Rachael Button / Dave Jordano

Sense of Place

Choice, Minnesota  

Today, I stopped
in Choice,
where aster,
blazing star
bloom straight
to highway’s shoulder.

Why do any of us choose?
job, lost
love, lost

plane ticket,

poem to write,
whim to stop.

I pulled over
in Choice
clicked on hazard lights
stepped out

it seemed wrong
not to stop
in shadow
of bluffs

road lined by prairie plants,
at the bottom of lush valley:
a choice place to live.

I came here to write,

weave backroads
stop at roadside markets.
I came here to ask:
is Midwest home?

Today, I stopped
in Choice,
smelt rain,

rising scent of soil:
humidity on the cusp
of breaking.



Witness Trees

1-Olympic National Park, WA:

Seven springs ago,
I climbed
into western red cedar


soft bark,
mist, moss
63 feet around, 174 feet high
the biggest tree I’d ever seen
the greenest place I’d ever been.

Is it any wonder, the next day, I ended a relationship
I’d outgrown?
I love you, but.

What is courage of words,
next to the courage of weaving
shallow roots in soil,
gathering girth,
reaching for sun
standing up
to ocean storms?

2-Sylvania Wilderness, Michigan:

In Sylvania,
latin for “forest land”
I visited
Michigan’s girthiest red pine

“the champ”
a giant
spared from logging

holding secrets
in hard-wood,
stories of old growth
mothering forest.

When surveyors first measured this land
they choose witness trees,
trees that mapped
Michigan, Midwest,
trees that mapped
time passing
land changing.

A champ this big
can’t fit in arms

of tree-hugging
I let myself be caught,
held, hugged,
contained by branches,
tangling hair,
snarling sap,
smelling pine.

3-Caledonia, Minnesota:

Seven springs ago, I climbed
into cedar, broke up,
played explorer where Pacific Ocean
met old growth,

This summer
married, thinking of moving Midwest
I stood under
Minnesota’s largest pin oak,
centerpiece of Evergreen cemetery.
branches extending,
like straight spokes,
shadowing ground below.

A single old tree
near highway shoulder,
guardian of lives lived,
days gone by.

That cedar I visited in Washington fell down in 2014
after 1,000 years
of standing,
a storm split it,
nurse stump
to saplings and ferns
15,000 cubic feet of wood,
will return
to soil.

The pin oak in Caledonia
has conks
“butt rot” which will weaken
from roots to twigs
soil to sky–

a storm could take its weakened branches

but now it safeguards
a Minnesota cemetery,
witnessing to the way we turn
from humans to hummus,
breath and blood
to earth, ripe for roots.

It stands in graveyard
while a champ grows in Michigan,
and cedar decays in Washington

Someday, these trees will be gone,
but now
I retrace

beneath them,
national park, wilderness, cemetery,
climber, skier, wandering writer looking for home
witness, not rooted
but still reaching,
searching for a place to grow.




I went skating with my husband
behind his parents’ house.
Starting slow, circling
then following the river,
skating beneath limestone bluffs,

bridges webbed by swallows’ nests.

I watched Peter jump
ice shelf to ice shelf
over open water
sticking landings
like a figure skater
gone feral.

His skates scraped a song
while mine stuttered.

We carried no dry socks, no phone.
But when Peter grabbed my hand, asked
“Are you okay with this?”
I nodded.

Five years ago, I fell in love with
a man who grew up Driftless,
A place that wasn’t pressed by glaciers, but carved by rivers,
lowland forests which missed the last ice age.

We skated Canoe Creek
until the way back became longer than the way forward.
Nesting eagles, ancient white pines, river frost
the sound of my skates carving a path.

Six miles later, we left the creek
got carried with our skates still on
by a farmers’ skid-loader
to a barn with a space heater

where a neighbor let us use his phone.
This is how some adventures end:
red-cheeked, damp, waiting for a ride.

When my husband says he’s from Iowa:
people think of flat land
seeded with corn, soy–and dreams that follow
straighter paths than ours,
But they don’t know the Driftless:
rivers carving bluffs,
rivers smoothing rocks,
rivers carrying silt,
carrying skates, carrying our bodies
away and back to begin again.


Detroit — Unbroken Down 

Detroit is my hometown, but I’ve been gone for over three decades. As a child growing up, my dad, who worked all his life for General Motors, used to joke and say that we had motor oil in our veins. Even after all these years I still believe there is some truth to what he said.

These photos are my reaction to all the negative press that Detroit has had to endure over the years. I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about, and like everyone else I was initially drawn to the same subjects that other photographers were interested in; the crumbling factory interiors, the empty lots and burned out houses that consume a third of the city, and the massive commercial infrastructure. It took me a week of shooting this kind of subject matter to make me realize that I was contributing nothing to a subject that most everyone already knew much about, especially those who had been living there for years.

To counter this, I began looking at the various neighborhoods within the city and the people who live within them. This human condition, while troubled, struggles and copes with the harsh reality of living in a post-industrial city that has fallen on the hardest of times. It does thrive. Detroit is not the city of death and decay that gets reported in the news, but one that shows signs of positive human activity and movement. However, notwithstanding the recent press about Detroit’s efforts to rebound from its recent bankruptcy, which is in all ways promising, my focus continues to rest on the current conditions that affect many of those who have fallen through the cracks, forgotten and marginalized poor people whose fate will only be worsened by the present economic down turn, ensuring months and years of continued hardship with little or no assistance in sight.

Whatever that outcome may be, I’ve found that most Detroiters wear their pride for the city they live in much like a badge of courage, defying all odds, openly admitting that if you can survive here, you can survive just about anywhere.

My hope is that this work will convey in many ways that Detroit is a city made up of many small communities, all building a way of life through perseverance, hope, and sheer determination. A city clinging to the vanished ideals of urban oasis that once hailed itself as one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in America, at one time a model city for all others to follow, but one which has now fallen from grace.

This project bares witness to the fact that Detroit is not a story about what’s been destroyed, but more importantly about what’s been left behind and those who are left to cope with it.


Rachael Shay Button is a writer, teacher, & place-based educator.  She’s from Metro-Detroit but currently lives in Washington where she teaches science in Olympic National Park.  She wrote “Choice, MN,” “Witness Trees,” and “Fluvial” during her time as a citizen artist at Crystal Creek in Houston, MN.

Dave Jordano has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is included in the permanent collections of several private, corporate, and museum institutions, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Library of Congress and The Detroit Institute of Arts. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.