Thursday, March 21, 2013

To keep a map

Broadening your scope defines your attitude


As I write this, my younger brother Jed is in Florida. He drove down there in a minivan with a herd of his friends for a true college spring break experience - one that I never had. I spent five and a half years in college. During those years I assumed I would have the opportunity to travel. I planned to study abroad in Scotland for a semester, I wanted to take a trip to Florida for a spring break, I thought I would have a post graduation car trip out to California with friends, and I even considered moving to Seattle after I got my degree. None of those things happened.
The primary reason I wanted to go to those places was to explore them, to see what it was like there, to learn about culture, customs, and different people. I didn't want a superficial experience though. I didn't want to book a hotel, hop on a plane, and go on a guided tour. I wanted to see the country, the rural areas, the real people who made their living on land that they loved. I wanted real life, real land, real people.
However, to be part of the real things, I knew I would have to immerse myself in the culture. What could I offer? What could I possibly have, as a foreigner (especially in Scotland), to contribute to any of these places?

In school I studied both digital design and the fine arts. Part of that degree was a whole lot of art history classes, and as anyone who enjoys studying history can tell you, there's a certain mysticism that surrounds the past (perhaps especially the visual past). This mystery and intrigue of people's lives is enriched primarily by the intricate details of individual stories. The sort of detailed stories that can only be gleaned from deep knowledge of a place and its people. Therefore, if I want good, real, detailed, and interesting stories, I need the deep knowledge.
This happens to tie in with what I wrote about last week - how adventures are all around us - in that since my college days, I've been cultivating this attitude of realizing the journey I’m on at every turn. What I've come to identify is that while I still do want to adventure out, immerse myself in other walks of life and places in the world, I have the opportunity to do that right at home, right here in the woodlands of Wisconsin.
Truthfully, where else should I start? How hypocritical of me to seek deep engagement in another culture if I cannot be deeply engaged in my own. Questions like these drove me towards creating a way to keep perspective. I wanted to be able to focus on specifics without losing sight of the broader purpose. My solution? To keep a map.
I'm keeping a map in my notes and journals so that I don't forget the bigger picture. That is to say, I want to always remind myself of where I am in the world, but to never forget all the places I still need to see. The map helps me see boarders, travel routes, towns, cities, and villages in Wisconsin. It details large tracts of national and state forests, and this map shows me where lakes lie and rivers run. It shows me wooded areas, wide open agricultural lands, and a great big lake to the north.
What the map can't show me, though, is the lay of the land through four distinct seasons. It can't tell me local traditions or explain slight differences in dialect. It doesn't mark pulp yards, eagle nests, or abandoned building foundations under tall grasses on the river banks. The map has no pulse or fever for life. It hasn't been through school consolidations, business closures, or mining bills. It doesn't know the color of the rocks in summer sun, or where I can find ridges of brightly colored birch trees in autumn.
The map shows me what is nearby, but it also reminds me of all the places far away. When I look at it I have an idea of my depth of knowledge about this place and the area surrounding it.
For example, let's say I put a mark on the spot of the map at the root of my knowledge. The mark will go on Park Falls where I grew up and now live again. Branching out from that mark there is a ring effect, a visual guide to my experiences by geography.
From the center, where I put the mark, I can tell you about every tree and every road and every shortcut through every yard. I can tell you where the grass will be soggy in the spring, and where the snow melt will pool, and where you'll be able to hear spring peepers in a couple months.
I can tell you who has dogs you'll want to avoid on a walk. I can pick a random location in any neighborhood and tell you a story about that place, detailing people who lived there, if it's hilly or flat, and if you can hear the paper mill or not.
If we expand the ring a little further, I can show you fishing holes on the Flambeau River, on Smith Creek, or on a handful of lakes in Springstead. I can tell you where to catch mink on the Thornapple and Chippewa, and I can suggest where you might find the best Friday night fish-fry, depending on whether you're in northern or southern Price County. If you're looking for firewood, I know the guy to ask. If you need a car fixed, I've got the number of someone that can do it for cheap (hint, they're both in Fifield). Maybe you want to stay in a cabin while you visit or you're looking for some craft beer; I can point you in the right direction.
Expand the ring further and I'll tell you about River Falls Days, or Lambeau Field, or Bayfield's Apple Festival, the bridge between Houghton and Hancock, or Crystal Falls State Forest Campground. Further yet and we can talk about downtown Detroit, or the art galleria district in Chicago, or the western suburbs of the Twin Cities.
As the ring expands, the details are fewer and further in between. I have some memories residing in Appalachia, some on the Atlantic coast, and a few weeks worth stashed away in different parts of the Rocky Mountains.
All of those experiences, all those times spent with other people in different areas in different cultures in different lands serve to enrich the time I spend here, in this land. They become tales that I can bring back and share with my own culture, the Wisconsin Northwoods culture. They lend lessons, perspectives, and insights to the broader meanings behind life here and everywhere, and they are marks on my map - blueprints to build an attitude.
The big and important places in the world will always be big and important places, and they will be traversed and covered by many storytellers. I, too, will visit many of those places. I will make the pilgrimage and relate those stories as many others have, but when I do, I will bring them back. I will bring them back here because like Gettysburg and Glasgow, like D.C. and Orange County, Price County is on a map as well, and we have a story to tell.
“I want to hang a map of the world in my house, then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve travelled to. But first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.” 
- Mitch Hedberg 
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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