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THE IDEA OF THE
We had come to the end of the road. The road itself had been bulldozed out of the northern Manitoba taiga. Because the soil was nothing but coarse gravel and chunks of rock the size of New York, we'd had a rough ride. Now we were just barely across the border into Saskatchewan. I parked our Ford Ranger in front of a small grocery in the Indian village. We could have driven to the right, down to the edge of Reindeer Lake; in that direction the road became a boat launch. We could have gone straight ahead and followed a narrow, grassy path into a stand of spindly trees.
At the lake, a few Indian men were cleaning the baskets used to haul the catch from the fishing boats that docked nearby. A building stood here at the end of the road, at the edge of the world, large enough to pass for a factory; fish from Reindeer Lake were cleaned and frozen and packed for shipping far to the south. Part-way down the slope towards the factory there was an outhouse. I used the modest facilities. Not a man turned from his work to pay us the least bit of attention as we stood in their village, looking at their lake.
My wife and I entered the small co-op grocery which stands like a cairn marking the end of the road. There were two Indian women in the store, stocking shelves, and a little girl helping. They were talking amongst themselves - not French, but the vowels rolled in their mouths as if it were French. We bought ourselves something to drink and a bite to eat and prepared to pay. One of the woman came to the counter to take our money. When she spoke, it was English we were hearing, but it sounded as if she had an egg yolk under her tongue, rounding and softening the language. It was the local English, I suppose, and it had a lovely lilt.
The end of the road is a small Indian village called Kinoosao, set on the east shore of Reindeer Lake. The only businesses we could see in the village were the fish-packing plant and the co-op grocery. There were very modest homes tucked amongst some scraggly trees. The nearest mining community, Lynn Lake, hardly more prosperous now that the mine had closed, was more than forty miles to the east. A town of any substance lay much farther off than that.
There was a greyness
about Reindeer Lake that morning, a grey swell and roll to the waves
blown shoreward; a grey dimness of sun overhead, a grey wind. Were the
women who'd been minding the store surprised that we had come so far
to get a sandwich and soda? They were stoic, expressionless, inside
themselves. We had come so very far the world was now entirely local.
It could not be otherwise.
Weather and love are always and only local, we know that. A storm may blow in off the Great Plains or come screaming down into Wisconsin from Canada, but it means something to us only when it's here, upon us. As with love, there is a lot of weather we don't notice, weather we take for granted. The fiery passion that explodes in us, the throb, the sear - that, we may think, is love. The tornado is weather, but so is the pale blue humming day. A slight breeze in the leaves, just a faint rustle in the leaves, so quiet you'd hardly notice. A thousand days on the quiet horseback of commitment, that is love, as much as a ride on the hard-charging stallion of passion. One can recognize both and can reconcile them; one can love the passion and can love the quiet commitment, can love the winter storm blowing and love the quiet green day.
Once upon a December morning here in Wisconsin you could have seen a full moon hanging in the western sky while the sun paused, poised just above the horizon in the east. The sky between sun and moon was powder blue, fresh and fragile as young love. The blanket of snow in the fields was not deep enough to hide the rubble of corn stalks. The day was pretty enough to take your breath away, but was not so cold that it would. You could have seen this, but you needed to be here and you'd have to come with an open spirit.
On a recent Friday night, my wife and I dined American, definitely American, at a Country Kitchen in nearby Ripon. On Saturday evening we ate at an Italian restaurant in Appleton. For lunch on Sunday, at an East Indian restaurant in Milwaukee. With only an hour's drive, or an hour and a half, we had gone 'round the world. (Or perhaps the world has gone 'round us.) There are many who live in our village and many I work with who are not the least bit interested in other foods, other cultures. Why is that? Why did one Iowa farm boy develop a hunger for the great wide world, while so many others do not? For one thing, I was fortunate to have wider experience as a result of my schooling. Where my fellows saw only more of the same, I got to see a little something different, I got to taste more than meat and potatoes. I think sometimes our families and schools keep our children pretty circumscribed, too much so. At least that seemed to be the case as I was growing up during the grey-Republican-white-bread 1950s. It may still be true today in homogenous communities both rural and urban where everyone looks the same, eats at the same restaurant, watches the same television, shops in the same Walmart. Interesting things happen where differences rub up against each other. Too much difference is sometimes explosive, but too much sameness suffocates.
