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The natural education of John T. Price

In “Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father,” Price recounts the day he sat down to write and suddenly felt like “someone … grabbed my heart, and juiced it like an orange.”

price photo
Photo by Mike Whye
John T. Price

If John T. Price had become a doctor, as his grandmother had always hoped, he’d make more money than he makes as a writer. Life might be easier. But, unlike the fathers who  preceded him, who had to take the best job they could find, Price got to be what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Even so, the stress of being a provider nearly did him in. His funny and graceful memoirs, “Man Killed By Pheasant and Other Hardships” and “Not Just Any Land,” brought him respect, but he primarily makes his living teaching at the University of Nebraska, and the worry that he was letting down his young family became an increasing burden.

In his third book, “Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father,” Price recounts the day he sat down to write and suddenly felt like “someone reached into my chest, grabbed my heart, and juiced it like an orange.” He tried to blame it on some burritos he’d eaten, but his wife and doctor called it a wake-up call; he’d slid into a funk and it was affecting his health.

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Soon after, his grandmother announced that she was going to stop taking the cocktail of drugs that kept her 92-year-body alive, and the meaning of life suddenly changed for Price as he was jolted to reconsider his life as a father, writer, and inheritor of not just family history, but a changing natural world.

MinnPost: You write pretty honestly about the real stress of parenthood. Did you write this book for an audience of fellow fathers?

John T. Price: That was certainly a group I wanted to reach. So many of us don’t talk about the issues surrounding that role, the “provider pressure” so many of us feel, and how that affects us, physically, emotionally. There’s a reason men traditionally die sooner than women.

Also I saw, as the economy turned south, I got the sense there was a need for this sort of story, as families were struggling to make ends meet. I thought my story might connect with other men, other fathers, and offer some perspective, courage, hope.

MP: Unlike other men in your family, who were locked into provider roles, you get to do what you love. But you struggle with it. Is there a place between those two extremes?

JTP: This book is about finding some contentment about the imperfections about life and family life. My life here is very privileged compared to many people, so I felt that the problems I was facing didn’t deserve consideration. But that health crisis got me thinking seriously about what’s going on here. I started journaling and talking with my wife about it. Then I watched my grandmother confront the big questions, and through her I confronted them in my own way. I didn’t write about these in the book, but I also took up meditation, which made a huge difference for me, and exercise and diet changes. It was a truly unique time in my life and I gleaned a lot of wisdom from various sources.

MP: How much of your depression — you didn’t use this word, but it’s there — was because you couldn’t be the writer you wanted to be?

JTP: Oh, a lot. I felt I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, talented enough to write the kind of book that would bring me the success I needed to support my family and live up to expectations.

MP: Well, you’re not a mystery novelist.

JTP: [Laughs] No, that’s right, exactly! I was delusional about what writing fiction is like. It’s funny you mention it, I actually was writing a kind of mystery, and I’m a huge fan of mysteries. But part of the result of all this reflection was that I learned to accept the kind of writer that I am, a writer of home, place, and family. And yeah, it’s never going to be extremely lucrative. But it’s who I am. It’s my material.

MP: And you’ve become known, through your magazine work, as an environmental writer.

JTP: Yeah, I’ve been told many times that that doesn’t sell either! But this period helped me get beyond a sense of paralysis about my relationship to the natural world, in particular about the Loess Hills prairies

MP: Describe the Loess Hills to our Minnesota readers. You’ve written extensively about the area, but we don’t hear much about them here.

JTP: In a way, they are an extension of the prairies in Minnesota, the Blue Mounds region. I don’t think [the Mounds] are loess, which is a particular formation, but they’re certainly part of the same region. Paul Gruchow and other Minnesota writers I admire have written about the area. The Loess Hills I know are 200- to 300-foot hills that run that length of Iowa. They are glacial drift, the edge of an ancient river bed, in the shape of a sand dune. They are an international treasure; the only other place in the world they can be found is along the Yellow River in China, and those have been mostly destroyed. So the Loess Hills of the Midwest may be the last of their kind in the world. They are also shelter for what remains of the Iowa prairie, and for several unique and threatened species unique to this area. The Loess Hills are part of our environmental heritage in the Midwest. In that sense, I really don’t believe in the borders between Iowa and Nebraska and the Dakotas. We’re all part of the prairie.

MP: You describe Iowa as the most ecologically damaged state in the country. How does it feel to be a nature writer — one of the only ones chronicling the Loess Hills — in a place that has been so abused?

JTP: Writers who attach themselves to a natural place must confront a great deal of grief and pain. This area once rivaled the rainforest in terms of biodiversity. Facing that immense loss of life is almost unimaginable, and it’s still happening. One just down the street was torn up for landfill. Luckily, there have been some positive developments that make it harder to tear up the Loess Hills. And there is a sense of community among those who are engaged in that good work, restoring the tallgrass prairie. I’m currently editing a collection of works about the tallgrass prairie, and I hope this will bring awareness. It’s hard to work for restoration when destruction is still occurring. So I think humor has been a real saving grace, too.

MP: Example?

JTP: Midwesterners often deal with hardships through humor. Watching people deal with the tornado in Omaha, you saw a sort of gallows humors, a sort of laughing at our fallibility, then getting beyond that and actually doing something. The human ego is the most destructive force in the history of the world, but humor takes that on and gives us hope. Guilt makes a terrible motivator — especially in the environmental movement, it’s not working. But love, compassion, forgiveness and a sense of humor might lead us somewhere.


Reading, June 14, 7 p.m., Common Good Books, St. Paul.