Monique Verdin: Beauty helps to inspire carving out safe spaces where people can come together to hear each other, or to hear somebody else's story, or to tell their own story, or to eat food together, or to have a dance party. Or to really, like, get into the science of a place.
Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States we're talking with Monique Verdin who lives at the end of the Mississippi, about a couple of cities and, vaster, two rivers and a watershed. We talk about facing disaster, what that puts into focus and the importance of beauty, even when fighting big issues. We also hear from Liz Brownlee about the Muscatatuck River here in Indiana, and from Yaël Ksander about a new novel connecting Indiana and Mexico. That's all coming up right after this.
Monique Verdin: It's raining a light rain, carving green channels deep into the summer waters where Bayouk Choupic crosses under Esplanade Avenue and Bulbancha, a place the colonizers rebranded as New Orleans. Above the dusty waters, darkening only faintly when the clouds pass over, above the clanging tugboats and glistening Mississippi, above the slow, muddy waters of a nearby coastal marsh, where the last remnants of land, nestled behind the glimmering sliver of levees, is turning to dust. Above the portage roads, their memories of Choctaw and Chirimacha songs. Above the shrimp boats leaving shore with new--
Alex Chambers: It's raining in New Orleans. Maybe it's raining where you are too. If so, there's a not insignificant chance that that rain is going to end up in the Mississippi River, to flow, eventually, through New Orleans.
Monique Verdin: ...the light rain. The rain loves the afternoon and the tall cypress trees...
Alex Chambers: That's because a third of the continental US is part of the river's watershed. I want to spend some time with watersheds today. The Mississippi in particular. But I hope it gets you thinking about your watershed, wherever you are. This is Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers.
Alex Chambers: Today's episode starts at Watershed Weekend. That was an event put on by Exhibit Columbus in Columbus, Indiana in the fall of 2021. The event was at the Columbus Pump House which had a busy road on one side and a bridge across the east fork of the White River nearby. You'll get lots of cars in the background today.
Monique Verdin: ...seasons, peoples, histories, technology...
Alex Chambers: The event was a chance for people to talk about the connections between water systems and people and histories in different regions. Because, all those things are very connected.
Monique Verdin: It is in the name of rivers that traces of indigenous ancestors survive. Chattahoochee, Hiwassee, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee. The water, seeking its own level in places near and far, how old are these cycles of rain to river to ocean to rain again? Flowing also within our bodies, from our pores and from our eyes.
Alex Chambers: This is a poem by Nick Slie, an actor and writer in New Orleans, and it's being read by Monique Verdin.
Monique Verdin: I am a citizen of the United Houma Nation and I live at the end of the Mississippi River, near the Gulf of Mexico.
Alex Chambers: Monique had come to Columbus to help lead a storytelling workshop about watersheds. After she read the poem, she asked everyone there to get into a couple of circles.
Monique Verdin: I think that lots of times, we go to things and we want to just be observers, but we're asking you to come into the process, to be part of this work with us because, tonight, we're making an art piece that you will be a co-collaborator of.
Alex Chambers: The prompt was for us to tell a story about a time we were in the Mississippi watershed. So we got into a couple of circles... and told some stories.
Bob: I've lived in the watershed my entire life. I started in Indianapolis, White River runs through, and I moved to Lafayette, which has the Wabash River. Moved to Rochester, Minnesota, which the Mississippi runs near. The Eagle Center and the eagles there are very beautiful. When I retired, we moved back here to, actually, Greenwood, the Indianapolis area. So I've always been close to the Mississippi watershed.
Anne: It was soon after my father passed away, my mother brought the family together and said "I'm going to take you on a cruise" and we went "ooh." And of course, we were thinking Caribbean or something. And it turned out it was a cruise up the Mississippi. [LAUGHS] But it turned out to be a really stunning landscape, lovely, quiet, silent, eagles, lots of eagles, barges that were stuck. It was lovely in a way that we didn't expect.
