In the fall of 2016 I resigned from my 25 year teaching career in Milwaukee, sold my east side condo and went to live on our family land just west of Oshkosh. My mom, a true nature-lover, inherited the property from her parents and has lived on it for the past 30 years. I moved into the cottage next to my mom`s. If you are picturing a place of manicured lawns and neatly planned trails, picture again. Mom has kept the whole place pretty wild.
My childhood memories of the place were driving up from our home in Lansing, Illinois to spend part of the summer with my grandparents. My Wisconsin grandpa always had lots of fun chores for us. Well into his 70s, my grandpa was super strong physically and a tough Wisconsinite. He was part comedian and part dictator. He’d drive an ancient pick-up slowly ahead while we yanked head-high weeds and tossed them in the back. Grandpa warned us not to venture near the ponds or walk too far down the road because, escaped convicts might be camping out. I guess I`ve inherited his quirky sense of humor.
But this isn’t a vacation anymore – I live here now. The cultural stereotypes of living in rural Wisconsin are here: Die-hard Packer fans, all things Duck Dynasty, and hunting. One of the hardest adjustments is the lack of food choices and distance to the grocery store. Coming from the Brady Street neighborhood, I had every imaginable food option at my fingertips. Now I would have to plan ahead. Like Thoreau, I went to the woods to “Simplify! Simplify!” but a lot of it has been “Struggle! Struggle!”
But culture is what you make it, your personal reflection and reaction to what`s around you. For me, culture means experiencing the beauty and quiet of the seasons and noticing its changes more acutely.
During the summer, the trees dominate. Wherever you look it`s green. There’s never a need for air-conditioning, the trees keep the houses cool. When summer departs, the leaves fall into colorful heaps. In winter I marvel how people can have extended conversations in the freezing cold. Last winter I talked with a guy in the Piggly Wiggly lot during a snow storm. As we talked, I noticed ice forming on his beard. I didn`t want to be rude or wimpy, but my feet were freezing to the ground.
Culture to me also means seeing deer, fox and my one-time wolf sighting. It`s the call of sandhill cranes. It`s hearing coyotes close to the house at night and thanking God you`re inside snuggling with your dogs. Culture is what I call “The Wisconsin Smile.” It`s that smile you receive from people across the state, but particularly in this neck of the woods. It`s the warmest, most genuine smile no matter what the situation.
Thanks to my grandpa, I`ve always been a little afraid of escaped convicts in the woods. But since moving to the family property, the woods have come to represent the ultimate in personal freedom. I know I won`t live here forever, but I also know that no place could be quite as real as this.