Great Plains Anywhere: Carson Vaughan
This episode of Great Plains Anywhere features Carson Vaughan, the author of "Zoo Nebraska" and a journalist who covers the Great Plains region. His recent works include covering the October 2022 Bovee Fire at the Nebraska National Forest Bessey Ranger district and writing about author Mari Sandoz.
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[00:00:00.150]Welcome to Great Plains: Anywhere,
[00:00:02.130]a Paul A. Olson lecture
[00:00:03.750]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.430]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:08.130]Today we're speaking with Carson Vaughan,
[00:00:09.900]the author of "Zoo Nebraska,"
[00:00:11.310]and a journalist who covers the Great Plains region.
[00:00:14.010]His recent works include covering
[00:00:15.660]the October, 2022 Bovie Fire
[00:00:17.880]at the Nebraska National Forest,
[00:00:19.530]Bessey Ranger District,
[00:00:21.120]and writing about author, Mari Sandoz.
[00:00:23.580]The University of Nebraska is a land grant institution
[00:00:26.670]with campuses and programs on the past, present
[00:00:29.640]and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca, Otoe-Missouria,
[00:00:34.380]Omaha, Dakota, Lakota, Kaw, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples,
[00:00:39.570]as well as those of the relocated Ho-Chunk, Sac and Fox,
[00:00:43.140]and Iowa Peoples.
[00:00:48.870]I mean, for me, the most, I guess,
[00:00:51.390]important part of covering the Plains
[00:00:53.010]is that there's just not
[00:00:54.630]that many of us around to do it. (laughs)
[00:00:57.570]You know, like, I'm born and raised in Nebraska,
[00:01:01.530]went to school here, traveled around, came back,
[00:01:04.950]lived here a little bit longer, and like, you know,
[00:01:07.200]my focus could have strayed at any point along the way,
[00:01:09.690]and sometimes it did,
[00:01:10.650]but it never felt like I was doing as important of work
[00:01:14.250]unless I was looking back at where I came from.
[00:01:17.070]You know, like in Chicago, I'm one of
[00:01:18.870]a million other journalists covering Chicago politics
[00:01:21.870]or Chicago culture or whatever.
[00:01:23.640]I just feel like there aren't enough of us
[00:01:25.860]covering what's important in Nebraska or the Great Plains,
[00:01:29.790]and so that's what keeps me coming back,
[00:01:31.800]and that's like both the challenge of doing it
[00:01:34.380]and also the fun opportunity of doing it.
[00:01:40.440]You know, I've tried to think about that more, like,
[00:01:42.870]in recent years as my career is kind of playing out
[00:01:45.690]and I really don't know if I'd be a writer at all
[00:01:47.940]if I didn't have initially that sense of place
[00:01:51.600]or that, like, sort of rootedness in a particular ecosystem.
[00:01:56.730]Like, I don't always write about the environment,
[00:01:59.190]but I do write about culture in one way or another,
[00:02:02.790]and sometimes I feel like environment falls under the rubric
[00:02:05.460]of culture, or at least the way I look at it.
[00:02:09.990]And I don't like to write if I'm not passionate
[00:02:12.090]about what I'm writing (laughs), you know,
[00:02:13.950]I can do without it if I don't care about it.
[00:02:16.050]And so, yeah, I don't think if I didn't have this, like,
[00:02:19.410]weird fascination with the place that I came from,
[00:02:21.540]and if I wasn't constantly trying
[00:02:22.950]to figure out more about it,
[00:02:24.930]I don't think I would be a writer at all,
[00:02:26.550]so I see the two as sort of, you know, inseparable.
[00:02:33.810]I mean, I've always loved trees
[00:02:35.790]and maybe I've loved them, like,
[00:02:37.740]in the absence of them growing up
[00:02:39.660]in the Sandhills, you know?
[00:02:41.548]I think a big part of it is that I first sort of refound
[00:02:46.470]my weird, obscure passion with the Nebraska National Forest,
[00:02:51.750]and looking at those trees made me start looking
[00:02:53.760]at other trees and, you know,
[00:02:56.790]it led me down this weird rabbit hole.
[00:02:58.590]So, like, the Taylor Juniper tree is something
[00:03:00.480]that I kinda like vaguely knew about growing up.
[00:03:03.300]You know, Taylor is only 45 minutes from Broken Bow,
[00:03:05.820]so I was in that town a lot too,
[00:03:07.950]and I kind of heard stories about it
[00:03:09.330]but didn't know that the Taylor Juniper
[00:03:10.980]is just a weird variation of the eastern red cedar tree,
[00:03:14.730]and the eastern red cedar tree obviously
[00:03:16.500]has a host of problems associated with it,
[00:03:20.280]but at the same time, there's a whole culture
[00:03:22.830]that's grown around this strange variety,
[00:03:25.860]and now, you know, we're sitting here on the, what,
[00:03:28.080]third floor of this building, looking out over Lincoln,
[00:03:30.750]and I'm sure if I looked close enough,
[00:03:32.160]I could point out some Taylor Junipers from here.
[00:03:34.200]Like, they've become a huge landscaping tree.
[00:03:38.250]Everybody loves them. (laughs)
[00:03:40.650]There's this weird history going on
[00:03:42.560]at the Capitol building itself using that tree.