Chuck: My river story goes back to the beginning of my career. I was at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi River. We were designing the Swan Lake Habitat Rehabilitation Project and this was the pre project period when it was supposed to be degraded and horrible and we were going to come in and fix it, because I'm the Corps of Engineers concretizer of the world. And we had a good, hard design for this project and we went in and all you can say was, it was 13 miles of ducks. We were in a boat, driving up this lake, 13 miles long and as you got there, the ducks flew up. And the ducks kept flying up for 13 miles. We did our job and we turned round and ducks flew up for 13 miles back. It's not a lake anymore now, it's a seasonal marsh, full of Asian carp and they use it to kill Asian carp. And it's still good duck habitat, but it's not good fish habitat.
Anne: Someone was talking about how gentle and quiet and serene and reflective, all those sort of adjectives. The piece of my story that I didn't tell was that my mother and father had planned, my dad really wanted to go on a cruise up the Mississippi, that was the kind of guy he was. So you said that it was the space you were designing was not good for carp, like, you said it was the graveyard for carp, but was that by design?
Chuck: Well, so we don't like Asian carp up in Illinois because they're an invasive species, and no, it was completely by accident that we put in a fish passage structure so that paddlefish could go in and out, but the paddlefish don't like that structure so they don't go in and out anymore, but Asian carp do. And when the Asian carp get trapped in there, we're drawing it down to grow wetland habitat anyways. It's seasonal, we simulate the flood cycle, so we let it flood in the spring and then we take the water off in the summer and let it turn into a wetland. So when the carp get in there, they're just trapped and we take the water off and they die and they become recycled back into the system and, yeah, yeah. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: While we listened to the stories, we were looking at the watershed itself or, I should say, a model of it. It was a 3D scale model of the entire Mississippi River watershed, carved out of rigid insulation foam.
Derek Hoeferlin: It's vertically exaggerated about 200 times, so just to kind of give it more of both a human scale but also, otherwise it would be relatively flat as a model. And it's 800,000 times smaller than the real thing, so that's the scale.
Alex Chambers: Derek Hoeferlin is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at Washington University in St Louis, in the Upper Mississippi watershed. The piece he is describing is called Tracing Our Mississippi. Those foam landscapes stood on tables, there were little red pieces all over the white hills. Those were the lock and dam structures across the watershed. You could also see crude oil pipelines and former indigenous lands and current tribal reservations. There are a lot of locks and dams. You really get a sense of how controlled the Mississippi basin is.
Alex Chambers: And that's part of the point. Derek wanted to convey the relentless control of the Mississippi's landscapes for developmental gain, as he put it. Relentless control by way of locks and dams and, at the southern end of the river, the levees that keep the river from flooding. But also all that sediment from a third of the United States just gets pushed further into the Gulf. It matters that the river used to flood. It helped create new land, which was important, since southern Louisiana is constantly sinking into the Gulf. Over the past half century, that's been happening faster and faster.
Alex Chambers: It's one of the things Monique is concerned about. She's a photographer, writer and documentarian. After the story circles, she and I sat down to talk more about land loss, the Mississippi River as a body and system, how we control water and how she feels about the water covering more and more of her homeland in southern Louisiana.
Monique Verdin: When I first started to do documentary work in the late '90s, it was focused on... land loss and environmental conditions like oil waste pits in my cousins' backyards. That was kind of fueling my fire, in a sense, to do the work that has led me here. But I think that what's happened over the last two decades is that the river keeps bringing me back and connecting me with networks, with individuals and just with my own relationship and respect and awareness about the importance of water and how the Mississippi River is a life force that is, you know, my life force, but for so many other living beings too.
Monique Verdin: And I think that, yeah, the Mississippi River has just become an anchor in a sense, like this flowing anchor in my life where the more I think about it, the more I've been able to connect and to understand how all of the intersectional complexities and infinite beauty of place and places, are part of the same body.
Alex Chambers: One of the things that I was curious to think about is, so, here we are in southern Indiana, in Columbus, and I wonder if you've had thoughts about the connections of this place with the river basin in general, with your place, your home?