I'm not sure I'd argue that a wide and catholic taste is morally superior to one more circumscribed, but I will say it is more interesting. Notice that "interest" may be the operative part of the word here. Many local folk are not interested in an outside world; they have not experienced anything different. Likewise many outsiders are not interested in this local world; they don't know we're here or they've never been invited. Interest or lack of it may not be a moral issue, but one cannot understand the "other" if he knows nothing of it. And I might have to say that wide understanding is morally superior.
This is a knife that cuts both ways. An intense interest in the local, in the particulars of a particular region, is a good pathway to the rest of the world. If one doesn't know his own land, I doubt he will be interested in knowing another? Conversely, those who have little interest in the larger world tend to dismiss their own terrain, I think. If the door has closed, it has closed for everything.
Sometimes understanding comes suddenly. Bending at the kitchen counter to get a coffee filter when preparing to brew a pot of morning java, all of a sudden I was transported. I was sitting in a Thai restaurant, elbow deep in a plate of Pad Thai. Bending at the cupboard, I had gotten my nose close to our spice drawer and I was drawn to the place the smell of spices took me. That is "local" - being close enough that it can grab hold and take you.
"Local" has been used as a term of disparagement. It is used to mean second-rate, primitive, not good enough to run with the big dogs, not as important or urgent or central as that which happens elsewhere - urban or academic or east of the Hudson River. Yet Shakespeare was local, Mark Twain was. Our good Southern writers. Henry David Thoreau could not be more local. We've simply moved such folks into a wider realm and appreciate them for other qualities.
What does "local" mean? In the first sense, simply "relating to place." In the second, "characteristic of or confined to a particular place." And, in the third instance, "restricted, narrow, confined." Here is where the disparagement arises, perhaps; yet here, too, maybe, is where the local ought to be celebrated: where it is most clearly restricted and confined as opposed to leveled or generic.
Local - here. My own walk, as Basho says, which I sweep. Local winds. Locally heavy snow. A local habitation.
Is the sky cosmopolitan? Is fog always local? Saturated greyness, a murky light here this morning. Cosmopolitan geese.
Do not even think about putting your cosmopolitan horse in my local barn, the farmer's wife warns the traveling salesman.
Local auction. Local action. Location. Here.
A local girl. Plain of face. Stringy brown hair hanging down to her shoulders. A curve and slump to her shoulders. She holds her bar stool 'til closing time, looks at the last fellow leaving. She says, "Well - you want to?" You know they have before, never for money and it never means anything, but for a few brief moments there is some warmth in her emptiness and she has something to cling to. Local.
Sometimes the stranger has the easier part of it, for he is fresh and mysterious. And temporary. The girls might think there is some special thrill to be had in putting one's finger right to the knife edge of the unfamiliar.
As in the rest of life, the choice is between thrill and comfort. Most of us do not want the uncertainty: we want the same thing tomorrow we had yesterday.
Local means not getting away with anything when you're growing up. Everyone knew your dad. "You're a Montag boy, aren't you, son?" they'd say. In such a world, there is no place you can run, there is no place to hide. It's like the Hotel California, only it's Iowa, or Wisconsin, or some place in South Dakota.
Recently I went back to the place I grew up. I had been away for thirty-five years. I was out walking, I'd gone out of town to where our farm had been a mile to the south. I was coming back into Curlew, Iowa. Across the street a fellow sees me, he waves, calls out "Hey! Are you a Montag?"
A day later I am
walking again, headed west out of
That kind of local.
Local is the idea of the township. A piece of ground six miles wide by six miles tall, thirty-six square miles. The township is a unit of government of appropriate size, I think: you can care for that which you can see. From your hump of ground in the center of the township you can see three miles in any direction.
Local is that which makes us what we are. Without it, we'd be soup without salt, generic white bread, grey meat in a grey sauce.
How and why do we come to love a place? Is it simply knowledge - learning the rhythms of the place, seeing its day-to-day changes? Does the place seep into us, and then hold us with tender claws? Sometimes we love a place, I think, simply because we're there; we defend it because it's ours. I find it difficult to argue that one place is inherently better or worse than any other place? That would be like talking about weeds: a weed, quite simply, is a plant growing somewhere you don't want it to grow. Yet I can't say definitively that tomato is essentially better than burdock.
So the character of our place may matter less than the fact that it is ours. Do the Inuit feel that way? Do Californians? Do shepherds at the very southern tip of Patagonia feel that way? We say: "This is mine, I shall love it."
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, the poet Ducle Maria Loynaz chose to stay in Cuba. In a 1997 profile of Loynaz, Ruth Behar said that as a person of privilege the poet could have fled her country but she did not. Her husband left Cuba in 1961 and did not return for eleven years; still Loynaz refused to go. Hers was a fierce patriotism and a fierce devotion to her place, her house, her world. The cost of her decision: silence and oblivion. I have to ask: what is this love of place that runs so deep a woman gives up so much to stay?
