Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Place to Linger

I will not deny that I am a city person. I guess I always have been. Most of my life has been spent in one big city or another, and I always tend to gravitate toward civilization. I cannot explain this attraction to cities, and I can think of any number of good reasons why I should drop everything and strike out to the hinterlands where I might find the peace and tranquility of rural life that one cannot really enjoy in an urban environment. Many years ago I had one all too brief encounter with country living. It had a big impact on me and to this day it is perhaps the pretense I use to explain my frequent escapes from the city. What I cannot figure out, however, is why I always seem to come back to this hectic way of life.

My parents, on the one hand, were not city people by nature as they both grew up in the farmlands of southwestern Michigan and moved to the city lured only by better offers of employment - Dad worked as an engineer for Montgomery Ward - and other opportunities. I, on the other hand, come by my affinity for the city honestly. I was born on Chicago's South Side, not far from the stock yards and Midway Field. Perhaps it was there, among neighborhoods peopled with Lithuanians, Poles, Serbs and other nationalities and ethnic groups, who came to this country after the war, that my earliest impressions and memories took shape; where urban life struck its first deep and resonant chord. It is lucky for me, then, that my parents' rural roots and values run deep and as a family we frequently headed for my grandparents' Michigan farm for holidays and summer visits and, I suspect, for my parents' much needed spiritual renewal.

Through these visits I became familiar with an environment and lifestyle much different from the one I knew in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and the other cities and towns I would grow up in. Edward Abbey, pondering his adopted home in the Arizona desert, once remarked that "every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary." That Michigan farm, with its weather-beaten house, barn and outbuildings, its pastures and fields of alfalfa, asparagus and corn, muted my recollections of the city and soon came to represent what I thought life could and should be. We would always return to the city, but those early childhood memories of the farm and the Michigan countryside proved durable and deeply ingrained. They are as alive today as they were over fifty years ago.

"If you don't want to live in a city," Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, " pick a spot ten miles beyond its outermost limits - and then go fifty files further." He was right. Only 120 miles separate Chicago's South Side and my grandparents’ Michigan farmstead. The urban sprawl of Chicago and its environs, including Gary's oil refineries and steel mills, even in those days, was gradually encroaching on the farmlands of northern Indiana. It seemed that with each passing year we had to travel a little further to escape the city. I recall my parents' hope that the rural landscape of their youth would be spared this fate and would remain free from the contagions of the city; the Michigan farmstead was somehow beyond the pale.

When I first started visiting the Michigan farmstead and the nearby town of Paw Paw, small Midwestern towns were still vital economic centers, providing for the needs of the local residents and farmers as well as serving as a market for the local harvests. Thorstein Veblen claimed back in 1923 that the country town was one of the great American institutions, even the cornerstone of American society in that it played an important role in shaping public sentiment and giving character to American culture. Yet even in the mid-1950s one could see that their vitality and economic viability were greatly diminished.

Others from my parents' generation were also leaving their small towns and farms to seek better opportunities and jobs in the cities. Yet I sense that these choices were made more out of necessity than as a conscious escape from provincial attitudes. From time to time, my parents, along with the others, tried to return to the values of their youth that somehow managed to survive the changing times. Through our frequent visits to the Michigan farmstead, I came to believe that my parents had not left these rural landscapes for the concrete and noise of the cities; they were in some small way trying to figure out how they could escape back to the farm and their rural past. By returning, they in some small way validated their values which they hoped would somehow survive with their children. Their nostalgia was infectious and I have yet to find a cure. I have never looked for one either.

Paw Paw is not a unique town. There are many others like it throughout the United States. Despite its rather unique name, Paw Paw has not yet entered the pantheon of similar small towns whose people and lifestyles are celebrated, even immortalized in American literature - places like Sinclair Lewis' Sauk Center, Minnesota; Willa Cather's Red Cloud, Nebraska; Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri; Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River, Illinois; or Sherwood Anderson's Clyde, Ohio.