[00:03:46.110]I don't know, it's just another rabbit hole
[00:03:47.790]that I fell into that I kind of love, okay. (laughs)
[00:03:50.580]The Taylor Juniper tree is a very tall,
[00:03:53.280]skinny, evergreen ornamental,
[00:03:57.000]but it's like a random mutation that happened
[00:03:59.040]out in the Sandhills outside of Taylor, Nebraska,
[00:04:03.030]and a landscaper from Columbus, Nebraska, Alan Wilke,
[00:04:06.270]happened to be driving through in the '70s,
[00:04:08.910]pulled off the road,
[00:04:09.840]asked the rancher if he could take a clipping,
[00:04:12.300]and, to make a long story short,
[00:04:13.830]ended up propagating this species through grafting,
[00:04:18.120]commercialized it, and now it's sold all over the country,
[00:04:20.970]but it is just essentially an eastern red cedar tree.
[00:04:28.627]"Zoo Nebraska" is a book about
[00:04:30.870]a small roadside zoo right off of Highway 20
[00:04:34.440]in Northeast Nebraska near a town called Royal,
[00:04:37.020]and a sort of amateur primatologist
[00:04:40.770]who grew up in that town brought all these animals together,
[00:04:45.270]and it grew sort of wildly out of control.
[00:04:48.360]It was started in the late '80s, and by 2005, you know,
[00:04:51.690]there were more animals and mammals in that zoo
[00:04:54.300]than there were people in town.
[00:04:57.390]And, unfortunately, in 2005, the chimpanzees got loose,
[00:05:00.930]ran around town, and it ended very poorly.
[00:05:04.560]The important thing for me though, in writing that book,
[00:05:06.780]is that it wasn't about, like, the novelty
[00:05:08.640]of exotic animals running around small town rural America,
[00:05:12.780]it was about how this small, really small town,
[00:05:16.290]Royal was only 65 people,
[00:05:17.550]how they sort of dealt with having a big attraction
[00:05:20.610]like this zoo and how the town crumbled
[00:05:23.310]at the same time the zoo crumbled.
[00:05:25.260]So you see a lot of, like, small town politics at play
[00:05:27.810]and just the inner workings of, I think, small town life.
[00:05:35.280]You know, the weird thing is,
[00:05:36.113]when I was growing up in Nebraska,
[00:05:38.880]I felt like everybody I knew, when they said Midwest,
[00:05:44.370]they were referring to where we already were. (laughs)
[00:05:47.160]Like, Nebraska to me growing up was the Midwest, fully.
[00:05:50.610]It wasn't until college that I even thought twice
[00:05:54.420]about whether I should call it the Great Plains instead,
[00:05:56.610]and it wasn't until grad school
[00:05:58.050]when I started meeting people who were from Indiana, Ohio,
[00:06:02.430]who would look at me funny
[00:06:03.390]when I said that I was from the Midwest,
[00:06:05.460]and that's when I decided, you know what?
[00:06:07.350]The Great Plains can use a little more love anyway,
[00:06:09.360]I'm gonna start saying I'm from the Great Plains,
[00:06:11.310]and that's where I've landed now,
[00:06:12.720]so I say I'm from the Great Plains.
[00:06:18.630]You know, it might be the space, honestly,
[00:06:20.790]just the openness.
[00:06:23.220]I mean, I hate that to explore it in the way I love most
[00:06:26.400]it requires driving around in a vehicle and wasting gas,
[00:06:29.850]so I'm a bit of a hypocrite when I talk about it like that,
[00:06:32.337]but there's nothing, like, more exciting to me
[00:06:34.500]than being on a road trip, reporting, talking to people,
[00:06:39.060]covering that kind of mileage.
[00:06:41.910]You know, there's not, when you're driving around,
[00:06:44.340]you know, New England, it's beautiful.
[00:06:47.130]A lot of small towns there too,
[00:06:49.080]but they're all so close together
[00:06:50.400]and you don't have these giant expanses,
[00:06:51.870]you don't have the same kind of sunsets.
[00:06:53.520]It's just, like, it's a different environment out here.
[00:06:56.010]Sometimes culturally I find myself asking
[00:06:59.760]whether I'm a great fit for this place or not, you know?
[00:07:03.840]But I've also done enough reporting to know that, like,
[00:07:06.030]for every five people I disagree with,
[00:07:07.740]there's gonna be one person
[00:07:08.730]that I fall in love with, you know? (laughs)
[00:07:09.930]And so, like, I'm certainly not alone out here,
[00:07:13.500]and the environment is something that I will always love.
[00:07:17.970]You know, the love/hate relationship with the culture
[00:07:20.760]is something that I oscillate on all the time,
[00:07:23.880]but I'll always come back around.
[00:07:28.710]People can go to www.carsonvaughan.com.
[00:07:33.360]Fantastic, thank you so much,
[00:07:34.560]we really appreciate it.
[00:07:35.520]Thanks a lot, Katie.
[00:07:37.080]We'd like to thank Carson Vaughan
[00:07:38.430]for speaking with us today.
[00:07:39.930]Find all of our short Great Plains talks and interviews
[00:07:42.570]as videos and podcasts at go.unl.edu/gplectures.
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