Try as we might, there’s no seceding from the world

Living deep in a forest, there’s no slap of morning newspapers on our front porch. A satellite dish tucked into a circle of pines delivers all the news that’s fit to print or Google.

Most mornings I’ve had my fill of world events before dawn, and I happily withdraw to the serenity of a home mostly removed from the rest of the world. But a few days ago I stumbled across a “let’s secede and start our own state” piece. To my surprise, it was filed from Colorado, not the Upper Peninsula.

According to the story, a gaggle of small-town farmers, ranchers, mechanics and retirees my age plan to secede from Colorado because the state is no longer what it used to be. Voters want to take away guns but keep their pot. George and Fred want to get married, to each other. Environmentalists are saving bushes and beetles. Lyle Miller, owner of a convenience store in Cheyenne Wells, fears for his grandchildren. “I want them to have the same heritage I had,” he said.

I was thinking about Mr. Miller’s desire to preserve heritage as I sat in a wooden deer blind I put up, with the help of two sons, more than a decade ago. The window flaps are broken. It creaks in the wind. Its primary residents are wasps. But I come by each October 1 less to hunt than to sit in Northern Michigan silence and take in this stunning fact: I’m another year older, and I’m still here.

Sitting in my old blind, I imagined coffee with Mr. Miller, swapping pictures of grandchildren. I’d tell him I love the legacy others saved for me. Our home stands in a forest respected by Native Americans and preserved by an act of Congress, when it still acted. I’d describe woods-savvy John Steel who, 60 years ago, taught me to tell a squirrel’s scuffle from a deer’s soft approach – a skill I rarely need in my New York City office or clients’ boardrooms.

By the time dusk arrived, I was wondering something else: When am I really honoring my heritage, and when am I just resenting change?

Mr. Miller’s farmer friends in Colorado employ the most modern farming techniques and chemicals in the world. They don’t long to return to hand-swung scythes or horse-drawn plows of their heritage. They’ve hung those antique tools on a shed wall where they park their air-conditioned trucks. They’re like me when I lament “the takeover of technology” while talking and texting on my iPhone, interrupting myself only to check my email.

I miss the sweet smell of burning leaves raked into the street, the sound of AM radio crackling through the evening air, the running boards on which we rode while our father eased the car over a cinder driveway. But I do not miss pollution that left 3 inches of green sludge on top of Fremont Lake, broken only when fat carp surfaced to burp. AM radio was a lot of static and a little music, played in cars that developed terminal coughs at 40,000 miles. Some change isn’t loss of heritage: despite my suspicions, it’s progress, whether I like it or not.

Mr. Miller’s Cheyenne Wells once had 3,700 residents; last census, they reported in at 1,870. The children and grandchildren have left to find work and mates and reason to hope in other places. They weren’t forsaking a heritage; they were doing what my grandparents did when they immigrated to America, creating a future with promise. Seceding from Colorado won’t bring them home.

Neither will my hankering for childhood, with heavily selective memories that leave all the romance and none of the reality. I’ve heard white Southerners wax teary-eyed over the strains of “Dixie” while assailing the lack of discipline in “today’s public schools.” What they’re longing for is a return to segregation where Jim Crow kept discipline with a bullwhip.

Closer to home: I was raised in a community where it was okay to abuse gay people because they were…well, gay. Later, I sat in a dingy room on a “crisis telephone line” where almost every night another gay teen called to explain why suicide was a preferred option. The change toward freedom for gay folks who love each other is, in my view, not a loss of my heritage; it’s a sign of grace. If George and Fred want to marry, I hope they do better at marriage than I have. God bless them, and forgive me.

A man whose home is miles from any human neighbor has no right to judge those who want to secede. But when I whine about technology, remind me that I need to adjust my solar panels for winter. When I long for the smell of burning leaves, point out that fat carp curling around Oosterhouse’s dock. And when I climb out of my old wooden blind, suggest that I give thanks for being alive to contemplate heritage in another October.

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Bob Leonard
Sun, 10/13/2013 - 10:11am
Jim, Another fine tome. Thanks for treading the boundary waters between nostalgia and progress...too few do...and ideological divisiveness is the price.
Bill Fullmer
Mon, 10/14/2013 - 10:18am
Write on Jim. As you point out we are all selective in what we recalll or let in, but it is the wise ones who examine their filters once in a while and maybe even realign them. Best Regards.