When the 36 Albertson College of Idaho students in Dr. Rochelle Johnson's English 301 Advanced Writing course arrived at their first day of class in February of 2003, they received quite a shock. The school-mandated composition program had long been feared as one of ACI's toughest requirements, usually demanding 60 pages worth of intensive research, literary analysis and revealing personal essays from each student over a 12-week semester. But this section was going to be different. Not only would the class be writing collaboratively, and for an audience far bigger than a single teacher, they would also be delving into a topic that is (ironically) off the cultural radar of most ACI students: the town of Caldwell itself, which surreptitiously encases the stately buildings of the private liberal arts college.
"I started off by asking them what they thought of Caldwell--and to be as honest as they could," Johnson recalls. The answers from her captive audience, whose majors were as diverse as their hometowns, were united in negativity--ranging from "there's not much here for us" to ACI being portrayed as a "little island in a terrible community." This response was not unexpected. Indeed, it was the perfect perspective from which to begin Johnson's project of civic rediscovery. "This campus can feel like a very isolated place for most students," she explains, "but that is an illusion. We are part of the Caldwell community whether we like it or not."
In this inclusive spirit, Johnson proposed the class collectively research, assemble and publish a book about Caldwell and the surrounding region as viewed through the lens of Indian Creek, the local waterway on whose banks the town was founded. Residents of today's Caldwell may be shocked by the choice; after all, for decades the creek has been known as little more than a polluted eyesore that town leaders have repeatedly tried to hide from public view. Johnson, however, saw an important story in the dingy current.
"You cannot know a place or love a place without understanding what it is," she explains in a spot-on summation of the budding literary genre in which the book fits--"bioregional biography." "So many of us in America are so rootless and disconnected from the history of our locations. One little creek may seem like nothing, but we can learn about huge elements of natural history and local history simply by focusing on that creek."
The 36 stalwart authors responded accordingly, absorbing local geology texts, histories of Indian tribes and settlers, technical research reports about the influx of cheatgrass on the western landscape and even interviewing longtime neighbors of the creek over the course of the semester. They also visited the creek at several points, both serene and befouled, before putting pens to paper. Sound like a lot to ask of a simple writing course? According to Johnson, that is exactly the point. "Most writing is interdisciplinary," she says, "and most of life is interdisciplinary."
The result of this effort, as well as an additional grueling year of editing, designing and tinkering by Johnson and then-ACI student Cristina Watson, is a slim, 60-page volume deceptively titled Rediscovering Indian Creek--deceptive because it also manages to succinctly encapsulate the last million years of Southern Idaho's physical and political history. The accessible, story-based narrative targets readers from middle school age up, as well as any teachers needing a brush-up. From the Pleistocene through the Transcontinental Railroad, even through recent plans by the City of Caldwell and the Army Corps of Engineers to restore Indian Creek as a centerpiece of the town, the highlights and lowlights of the creek's history are conveyed with a simple, matter-of-fact style that is equal parts conservationist concern and faith that just voicing the story is an ecological victory. This hope is echoed in the book's civic distribution--all but 10 copies were given away to local schools, supporters and visitors to Caldwell's Indian Creek Festival--but also in the way the writers, dubbed the Indian Creek Writer's Collaborative, conclude their self avowed "gift to the community."
"We can only guess at what [Indian Creek] will see next," they state, "but we can come to know and treasure it in the present. There's a story here. Listen to the waters, and you will share in the great music."
For more information about Rediscovering Indian Creek, or to plead for a second printing, call Dr. Rochelle Johnson at 459-5894.