Yosemite at sunrise

Dear America Talking Points

Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy

The talking points (and other resources) are organized into sections that correspond with the sections of the book.

Calls to Action

A few talking points:

  • What rhetorical strategies make a call-to-action persuasive?
  • Which letter was most thought-provoking?
  • Ever Jones (page 26) says, “privilege is an insulation.” What does that mean?
  • How are environmental issues linked with racism and sexism?
  • How can we figure out what’s really going on in what Gregory McNamee (page 19) says is the “Age of Lies”?
  • Can books, poetry, music, and art change the culture we live in?
  • Can we make a list of the specific atrocities these writers are protesting?
  • Fenton Johnson (page 31) goes beyond just a call-to-action and gives a list of actions he thinks a citizen should be taking. How would you summarize those actions? What would you add to the list?
  • How does Robin Wall Kimmerer (page 36) connect the Trump administration to the long history of how indigenous peoples have been treated in this country?

    7   Alison Hawthorne Deming, Letter to America
9   Ana Maria Spagna, This Land Is (Still) Our Land
12   Erin Coughlin Hollowell, From the End of the Road
15   Seth Abramson, Americas
19   Gregory McNamee, Of Truth, Post-Truth, Alternative Facts, and Lies
24   Martha Silano, I don’t know how to write a letter to America
26   Ever Jones, An American Song
28   Jennifer Case, November, Third Trimester
30   Suzanne Frischkorn, It’s Time to Teach My Daughter How
31   Fenton Johnson, My Mother’s Vote
36   Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Windigo

Consider also:


Extractions, Extinctions, and Depletions

A few talking points:

  • Taylor Brorby (page 43) talks about his family’s history with the coal industry. What do those experiences add to this essay?
  • Taylor Brorby says “without each other, we walk our paths alone.” What other writers in this book stress the need for community building, for nurturing relationships with each other and with the land? What might this look like?
  • What will it mean if we succeed in ending the fossil fuel industry? What will that look like? Do we have a vision of the world in which we don’t use fossil fuels?
  • What does the loss of species mean for our species and our life on this earth?
  • After reading Barbara Hurd’s Lamentations (page 55), look up information on the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. How can we grieve the loss of species?
  • What does Deborah Thompson (page 49) mean by “latte capitalism”? Share your favorite quotes from this piece.
  • What would our daily life look like without plastic? Can we envision that? Let’s pretend we are a committee who can dictate to the world what plastics we would allow. What would be on the list? What plastic items would we outlaw?

  43   Taylor Brorby, Notes to America
46   Georgia Pearle, Refinery I
47   Amanda Hawkins, After the Election
48   Brian Laidlaw, I Had Heard
49   Deborah Thompson, Latte Capitalism
53   Dana Sonnenschein, Let Sleeping Wolves Lie
55   Barbara Hurd, Lamentations
  59   Catherine Staples, Swallows: Common yet Declining
  60   Derek Sheffield, What Will Keep Us
  62   Todd Davis, In the Garden
  64   Sherwin Bitsui, A World Departs
  65   Andrea Cohen, Stone Age
  66   Todd Boss, She’s Going to Be Beautiful

Consider also:


Geographies of Exclusion

A few talking points:

  • What are some of the most compelling images in this section?
  • Bob Ferguson (page 75) is the attorney general of Washington State. What is the story he tells?
  • Why do many of the writers focus on children when of course there are also many adults also being treated unfairly? Is that an effective rhetorical strategy?
  • Linda Hogan (page 81) says that tribal nations “have been locked and held inside your long-standing desire for gold.” What does she mean by that?
  • What happened at Standing Rock? Do some research if you need to. Why was the rallying cry “Water is life”?
  • What do you know about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II? How is this atrocity connected to current events?
  • How is birdwatching (and other ways we “connect with nature”) more limited and more dangerous if you’re black? What are the ways that white privilege affects who gets to enjoy “nature”?
  • Why would a law enforcement ranger arrest someone for leaving water and beans in the desert? What is it that Scott Warren is doing?
  • How does border militarism (and border walls) affect wildlife? Scott Warren says that “conservation in the borderlands, if it is to succeed, must find common cause with humanitarianism, human rights, and indigenous rights.” What would that look like?
  • How are the ways we treat other human beings connected to how we treat other species and the earth we live on? What are the connections?