On the other side of it, far to the north, I am reminded of the young Indian fellow I'd met along Lake Hanson Road between Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The driver for the Gray Goose Buslines would not let the fellow on board, he might have been drinking. The Indian looked as if he owned nothing and had little he could hope for and perhaps he had been drinking. As he rode south with us towards Prince Albert, he'd throw a beer bottle out the window, sure, vvvippp, and not bat an eye. Yet he was intensely proud to report that a school for students from Kindergarten through 12th Grade was going to be built in his remote community within the next few years. He had nothing, but he had his place, and a fierce love for it.
I love my own piece of ground. I want to know it, to dive into it so deep I may never make it back to the surface. I want to get hold of it so tightly all the people will say I am obsessed by it. I want to be obsessed by it. There is so much in life I have failed to notice, failed to appreciate. Now I want to be obsessed by the land hereabout, by the people on the land, by what was and is and will be. I don't care much if you think my song is that of a mad man singing - I want to sing it. Why?
Why? What brings me to this point?
The image of my grandmother in her kitchen baking bread, the light behind her, her silhouette could be Anywoman, Everywoman. She made pies for sale at the food stand in Father Doberstein's "Grotto" in West Bend Iowa; she took in laundry; she put up boarders in her big old house in the shadow of the elevator at West Bend. Her husband had died too young. She took care of herself then.
Long light on an Iowa cornfield after harvest, sun against corn stalks, corn dust dancing in lazy whirlwinds, a horse in the field just aching to be ridden breakneck down the length of the field.
The way light lays on hay drying in the summer field. The howl and rage of a blizzard sweeping through our January dreams. The mud and muck of a wet spring season, the soft roads.
The muck and stain of what we are - I want to push my nose in it, rub my face in it, stink of what it is we stink of here, locally.
When we choose the local, we choose the limitations of what is here and now. Given such limitations, how do we transmute what we have so it speaks to strangers?
"Theme" would be a river running through the land. It includes everything we can see from the river and everything we can lure to the river to be seen. We stand at the prow of the boat heading upriver, speaking of that which stands at river's edge, and those who listen are limited, obviously; they are ignorant in some areas. Some things they cannot know at all, for they are on the river and not ashore. Other things they cannot know because they have not lived amongst us these many years. Some things they cannot see for their own local biases blind them, just as our biases here blind us to that which seems obvious to fresh eyes.
Perhaps we can lure some of the travelers ashore. Let them take coffee in the cafe downtown, or have a beer with the boys at the local watering hole. Let them step amongst us as we are. Often the passengers prefer to stay on the boat, out of inertia and obstinance. Sometimes they stay on the boat out of fear. How will they be treated? Is the food safe? Are the streets clean? Why do those people seem so different from us?
Some may think they are too good to come ashore; they live with disdain in their hearts. I am reminded of the supposedly cosmopolitan writer who, when visiting middle western Milwaukee twenty five years ago, had to bask in the sun out on the lawn, stretched out and oiled, goofy hat, bare chest, his cool sunglasses and his eastern smugness. Yet, when asked if he'd walk fifteen or twenty yards to look at a humble garden, he sniffed and said: "I am not a Nature Boy." Neither was he sensitive to the rules of conduct in a place not his own. Here you never tell a fellow you don't want to see his garden. The worst part about visitors is that sometimes they are boors.
The idea of the local is the story of what one knows. Think of the square certainty of Iowa farm. The rough edginess of a Wyoming ravine. The sweep of mountain in Montana. The fluid roll of northern streams and lakes. Just because you can get across Chicago doesn't mean you can canoe the Churchill River from the Saskatchewan border all the way to Hudson Bay. Just because you can feed cattle on an Iowa farm doesn't mean you can round them up on the open range.
There is value in this local knowledge - it is how a fellow survives in his country. The pain comes when an outsider denigrates its value as unnecessary or irrelevant or unimportant, when we start to see the world through the eye of the television camera and start believing our lives should be like the lives of everyone else. In the first instance, let's drop the fellow into a ravine in the middle of Wyoming or on a mountain in Montana and watch him learn the value of the local knowledge. He may need to learn fast if he is to survive. In the second instance, as John Prine said, blow up your TV! The last thing we should wish, I think, is that we all live in the same houses, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, have the same lovers. The spice of the local - yours, mine, and theirs - can brighten our lives in a thousand ways we seldom wish to imagine. We open ourselves to it.
