The World Underfoot

“To know the world, some people need to travel the globe; others simply examine their own piece of ground entirely.” – Tom Montag, The Idea of the Local

Can your backyard ever be as exciting as the Alps? Your city streets as fascinating as Paris?

I knew I loved history early. Way early. Like elementary school early, decades before some kind of historical trigger seems to twitch in middle aged adults that transforms many of them into history buffs (and my readers, thank you!). Teachers matter (thanks Mr. Bloomhuff, Mr. Clay, Mr. Meyers, Ms. Engdahl). Have you ever loved a subject taught by a teacher you hated?

But for me, growing up in the Northwest, history was always something that happened over there. Over there and way back when because the history I loved was colonial, filled with tricorn hats, and dotted with perfect New England towns. I knew next to nothing about my home state. A few names and dates but little else. History was all around me but I couldn’t see it.

Then I moved to Wisconsin, got a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and started learning state history, like it or not. And suddenly my new home took on new dimensions. The hill up to the capitol was no longer just the cause of my sweatiness at work on humid summer days, but was a drumlin left by the massive glacier that covered two-thirds of the state 15,000 years ago. When my beloved Puritans were setting up households, negotiating with Indians, and fending off witches in 17th century New England, the French were trading and exploring in Wisconsin. Learning this history, this local knowledge, made my experience of living in Wisconsin so much richer and my connection deeper than any place I had ever lived before.

This is the power of local. Knowing a place so well that you begin to see yourself reflected back in it. Understanding that the history and stories of your place are just as important as – and connected to – the history and stories of another place.

This certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t continue to long to travel the world – I can barely keep myself from dreaming of hikes in the Alps or of the highlands of Scotland. Or that I’ve lost my love of colonial America. But it does mean that I try to lavish at least the same attention to place at home as I do abroad. Because there’s a lot I can learn about the world here, too. It’s why I walk as much as I do, thousands of miles down the same streets every year. And why my husband and I are now visiting all the county and city parks, part of an effort to know my own ground entirely.


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