  71   Francisco Cantú, Assembly-Line Justice
  74   David Hernandez, History Kids
  75   Bob Ferguson, A President, a Travel Ban, and a Playdate
  79   Peggy Shumaker, Red Sky
  81   Linda Hogan, The Earth Was Once Water
  83   Juan J. Morales, 20,000 Pallets of Bottled Water
  84   Scott Warren, “Virtually Uninhabited”
  88   Christian Wiman, Club
  89   Naomi Shihab Nye, Invitation to the NSA
  90   Allison Hedge Coke, Song for Long America
  93   Karen An-hwei Lee, Dear America, Sanctuary of a Posthuman Exile
  94   Traci Brimhall, Aperture: A Photoless Photo Essay
  98   J. Drew Lanham, Still Birding While Black
100   Ellen Bass, The Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s Tongue

Consider also:


Climate Change and Science Denial

A few talking points:

  • In Kurt Caswell’s piece (page 109), he talks about shootings, sexual misconduct scandals, the American dream, consumerism, climate change, Navajo history, and the extinction of humans. How does he make connections amongst all of these things?
  • Christopher Merrill (page 114) says that a commitment to the free flow of information and freedom of expression are essential to any enduring creative enterprise. How have those been threatened?
  • In an earlier piece, Greg McNamee (page 19) says, “… to have weight, opinions have to be matched by data, and by expertise—which is why we consult with the experts whenwe need to know something.” In Diana Liverman’s Our Climate Future (page 116), how does she establish her credibility before she begins talking about climate change?
  • According to scientist Anita Desikan (page 120), Trump’s response to the California wildfires was exploitative and dangerous. Explain what she means by that.
  • Jacob Carter (page 123) is a climate change scientist. What do we learn from his unique perspective on the Trump administration?
  • Sarah Inskeep (page 129) talks about how we “can declare independence from an unsustainable way of life.” What would that look like?
  • In this section, we hear from several scientists, but we also read several poems. What can poetry add to the discussion of climate change?

107   Debra Marquart, Come November
109   Kurt Caswell, The River between Us
113   Christopher Merrill, Please Do Not Spit Everywhere
116   Diana Liverman, Our Climate Future
120   Anita Desikan, Science under Fire
123   Jacob Carter, Letter from a Concerned Scientist
127   Sarah Inskeep, To Think Like a Mountain
130   R. T. Smith, Whirling Disease

Consider also:


Memories (Imaginings) and Other Americas

A few talking points:

  • How has anyone considered “other” been treated in this country? Were any of the historical facts in these pieces a surprise to you? What are the lessons we can learn from our history?
  • Lauret Savoy (page 135) says that “forms of othering have always been central to the democratic project that is the United States.” What does she mean by that?
  • Amanda Gailey (page 139) tells the history of Tecumseh, Nebraska. What are the most shocking details in her  narrative? How does this history relate to current events?
  • What does Anne Beatty’s piece (page 143) say about education in this country? What can we learn from this glimpse into a school?
  • Lee Ann Roripaugh (page 148) compares the gaslighting done by the Trump administration to the kind of gaslighting done by an old person with dementia. What are the implications of that comparison? What is the point she makes about aperture?
  • What does Sandra Steingraber (page 152) mean when she says she’s “not a good German”? What are the implications of that?
  • What has the American flag come to symbolize in this country? What does Yelizabeta P. Renfro (page 156) say is the main difference between the United States and the Soviet Union? What does she say about the flag as a symbol?
  • Look at the fourth paragraph of Lee Herrick’s letter (page 161). He says that nine of the first eleven U.S. Presidents owned slaves. He says that there are 892 active hate groups in this country. Why include those particular facts? What is the overarching point he is making?
  • Allen Gee (page 164) describes the community at the end of the San Luis Pass pier. What is appealing about that community? Have you ever experienced such a community?

135   Lauret Savoy, An American Question
138   Jericho Brown, Duplex
139   Amanda Gailey, Left to Themselves They Tell Lies
143   Anne P. Beatty, Look at the Ways We Work upon Them
147   Diana Babineau, First Picture Day in America
148   Lee Ann Roripaugh, Dear America / Dear Motherland: An Essay in Fractures
152   Sandra Steingraber, Not a Good German
156   Yelizaveta P. Renfro, As American as Turning Your Back on the Flag
161   Lee Herrick, Each One a Bright Light
163   Miriam Marty Clark, What You’d Want to Remember
164   Allen Gee, The End of the Pier
169   Elena Passarello, Receiver, Achiever, Reliever, Believer
174   Jasmine Elizabeth Smith, Drowned and Reborn
176   Chris Dombrowski, To the First of Getting Longer Days
178   Rhina P. Espaillat, Crayons

Consider also:


Ambient Violences and Misogynies

A few talking points:

  • How does Aimee Nezhukumatathil (page 191) use her own life experiences (and those of her parents) to make her point?
  • Sometimes we are confronted with racist/sexist/anti-Semitic symbols or words in our own communities, in places like the grocery store. What are some ways to handle that situation?
  • How do we manage daily necessities of life when it feels like the whole world is burning?
  • How is racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny embedded into our language? Can changing the words we use change our actions?
  • If  you wrote an obituary for America, what would you say?
  • Brenda Hillman (page 204) speaks directly to gun owners. What is the effect of this rhetorical strategy?
  • What rhetorical strategy does Heather Ryan (page 210) use “In Case of Active Shooter” to put the reader in the place of a student hiding in a classroom during an active shooter situation? What is the effect of that strategy?