Some of us look at the world and understand it by generalizing from particulars; if we hug these generalities too tightly, we might end up in a generic haze, we might end with dishwater soup. Others of us understand the world by understanding one small part of it. Rather than trying to make this fit the rest of the world, we try to understand the rest of the world through the lens of this. When we run from such particulars, why do we run? Are we embarrassed that we are not so cosmopolitan as the rest of the fellows? Is the cloth of our coat too rough, are our suits cut funny? Why do we think someone far away should tell us how it ought to be? Blow up your TV. Cancel your subscription to everything but the local paper - and cancel that, too, if the editor is overly fond of AP or UPI. Go to a church social, a school picnic, a fireman's barbecue. Join your local historical society. Go across the street and meet your neighbor.
The difference between my "local" and yours is in part the difference between what's on my mind and what's on yours. Certainly like Robert Frost's hired men we have to make allowances for each other's ignorance. I do not know your place so well as you do. Perhaps, accordingly, we should shut up about everything but our own piece of ground, our own half acre. Then we should spend the rest of our time listening to each another carefully.
Geography is the key, the crucial accident of birth, Annie Dillard tells us. The landscape shapes a piece of protein, she suggests, as a bowl shapes water. Geography is the limiting factor. What any of us can become, Dillard says, depends so much on currents of air warm and cool, on water fresh and salty, on soils rich and poor, on desert and forest and delta and jungle and plain. And if you reach through geography, she says, you grasp geology. The Negev Desert is a local geological condition. It is, she has us believing, a matter of rocks.
You cannot get more local than stone.
If you are transplanted into the village, there are secret codes here you are not privy to. There is a dance to which you are not invited, in which village residents work through a hundred fifty years of slights and injuries and what your-grandfather-did-to-my-grandfather sorts of issues. As a transplant who has lived here for fewer than twenty-five years, there are places I am still an outsider.
Fairwater is a village of three hundred people, three taverns, two feed mills, a lumberyard, a car dealership, a post office. Have I forgotten anything? The grain elevator downtown at Stellmacher's is often painted with the long morning light. Some mornings it glows. It stands out as an emblem of the middle west like no other. Along the railroad tracks, where golden corn piles up like money, there is always the grain elevator. The more you know of it, the more you know of us.
What is an emblem? An emblem is a representation, a visible symbol of a class of things or ideas. An icon that stands in for all the particulars of a type. If we identify our emblems here we identify ourselves - who we are, what.
Our emblems: those things of which we are proud, those things we celebrate, those things we do every day. Part of what distinguishes Harrisville, Wisconsin, from Almond, Wisconsin, is the difference between the Harrisville Bratwurst Festival and the Almond Tater Toot.
Other local emblems? The railroad depot? The cemetery? Post office, school house, church? Which institutions matter, really matter, in our lives. Would we include the tavern? The theater? An eating place? What of the fishing spot, the swimming hole, the hunting shack? Our food plots? Our local newspaper? Where is it we see the spirit of our people? In our kinds of houses? In the hospitals where we are born? In the buildings where we send our old people to die?
We should watch for the wear marks in life, I think. We should find where things are creased, where the paint has been worn off, where is the ground bare, the grass pounded to nothing by the passing of many feet.
An old farmer has a few beers in him; you know to give him some room. You know you don't want to get in the way of any girl who can handle four thousand pounds of horse flesh at the local fair, winning her class in the horse pull. Seeing a certain kind of sunset, you get a lump in your throat, the silhouette of a farmstead against the orange glow, a barn and silo and house, a grove of trees. You see the long autumn light of late afternoon and you ache; the light lays across the cornfield; some of the corn has been harvested, some of it has not; the light is the color of the corn stalks; the light is the color of corn dust in the air. The air is the color of light, of sky, of wind, of apples, of leaves turning. That kind of lump in your throat. That kind of local.
In the end, each of us has only his own heart, her own. What moves us or may move us varies, depending on genes and childhood experience and our adult desires. Think about how the world has changed: in the 1950s, we took what we got and were glad for it - clothes were handed down from cousins, a bottle of Royal Crown Cola to celebrate the 4th of July was the only soda all year. Now even the poorest, most remote citizen watches television, sees everything, wants it all. It is small wonder the world rattles its sword against fear and the perception of unfairness. Every day we are shown that which we do not have. How can I be happy? My life is nothing like what I see on TV. The great leveling of dreams leaves us all that much poorer. Won't you take me back to the time and place when I had nothing, yet everything seemed possible. That local.
