Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Midwest

I'm reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and loved this:

Then we were back in Wisconsin, a place that in late summer is thrillingly beautiful. When I was young, this was knowledge shared by everyone around me; as an adult, I've never stopped being surprised by how few of the people with whom I interact have any true sense of the states between Pennsylvania and Colorado. Some of these people have even spent weeks or months working in such states, but unless they're midwesterners, too, to them the region is nothing but polling numbers and caucuses, towns or cities where they stay in hotels whose bedspreads are glossy maroon and brown on the outside and pilly on the inside, whose continental breakfasts are packaged doughnuts and cereal from a dispenser, whose fitness centers are a single stationary bike and a broken treadmill. These people eat dinner at Perkins, and then they complain about the quality of the restaurants.

Admittedly, the area possesses a dowdiness I personally have always found comforting, but to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land. The lushness of the grass and trees in August, the roll of the hills (far less of the Midwest is flat than outsiders seem to imagine), that rich smell of soil, the evening sunset over a field of wheat, or the crickets chirping at dusk on a residential street: All of it, it has always made me feel at peace. There is room to breathe, there is a realness of place. The seasons are extreme, but they pass and return, pass and return, and the world seems far steadier than it does from the vantage point of a coastal city.

Certainly picturesque towns can be found in New England or California or the Pacific Northwest, but I can't shake the sense that they're too picturesque. . . . But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on. It is the place I am calmest and most myself.

* * *

Driving cross-country from New York to Portland last summer, I remembered how amazingly beautiful Wisconsin is, and how nobody seems to know about that--or maybe they just don't give a shit, since it's Wisconsin. But I wrote here that the forests and hills in Minnesota and Wisconsin, also western Oregon (and I guess western Washington too) are my favorite landscape in this country. (What I've seen of it, anyway, which is a lot, but not everything.)

1 comment:

KT said...

Thanks for posting that passage. As I read it I felt a little calmness spread across my shoulders and took a deeper breath. There is something about the midwest that is subtle yet substantial and wonderful that gets overshadowed by the dismissive jokes and insults. I worked in the corn field nearly every summer of my teenage years. I still know what the air smells like when the corn pollen out. Until I read the part about the crickets on residential streets I had forgotten them. Lightening bugs. Intense hues of the huge sunsets that last for an hour. The harvest moon. Thunder storms, I miss the thunder storms.