Thursday, September 09, 2004

JUNE 19, 2004

I am sitting at the center of the continental United States.

I have just driven to this place near Lebanon, Kansas, from Smith Center. The sun was coming up on this clouded day; it broke through for a moment, like an egg freeing itself from the ovary, exactly like that. It broke through briefly, it shined, it has disappeared into the greyness, into the silence.

All the while I was driving over, I was thinking about place, about this place, about what makes us love a place, about what makes us angry when someone disparages our place.

A writer can blow through town, as John G. Mitchell did coming through Lebanon, Kansas, and writing about it in an article on the Great Plains for as prestigious a magazine as The National Geographic (May, 2004); such a writer can say some pretty narrow things from the local community's point of view: Lebanon "used to claim bragging rights" as the geographical center of the lower forty-eight states - "you won't hear folks boast about that anymore..." - Lebanon is just "one of many small rural communities that are fading away..." - "there's not much here in the way of commerce..." - storefronts "boarded up..." - bank and trust office is open, "possibly shuffling foreclosures..." - "brick skeleton of an abandoned building..." - sidewalks that "are empty...."

I've been guilty of the same crime Mitchell is; I've driven through towns, and made judgments in the blink of an eye. And I've been angry the way the residents of Smith County are angry, when someone stops for a few minutes or a few hours or a few days and leaves thinking his or she "knows" us. Hell, I've lived in the middle west all my life, and that's not long enough to know us very well.

It's a confrontation right at the heart of what I'm doing, for me to presume that I can step into twelve middle western communities and begin to understand these places, the people of them. Yet I am driven to it: if I don't do it, who will?

Murray D. Lull, president of the Smith County State Bank and Trust Company of Smith Center and Lebanon, Kansas, wrote the editor of National Geographic in response to the offending article, to correct "an unfortunate and disappointing portrayal your magazine made of us, our bank and our community...."

"You stated in your lead paragraph," Lull wrote, "that we are no longer proud of being the geographic center of the United States, that our bank is shuffling foreclosures, and that we've just dried up and blown away."

Such a portrayal, Lull said, "does a great disservice to our customers, our friends and neighbors, and ultimately to those of your readers who might actually believe what you print."

"We're still proud and comfortable that we're in the middle of America," he said. "But we're also tired of the media coming to us, taking pictures and getting quotes, and then in their publications and presentations making light of who we are and where we live."

"If you can't say something nice about us," Lull said, "just leave us alone."

"The people of the Lebanon community are great, hardworking, ethical people," he said.

"Foreclosures? Hasn't happened in twenty years!" he said. "And it may not in the NEXT twenty years."

"Your writer doesn't have a clue what we think, how we live, or how we love this part of the country we live in," he said.

"I'd do the traditional cancel-my-subscription thing," Lull said, "but Sears doesn't send us catalogs anymore and we need your magazine for the outhouse."

I think you can't begin to write knowingly of Lebanon until you've had lunch at La Dow's store, until you've shared bread with the people who live and love here, who tough it out in the face of some harsh conditions. I think you can't write knowingly about Smith County, Kansas, until you've sat five morning mornings at the Second Cup Cafe in Smith Center, sharing coffee and swapping stories with those old boys in the As the Bladder Fills Club. Hell, five mornings is not enough. Such experiences barely make us knowledgeable, barely make one qualified to begin speaking about the people here. I've known Smith County upclose for two weeks - once in March of 2003, again this past week - and the sum total of what I've learned is that I know nothing yet. I've talked to people, I've toured businesses, I've swapped stories, I've learned a few random facts. All across the middle west, I've done more than one hundred fifty interviews. Yet I cannot say that I've even begun to enter the heart and soul of these, my own people, and this, my own place. What is here is too immense for easy grasping, too hidden in the cavalcade of time to be seen all at once. It is presumptuous as hell for me to come in thinking I can "get it" in a week, in two weeks, in seven weeks spent in a place. The best I can hope is that I start to get it.

You cannot begin to imagine these lives unless you live this life. We are mere tourists passing through, even those of us who come here with a genuine desire to understand. When I write about Smith Country, Kansas, or any other community, I am doing more to illuminate my ignorance than to explain the lives of the people here. That's true for me; that's true for any National Geographic writer trying to speak of the Great Plains to distant strangers.

And I'm not sure that knowing how ignorant I am gives me any advantage when it comes to seeing and understanding this place. Oh, because I return again and again, because I will sit again and again with the As the Bladder Fills Club, perhaps I'll gain a little insight, perhaps I'll understand a little more than the fellow who just drives through. Yet I'll still be far from the heart of things.

If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.

We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I - and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.


The sun is lost in the grey overcast of water-color clouds, a study in shades of black paint and water, a smeared canvas of sky, a certain dimness.

Everything I've said about my ignorance here at Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith Center, in Smith County, applies to every other place I see. To my eleven other focus communities, to every community along the highways and by-ways, to Kinoosao, Saskatchewan, at the end of the road on Reindeer Lake. I cannot pretend to know any of these places the way one can living his life there, his whole life given to it.

The best I can do is to come to know myself, and to learn to see these places refracted through who I am. I can come without expectation. I can let the place change me, and being changed, see what I can of the place in that change.

It is 7:00 a.m. I am twenty miles south of Red Cloud, Nebraska. I'm going to stop there, to see how Willa Cather's place might change me.



Part of what makes this place what it is is what I bring to it - German background, Iowa farm boy, one who chooses not to farm. Should I want to farm, I see the place entirely different. My expectations allow me to see one kind of world around me. I am a transplant, too, so I don't see a hundred years of history everywhere I look in Fairwater. I don't have relatives at every turn - some good, some bad. If my grandfather had been born here, and my father, the land would look different to me. I cannot - as some Native Americans do - think of the seventh generation yet to come. I don't have that kind of "long" view of the land. Every day of our lives we are grinding and grinding the lens through which we view the world. My Fairwater certainly must be different from George Sanders' Fairwater - for just one example. He's an old man, a long-time citizen, with relation here, and friends that go back to the Depression and before. Those are things you cannot scrape off.

Sunlight, its heat, is turning condensed moisture on the roof of the neighbor's garage into a miniature bank of fog, rising and rolling away. This lasts for a few minutes only and disappears. It is a blue sky morning, moist and pungent and alive. The sunlight deepens the color of everything.

A semi full of vegetables turns out from the canning factory onto Highway E in front of me. I meet at the edge of town a semi coming back to Badger Mining for a load of sand. Another semi has lined up behind me. I am heading north.

The smell in the country is as pungent as old growth forest. Far to the east, clouds line up along Lake Michigan again. To the west, I'm imagining perhaps a slight, smoky haze coming this way. There is a slight haze, the question is whether it is smoke from the fires out west.

How wonderful a thing a road is - a firm, clear surface that frees us to travel; but it is, too, a pathway that limits where we think we can go.

An Iowa farm boy comes east to Wisconsin. There was a time when returning east was a mark of failure - you weren't able to succeed in the Dakotas or Montana, so you returned to something more green and certain in Iowa or Illinois or Wisconsin.

The road takes us both ways.

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