Sawbill: A Search for Place, among many wonderful things, is an homage to a specific place—though one that evolves both as time moves forward and as the narrator discovers more and more about herself, her family, and their roots in the old and unpredictable Sawbill Lodge. The book is also very much a haunting: at the start the narrator herself is pulled toward an old history book in her father’s library, and then memories and images wash over her as she is called—or even possessed—to the lodge itself. Through the course of years spanning childhood through adulthood, moves across the country, and even leading up to the start of her own family, the narrator of Sawbill: A Search for Place continues to circle back to northeastern Minnesota and the call of Sawbill Lodge. Because of the shadows of past years merging with the the brilliantly vivid forests and lakes of this place, Case’s memoir is reminiscent of gothic stories while managing to feel fresh and contemporary. Sawbill: A Search for Place is a debut that leaves readers eagerly anticipating the next work by Jennie Case.
Marissa Schwalm: How does Sawbill fit in to the larger realms of place-based writing, nature writing, and nonfiction?
Jennie Case: Sawbill is very much a response and contribution to a subset of contemporary nature writing and environmental nonfiction that explores human relationships to particular places. Two of the most prominent place-based writers include Scott Russell Sanders and Wendell Berry. They explore particular locales, and they each make a philosophical argument that we will better care for our communities and environments if we dedicate ourselves to a particular location. This philosophy appealed to me a lot when I was a young adult, yet I found it difficult to enact in my own life. My family moved too often, and the physical location that spoke most to me and seemed to fit the stereotypical “ideal place” that nature writers would champion—Sawbill Lodge—no longer even existed. Sawbill, in many ways, chronicles my struggle with place-based philosophies and my inability to live that ideal in the location I most loved.
MS: Many people speak of the literature of the Midwest as very distinct, can you articulate for those who may not be familiar how you personally designate Midwestern Literature? Also, how does your work speak to the Midwest, and then later perhaps challenge it as the narrator ends up for some years in New York?
JC: That’s a really interesting question, in part because I, myself, am not sure what makes Midwestern literature distinct. Amanda Arnold published a really thought-provoking piece in LitHub last year appropriately titled, “Why Literature and Pop Culture Still Can’t Get The Midwest Right: On Representations of a Region That Has Never Truly Known Itself”. The Midwest, she acknowledges, is a “flyover” region, and most readers have “difficulty imagining Midwestern literature—and therefore, the region in general—beyond Protestant work ethic, American dream-chasing, and the hardworking immigrants of the early 20th century.” I would agree. And so I struggle with this question because I, like a lot of people, I think, believe the Midwest has been largely ignored in the conversations we have about literature. Nonetheless, Sawbill is an example of Midwestern literature because it comes from and investigates that place, in all its complexities. And when I think about Arnold’s comments, I realize how much Sawbill works to interrogate some of those stereotypes—that sense of Midwesterners being “dream-chasing” and hardworking, at least. It explores where those stereotypes hold up and where they fail. And yet it is also about movement on a national and global level—a theme that certainly moves beyond the scope of the Midwest.
MS: In Sawbill, you actively write about being a teacher and a researcher, as well as how these factor into the larger project. I’m always fascinated by the off-screen, or here the off-page, work that occurs in the creation of a text. However, you actually braid so much of the process of discovery into the shift that occurs within the narrator herself. Can you share here some photographs that acted as inspiration or are mentioned within the memoir?
JC: Certainly! When I begin a project, I tend to start by collecting artifacts, whether personal photographs, old journals, scholarly articles, or books. I surround myself with that material, and I begin to draw connections between my memories, the physical objects, and the textual research. With Sawbill, this meant I raided my parents’ photo albums for images from our families camping trips. I asked my grandma to mail me old postcards she had from Sawbill Lodge, and I “borrowed” the copy my father had of Mary Alice Hansen’s Sawbill: History and Tales. There were days when I was drafting material that I spread all these items around my writing chair, in a large arc,and simply sat there, writing, with everything at my feet. I also visited the archives at the Cook County Historical Society, where I had the opportunity to view historical photographs from the 1940s, when Sawbill was built. I took photographs of those photographs and would often study them when writing to help me visualize the people more.
Old postcards of Sawbill Lodge and the surrounding area. The photographs were taken by Grand Marais photographer M.J. Humphrey, who took similar photos of the area’s resorts throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
MS: Also, directly related and at times integrated into Sawbill is the role that other pieces and authors played in both inspiring and challenging the narrator. Are there any authors or pieces that, in retrospect, greatly inspired you that didn’t find their way into the book?
JC: There were. I was reading a lot of interdisciplinary work on place-based philosophy at the time, so a lot of texts by geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Tim Creswell. I appreciated the way they discussed what made a “space” a “place” from a very physical perspective. I also was extremely taken by the idea of habitat imprinting, as used in neurobiology. In other words, how does the habitat—or environment—an animal is reared in shape the development of that individual’s brain in a manner that affects the animal for the rest of its life? Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture, which discusses habitat imprinting in depth, had a large impression on me. And I was inspired by numerous other place-based writers, such as John Price, David Mas Masumoto, Linda Hogan, David Gessner, Gretel Ehrlich, Allison Hawthorne Deming, Camille Dungy, and Greta Gaard. Those writers and their books, even though they each approach “place” from a slightly different angle, gave me confidence that the themes I was exploring were important and that there was room in the world for a book such as Sawbill.
MS: As the memoir unfolds, the narrator encounters many changes in geography, family, and beyond and one of the changes includes her becoming pregnant. I’m wondering how your work with place both in this memoir and beyond can be tied to the investigation of place as within the body?
JC: Bruce Wexler, as I described above, does a lot of research on neurobiology, and has studied how the human brain develops in direct response to the habitat or environment in which that individual is raised. I was (and remain) fascinated by this idea that the physical environment has a very direct impact on the body. “Place” in other words, isn’t just a subject, defined largely by memories, description, and perhaps nostalgia. It is a physical reckoning with our bodies and our environments. I try to make the environment very physical in Sawbill—many of the descriptions evoke that sense of a physical imprinting—and that tendency has only grown after having children. Pregnancy and childbirth are such physical processes that the lines between body, environment, and mind have been obliterated for me. We can’t explore any subject, but especially environment and place, without also exploring how our bodies move through and interact with those spaces.
MS: Lastly, what is a question that you’ve often thought about being asked when it came to Sawbill? Whether it is one you’ve dreaded, anticipated, longed for, or just generally imagined that people might be wondering?
JC: I suppose the question I dread is, “What makes this book timely today?” The books Sawbill responds most directly to—Scott Russell Sanders’ Staying Put and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America—are almost three decades old, and environmental groups right now tend to talk more about climate change than the importance of nurturing place attachments. As a result, if I were to rewrite the book, I would openly discuss climate change. Minnesota’s North Shore, for instance, is predicted to lose its iconic birch trees and instead become a land of maple trees. That thought terrifies me. Yet, Sawbill is still very much a book of our time. And as climate change and other environmental crises continue to shape and challenge our notions of “home” and “place,” that desire for a homeland and a sense of belonging will only increase. Sawbill may be a somewhat quiet book, but the struggles and conflicts it explores remain as central to human experience as ever.
SAWBILL: A SEARCH FOR PLACE is available now for order at Amazon.
Marissa Schwalm is an Associate Editor for The Flexible Persona.