183   José Angel Araguz, American Studies
185   Robert Wrigley, Somewhere I Have Never Traveled
187   Debbie Weingarten, The Woods and the Weeds
191   Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Something Like Tenderness
195   Blas Falconer, Fatherland
197   Erin Malone, No One Expects an Answer
199   Lesley Wheeler, The South
201   Colleen J. McElroy, To Occupant
203   Victoria Chang, Obit
204   Brenda Hillman, Titration
208   Tod Marshall, Sentinel
210   Heather Ryan, In Case of Active Shooter
218   Alexandra Teague, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”
220   Sholeh Wolpé, Reply All
221   Sandra Meek, Abracadabra

Consider also:


The Power of Panic / The Power of Art

A few talking points:

  • Scott Minar (page 228) says “there are consequences for our actions in the world.” What does he mean by that?
  • What is the purpose of art? Of literature? Of online journals? What can they achieve?
  • Jen Hirt’s essay (page 231) describes a car accident which becomes a metaphor for the Trump administration. What metaphors would you use to describe the current political climate?
  • In Kathryn Miles’ essay (page 241), a young man from Syria asks, “How will I know which of my stories are worth dying for?” How would you answer that question?
  • In Elizabeth Dodd’s essay (page 245), she realizes that the people she buys food from voted for Trump. In the era of a polarized America, divided by Trump, how do we negotiate our everyday lives?
  • Many writers in the book describe earth as home. What are the implications of that? How might thinking of earth as our home change legislation, policy, or design? How might it change our culture?
  • Katheleen Dean Moore (page 253) gives us the image of activists all over the world, always someone working somewhere. She says, “What we cannot do alone, we can do together.” What other writers in this book have talked about this need for community and unity? What might this look like?
  • Michael Branch (page 257) talks about the “immense power of humor to expose misguided values and destructive practices.” Can you think of examples of comedians, talk show hosts, writers, or vloggers who use humor? What do they achieve?
  • Nicole Walker (page 265) says that “if we’re going to be able to change the way people use their vote to vote not only for themselves but for their neighbors or even the betterment of those they have never met but can only imagine, then we’re going to have to tell our individual stories to make that imagination fully sensible.” Can stories teach empathy?

227   Scott Minar, Mortar Shells, Lunch, and Poetry
231   Jen Hirt, I Am the Witness: Accidents in a Time of Trump
235   Rob Carney, Poetic Justice
240   Jane Hirshfield, Spell to Be Said against Hatred
241   Kathryn Miles, Hasten to Understand
245   Elizabeth Dodd, That Corpse You Planted in Your Garden
249   Rose McLarney, Reach
251   Anne Haven McDonnell, In the Wake
253   Kathleen Dean Moore, A Great Dawn Chorus
255   Laura-Gray Street, Storm Season
257   Michael P. Branch, Closing Time
261   Nicole Walker, Shoes
265   Joy Castro, The Little Painter

Consider also:


Images from the Front

A few talking points:

  • How can images communicate in a way that words cannot? What is the power of an image?
  • How do the images in Patri Hadad’s essay (page 277) enhance what she is saying?
  • What are Pete Souza’s credentials? (page 289) Where is he getting his insight and information? Does that put him in a unique position to speak?

272   Dean Rader, In Which Twombly and Rader Consider the Letter
276   Ellen Welti, The Lacunose
277   Patri Hadad, You Are Not the Only America
284   John Gallaher, Jeffersonian 2016
285   Sarah Skeen, To Tell the Past from the Future
289   Pete Souza, Not of the Highest Character
290   Pete Souza, Of the Highest Character

Consider also:


The Power of Satire

A few talking points:

  • In John Price’s essay (page 295), written like a letter to a lover in a toxic relationship, he also includes facts and details about the prairie where he lives. What do we learn about the prairie ecosystems? Why does he include those details? What is his relationship to place?
  • If you were writing a letter to America, what details would you include about the place where you live?
  • Richard Kenney’s poem #donaldcommanderintweet (page 299) draws attention to Donald Trump’s twitter account. Analyze some of the tweets in that account. Are the facts accurate? What’s the tone? What can we learn about the president from this direct communication?
  • Andrew Yang (page 300) creates an index of America. What would you add to that index?

