Westward Bound

I am sitting down to write this post before a magnificent mountain view at the end of the first month of the new year: 2015. I can’t believe that my last post appeared on Valentine’s Day of last year. Time moves with a steady rapidity that amazes me sometimes; the days fly by like hours. My last blog post described the development of ECO Girls, the environmental education program for girls in urban areas that I started as a faculty member at the University of Michigan. At the end of my last post, I explained that I was halting the program for a time, as I was preparing to move out West for a year. Well, here I am, in lovely Bozeman, the “Valley of the Flowers” in southwest Montana.

The way I ended up here is a little bit circuitous. A close friend of mine, the historian Paulina Alberto, suggested that I apply for an unusual fellowship sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. The Mellon New Directions in the Humanities Fellowships allow scholars in the humanities to “retrain” in a new field. My burgeoning interest in, and indeed, concern about, environmental issues is what had led me to found the community project ECO Girls. But I had never studied the environment, and in fact, I had wrestled with my science courses in high school and college. I had, though, been steadily learning bits and pieces over the three years that ECO Girls ran, from the many wonderful scientists, naturalists and artists in the Ann Arbor area who lent their expertise to the project by offering advice, helping us shape lesson plans, and leading activities for the kids. The Mellon Fellowship held out the possibility that I could formalize my study of environmental issues and do something that academics rarely get a chance to do after we complete our degrees and are out working in the profession: be a student again.

I took up my friend’s suggestion and applied for a Mellon fellowship with the proposal that I would study environmental history at Montana State University in Bozeman while making progress on two history projects: a public history exploration of slavery in Detroit (see the website mappingdetroitslavery.com and stay tuned for a book in progress) and a history of African American women in central Montana (that I hope will bear fruit in a few years). My husband and I have three children who were all under the age of ten at the time that I applied. My family would have to come along with me on this adventure, or it would not have been possible for me to go. Luckily, my husband is a native Montanan, in both senses of the phrase. He is Native American (Gros Ventre), and he was born and raised in Montana. He was excited about the idea of moving out West, of spending more time with his family, and of helping our three midwestern children get to know more about their dad’s home region and state. Our family hit the jackpot when I was awarded the Mellon Fellowship and my husband, a community psychologist, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book on Native American psychology and well-being. The dual support allowed us to take a leave from teaching for the year and to concentrate on learning, research, and writing.

Last August, we rented our beloved old Victorian fixer-upper in Ann Arbor to a wonderful family visiting UM from Israel. We packed up our Volkswagen Jetta sports wagon and twelve-year-old Honda Civic with household items, clothes, pets, and headed west. We were lucky enough to find a furnished house in the foothills of the Bridger range of the Rocky Mountains, with a stunning view looking down on the town of Bozeman. The house is special, as it was built by the homeowners (summer residents of Bozeman), and it is flooded with sunlight almost every day.

Despite the hassle of the move and the many weeks that it took us to adjust to living in a new and very different place, we have been happy and productive here — especially our kids, who love their school and can’t get enough of the eye-popping sight of animals in the wild. We have taken two trips to Yellowstone National Park, just two hours south of Bozeman, and two trips to Glacier National Park, five hours to the northwest. We have seen buffalo, elk herds, eagles, owls, hawks, coyotes, and grizzly bears. Our daughter wrote a gripping essay for her class about our sighting of a grizzly bear in Yellowstone that was far too close for comfort.

So this is what I have been doing the last eleven months between my Valentine’s Day post and now: moving across the country, getting my family settled, learning about a new place, and of course, writing and revising. I spent the bulk of my time in the fall semester finishing up two major projects. Not coincidentally, they both have to do with ghosts in the South. One is my first work of fiction, The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts, which will be released in April of 2015 by John F. Blair, Publisher. The other is a kind of hybrid genre, a public history and travel narrative, which has just been accepted for publication by the University of North Carolina Press and should be released in fall of 2015. Now that the new semester has started, I am auditing a great course in environmental history taught by Professor Tim LeCain and meeting with new colleagues at MSU who write and teach about the environment. I am also beginning to draft my manuscript on slavery in Detroit. Once spring reaches us up here in the mountains, I will be on the road again giving talks about The Cherokee Rose. In June, I plan to dive into my Montana research and visit sites where the African American women that I will be tracing lived. But it won’t be another eleven months before I post again. There is too much happening!

Bonus: Favorite Places in Bozeman
Our daughters have taken to concluding their essays for school with some kind of bonus list that they usually title “Fun Facts.” I always enjoy their silly lists, so here is a little bit extra of my own: my early impressions of the bests of Bozeman.

And really, what does a person need to be chipper in winter besides hot chocolate, cornmeal pancakes, tomato soup, buckets of sun shine, and a bedside table stacked with good books?

One thought on “Westward Bound

  1. When you are busy 11 months goes by very quickly (wait until you are my age). I drove through Boseman once on my way to Billings were I spend the night during a cross country drive. I sure I was doing about 120 miles per hours when I went past Boseman on I90. I doubt went under 100 the entire time I was in Montana. It was a pretty empty stretch of interstate, but the west is beautiful. I would love to spend a year out there.

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