My wife has said it: "If you stay in one place long enough, finally you understand the rocks." If we stay put year after year we can see the generations whole, we can see what used to be, compared to what is; we can see how changes to our roads change our lives; we can see our investment of ourselves in the place reflected back at us.
We can see the neighbor's children from birth to their first day of school, to their first car, graduation, their wedding, their first child. If we stay, yes, we do see the procession of our generations. Yet often, in an America that has become very mobile, many are not in such a position.
If we stay, we can compare this winter to other winters. We can see a house going up on farmland this year, can remember which house went up last year, and which a few years before that; and we can compare what is there now to what was on the land twenty years ago, twenty-five years, thirty. The old geezers who have lived here all their lives, they have something on us; they have a connection to the personal, living history of the place; they have already forgotten more than the casual traveler will ever know. We can compare the color of the trees this autumn, the flame and sear of this year's leaves, to other years. Such knowledge creates resonance - it is not simply this year's loveliness we're seeing, but a parade of color down through the decades. We can see all of nature's palette, not just a single version. We can see what was becoming what is: the hills eroding; the fields filling with trees as the forests migrate across the landscape; grasses and bald spots playing hopscotch; rivers and streams changing course.
We can see how our changing roads have altered the connections between us, how our relationships are affected. When an Interstate goes through, dividing a farm into two distinct pieces, cutting neighbor off from neighbor, then people who live less than a mile from each other easily become strangers. Good roads mean one can shop wherever one wishes; as a result, the nature of our villages and cities is altered forever. Seeing changes to our roads we are looking at changes in ourselves.
If we invest ourselves in a place, we start to see ourselves reflected back at us. I think of the work my wife has put into the village of Fairwater, serving as mayor and on its board. The dam washed out and was replaced under her watch; the pond was dredged; the pump house was enlarged and modernized. Her hands have on them the gooey clay of this place and there is some of her that has gone back into the soil.
You do not truly know a place, perhaps, until your bones become part of its soil; until your dollar's worth of metals and minerals becomes part of the grass and trees, until the smell that was you becomes the breeze. You stay in one place long enough, you become the place. Local.
I am an insignificant cog in the great wheel of life, I know that. The world turns, with me or without me. I'm not sure why I have such keen interest in my little part of the world, and a keen interest for others parts too, when those around me sometimes seem to be sleep-walking through their roles, not relishing what they have, not anticipating what they might find elsewhere.
The celebration of the local is a celebration of an openness and an acceptance. I have what I have, I am where I am, I accept that. Such a spirit finds interests in other regions, too. Such openness allows one to pursue and know and love that which can be encountered elsewhere.
I am torn sometimes, really torn. I remember back a couple of decades, to the little Maryland town outside of Camp David. The Camp David Peace Accord had just been signed. TV reporters wanted the local angle, one of them asked a man on the street for his reaction. "What has this to do with me?" the fellow said. "How does this change my life?" This is a proper response, on the one hand; we should be immersed in our own place, our own business, our teeming lives. Yet on the other hand everything is connected to everything. If I dismiss the Camp David Peace Accord, what else am I pushing away from?
Perhaps it is a matter of balance: we have to care and not-care. We have to be open to the new and the strange and the foreign, yet we must not be swallowed entirely by it. It is so easy to be smug when you've got what you think you want. You give up looking, you close up, you lose awe and appreciation, you can no longer love your own place nor any other place.
We must learn to say "Ah" again.
We must learn to say "Yes."
The most local thing of all is what goes on in each of our hearts, what goes on within us. We are, at root, a world of one. Basho says "Sweep your own walk." If I understand and accept my little piece of the world, I make peace with the world entirely. The challenge is understanding and accepting even this piece, these few square miles I see every day.
The journey into the heart of your country is a journey into your own heart. As much as you watch the passing landscape, that much you must watch yourself. To understand what the place is, you must understand yourself.
It is 2:30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in January. My wife and I are returning from a good long walk in the country. As we enter the village and turn towards home, we stop to talk with a neighbor who is clearing slush and ice from his driveway. Our spell of intense cold has broken. It is cold still, but it is good to be outside.
"Look at the ice on the trees," our neighbor says. Late the previous week, everything had been coated with a layer of ice. "That's real pretty," he says. "If the sun would come out, it'd make a nice picture."
"Until the sun melts the ice off the branches," my wife counters, always the realist.
"Well, I'd enjoy it for that couple of minutes," the fellow says. Then, like a Zen master, he turns back to chipping at the ice in his driveway.