structure for a winter hoop house. A couple of students even drove a tractor for the very first time. Heather Jeffers, a student in the learning community, was so moved by her experience that she and a couple of friends have headed back out to the farm on their own accord on several subsequent weekends.

Wesley Acres Beans For Heather, time on the farm has been invaluable, and she wrote about the appeal of the place in a guest blog entry on the Wesley Acres website:

“Maybe it is the ability to return to the roots of humanity, to working with my hands, to actually doing something worthwile, that makes coming out here so worthwile. Maybe it is being apart of what the Johansen’s are trying to do or simply helping someone out that makes me want to come back. Whatever it is, I know that when I leave, and Jim and Linda shower us with thank yous, I feel they are the ones who deserve the gratitude.”

Wesley Acres And the gratitude runs both directions here—as it seems to with all work done in the spirit of partnership and neighborliness. “[The partnership] is a breath of fresh air at the end of a long summer,” said Jim Johansen. “Imagine two Chicago area students enjoying the farm so much they brings friends out for a visit. That just makes life worthwhile.”