Saturday, August 2, 2008

(Just Slightly) Hopelessly Midwestern

Now, I was born a New Englander. A Yankee by birth, most specifically, a New Hampshireman. I like it that way, and I’ve always been proud to be from this far northeast corner of the country. I love it here -- unashamedly owning as my spiritual and physical home.

At 18, I moved away. I did not intend to be away for long. I expected to go to college, get my egdeykayshun, and then move back to New Hampshire. As I said, I love it here, and knew that I always wanted to live here. It is good, though, for a young man to strike out for parts unknown, to get away from home to make his way in the world, and that is what I did. To my surprise, it took my 21 years to find my way back. I didn’t exactly get lost. I know pretty much where I was the whole time. The most surprising thing about the whole escapade is where I spent the time.

Given my interests and inclinations, one would have thought that I might have gone to…Colorado or Wyoming. Perhaps Idaho, or maybe even Alaska. Nope. I went Midwestern. 5 years in Indiana. 9 Years in Michigan, and 7 more in Wisconsin. I was not trapped, nor held hostage. No. My time there was by choice and to a certain degree a matter of expedience. A man has to make a living, and sometimes it just makes sense to take what’s offered.

Now there is an assumption that easterners look down on folks from the Midwest as parochial, excessively nice and not too bright. It’s a myth borne out by television, which seems to be mostly written by people who actually feel that way. Folks in the Midwest, who seem to function under the general misapprehension that the entire east coast is New York City, reciprocate the feelings. My upbringing was culturally half a continent away from New York City, even though geographically I spent my childhood a only a good day’s drive from the Big Apple. So when I moved to the Midwest, I actually found the culture generally to my liking. The landscape grew on me.

I grew up among forested hills and mountains. I drove 2 lane roads, and played in streams and wooded glades. Agriculture in New England has been a fairly limited institution for many years now. Most farmers left long ago for Wisconsin. A few hardy souls remained and so occasionally, I would get to play on farms with cows, horses, pastures and barns. Still, I knew nothing of straight roads, soybean fields, and long low straight horizons.

The landscape of the Midwest tends toward the simple, pastoral and orderly. It has little of the wild messiness of the northern woods. Of course, this changes, as you move up into northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Those areas actually share many similarities to the woods of northern New England. Below those areas, though, the countryside is dominated by agriculture. You can see it from an airplane. Fields tilled and orderly in their patchwork quilt layout. Roads set in Cartesian order, east by west and north by south. The countryside is mostly composed of fields dotted with patches of woodland or brushstrokes of forest where a river or stream may cut through. It tends to roll gently, except in places where the glaciers left drumlins, moraines and other features that make for more abrupt elevation changes. They are small by the standards of both east and west, but large when compared to the surrounding landscape, which makes my point. There are not much in the way of mountains.

I came to love it though. For itself. It is what it is, and it has it’s own beauty, if you are willing to look for it. It is not wild. It is settled land, cared for and used by generations. That use is good. There is a tendency to romanticize wilderness, as if that is the only form of landscape that deserves to be though beautiful. But the world is made for humanity, and humans live in it, and when it is used well, it is beautiful. I learned to see that during my time in the Midwest. This ability to see the terrain for what it is, and accept it, and appreciate it – this ability is one of the things that made all that time away from my home more than bearable. For I always that whole time, still considered New Hampshire my home. It has always been my first love. Yet, I opened my eyes and my heart and came to appreciate the Midwest for itself, and I am glad for my time there.

And, you see, it’s not just the shape of the soil and the rocks. It is also the people and the culture. My upbringing was shaped first by Puritans, then by English merchants classes, and then by French immigrants, and all their descendants. There is an odd combination of assumed sophistication (The Puritan institutions ironically gave birth to the Universal Unitarians, for instance – to me the supreme example of people who are just way to smart for their own good) and bedrock flinty self-sufficiency (Local democracy still rules supreme through the town meeting – a form of government notoriously cumbersome, but very entertaining).

In the regions of the Midwest where I lived, I experienced heavy influence of German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Dutch culture. The people are mostly openly social and communitarian (as opposed to independent) and religious (as opposed to intellectual). It’s not that they don’t believe in self-sufficiency or that they aren’t smart. It’s just that the emphasis lies in a different place. We're all American, so the words we use still come from the same books. It's just that the accent of the culture falls on different syllables. And, I must say, my wife and I came to love it very much. We made so many good good friends, and got used to the warmth and open easy hospitality that seemed so common there.

So now, after steeping in that brew for so long, I find that I am a hybrid. I am still 100% Yankee (in all the good and bad things that that means, I guess) but I have also absorbed the flavors of the Midwest. What does that mean? I think a song called Hopelessly Midwestern sums it up beautifully. I am most familiar with the version performed by Mustard’s Retreat, a Michigan folk duo. But, Youtube only offers a version done by the original writer of the song. It’s good too. Take a listen, and I think you will hear some of what I came to love about living in the Midwest.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Quiddity, that's what you like.

Dubbahdee said...

Hmmm. I had to look that up. Seems like rather a small distinction to make, don't you think? ;-)

Humor me and unpack that for me a bit, will you?

Anonymous said...

A long post on the Midwest and nothing about the food! Or the beer! Or Brett Farve! You know you want to come back home!

Ron (A west coaster come home in the middle)

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I loved the song, but my favorite highway is the Kancamagus. So I'm not midwestern.