Thursday, February 12, 2004


For the past year I've given myself to a project I call "Vagabond in the Middle: An Expedition Into the Heart of the Middle West." It is an attempt to understand what makes us middle western, those of us who live here in the heartland. The project is an exploration of place on a wide scale, across the tall and mixed grass prairies from western Ohio to the eastern half of the Plains states. This column will report what I've been finding.

I have selected twelve communities for special study, one in each of the 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 give these communities most of my attention.

Over the next several years I will attempt to learn the history of these communities and to assess their current conditions and future prospects, to understand the character of their people by way of interview and informal conversation and to join their lives and celebrations whenever possible. I'll "poke about," as I call it, finding and reporting the true stories of our lives, here. My effort will be a sustained one.

Who are we and what are the emblems common across our region, I want to ask. Landscape, environment, people, and history all factor into the definition of the middle west, all shape what we've become. I expect my reports of what I find 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 for the stories that tell us what makes us who we are. There will necessarily be a peeling back of the surface sheen of the landscape to see what pulses beneath, to understand our region 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.

I believe you cannot know a place until you know its people, those who walked their tracks onto the landscape, those who have worked the fields and those who have stood watch in the lonely evening waiting for them to come in, to come home. To understand who we are, I think we need to find our essential and true images, humble as they may be.

I want to walk the middle west with love, to talk in the rain, to 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 to meet men and women who are salt of the earth, plain as dirt, soft-spoken as an evening breeze. I shall meet some con men and hustlers, too, I suppose. Some sinners and some saints. I want to find them, tell their stories, let them represent us. I trust the world will reveal itself.

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? Don't we have a practical stoicism, an aloofness to pain that allows us to get on with living? Yet isn't there in us a sweetness and innocence that sometimes goes bitter when we're taken advantage of? (I remember a woman at the Houston airport: "I'm from Minnesota, we're sweet people, but the next person who cuts in line ahead of me I'll pushing under a bus.") Is our tendency here to engage the world with our hands rather than with words? Don't we ask ourselves "Are we good enough?"

I want to tell those stories, true stories, and come to understanding: who are we, what are we made of, how are our lives shaped? I'm out there, looking; I'm listening; I'm waiting with patience to hear such stories. We learn patience here, waiting for the peas to bloom, for the corn to silk, for harvest to come, for the seasons to turn. As sure as harvest follows the fullness of summer, I will come to understand who we are; my task will be to report what I find as true as is humanly possible.

See the full Statement of Intent

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