column By: Tom Carney | March, 21
Like September 11. The day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Or, if you’re old enough, November 22, 1963.
January 6, 2021. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about the insurrection at the United States Capitol? Did you feel the same pain, numbness and disbelief as you did on those other occasions? Did you fear you were bearing witness to the death throes of the American ideal? Did a palpable knot form in your stomach?
By the time Super Bowl Sunday rolled around, my knot hadn’t fully dissolved. Then came the Jeep commercial.
The ad itself has not been deemed to be a jewel in the crowns of marketing strategy, the Jeep brand or Bruce Springsteen. The spot was dopey, some people complained. Others just don’t like some things about Jeep, the brand. Still other can’t stand Springsteen — his songs, his politics or his choice for his first ever appearance in a commercial. Fair enough.
Once that commercial ended, I leaped into action.
I encouraged the dogs to vacate my lap, climbed out of my recliner and dashed to my computer. I opened the Photos” hard drive, then the folder “Bird Hunting,” then “2014” and then “Kansas.” There they were.
A big, post-Thanksgiving bird hunting journey had taken me to Illinois and South Dakota and then south, as I planned to meet up in Oklahoma with the James Dietsch, the Advertising Sales Rep for this magazine and Laura McIver, the Regional Representative for Quail Unlimited in Oklahoma and Texas. Not long after U.S. 281 and I dropped from Nebraska into Kansas, a road sign beckoned irresistibly. It basically said, “Center of the U.S. Turn here.”
So I did.
At only one-mile long, Highway K-191 led from 281 to the very chunk of America that would appear in the Jeep Super Bowl commercial a little more than six years hence. It is located at the spot purported to be the geographic middle point of the Lower 48 states near Lebanon, Kansas. The space looks like a parking lot hemmed in by a triangular-shaped roundabout created by three roads that converge there.
A small stone pyramid marks the point measured by a survey team in 1918. The original chapel there was destroyed by a speeding vehicle that failed to negotiate a turn; the one in the commercial was erected in 2008.
My photos indicate that at the time, this just seemed a cool place to take a break from the road. Now, however, things are changed.
Like that Jeep commercial or not, millions of us witnessed a tiny chapel sitting in the middle of the country being employed as a symbol of hope that we can join together in the ideas, values and heritage we share as Americans.
With that on my mind, I opened the “Oklahoma” folder of photos and saw what such a confluence of traditions feels like for bird hunters: enjoying the freedom to take ourselves anywhere in this country to pursue our birds of choice, having the right to legally pursue those birds without question or interference, sharing the adventure with such people and dogs as we choose, roaming on thousands upon thousands of acres of public land without pause or concern.
Such places often engage us with a sense of our spiritual selves we don’t otherwise feel in church: The beauty and peace of Nature fill us with a sense of wonder for which words escape us. Subdued by the ol’ purple mountains’ majesty. Even the old-timey Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards on a stroll in the woods with his daughter Esther talks about “the awful sweetness of walking with God.”
The Oklahoma photos took me on a wonder-wander.
They showed a state wildlife management area of mixed grass prairie and sagebrush on upland sites, interspersed with sand plum thickets — indiscernible from anywhere else for miles and miles — where, in addition to bobwhite quail and pheasant, James, Laura and I found a tombstone made of cement poured into the upturned base of a small galvanized tub from 100 years earlier. Inscribed by stick before the mixture hardened, the name and dates clearly indicated we had happened upon a child’s grave. Yet far as one could see in any direction, it seemed as if we were the first humans to pass over the landscape.
We weren’t, of course, as Erica Nelson reminds us. Nelson — cofounder of REAL Consulting, which offers individuals or organizations services to help them with racial equity and inclusion; host of the Awkward Angler podcast; and an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing — likes to remind nontribal Americans when we speak of “our land” or “our rivers,” that other cultures also have other and older relationships with nature.
Some of those relationships are explored in Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. In the book, Kimmerer, “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation,” records various aspects in the lives of a couple dozen elements of nature: a lake, pecans, wild strawberries, black ash, sweetgrass of course, and more. She weaves scientific knowledge with Indigenous lore and spirituality as well as with her own personal experiences to offer a gift of insights to the reader.
The personal awe Kimmerer reveals is the same that overcomes Edwards in the New England woods. It’s the same by which we’re enraptured by the woods, waters, fields and plains of America.
Does that work as a starting point?