Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chicago Nature Writing

Joel Greenberg, author of the definitive A Natural History of the Chicago Region (my lengthy review here) has edited Of Prairie, Woods, & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing, brand-new, gorgeously designed and published by the University of Chicago Press.

I won't even pretend to have read all of his 100 selections, which range from the 1700s to 1960. I can say they include well-known naturalists and writers like Gene Stratton-Porter and Jens Jensen, and unheard-of ones like Colbee Benton. Like Greenberg's own history, this book defines the Chicago region with appropriate generosity, stretching north into Wisconsin, southeast into Indiana, and around the corner into southwest Michigan.

What does this have to do with genealogy, you may ask? Even assuming that you prefer parking lots to parks, two things:

(1) Many of these selections are written by people who were paying close attention to local conditions that have now changed dramatically. Just try duplicating William Johnson's trip from Fort Wayne to Chicago, taken 199 years ago! Or finding anything like the Chicago fish market of 95 years ago. If it were nothing else (and it's a lot more), this is a source of luminously detailed historical background that anyone with Midwestern forebears should treasure.

(2) Greenberg diligently searched for information on his authors, many of whom are a tad obscure. After one contribution on the Indiana Dunes, he writes expressing a feeling about its author that many genealogists can identify with: "Eli Stillman Bailey (1851-1926) is another author about whom there ought to be more information available. He received his bachelor's degree from Milton College (Wisconsin) in 1873..." and continues with information from a history of homeopathy and a volume of Who Was Who. I can't help but wonder what more a genealogist might be able to, er, dig up on some of these folks.

(Greenberg will be on WBEZ-FM 91.5 tonight at 9 pm Central. I'll link to the podcast if one becomes available later.)

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