Monique Verdin: Cruising from Indianapolis to Columbus and seeing the farmlands and thinking about how the cycles of season, and also supply and demand, and how, in the delta, we have petrochemical facilities that are creating fertilizers that are getting pushed up river to, you know, be part of the fertilizer for farms. Then that runoff goes back into the Mississippi and-- Oh, wait. [LAUGHS] Yeah, the cycles of how fertilizers, with all of this nitrogen, runs off into the watershed which then comes back down river and empties out into the Gulf of Mexico. And every year we're having these enormous algal blooms that sucks all of the oxygen out of the water and makes it not possible for life to be in those spaces, hence the Dead Zone name.
Monique Verdin: So much of my adult life I've been saying that, you know, I live in the heart of Cancer Alley, just north of the Dead Zone, where we're experiencing the most rapid land loss on the planet, pretty much. I mean, there are other places that are experiencing rapid land loss in extreme ways too, but, especially for the United States, you know, we are like ground zero for land loss. And I felt very much so that my work has been just trying to raise awareness so that people understand that this is happening and that Louisiana matters, not just because I call Louisiana home, but Louisiana matters because it's connected to these bigger global systems that are part of the problem.
Monique Verdin: And I'm at a point in my life where I think it's important for us to understand how we got here, but I've been leaning more into where do we go from here and what are solutions that we can start implementing? And the river has to be a top priority if anything else is going to work. I mean, we need fresh water, we need clean water, we need, not just for, you know, the fact that my water intake is coming from the Mississippi River which is pretty gross when you say I live in Cancer Alley and you have all these refineries that are just dumping whatever it is out of their facilities, into the river. Yeah, whenever I think of that I get really kind of uh. [LAUGHS] We're so screwed up. [LAUGHS] Like what is wrong with us? Yeah, I'm sorry.
Monique Verdin: I mean, I don't have any answers. I don't think I have answers. I have a lot of questions and I think that what is really great about being able to be part of this Watershed Weekend series of conversations here for Exhibit Columbus, is just that we need to create space to talk about it and to think of the river as one body and that what happens up stream affects downstream and vice versa.
Alex Chambers: Okay, it's time for a short break. You've been listening to Monique Verdin, a citizen of the United Houma Nation, who lives at the end of the Mississippi River. We're talking about making connections up and down stream in the Mississippi River watershed, which includes about a third of the continental US. This is Inner States, we'll be right back.
Alex Chambers: It's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers and we're talking with Monique Verdin about the Mississippi River watershed. I had mentioned the problem of fertilizer runoff from Midwestern farms and she pointed out something I hadn't realized about the fertilizer cycle.
Monique Verdin: From what I understand, most of the fertilizers that are being used in the Midwest are being created in the Delta. But you should fact check me on that. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: Okay, real quick, I did some fact checking and I couldn't get hard numbers, but I did confirm that southeastern Louisiana is an important producer of anhydrous ammonia, which is a significant source of nitrogen fertilizer. Okay, back to Monique.
Monique Verdin: Yeah, so that cycle of the petrochemical fertilizers coming up stream then running off, going back downstream. You know, that's one way we're connected. I think that another way that we can think about water systems on a planetary scale, just in regards to the air we breathe. That fresh water comes down, it does into the Gulf of Mexico, it starts to evaporate, it gets into the clouds, it comes back down. Like, those cycles that we forget we're a part of and that clouds travel very far and, you know, my Mississippi River water might be your rain one day, kind of, you know. It's kind of magical to think about and scary in regards to the kinds of chemicals that are in our systems. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: Or one system if we're thinking about it as a body, you know?
Monique Verdin: [LAUGHS] True, very true.
Alex Chambers: When you started thinking about this, you were really trying to--
Monique Verdin: Save the wetlands! [LAUGHS] I mean, I thought it was about the wetlands really. In the late '90s, I was thinking about how I really wanted these toxic waste facilities that were near my family's community of Grand Bois and the heart of, you know, the Mississippi River delta. How they were poisoning people, still are, like there, poisoning people. And then I realized, oh, the more time I spent in the traditional territories of my grandparents and with my extended relatives, I realized that waste pits, yeah, they're a problem, but this extreme loss of land was a bigger issue that was really hard to get my head around. And then putting all the pieces together of like, oh, well, you know, it started with leveeing the Mississippi River, then the extraction, then the... you know, name your disaster. That's common sense. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: Okay, so, and this is partly because I've paid some attention to, like, your earlier work. There was this sense of, like, I need to tell people about the bad things. And I'm curious if you've, over the years of doing this work, moved into other ways of thinking about how we do whatever we call it again, like activism. And I think what I'm sort of curious about is like, joy and love and sort of where those things might play in as well.