295   Kim Stafford, Presidential Alert
296   John T. Price, We Need to Talk
300   Richard Kenney, #donaldcommanderintweet
301   Andrew S. Yang, America: In Theory and Practice
308   Vince Gotera, Fourteen Donalds
309   Dennis Held, Why I Am Not President: A Campaign Speech
310   Tarfia Faizullah, I Go In


Geographies of Inclusion and Renewal

A few talking points:

  • Sean Hill (page 316) tells the story of a roadtrip with his father, who grew up in the segregated South, and talks later in the piece about the events of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Why does he frame this essay with the story about the roadtrip? What does that story add? His hope seems to be that “perspectives can shift”? What does he mean by that?
  • David Gessner (page 322) argues that saving wilderness is important, even in an overheated world full of violence and racism. Do you agree? Why is it important to save wilderness?
  • Joe Wilkins (page 326) begins his essay by describing a rich, imaginative outdoor experience as a boy. He says, “This is what the land allows, if we let it.” What is to be gained from children spending unstructured time in nature? What do we lose as a culture if they can’t?
  • Lawrence Lenhart (page 329) writes his essay as a letter to his infant son. How would you explain current events and the political climate of this country to a small child? What would be the most important thing you would want future generations to understand?
  • What is the moment in DJ Hollars’ essay (page 334) in which he realizes the role privilege has played in how he’s been treated during his road trip? Have you had such a moment in your life?
  • Both Sean Hill (page 316) and DJ Hollars (page 334) tell us about father-son roadtrips. What are some of the similarities and differences as you compare these essays? What are some of the shifting perspectives?
  • Tim McNulty (page 346) tells the story of the Elwha River Restoration. What are the factors that helped make this happen?
  • How does Camille Dungy (page 355) make a statement about diversity as she talks about biodiversity in her lawn? Can gardening be an act of advocacy?

315   Gary Soto, After His Election, I Make a Zen Garden
316   Sean Hill, The World Is Large and Other Things You Thought You Knew
322   David Gessner, A Still Hopeful Geography
326   Joe Wilkins, New Names
329   Lawrence Lenhart, Dear Milo
334   B. J. Hollars, Geography Lessons
339   Sandra Alcosser, Begin Again
341   Cherene Sherrard, Driftless
345   Arthur Sze, Bridge
346   Tim McNulty, The Elwha: A River and a Vision Restored
350   Jeremy Voigt, Dear Dulce
352   Elizabeth Bradfield, January 8, 2017, Antarctica
355   Camille T. Dungy, Diversity: A Garden Allegory
359   Pam Houston, Hell Bent On

Consider also:


Togethering

Some talking points:

  • John Lane (page 367) tells an anecdote that becomes a metaphor. Aisha Sabatini Sloan (page 369) sends letters and art to electors. What is the power of story, of words, and of art in times like these?
  • Amy Knight (page 372) writes about defending a man who has been charged with felonies for giving humanitarian aid to migrants. Where does she find hope in this situation?
  • Steve and Sophie Church (page 375) show us a letter to the future president, written by an eight-year-old. It’s a list of things she thinks should be changed in the next four years. What would your list look like?
  • Scott Russell Sanders (page 378) talks about how Trump has encouraged Fear of Other. What does he see as the difference between tribalism and empathy, two parts of our evolutionary legacy. What happens when we combine empathy with compassion? How can we defy hatred?
  • Elizabeth Rush (page 384) says “the only personal action that can slow the tide of the climate crisis is to create a coalition that is bigger and more powerful than the individuals of which it is comprised.” Do you agree? What might that look like? How do we make it happen?
  • What advice do these writers give us, moving forward?
  • How does Rick Bass (page 395) weave the plight of the last 25 grizzlies into his essay? How does he get us to care about the grizzlies?

365   Deborah Fries, November 2016, a View from the National Zoo
367   John Lane, High-Dollar Papayas
369   Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Unfold Your Love
372   Amy P. Knight, Thoughts from an Empty Courtroom Following the Hung Jury of a Man Tried for Harboring Migrants
375   Steven and Sophie Church, Letter to the Future President
378   Scott Russell Sanders, Defying Hatred
382   Elizabeth Rush, Dear Soon-to-Be-Sprout
385   Kimiko Hahn, The Augury
386   Catherine Venable Moore, July Fourth
390   Katrina Goldsaito, Dear Katrina
393   Rick Bass, Dinner with America

Consider also:


Special thanks to Janine DeBaise, Terrain.org education editor, for assembling these talking points.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.