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Joe Orso

Columnist Joe Orso

In a public climate dominated by loud, combative rhetoric, Wisconsin author Jerry Apps values something in short supply today: subtlety.

It’s not that Apps, who writes about the outdoors and rural life, shies away from the challenging issues of the day.

As he said when I caught up with him during a book-signing two weeks ago, he feels very strongly that the land is alive and needs to be nurtured rather than exploited as a commodity.

“I’m concerned that in this day and age, the environmental problems we have are horrendous,” said the 77-year-old, a respected elder among Wisconsin writers, who has published more than 30 books. “Right now we are on the verge of going backward instead of forward on everything from air pollution to water pollution to why the land is important.”

It’s just that Apps has found different ways of expressing himself than those who see the public sphere as a boxing ring.

“Through story, we can gain the attention of people far quicker than we can by lambasting them with some kind of polemic,” he said. “I want to be subtle about it. I want you to learn not because I said here are the talking points I’m concerned with, but here’s a story that makes the point.”

Apps has written both fiction and non-fiction, gardened, planted trees and worked at prairie restoration, and taught writing for decades. His early book about his family’s farm, “The Land Still Lives,” was published in 1970. His most recent book, “Campfires and Loon Calls: Travels in the Boundary Waters,” tells of his yearly canoe journeys into those northern lakes.

After speaking with him for more than an hour, I began to see why Apps is treasured by so many in our state. Behind his writing, to which I was only recently introduced, is a concern for the common good of both people and land — a concern that seems to outweigh any need to argue a position.

“It’s almost impossible to talk about the Boundary Waters,” he said, sitting at a table at Barnes and Noble while fans stopped to chat and get his signature. “It’s a place that has to be experienced to appreciate. I can give you a vicarious experience, but it’s almost like the difference between a virtual fire and a real fire.”

So then, I asked him, why write about it?

“To encourage people to experience it,” he said, and then smiled. “I can be succinct some times.”

Influenced by writers including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, Rachel Carson and John Muir, Apps says there is a spiritual dimension to our relationship with land, and that it is important to “come out from behind yourself” and find some solitude outside, away from our computers and cell phones.

But while Apps encourages experiences in the outdoors, he also values history and says a historical perspective is essential to almost everything we do today.

Too many people, he said, debate contemporary issues from emotion without informing themselves about the historical dimensions.

“Nearly every environmental issue we face today we have faced at some time in the past in another way,” he said. “Caring for the land is an old issue.”

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