Monique Verdin: I have felt like Chicken Little most of my adult life. You know, the land is sinking, the oil is coming! The, you know, the storm is about to hit, the seas are rising! All of that has been, I feel like I've been waving the flag of, like, alarm. And I didn't have the language to call it climate change 15 years ago. You know, I talked about it in the sense of land loss and extraction. I did this project called Cry You One in 2013, it premiered in my home community of St Bernard Parish, and it was a mile-and-a-half, part procession, part theater, part eco experience, walking on an earthen levee that bordered a ghost forest that led to a pumping station where baby cypress trees were growing. And that experience, for me, was the first time I had ever worked in the world of theater. And at the end of the day, someone would come up always and say "How was the show?" And I'd be like, "Well, we got 65 people to go take a walk in the nature with us." It was great, you know? And to really be there and to appreciate the beauty and the loss and to recognize that we need space to mourn and to create safe spaces to have real conversations about what it is that matters.
Monique Verdin: And I think, whenever a disaster strikes, for example on August 29th, there was hurricane Ida came ashore, 16 years to the day that hurricane Katrina came ashore, and it's in those moments of disaster when what really matters comes into focus. Do I have water? How am I going to keep my food? Do I have food? Where am I going to use the bathroom becomes an issue. You know, all of these things that we take for granted on the daily, suddenly are right there. And also who is your community becomes the number one. And so I'm grateful for those moments and I think that in my life right now, I've been trying to lean into how, through community, and how, through collaboration, we can start to experiment with what might be possible if we're really going to build bridges, to have real transitions that are long-lasting and aren't just, like, a flash in the pan of a greenwash moment.
Monique Verdin: And so I've been really excited to work on this new project with Mondo Bizarro Productions. It's in process and who knows where it will lead. It will probably be a decade or more long project. But it's called Invisible Rivers and we're really wanting to visibilize what has been silenced, and also to recognize that there are many stories about a place and many truths to a place and to experiment with how we learn to live with water instead of how to control it all the time. And how the stories of the past can help to inform the visions for the future as well.
Monique Verdin: And also, wanting to work with young people, specifically fourth graders, through a project that, well, it's a program called, what are they? An organization called Ripple Effect which is a water literacy curriculum building organization. And so I think that fourth graders are really my audience, you know, and also my collaborators. Like I want to, you know, how do we world-build, you know? And how do we start with the young people who are unfortunately inheriting this mess of a place that we call planet Earth.
Monique Verdin: And also, the more I've learned about all of the complicated, ugly, problematic parts of history that have gotten us here, I've also been able to recognize the infinite beauty that is also present around me. And so, yeah, I think that that beauty helps to inspire carving out safe spaces where people can come together to hear each other, or to hear somebody else's story, or to tell their own story, or to eat food together, or to have a dance party, or to really get into the science of a place. And I think that I am still learning what the dynamics of a delta and what a riverine system and what riparian zones mean. And I wish that someone would have informed me of all of these, in small pieces even, but that these complex systems that are all around us, that we take for granted, are crucial for not only my wellbeing and my community's wellbeing, but so many other living beings' wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of the water.
Alex Chambers: Oh, the wellbeing of the water, I like that too. I mean, just like the water itself is a being that needs to be well.
Monique Verdin: And that we should be respecting the rights of nature, the rights of the rivers, the rights of the oceans and human beings have just tried to control and dominate, and look where it's led us. I mean, in South Louisiana, what took Mother Nature 5,000 - 8,000 years to create, human beings have screwed it up to the point that we don't even know what to do or where to try to put the Band-Aid for triage, and that's been the last 100 years of really extraction and industrial expansion, that has gotten us to this vulnerable place.
