Desert Nativity: A Reflection on Frieda Knobloch’s Visit

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Boar’s Tusk, Rock Springs, Wyoming. Photo: Bureau of Land Management.

By Molly McCourt

Frieda Knobloch’s work exceeds disciplinary boundaries.  She is at once the botanist who retraced the steps of Aven Nelson, the creative writer who is exploring the Red Desert through a gruff character named Ed Ray, or the environmentalist who strongly senses the urgency of addressing global climate change.  Knobloch emphasized her preference to studying space and time in layers—not lines.  Throughout her brown bag discussion and the roundtable, it was clear that every project was multi-layered and devoted to mission of understanding our existence as humans sharing a space with plants, soil, and sediment on this earth.

Knobloch’s connection with the earth as a tangible, living being is what fascinated me most.  While I have heard scholars from many disciplines praise the earth for its wonders, Knobloch was the first to address the globe as an active force.  When asked her thoughts on what it means to be native to a place, she expressed that too many people are consumed with where a person is from as opposed to where they will “be planted.”  “I’m not from Wyoming,” Knobloch explained, “but I know I’m never leaving.  Does that count as native?”  I had never considered a subversion of the word “native” like this; “nativity” does not have to be your first birthplace, but possibly the land that brings forth a new life after your stay as a human is over.  While this idea still seems radical as I type it, I have to ask myself how different this really is from believing in a version of reincarnation or heaven.  Whether one is planted, becomes a new being, or ascends to an ideal place, in all beliefs, humans cease to exist as their former being, yet achieve some version of a new life.

However, I have to bring my feet back to the hard earth to ask some questions before I close.  Knobloch voiced her frustration with the “tourist” appeal of her beloved Red Desert landscape when she began describing her present creative project.  However, to a certain extent, isn’t she a tourist herself?  Of course, she is not one of the environmentalists taking travelers on a sightseeing expedition to all the endangered species of the area, but how is she different as a writer?  Thoreau went to the woods much like Knobloch is going to the desert, but at the end of the trip, both writers return to another home.  Does her idea of identity formation play into this?  Must we always be moving and exploring in order to constantly modify our character?

[Molly McCourt is a first year PhD student in the Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies track in the English department at UW-Milwaukee.  Her research interests include intertextuality, Bakhtinian carnival, and constructions of gender and sexuality in 20th and 21st century film, television, literature, and pop culture.  She is participating in English 820 this spring (a course where you get credit for attending C21 events, among other things) and is enjoying it immensely]

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