Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pioneers


Several years ago I made the move to Oregon, the Valhalla of running, organic food, fresh air, and progressive thought. The journey westward along I-80 invoked memories of my grammar school days when with the aid of a generously donated PC complete with 286 processor, I conquered the electronic version of the Oregon Trail. My trip of course was much more pleasant, I didn’t have to constantly hunt buffalo, nor did I succumb to typhoid fever. Upon arriving at my new residence I was confronted with a stunning golden personification of the ideals which motivated my journey, atop the state capital stands a rendition of the idyllic pioneer, complete with beard, boots, and an ax in hand.

I have no doubt that the image of the pioneer invokes different thoughts and reactions for each person who encounters it. While young school children may gaze up at it contemplating the easy fortune to be made if they could just get a ladder tall enough and a saw sharp enough, to me it evoked a different set of thoughts. For me the pioneer, in it’s stunning glow, represented a willingness to strike out boldly, to take risk, to willing accept hardship, to endure, and ultimately to arrive at something better. I won’t argue that the early settlers of Oregon and myself share the same ideals, but at certain moments when I sat in the well groomed and grossly underutilized public space to the north of the capitol building it meant something to me.

Having returned to the Midwest, I am prone from time to time to selectively long for certain aspects of life in Oregon. One of those being the image of that pioneer whose stare I would catch as I walked through the farmers market on Saturday morning. It’s not just the statue, it’s what it represents and perhaps that’s not just what the Midwest, but rural communities everywhere need. A willingness to go at alone, to wander into something philosophically and fundamentally different than the typical routines, processes, and guidelines which we’ve grown accustomed.

In one sense the rural landscape is in need of resettlement, it’s in need of pioneers. The traditional tenets of agriculture have been replaced with a set of consumer values singularly focused on increasing production at all costs. There is opportunity in the Midwest and elsewhere to be bold and build something better by holding ourselves and our communities to a higher set of standards and harkening back to a re-envisioned set of ideals which was responsible for creating the places so many long to call home.

Rural resettlement won’t easily be captured in a gold gilded statue on top of any building. While a sense of adventure may motivate, a reckless abandon will not lead to success or guarantee that the rural landscape is revived nor sustained for future generations. Rural resettlement won’t necessarily be any easier than it was moving 2000 miles away via I-80’s predecessor--a wagon trail. It will require individuals to use their sense, their knowhow, and their own ingenuities to better acquaint themselves with place. To borrow words which have been written before, it will be more about “living” than “consuming”.

As I contemplate this, I wonder how many others share the same desires? Not to take up residence in the Pacific Northwest, but to be pioneers. To strike out and maintain some self dependence and satisfy a restless urge for adventure, to rely on our own wit, observations, and connections with the natural world. There may not be rivers to ford and mountain passes to navigate, but there is a sense of adventure and purpose not too far from home. The path to Oregon became well worn over time and with each passing wagon train the path became a little bit clearer for those who followed. Today there is a small trickle of humanity which has taken it upon themselves to go forth and establish homesteads in the rural lands, a move which gives them a new perspective on community, removes them from what has been declared modern amenities, and most importantly provides some sense of liberty drawn forth from a relationship to the land.


As the sun sets on another warm summer day I find myself looking to the west and remembering my friend the pioneer, standing tall with a watchful gaze over the fertile Willamette Valley. While the Pioneer remains steadfast, I remain restless knowing that the land I look out upon is in need of being rediscovered and resettled.