On October 2, 2002, I left
a career in the printing industry to devote myself full-time over five
years to "Vagabond in the Middle: An Expedition Into the Heart of
the Middle West," an attempt to elucidate what it is that makes us
middle western. The project is an exploration of place on a wide scale,
across the tall grass prairie from western Ohio to the eastern half of
the Plains states. I want to identify the "middle western" characteristics;
but, more importantly, I want to find the stories in our lives that illustrate
those characteristics. This will be literature, not sociology; it will
be creative nonfiction, not scientific report.
I have selected for special study one "focus community" in each
of the twelve middle western states: Eaton, Ohio; Fowler, Indiana; L'Anse,
Michigan; Ripon, Wisconsin; Vandalia, Illinois; Maysville, Missouri; Emmetsburg,
Iowa; Alexandria, Minnesota; Rugby, North Dakota; Redfield, South Dakota;
West Point, Nebraska; and Smith Center, Kansas. I will attempt to: (1)
understand the history of each community from both the written sources
and by way of oral history; (2) understand the current situation of each
community by analyzing the content of each community's newspaper over
a five year period; (3) understand the character of each community's residents
by way of a written survey, formal interviews, and informal conversation;
and (4) spend several weeks to several months in each community, observing
the life and rhythms of each place. This last I call "poking about."
William Least Heat Moon might call it "deep history." Vagabond
will always be about the true stories of our lives, here; the effort will
be a sustained expedition.
Yes, I want the results of this effort to be creative nonfiction, not
scientific report. I expect to extend themes I laid out in the memoir
of my Iowa farm childhood, Curlew:Home. Who are we and what are
the middle western emblems common across our area, I want to ask. Landscape,
environment, people, and history all factor into the definition of the
middle west, all shape what we've become. In coming to understanding,
I expect to mix interview and personal experience, history and geology,
essay and journal entry and meditation. I'll walk, I'll drive, I'll listen,
I'll read, I'll listen some more, I'll watch. Always I will be looking
for the stories that tell us what is it that makes us who we are. I will
burrow into the life of each community, to find the stuff it is made of;
I will record that, then compare the communities to determine what they
hold in common, what they keep as difference. There will necessarily be
a peeling back of the surface sheen of the landscape to see what pulses
beneath, to understand the land not in some generic, historical sense,
but in terms of particular lives lived here. The truly local: these lives,
in their times, in these places.
My reading of Wallace Stegner has helped solidify "place" as
a central element in my thinking. Though he is a westerner, his insights
have helped me start to understand the place I love, both a particular
piece of common ground and the middle west generally. Stegner has suggested
that no place has a history until it has had its poet. I suggest that
no poet has a place until he or she knows its people, those who walked
their tracks onto the landscape, stood watch in the lonely evening waiting
for a husband to come in from the field, to come back from the pineries,
from a truck route, to come home. To come to understanding we need to
return again and again to our essential and true images, humble as they
may be; for me, a certain kitchen, the sun at a certain angle at this
latitude and longitude a certain time of year, the house set on a certain
piece of ground in the shadow of the grain elevator, West Bend, Iowa,
1955. Such elements cling to our memories, are not easily teased away
from them. Such elements are everywhere in our lives.
I want to walk in the middle west with love, talk in the rain, sit on
a bench in the sun in front of the court house. I want everything I write
of it to be true, hard-edged where it needs to be, bitter, sweet, bitter-sweet.
Who are these people we meet in bus station and restaurant and coming
out of the Dollar General store? Salt of the earth? Yes, I expect I shall
meet men and women who are salt of the earth, plain as dirt, soft-spoken
as an evening breeze. I shall meet some cowards, too, I suppose, some
con men and hustlers. Some sinners and some saints. I want to find them
all and tell their stories, those who will represent us.
I agree with Gretel Ehrlich's notion of landscape "not as a fixed
place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet."
There were twenty questions developed years ago now by Leonard Charles,
Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley as bioregionalism was
emerging as a movement, questions that ask one to "trace the water
you drink from precipitation to source" (#1) and to identify "what
spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live"
Uncovering the answers to these "bioregional" questions will
help me define an organic sense of these places I've selected for study.
Such questions are a good place to start my journey. Then, as with my
memoir, Curlew: Home, I trust the world will reveal itself. Themes will
emerge. Stories will unfold.
Life is not all fear and trembling. Life is not all a falling into the
blackness of the void. Out here in the middle, we take joy in some simple
things, don't we? Do we have a practical stoicism, an aloofness to pain
that allows us to get on with living? Yet is there of us a sweetness and
innocence that sometimes goes bitter when taken advantage of? Is our tendency
here to engage the world with our hands, rather than words, ideas? Do
we ask ourselves "Are we good enough?"
I want to find the stories, the true stories, that answer such questions
as I encounter. I want to tell those stories, I want to come to understanding:
who are we, of what are we made? How will our stories be shaped? I don't
know, but I am looking, I am listening, I am waiting with patience. We
are patient here, waiting for the peas to bloom, for the corn to silk,
for harvest to come, for the seasons to turn. I am plenty patient upon
such an expedition. I can sift and sort, wait for revelation, wait for
understanding. As sure as harvest follows the fullness of summer, revelation
and understanding will come; my task will be to report what I find as
true as is humanly possible.