Alex Chambers: Which, again, I feel like is the case, you know, on some level in so many places, but South Louisiana is like the ground zero of all of that.
Monique Verdin: Unfortunately, South Louisiana has a really good place if you need a bad example of, like, what you shouldn't do.
Alex Chambers: That performance that Monique talked about, Cry You One, I got to see it in Connecticut a while back and it ended with a funeral celebration for the land. Because even a moon shot isn't going to stop all of what's left of Louisiana's coast from going under.
Monique Verdin: When you're constantly being reminded by the scientists and also by just witnessing the loss of land and more water being present in places. I'm 41 years old and I can tell you, "Oh, yeah, I remember there was land there and it's not there anymore." If I was, you know, a grandma in my '80s, like, maybe that would be okay, but it's happening and I know, actually, teenagers who can also say that they remember when they were able to go play in the back of [PHONETIC: Pontchartrain] and they don't go there anymore because it's become water.
Monique Verdin: And so I've been wrestling with, you know, do I stay? Do I keep a foot in the ground? But I also, every hurricane season, pack my car with all the things that are precious to me and I have to go. And go where is always a big question. I don't, up until this past year, well, just to back up. So, the state of Louisiana essentially has been rolling out these scenarios of lift your house 20ft into the sky or leave if you're in coastal territories, and warning that not all communities will be able to be protected or saved. And that's been very clear and that's been for quite some time. I live just inside levee protection. Actually, they don't call it protection, they call it risk reduction. [LAUGHS] Because they cannot promise protection, they can only reduce risk. And where my family home is, we had 11 ft of water with hurricane Katrina.
Monique Verdin: And so, since that time, I've thought about having a place to retreat to, and also wondering what it means to retreat and return. I mean, that has been my way of life for many years, but to be more conscious of that and knowing that that's going to be forever. So I, just before hurricane Ida hit, put in an offer on 12 acres of land that's just north of Lafayette, Louisiana, and Ida hit a few days later. I drove down, delivered supplies of gas and water and basic needs that folks needed to have met and then I went up and signed for the land. And so now I do have a place to retreat to. It's not that far away, but it's far enough. It's not in a coastal territory, but it's not out of a flood plain.
Monique Verdin: But, you can't run from climate change and when I think about my relatives who live on the bayous in [PHONETIC: Pontchartrain], Lafourche, Dulac, you take them away from the bayou and you are taking them away from literally their ability to feed themselves and their families. And the bayou side is where people have their boats, it's where they have their Sunday family gatherings. It's where everything happens. And I think that, for the Houma, our food security has been what has provided a sense of sovereignty all of these years. And the marsh is bountiful and has so much to provide and also has been so abused for decades, since the early 1900s and, you know, even before, we could say.
Monique Verdin: But, yes, I think that I am leaning more towards, how do we remain and reclaim? Even if our territories do go underwater, that doesn't mean they aren't still sacred places and I think just that access to natural resources is so important, not only for our ability to feed ourselves, but also for just mental health and wellness, you know, to be able to be where your family and where your way of life is rooted. Even though our ways of life are adapting and shifting, it's still rooted to a place.
Monique Verdin: I'm really excited about the land. It's in a place called Prairie des Femmes, which means women's prairie, and it's, yes, I mean, I have no idea what will come of that place, but I do have every intention to make it a safe place, not only for myself to retreat to, but for community, for my family. When there's a hurricane, everyone gets scattered to the wind and I think that, you know, we're already vulnerable. You put us out in the world without our people and we're just lost, you know? So I think it's, yes, that's like my next ten year project. That and the Float Lab, Invisible Rivers. Like, you know, let's build some gardens, let's have some floating experiences and, yes. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: That sounds great. That sounds great. [LAUGHS]
Monique Verdin: Dance parties.
Alex Chambers: Dance parties.
Monique Verdin: More dance parties.
Alex Chambers: More dance parties. And, you know, whatever else it takes to keep you focused on what's actually important. Time with your people in a place that matters to you. You're listening to Inner States. When we come back, a postcard from an Indiana river.