Located between Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan, it is the center of a well-established, but less well-known wine producing area. There are two family-owned wineries in town where grapes and fruit grown on nearby farms and in orchards throughout the surrounding countryside are transformed into wines and sherries which are then distributed throughout the upper Midwest. When Jerry Ford, from nearby Grand Rapids, moved into the White House in the summer of 1974, he took some Michigan wines with him. For the most part, however, their fame is limited to the Midwest.

Paw Paw also serves the nearby family farms. Machinery is brought to town for parts and repairs. The local corn crop was trucked to the farmers co-op in town, just across South Michigan Street from the wineries, where it was ground into feed for cows, pigs and chicken. At dawn each morning, trucks from the dairy in Kalamazoo traveled the country roads picking up the milk produced that morning and the previous evening.

Many of these institutions and practices have grown obsolete, or are dwindling and vanishing altogether. The wineries are still small and family-owned although they have expanded their output somewhat, and tour buses stop from time to time to disgorge tourists into the tasting rooms before heading back out to Interstate 94 on their way to Chicago or Detroit. Most of the vineyards and orchards are still there although many of them are now owned by corporations and syndicates. Those that remain in private hands are small and non-competitive on the open market. Every year their numbers grow fewer as families are compelled to sell them to the corporations or lose them to the banks. Others are left fallow or converted to other crops.

The family farms are also quickly disappearing as land is sold and subdivided for suburban tracts as Kalamazoo moves in from the East. Farm machinery has either been sold or is left to rust in the fields or beside the dilapidated barns that now punctuate the shrinking rural landscape. There are fewer cows, pigs and chickens. The co-op in town was torn down a few years ago and a McDonalds was built in its place. The tour buses stop there too. Paw Paw is still there - probably always will be - yet I wonder whether its character is somewhat diminished by these changes.

Only in more recent years have I come to recognize and understand these changes. As a young boy on short visits I was only interested in my own little world on the Michigan farmstead, playing in the fields and in the barn. I fondly recall the Saturday morning drives into the co-op with my grandfather, stopping by the A&W stand for a root beer float on the way back to the farm. The changes that were to come to Paw Paw, to its basic values and its way of life, were of little concern to me then.

After my time living on the Michigan farmstead and attending Acorn School (see December 2008 columns), I returned to a city life which continued as it had before - back under the bright lights and the hum of civilization. My visits to my grandparents' farm became more infrequent as I grew older, and each time I returned I noticed more changes, more intrusions into the peace and tranquility. Rural life was no longer simple and quixotic as my childhood perceptions led me to believe. By 1966, Acorn School was gone and today that patch of ground is neglected and overgrown. Many of the neighboring fields have since been sold and subdivided and suburban-style tract housing is beginning to sprout up here and there. I imagine a house will someday stand where we use to study and play, thinking that all of this would never change.

I discovered that Paw Paw, and other small towns like it, suffers from many of the same problems found in larger towns and cities; they are not secure from violent crime, child abuse and drugs, problems we commonly associate with urban life. Small towns and rural areas do, however, differ from cities in that their economic viability suffers to a greater degree from governmental indifference or outright neglect; the ground swells created by a string of recessions and their attendant economic slowdowns and budget cuts, the development of agribusiness, or the increasing foreign takeover of American agriculture, reach the small towns and family farms long before similar effects are experienced in the cities where they guarantee the attention of the national media. Farm families were defaulting on their loans bills and selling their farms long before white collar workers and government bureaucrats began to receive their pink slips. Perhaps, if we had paid more attention to the disappearance of the American dream in the small towns, this country may have avoided the predicament in which it now finds itself.

Like Abbey's desert solitaire, I still carry in my heart and mind those childhood images of the rural landscape of southwestern Michigan. Though I have continued to live in an urban environment, I still think fondly of the Michigan farmstead of my youth. "This Midwest. A dissonance of parts and people, we are a consonance of towns," writes William Gass in his In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. "Our outlook never really urban, never rural either, we enlarge and linger at the same time, as Alice both changed and remained in her story." Today my escapes to the countryside are an attempt to grasp these fleeting images. Perhaps someday I will find them and hold them tightly until those bright city lights, that abiding hum, fade away. And I will linger there forever.

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