You might be surprised that something published solely in the virtual world, with editors and board members residing all across the U.S. and beyond (including Ireland, Greece, and Canada) is the world’s first place-based online journal, but yep, that is Terrain.org, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The journal’s mission is to explore the nature of place broadly — and, increasingly, with an eye toward social and environmental justice. This month our online reading series starts back up, after a nice summer break (even a reading series wants to metaphorically head to the mountains or the beach and just chill). It will resume on Monday, Sept. 26 — but more about the resumption in a minute, after some back story.
I’ve been working with Terrain.org for a decade, first as a columnist and now as nonfiction editor and member of the publishing board of directors. A few K-State students have worked as interns (most recently Vilune Sestokaite, MA ’20, who has done reviews for the journal as well), and some of the journal’s activities, like the reading series, have been underwritten with funding from the Michael Donnelly Faculty Award which I was honored to receive for 2017-2019. The award was established by K-State graduate Michelle Munson to honor the professor — Dr. Michael Donnelly — from whom she’d taken an Honors English seminar. Munson has spent her career in software design and is founder and CEO of a company specializing in global platforms for stuff like streaming, content networks, and cloud infrastructure. I think it’s super-fitting that T.org is wielding Munson’s generosity as we expand our virtual publishing footprint.
Once, the journal hosted readings at conferences and bookstores, like this one below in Source Booksellers, a locally-owned shop in Detroit, where people could drop in and eat free food.
We plan to do so again, starting in spring of 2023. But during the pandemic’s slam-shift to all-online, Terrain.org’s virtual-world foothold served us well in adjusting our course.
In fact, Terrain.org editors were literally on the road to San Antonio for the Associated Writing Conference in March of 2020—one was in his little Prius somewhere in West Texas, another was at the airport in Seattle waiting for his flight, and I was driving from Manhattan, having just crossed the border into Oklahoma, when we realized the pandemic had derailed — de-wheeled? — our plans for a flashy book launch at the huge national conference. Our book, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, conceived after the 2016 election and championing social and environmental resistance to authoritarianism and kleptocracy, was released to the world just as the world was shutting down.
When I got a call, I pulled into a rest stop and learned that many of the writers we’d planned to feature in panels and readings, plus the swank reception scheduled to launch our new anthology, would not take place. The party venue had closed, the catering was canceled, and conference attendees were checking hospitalization rates and deciding not to travel. Sadly, our team also pulled out and headed back home to figure out how to proceed in the new pandemic landscape. (In my case, I went from that windy rest stop to my home office to try to learn how to wield Canvas like a precision tool instead of a truck with a loose axle, or worse. Gaah.)
First, we partnered with our press to host virtual Town Hall readings and conversations featuring contributors to the anthology. The book’s royalties are donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists — activist organizations we all felt do essential work in the world — so we wanted to support not just the authors’ voices, but book sales that could further advance social and environmental activism. With Zoom, and the editor-in-chief’s superior computer skills, we showcased our anthology contributors. People like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Elena Passarello, J. Drew Lanham, Camille Dungy, Aimee Nezhukumathil, Francisco Cantú, Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye… wonderful authors, some of whom will be familiar to K-State students and alumni from their appearances in the department’s Visiting Writers Series.
Next we launched the Terrain.org Reading Series to bring together writers both nationally-acclaimed and deserving-of-waaay-more-attention. Some highlights: scientist and essayist Sandra Steingraber read a gloriously braided, 12-part essay titled “Always Knew I Was Adopted; Just Found Out I’m Gay.” Writer and ornithologist J. Drew Lanham read a brand-new (like, finished that very afternoon) parable-poem, “Hunting Season,” searingly exploring violence against black bodies.
Now, after the summer hiatus, the restart begins and I get to host three terrific nonfiction writers.
Some in the K-State community will remember that John T. Price, who’ll be the headliner on September 22, was a visiting writer at K-State the year of bizarre tornado and thunderstorm warnings that resulted in Karin Westman’s opening the lounge and downstairs ECS generally for overnight shelter. (It’s when I first learned about the Facebook feature to mark yourself safe—a very handy look now for snarky memes about skin-flinty outrage over cancellation of student loan debt.)
Price has a fantastic new book of essays out this year. He’s joined by two other terrific essayists: Jennifer Case, whose new work has been exploring the often-unspoken world of motherhood—the politics of breast pumps, the coercion of forced-birth laws, ambivalence about bringing children into the world right now. And Sean Enfield, a recent MFA recipient from University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who has written about race in education (in journals including The Rumpus, Witness, and Terrain.org) and works for an anti-hunger organization that also champions local agriculture.
Please register to join us on September 26th, if you’d like. The reading is free… and open to the public.
— Elizabeth Dodd, University Distinguished Professor