Alex Chambers: This is Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. And I want to share one more thing about rivers, here in the Mississippi watershed. This is a postcard from Liz Brownlee. Liz is a friend of the show and a farmer in Southern Indiana and here she's thinking about how her land and water are connected to Monique Verdin's, down in the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Liz Brownlee: I'm standing beside the Muscatatuck River as the last of the evening's light wanes. I can see a few stars and the silhouette of silver maples around me and the water is flowing by, just quiet as can be. I don't think we hear any frogs at all because it's pretty chilly tonight.
Liz Brownlee: This water, it actually means quite a lot to me. I grew up here on my family's farm, right beside the Muscatatuck River. Our land goes to the river's edge and, you know, as a kid we didn't play in this river. We played in other rivers, in other parts of Indiana, in other states on vacation, but it was always clear that this river was too dirty to swim in. We didn't paddle here, we'd go other places to canoe, even other places within our county, but not this river.
Liz Brownlee: To sort of set the scene for you, you know, when I look south, the river's banks are denuded, all the trees have been cut on purpose. The farmers want to farm to the very edge of the river and that's really hard for me to swallow. My [LAUGHS] background is actually in biology and specifically thinking about where farming and rivers meet and the importance of growing trees along our rivers' edges to hold the stream banks in place. But there's a ton of erosion here. The stream banks are basically just mud and the channel is incised, meaning, because of all the energy of floods when they come through, the river is, like, 10 ft below its banks.
Liz Brownlee: But the Muscatatuck actually floods here quite a lot. Thankfully, our side of the river is about 10 ft higher than the other side, our banks are higher and so we don't flood a lot. But boy, this other side, the bottom, it's under water several times a year and water is powerful. And it goes in both directions so the river, when it floods, it takes these huge trees and leaves them in the farmers' fields and every spring they have to come through and push those aside so they can grow corn and soy beans and burn them often.
Liz Brownlee: And then, in the spring and summer when heavy rains come, and it seems like there are heavier rains every year, because of climate change, more intense rains all at once I should say, when those intense rains come, all the fertilizer that the farmers just sprayed on their field, that flows right into this river, about four feet from where my boots are right now. It goes downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Liz Brownlee: You know, last summer was actually the first time I ever paddled this river. We had always avoided it because of all the chemicals in the water and because it's not very pretty, you know? A river with no trees along it, with just muddy banks, it's not much fun to paddle along so we hadn't paddled here, even though I've canoed and kayaked many other rivers here in Indiana, along the Blue and along other branches of the Muscatatuck and the wildlife refuges near here and Graham Creek, but not the river in my own backyard, my literal own backyard. And so, last summer, we had family in town visiting and we said, you know, it hasn't rained in a while, there shouldn't have been much runoff recently, the water is probably in okay shape and we just won't get in, we'll just paddle, but we won't, like, swim in it. Huh.
Liz Brownlee: And so we came down with our four beat up old kayaks that we've amassed over the years and two people had kayak paddles and two people had canoe paddles and we'd heard that, about a mile upstream, there's this place called the Rocks, or the Falls. We had conflicting rumors, but something worth seeing. Something where the river wasn't just denuded banks. And so we paddled and we only paddled for, like, maybe a half hour, I mean it didn't take long at all, and there were all these rocks and rocky edges, boulders, almost a set of rapids. It was really beautiful, trees on both sides, just for this little stretch. And the Muscatatuck, just for that little stretch, was beautiful.
Liz Brownlee: And I felt real joy that the river had this beautiful spot, even if, you know, at my house, the opposite bank from us was denuded, at least this spot was beautiful and at least we were growing trees on our side of the river and doing what we could on our portion of the river. And we are doing what we can on our portion of the river. So on our farm, we've converted all the corn and soy bean land into perennials. Right here by the river, that means a lot of it's pasture where we raise livestock, but we keep a buffer where we don't go right up to the river's edge, we've actually put all that land into a wetland restoration program. My family did that back in 2008 when I was still in college and that's a government program and actually putting those 30 acres into wetlands let us pay off the farm once and for all. And I like to tell people that because I want people to know that farms can have a really positive impact on rivers, they can have a really healthy dynamic relationship.
Liz Brownlee: Every time this river floods, those wetlands flood and that's good. Those fields that we enrolled in that program, they never should have been taken out of wetlands in the first place, they never should have been farmed. When my parents farmed that land, they wouldn't get a crop most years. Three years out of five, it would flood and they'd lose everything they'd planted. That's ground that should be wetlands and so they enrolled it in that government program and the federal government paid them and we paid off the farm once and for all. And on that ground we dug ponds and planted about 10,000 trees and that ground actually floods naturally now. There's an influx of water and then those ponds are wet in the spring and they're a beautiful little nursery for turtles and frogs and birds. And then they dry up every year in the dry times, you know, in August they're dry as a bone, and that's okay, that's a natural cycle, a natural way that our farm integrates with the river.
Liz Brownlee: And, you know, hopefully our trees that we've planted, and all of our neighbors who have done a good job along the river, because there are plenty of folks who do a good job. Well, we're all trying to help clean up the river just a little bit so that by the time this water gets to the Gulf, it's not quite so heavy in nitrogen and maybe it's a little healthier.
Alex Chambers: Liz Brownlee runs Nightfall Farm with her husband, Nate.
Alex Chambers: We're gonna end today with a different kind of connection between Southern Indiana and point south. Yaël Ksander brings us a review of the fifth novel by Bloomington-based author, Ian Woolen. While in real life, Bloomington, Indiana has sister city relationships of its own, Woollen’s wildly absurdist take on the concept transpires in a fictional Indiana college town, twinned with its counterpart in the Yucatan. Though wickedly satirical, the novel gets its heart from its “maelstrom of broken souls” “longing to find home,” as Yaël writes. Today on Inner States, and in partnership with Limestone Post magazine, Yaël Ksander brings us this review of Ian Woollen’s Sister City.
Yaël Ksander: It must be one of the central pillars of marketing: familial relationships sell stuff. We trust a “family of brands.” We relish the insider status of “friends and family discounts.” And who’s not been lured into pledging for a radio fund drive so that we can be part of the W-blah-blah-blah family? Somewhere along the line someone had the bright idea of invoking a family bond to hawk greater geopolitical harmony. Voilà, Sister City. I mean, it’s nice to belong and all. But since when did everyone have such warm and fuzzy associations with family? Well, advertising appeals to our aspirations, and when it comes to family, we aspire mightily. So even though Thanksgiving finds us pregaming with nonviolent communication techniques and stocking up on alcohol, somewhere in the back of our mind there’s a Norman Rockwell painting. They keep trotting out that “family” jive because we keep falling for it.
Yaël Ksander: In Bloomington-based author, Ian Woollen’s fifth novel, Sister City, the dream of family powers a whole diaspora of both literal and spiritual orphans looking for a place to fit it in. And devising any number of high-flown justifications for their rehoming fantasies, the highest-flown of which is a Sister City agreement connecting two fictional places: Cave City, a southwestern Indiana college town, that's tempting to compare to Bloomington, and Ciudad de la Gruta, in the Yucatán, Mexico. Yoked together 20 years prior by a transnational pair of birdwatching buddies, the sister cities’ future is in jeopardy as we enter the story, as commercial, xenophobic, and crassly political forces threaten the renewal of the agreement.
Yaël Ksander: Both sides are rife with politicians of slender ambition. A mayor known as “El Plastico” for his “do-gooder habit of walking daily to City Hall picking up plastic bottles along the way” and his Hoosier counterpart who is “betting his reelection chances on landing a new highway exit and establishing his fair city as a place to pee on the interstate.” We meet the woker-than-thou, red-bereted Juan Pablo Chayac, whose opposes the Sister City agreement as "an outrageous example of ... gringo cultural imperialism,” but is willing to pen the new Sister City Manifesto in the interest of his Instagram following.
Yaël Ksander: Back in Cave City, the horse-riding Sheriff Hooker, courts voters with the hashtag "HicksforHooker." And with backing from "Parents With Boundaries," a PTA posse opposed to the Sister City arrangement in the name of "safe and secure learning environments for our children."
Yaël Ksander: Beyond political shenanigans, however, both cities are teeming with an organic multiculturalism that doesn’t depend on any bilateral treaty. Jumping cinematically from one side of the border to the other, the novel disorients us in the process with its cast of displaced persons, each with one foot in the other world, longing to find home. The Sister City relationship is just the latest manifestation of this longing. From abuelas to academics, everyone wants to believe in a secret tunnel connecting Indiana quarries to sinkholes in the Yucatán.
Yaël Ksander: We humans find a lot of fancy ways to dignify our most basic needs. For all their grandiose visions, Sister City's characters are some wounded puppies. Almost to a person, every one has a painful experience of family and is trying to cobble together a better one. There’s an unwed mother who absconded in shame, a black sheep banished for his bipolar disease, children abducted, children abandoned, a son who keeps his mom on ice, a couple whose childlessness drives them apart, another whose parentage dooms them to failure. It’s this maelstrom of broken souls that keeps the Sister City initiative aloft, in between AA meetings and visits to the therapist.
Yaël Ksander: In the tradition of John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut, who gets at least one direct salute by way of Cave City’s Mayor Rosewater, Woollen prefers to laugh than cry at our dysfunctional human condition, delivering biting social critique with tongue permanently ensconced in cheek. Packed with absurdity from one-liners to deeply ironic situations, this is a world where a girl is named Dotcom because, in her Mexican village, cyberspace is still just a magical rumor. It’s a world where a Boston preppy gives up on the Midwest when her baggage, on the Pilgrim Relocation moving truck, finally catches up with her. Ouch.
Yaël Ksander: A reader might get lost in the shuffle of subplots and side characters if it weren’t for an exceptionally well-wrought, deeply flawed figure at the center of the narrative and his progress toward that family do-over we’re all hoping for. Meet Chad O’Shaughnessy of Boston, a "masters-level recovering pothead and newly minted addictions counselor." Chad seems to have spent much of his young life leaning into his identity as a constant source of disappointment. His dad calls him a loser and his fiancée, Winnie, barely tolerates him.
Yaël Ksander: Five years past a drug bust when the story opens, Chad is gung ho for the adventure of Winnie's one-year teaching gig in the Folklore Department at Southwest Hoosier State University, but the geographic cure backfires soon after they arrive, when Chad stumbles upon the long-hidden Hoosier branch of his family tree. Confronting the dark family secret knocks him right off the wagon. This time, Chad navigates recovery by going deep into his new community and assembling his own new tribe. While his partner dabbles in local lore as an academic exercise, Chad surrenders his tourist visa and goes all-in. As he fumbles along, one day at a time, throwing the baseball with a wayward teen, getting closer with his AA sponsor and volunteering for the Sister City initiative, Chad comes into his own.
Yaël Ksander: Zooming out, we see parallels to Chad's team-building in myriad little families configured by the novel's motley crew. Whether a geriatric ménage à trois, a pair of night nurses, a Trekkie priest and a one-eyed translator, or an ostensibly gay man who runs off with a woman to raise a pair of orphans, Sister City revels in the strange bedfellows life makes of us on our way to the family reunion.
Yaël Ksander: I'm Yaël Ksander.
Alex Chambers: Yaël reviewed Sister City by Ian Woollen, published in 2021 by Coffeetown Press. This review is produced in partnership with Limestone Post magazine, where you can read the review in its entirety. Limestone Post is an independent, non-profit magazine, focused on solutions-based journalism, that covers the arts, outdoors, social justice issues and more, in Bloomington and the surrounding areas.
Alex Chambers: That's it for today's Inner States. As always, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Monique Verdin, Nick Slie for sharing his poem, Derek Hoeferlin, Bob, Anne and Chuck who shared their stories from the Mississippi Delta region, Liz Brownlee and Yaël Ksander. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. I want to acknowledge and honor the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people on whose ancestral homelands and resources Indiana University, Bloomington, home of WIFIU, is built, as well as the generations of workers who built it.
Alex Chambers: Alright, time to listen to a place.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Footsteps in the Mud by the Muscatatuck River. Thanks to Liz Brownlee for that recording. If you've got some sound, send it my way at wfiu.org/innerstates. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.